Why Do States Still Require Phone Books to Be Delivered?

Did you know that some states require companies to deliver phone books to state residents?

Never mind the fact that most people don’t use phone books for their intended purpose at all. In 2008, less than 10 percent of phone book owners actually used the book to find a phone number or locate a business.

More importantly, in this era of failing (or flailing) states, why are states imposing positive requirements on businesses and individuals that choose to root themselves in those states?

Verizon publishes most of the phone books making their way around the U.S. While local blog “We Love DC” echoes every contract-bound Verizon customer’s snark that she’s “not in love with the idea that Verizon should ever have to stop an obligation,” it quickly concedes that “it seems like this might be a good idea whose time has passed.”

Last year Verizon tried to beg off of its obligation to keep running the phone book racket in more than a dozen states. Verizon met with Maryland state commissioners on Dec. 8, claiming that “evolving customer preferences” have made physical phone books — or at least the white pages — obsolete.

Maryland denied Verizon’s request only two days later. Evidently the state required little debate to determine that residents should be able to access one another without having to resort to the internets, and that Verizon should continue to provide the means.

Some states do acknowledge that customers’ preferences are evolving. Seattle has been pushing legislation since sumer that would ban phone book distribution in the city unless people specifically request a hard copy. White pages have been eliminated from some states’ phone books; in Pennsylvania, New York,?New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida, customers only receive the yellow pages.

Verizon — the largest landline provider, along with AT&T — illustrates customers’ evolving preferences with a disconnection rate at about 10 percent per year for landlines. Callers prefer to rely only on cell phones. Yet white pages list don’t list cell phone numbers at all; they include only landlines.

It’s easy to find information on phone books’ ecological impact and stats, but the question remains: Why do states want to stay involved?

The decision whether or not to publish phone books should fall to the businesses. The yellow pages industry is working on a nationwide opt-out system, premised on environmentalism and the idea that Yellow Book wants its pages “to be welcome in your home.”

Many states have already established (or discussed) an opt-in method. This new approach merely grants white page publishers relief from state requirements to distribute white pages (full list here). The Washington Post quotes companies’ report that in the opt-in states, only about 2 percent of customers are requesting phone books. Further:

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.

Printing yellow pages is highly profitable. Printing white pages is costly and obsolete.

Yet state governments are determined to stay involved. States still want phone companies to distribute white pages, even at a loss, even though these books sit in landfills to rot.