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Phone rebellion is starting to pay off

A woman's effort to eliminate long-distance rates between Medford and Rogue River has attracted widespread government interest

ROGUE RIVER ' A local woman who got mad about her phone bill and started a petition drive to create local telephone service between Rogue River and Medford has won the help of a big gun in the state Legislature.

Sen. Lenn Hannon, R-Ashland, the Senate's most powerful and senior member, has scheduled a roundtable meeting in Rogue River on Aug. 14 to discuss the creation of a single regional calling area from Grants Pass to Ashland ' including surrounding areas such as Glendale, Applegate Valley, Prospect and Cave Junction.

Expected at the meeting are U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden, several state senators and representatives, Josephine and Jackson county commissioners, mayors and city council members, business representatives, college presidents and staff from Qwest and the Public Utilities Commission.

The drive is on to create an extended area of service for the entire Rogue Valley ' all started by Shayne Maxwell, who describes herself as just somebody who got mad about their phone bill.

In the weeks preceding the meeting, Maxwell and Hannon are collaborating on a letter to the PUC formally requesting that the Rogue Valley become a single local calling region. They plan to make sure their request is accompanied by letters of resolution from every incorporated and unincorporated city in the Rogue Valley.

To that end, Maxwell is contacting every city council requesting letters of support.

Maxwell said creating an extended area of service will increase rates minimally for all users but will create substantial savings in long-distance fees. The exact rate increase has yet to be determined.

If the Rogue Valley is granted one local calling region, it will take the PUC up to 18 months to create the necessary rates research before they give the Rogue Valley a rates proposal, said Maxwell. At which time, we can decide if it's equitable for the Rogue Valley. We don't have to accept it.

John Irwin of the Southern Oregon Telecommunications and Technology Council has helped Josephine and Douglas counties develop telecommunications sections for their master plans. Irwin said the PUC's process for rate setting is supposed to be revenue neutral, using averages for all the current area long-distance charges. A portion of everyone's long-distance charges are spread out across the state.

Maxwell says there are approximately 121,000 Rogue Valley phone lines and more than 1.5 million phone lines in Portland. Maxwell said her realization that metropolitan areas such as Portland and Salem have long benefited from large EAS areas partially funded by small Southern Oregon rural towns further steeled her resolve to work for a regional EAS.

Population fees are spread throughout the state. We're already paying for Portland to have a large EAS area, said Maxwell. I don't really mind, knowing Portland will have to help us in return.

Maxwell already has received nearly a dozen letters of support from local agencies and politicians requesting the PUC grant Rogue Valley residents phone-rate parity with their northern neighbors.

Irwin says both economic development and quality of life issues are impacted by telecommunications.

Timber is past. We don't want smokestack industries. If we want white-collar industries to locate here, telecommunications is the linchpin. We need to eliminate disincentives for businesses to come to Southern Oregon, he said.

Irwin said area schools and seniors have borne a heavy burden under the current system, saying the high cost of local long-distance calls strains tight budgets.

As consumers, we can set direction. Rural areas are realizing they have to do something to benefit themselves, said Irwin.

A letter of support from Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. Executive Director Gordon Safley states in part:

The lack of an Extended Area Service (EAS) that covers the entire region places an unnecessary burden on our citizens, employees, employers and communities. It hinders our efforts to increase jurisdictional coordination and collaboration. It negatively affects our ability to attract new businesses, which help create the family-wage jobs that the region desperately needs to replace those jobs lost through the decline in the timber industry. The attraction of new businesses is also critical to diversifying the economy.

Maxwell encourages city managers and mayors to contact her at 1-541-582-2020 for further information.

Sanne Specht is a free-lance writer living in Rogue River. Reach her at RogueRiverGal@aol.com.