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Verizon seeking permission to stop delivering white pages in Maryland, Virginia

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:35 AM

Score another one for the digital revolution.

The phone book - or at least the residential white pages - is going the way of the rotary telephone and the phone booth. Not to mention vinyl records, typewriters and tape recorders.

Verizon, the largest provider of landline phones in the Washington region, is asking state regulators for permission to stop delivering the residential white pages in Virginia and Maryland.

The company plans to make a similar request of the D.C. Public Service Commission in the next several weeks, Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said.

Instead, the directories will be available online, printed or on CD-ROM upon request. But the inches-thick white pages, a fixture in American households for more than a century, would no longer land on porches with a thud each year.

Time to call the Smithsonian.

"I'm kind of amazed they lasted as long as they have," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "But there are some people nostalgic about this. Some people like to go to the shelf and look up a number."

For decades, regulators across the United States have required phone companies to distribute directories in paper form - a nod to an earlier time. The first directory - issued in 1878, two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone - was a single sheet of paper that listed 50 residents of New Haven, Conn. It became an indispensable staple of American life.

But Verizon and AT&T, the nation's two dominant landline carriers, say that most people search for numbers online and store frequently used numbers in their cellphones rather look than look them up in the white pages. Landlines are being disconnected at a rate of almost 10 percent each year, according to the companies, and white pages don't list cellphone numbers.

A survey conducted by Gallup for SuperMedia, which produces the directories for Verizon, indicates that the number of households relying on residential white pages dropped from 25 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2008.

"The way of getting this information has changed," Mitchell said.

That means phone books often end up in landfills and recycling bins, or they are used for firewood or children's booster seats.

"A ton of people don't want them anymore," said Duront Walton, executive director of the Virginia Telecommunication Industry Association, which supports Verizon's effort. "They're doorstops."

Matthew Nickels, 32, a federal worker who lives in the four-story Palazzo at Park Center in Alexandria, said he watches year after year as 400 phone books sit abandoned near the condominium building's mailboxes in the garage. Rain occasionally leaks in and they begin to rot, but no one touches them.

"Literally, they sit there for six months until one magical day they all go in the recycling bin," he said.

Nickels said he hasn't used a paper phone book - which he calls an outdated relic - in at least five years, maybe seven or eight.

"The rest of the world is rapidly changing," he said. "This is where it's going. I don't see this as an unreasonable request."

Several states have approved the inevitable, including New York, Florida and Pennsylvania. About dozen are considering similar proposals.

In states where the residential white pages are only available in paper at a resident's request, about 2 percent of customers are asking for copies, according to the companies.

Verizon and SuperMedia have millions of customers in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

In Maryland, Verizon notified the Public Service Commission on Sept. 27 that it wants to switch to online and requested directories starting next year. The commission is accepting public comments on the proposal until Monday and will debate the issue at its meeting Dec. 8.

In Virginia, Verizon submitted its request to the State Corporation Commission on Aug. 3. Residents have until Friday to comment, and the commission's staff will issue a report Dec. 17.

Shannon Brennan was one of more than five dozen people who wrote to the commission about Verizon's request. Her e-mail came soon after receiving four phone books within two weeks at her Lynchburg home.

"Enough is enough," said Brennan, 52, who works at Lynchburg College. "It's ridiculous. It's a terrible waste."

But even if the commission grants Verizon's request, Brennan will still receive a phone book - maybe more than one.

SuperMedia plans to continue to distribute government and business white pages. And the change will not affect the company's main areas of focus - the yellow pages as well as selling ads though direct mail, the Internet and social media.

"It doesn't affect our business and what we're in business to do," said Andy Shane, a company spokesman.

The Yellow Pages Association, which represents 400 companies nationwide, says that more consumers use the yellow pages - 65 percent - than any other source when searching for local business information.

"There's still a lot of value and high usage," said Amy Healy, the association's vice president of public policy and sustainability.

Yet Verizon and AT&T say the change from printed white pages will help the environment.

In the 12 states and the District where Verizon is the dominant carrier, savings could top 17,000 tons of paper each year. In Virginia, the company estimated it could save 1,640 tons of paper annually.

Some groups say the move is long overdue.

Banthephonebook.org has created a petition drive and a Facebook page to encourage opt-in programs as it looks to save the 5 million trees it says are used each year to create the white pages and the $17 million spent each year to have the books recycled.

The Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit group that tries to reduce the environmental impact of consumer products, estimates that phone books contribute 660,000 tons to the water stream each year. That's equal to the weight of 58,000 school buses.

"Telephone directories delivered to people who don't need them are a wasted resource, an added cost imposed on local governments to recycle them and an imposition on people who don't want them," said Scott Cassel, the institute's executive director.

Try telling that to Patricia Rawls, 59.

The retired director of a nonprofit organization wants a directory by every phone in her house in Norfolk and in her car, because, she said, thumbing through the book is quicker and easier than looking up numbers online.

Rawls worries about those who haven't kept up with the latest technology.

"What are they to do?" she said. "Until the day comes that everybody has a computer and cellphone, they're stuck."

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