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Remember When Long Distance Telephone Service was Deregulated?

rotary phone

My wife and I began life quite simply when we married in July of 1978. Our monthly budget included debts such as:

  • Rent
  • Electric
  • Natural Gas
  • Water/sewer
  • Telephone
  • Sears
  • JC Penny

Over time, we added indebtedness to finance companies such as Modern Finance, Beneficial Finance, and several other loan companies. Polly and I had zero understanding about the real world of debt. Neither of us grew up in families that were smart about money. My parents ran up debt and skipped town, whereas Polly’s parents spent every penny they earned and put the rest on credit cards. Neither was a great example for a young married couple. This resulted in us making poor financial decisions. It took us a few years to figure out that if you don’t pay your gas/electric/phone bills you won’t have gas/electric/phone. I wouldn’t, even today, say that we handle money and debt very well. Things are certainly better, but medical bills are slowly choking the life out of our checkbook. That said, we have cellphones now, and it has been 35 years since we found a tag on our door saying that our gas/electric/phone was shut off. Progress, eh? 

In the 1980s, our primary form of communication was the telephone. There was one phone company, and phone choices were limited: black, white, pink and rotary or push button dial. That’s it. Per-minute charges for long distance could be as high as 25 cents. In the 1980s, thanks to deregulation, scores of companies entered the long distance telephone market. These companies offered all sorts of incentives for customers to sign up with them. For a couple of years, we received weekly enticements to change long distance companies. 

Many of these enticements were cash incentives in the form of checks. Signing and depositing the checks gave the long distance providers permission to change our service. I suspect, all told, we changed long distance providers a dozen times during the days of wild, wild west long-distance shoot outs. At the time, I was the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. We were quite poor, so the check inducements became a source of extra income. I never had a twinge of guilt about changing companies, I thought, at the time, if you are going to give me free money I am going to take it. The biggest incentive we ever received came from Sprint: $200 to switch to them. I could hardly believe that they were offering us so much money to change providers. I quickly endorsed and deposited the check, worried that Sprint might find out that we had been their customer several times before. Ah, those were the good old days. 

After several years of battling for customers, long distance providers realized that giving people large amounts of money to change providers was not financially sustainable. In the 1990s, companies would use similar incentives to attract new internet service customers. I am sure many readers can remember when our mail boxes were filled with offers from AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, and a slew of dial-up internet service providers. These days, it’s cell phone companies, along with cable and satellite TV providers, who use cash incentives to attract new customers or steal customers away from their competitors. 

Do you remember the days of long distance deregulation? Please share your experiences in the comment section.


  1. Avatar

    Great piece!
    Yes, MCI vs. Sprint, and I think with Sprint you had to attach some kind of “converter” widget to your phone.
    In the past decade, all the companies with “Bell” in their names have been slurped up by AT&T. So much for “breaking up the monopoly.” Even if it isn’t technically a monopoly, it’s still that same “engulf & devour” principle that makes so many ordinary folks feel uneasy.
    I can also relate to parents who weren’t good financial role models. Mine bought a house for $14k on the 1950s, sold it for $125k a few decades later when they were well into retirement age, turned around and bought another house for $40k…and took out a 30-year mortgage for it ! They died less than two years later, so I never got a chance to ask them to articulate their reasoning for that decision. But it was then that many sad truths about my parents and my childhood began to crystallize.
    …Truth, like many things, is beautiful to behold in a crystallized state. 🙂

  2. Avatar

    My parents were good Baptists and paid Ma Bell from start to finish, completely ignoring new-fangled and probably quite evil services that enticed with ‘false’ promises. In Canada, we benefitted from deregulation in the States. It helped force the engulf and devour Ma Bell to compete but really truly bona-fide copyright believers do not rely on the what the world sets before them to seduce and betray. They carry a Cross!
    This ‘involvement’ with phones, this sensually excessive wish to get money free is probably why you were never ever a real member of the true flock, never a truly true Christian. What would Jesus do with a Sprint bribe, Mr. Gangster, or whatever your silly atheistic name is!
    Answer this: What would Jesus do the electronics that brought such pure evil as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and even before that, the in the street orgy sex of jazz music!
    Do you not realize that phones are not mentioned in his holy Word! He knew of them from before time was time, that they would reach into your nether regions and claim you, sir. And now you are enticing us, you vicious Jesus-hater!
    You were taken by telephones, weren’t you, Mr. Gerenksir, and the devil had his way with you. Telephones indeed…. you don’t fool me for a minute. Why there is a phone now available to lost called IPhone, just I and Phone! Don’t you see how Jesus has been removed from the equasion? Just an ‘I’ left with a ‘phone’. So much for God Almighty in this sinful age. And people are having sex text too, whatever that is! Talk about deregulation!

    • Avatar
      Appalachian Agnostic

      ” Why there is a phone now available to lost called IPhone, just I and Phone! Don’t you see how Jesus has been removed from the equasion? Just an ‘I’ left with a ‘phone’.”


  3. Avatar
    J.D. Matthews

    At age 40, I’m not quite as old as you, but I remember only having just a few bills per month when I graduated college half my life ago. Rent, utilities (all at the same company), phone, car note… fairly easy to pay. Now I have bills from about eleventy billion different insurance companies, my utilities are all split up… it’s probably a good thing there’s direct draft, or I wouldn’t be able to keep track of all of them.

  4. Avatar
    Appalachian Agnostic

    I mostly remember my then husband complaining that the government had done away with the ONE monopoly that was beneficial to the general public. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him or not because I was just a woman and did not understand sophisticated government regulatory things like men did.

  5. Avatar

    I remember a couple of things from that era. One was a company that my parents liked LCI. The company made a good point about how you’d normally get ripped off if you made a phone call that was say 1 minute and 3 seconds the other guys would round up (of course never down!) to the next minute making it a 2 minute phone call. LCI would bill in 6 second increments. We did have some problem with using it though, something about a special code that was supposed to be entered. It was sorted out.
    After I moved out of my parent’s house I ended up switching to AT&T after responding to a solicitation call. Of course the number they quote doesn’t include the plethora of taxes so it wasn’t a good deal. Incensed I never paid them once and ended up not having long distance, didn’t seem to need it anyway I just got a phone card, so take that AT&T!

  6. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Deregulation affected more than just personal phone service. At the time my husband worked for ROLM, a phone company dedicated to providing private voice exchanges for companies in direct competition with the pre-deregulation phone company. The idea was that your company would install a ROLM phone system, connect to the phone network with a big fat high-capacity line, and bypass Ma Bell to have cheaper and better service. It worked stunningly well for awhile in the post-regulation environment. Husband made enough on stock options so that we could afford the down payment on the house we’ve lived in since 1986, and were able to pay cash for a couple of new vehicles over the years…

    Good things never last forever, and ROLM, after changing hands several times, is defunct. But deregulation made a huge difference in my life, and the least of it was my phone bill.

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