"The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here! ... I'm somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day!"
Let history record that comedic line — from Steve Martin's 1979 movie "The Jerk" — as the high-water mark of the phone book's cultural significance.
In this era of cellphones, online directories and unlisted numbers, the traditional phone book is going the way of the rotary dial and the party line.
State regulatory staffers have agreed in principle to allow AT&T to drop white-page residential listings from future phone directories in the Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka markets.
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Assuming that the Kansas Corporation Commission agrees with its staff and AT&T — and no opposition has surfaced — future phone books distributed in the cities will provide only government and business listings and advertisements.
Some independent directory publishers may continue to provide residential listings, but they are not legally required to do so.
Those who want the AT&T residential white pages will still be able to get them, in print or possibly on a CD-ROM, but only on request.
Wichitans used to get at least three full-service phone books a year.
Texas-based User Friendly distributes 270,000 phone books in Wichita, said Bruce Howard, its chief executive officer.
He said the company will continue to provide full phone books for the foreseeable future, because many customers still want those residential listings.
With AT&T abandoning the field, "we expect we'll get higher usage," he said.
AT&T: Books obsolete
AT&T is asking the commission for a permanent waiver from a 1967 order that requires phone companies to print an annual directory and distribute it to all customers.
AT&T argues that white-page residential listings have reached the end of their useful life.
"While usage of AT&T-affiliate's Business White Page and Yellow Page directories remain strong, AT&T's customers are turning less and less to the residential white pages directory," lawyer Bruce Ney wrote in the company's filing. "Instead they are looking to online and other resources for residential listing information."
Ney said that's because of an upswing in online phone directories, phones that can store large contact lists, wireless-only households and increased use of unlisted numbers.
Commission staffers mostly agreed with AT&T on the state's three large metropolitan areas.
But they balked at letting AT&T drop the residential listings in rural Kansas.
"Smaller communities in Kansas may have less access to broadband and lower reliance on wireless phones, and thus, less access to online and wireless services that may serve as a substitute to white page residential directories," KCC lawyer Andrew Schulte wrote in the staff response to AT&T's petition.
The KCC staff also expressed concern that customers might have to use more directory assistance, which costs $1.89 to $3.75 a call.
And the staff wants AT&T to do more than it has planned to inform customers about the change and let them know their options for obtaining a printed directory.
It's unclear when the change might happen. The timeline for a decision is open and it will probably come without any public meetings, because no interested parties have stepped forward to challenge the phone company's plan, said commission spokeswoman Cara Sloan-Ramos.
Yellow Pages to stay
If the waiver does go through, AT&T will continue publication and distribution of business listings and the company-sanctioned Yellow Pages — the profit-making side of the phone-book business.
Simba Research, which tracks media business trends, estimates that AT&T and competitors who have copied the iconic yellow-book theme bring in about $12 billion a year in revenue nationwide — more than 80 percent of it from printed products.
Dropping the white pages and keeping the yellow pages is actually bucking some national trends.
Environmentalists across the country complain the multiple yellow books are a redundant waste of paper.
There are sporadic reports of unwanted directories being dumped on the steps of phone company offices.
Seattle passed an ordinance last year restricting distribution of the ad-centric directories and charging their publishers environmental-impact fees.
The ordinance was upheld by a judge early this month.
In 2004, Wichita-based Feist sold its 20-directory business in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri to Yellow Book USA.
Yellow Book officials did not return phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.