Phone service was spotty in Chambers before the two new nearby cell towers.

If you didn't have a landline -- or you were just rolling through Holt County on Highway 95 -- you'd have to search high and low, mostly high, for a signal.

"We had this one guest, he'd take his pickup and park on the hill and stand in the back to call his wife every night," said Nancy Winings, who runs a bed and breakfast. "It was so sweet."

The other option: the pay phone planted in the pavement outside the K & M Telephone Co.

But as cell service has grown stronger, shrinking the wide-open distances in rural northern Nebraska, demand for that roadside pay phone -- and others -- has faded.

And now, it's nearly dead.

The Chambers phone collected $3.35 in coins in all of last year.

"We used to have salesmen who'd use them," said Larry Woods, the phone company's general manager. "But there really isn't much need or much use of the pay stations."

So the company is asking the state Public Service Commission for a first: permission to get rid of that phone, and another it operates 25 minutes away in Inman.

The move would leave each town without a publicly available, 24-hour pay phone -- a requirement the commission has strictly enforced.

The rule -- at least one public phone in every community across Nebraska -- was created decades ago to provide a public service, PSC Communications Director Gene Hand said.

"If you didn't have telephone service, or if you were not from this community, and you need to communicate, that's an option for you."

The requirement allowed for a few exceptions. A company could seek a waiver due to vandalism, damage, excessive cost or lack of use.

But Hand could only recall a couple of waivers in his 36 years with the commission.

When vandals -- typically teenagers -- targeted small-town phones, commissioners allowed them to be removed, but only for 12 months.

"Most of the time, the problem went away. The kid graduated, or he forgot about it when it wasn't there for a year," Hand said.

And commissioners allowed a company serving the Kearney and Columbus areas to outsource pay phone service to an Omaha firm. But when the Omaha company pulled out, the commission ordered the local company back into the pay phone business.

Still, the state's traditional hard line didn't stop K & M from seeking permission to remove its phones -- and it might meet a receptive audience.

The two pay phones generated a total of $19.58 in 2011, with less than half of that coming in as quarters and dimes for local calls. Long-distance carriers paid the rest.

The company told the commission it spent $1,469 maintaining them that same year. That includes checking the coin boxes, repairing damage and paying for dial tones, surcharges, fees, taxes and phone books, Woods said.

In all, a $1,450 hit.

"It's just kind of a thing of the past. It doesn't make sense to keep those there."

K & M is making a case on principle, too. When the telephone industry was deregulated, the Public Service Commission lost its oversight of pay phones.

"But they're requiring us to maintain a deregulated service over which it has no authority," Woods said.

The rule still requires a phone in every town, Hand said, even if the commission can't control what the company charges.

"The rule is about having a phone there. It's not about the terms and conditions."

Other companies continue to eat losses. More than 200 miles to the west, the Keystone-Arthur Telephone Co. keeps pay phones for the locals in Keystone and Lemoyne and the tourists at lakes McConaughy and Ogallala.

Who spend about $2 per phone, per year.

But Keystone-Arthur hasn't considered pulling them, the company's Kelly Gies said.

"It's a convenience for people. I still use pay stations once in awhile, when I have no options."

The commission could be poised to grant the waivers for Chambers and Inman.

"It's hard to keep pushing a rule like that when two-thirds of the folks are carrying a cellphone," Hand said.

If nobody protests the move by May 2, Hand likely will recommend commissioners approve the application on a modified procedure basis, meaning no public hearing, just a vote -- and the possible end of 24-hour public phone service in two rural Nebraska towns.

It's not the end of the rule, Hand said. There's still the public's interest to consider.

"Getting the requests from Chambers and Inman, I don't think, will be the straw that broke the camel's back."

But it could start weighing it down. Two-thirds of all Nebraska phone numbers are wireless, he said.

"There's certainly a trend ... you ought to be able to make a call easier than going to find a pay phone."

Like a pay phone that Winings, the bed and breakfast owner, could someday sell at the Doggone Good Antiques store she also co-owns in Chambers, just a block south of K & M Telephone.

"I probably could," she said.

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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