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Whidbey Telecom converts island pay phones to free for local calls

Tom Park has a use for the historic Whidbey Telecom phone booth along Highway 525 south of Greenbank, but it’s not as intended.

He doesn’t punch a quarter into the phone to make a call.

“I have a cell phone that’s unlimited so I don’t use it,” he said of his need of the phone booth.

But for the three years Park has lived in the Honeymoon Bay area, he’s found the phone booth at Classic Road very useful on dark nights because of its light. “I use it to see where to turn off the highway,” said Park, a retired longshoreman who spent 35 years in Alaska.

The proliferation of cell phones in a world where even grade school kids have them has pretty much left pay phones in the dust of history. So Whidbey Telecom, which got its start in the early 1900s as Whidbey Telephone, had a decision to make: What to do with the antiquated pieces of equipment?

Rather than remove the 34 pay phones the company provides, it was decided to make them free to the public for local calls. That may have been a wise decision, as some of the phone booths are beloved.

The one Park tried out Wednesday at Classic Road, for example, has been the subject of innumerable photographs and paintings through the years. It has been a bright sentinel on every pitch black Whidbey night for decades and, more than that, it’s been the unofficial dividing line between South Whidbey and the rest of the island because that’s where Whidbey Telephone service ended. That’s no longer true, but the booth is still the dividing line in the minds of many South Enders.

A few other classic telephone booths (the kind used by Superman) still survive on South Whidbey. For example, the one near the Dog House Tavern in Langley was customized by metal artist Tim Leonard.

Other Whidbey Telecom public telephones are located throughout South Whidbey, from the Clinton ferry dock to the fairgrounds, Langley Marina, grocery stores, parks, convenience stores and restaurants. The 35th booth is located on Hat Island at the boat dock.

Changing over to free, local phone service did not come without cost to Whidbey Telecom. Chris Michalopolous, the company’s director of customer experience said new phones were installed that won’t take coins. That might be a disappointment to kids who habitually check coin returns for loose change, but for everyone else it means convenience: Calls to any location on South Whidbey are free, emergency 911 calls are free, 1-800 calls are free, and for traditional long distance calls, calling cards may be used.

While phone booths are disappearing elsewhere, Whidbey Telecom has decided to keep this part of island history alive and useful, as a courtesy to its customers.

In a statement the company summed up its decision.

“While many other companies are removing public pay telephones, Whidbey Telecom continues to support its local communities by providing public phones that allow local calls to be made at no charge.”

Many islanders, no doubt, appreciate the gesture, while others may appreciate it especially when their cell phone batteries die.

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