For the four dozen or so residents in the isolated fishing community of Frenchboro, Maine, it sure hadn’t been easy to reach out and touch someone who was anywhere else. There’s a ferry making the nine-mile voyage between the mainland and the six-square-mile island twice weekly (weather permitting). But until 1973, Frenchboro had no phones at all, and until two years ago there was no off-island calling. Today the Island Telephone Co., which lays fair claim to being the smallest (27 customers) of the nation’s 1,400 independent telephone firms, links Frenchboro to the rest of the world.
That’s because a persistent stranger, Jeffrey Webber, 42, came calling. Webber was determined to wire the island, and his lifelong obsession with telephones rang bells with the villagers. As a child in Providence, R.I. Jeffrey liked to tinker with things. One day his dad brought home a damaged and discarded phone for the boy to play with. “I hooked it up to a model train transformer and it buzzed at me,” Jeffrey recalls. A lifelong romance began.
Webber graduated from Rhode Island College, served with the Army in Vietnam (inspecting the nation’s French-designed phone system in his spare time), then earned a master’s in education from Duquesne University. In 1970, he moved to Bangor, Maine and became a fifth-grade teacher. He also started to look around for a small phone company to buy, only to find the cost too high. Instead he got out a map to look for a small community where he could build his own system. After discovering Frenchboro, he commuted to the island to string lines and install reconditioned phones in the islanders’ homes. On Aug. 31,1973 history was made: The first phone call ever completed on Frenchboro had a lobster fisherman talking to the post office across the harbor.
Webber, of course, had bigger plans: long-distance calls. After being turned down for a small-business loan to finance his scheme, his luck changed. In Oregon a radio engineer and phone buff named Ray Thrower heard of Webber’s plight. Thrower knew of some used microwave equipment and offered Webber a $100,000 interest-free loan to acquire it. Thus, on Dec. 22,1982, the first phone calls off the island went over the lines.
There have been a few hitches. In 1974 when a shipwreck occurred off Frenchboro’s shores, the phones broke down. “It was such an event that everybody called everybody else and they blew the fuse,” says Webber. And while most Frenchboreans are delighted—even grateful—for what Webber has done, at least one old lobsterman has held out against newfangled devices. “He doesn’t like the sound of phones,” Webber explains.
The Island Telephone Co. charges customers only $9.50 in service fees and 40 cents in phone rentals monthly (toll calls extra). So far Webber estimates he has spent $100,000 of his own money installing the system, and last year paid himself a small salary for the first time. He lives in Bangor with his wife and two youngsters, teaches full-time and goes to Frenchboro in the summer and on weekends. And he worries about the future. “What’s going to happen when I get old and drop off the pole for the last time?” he wonders. “The system is not attractive for anyone to buy. But I’ve got a responsibility to these people. They never had phones before. Now they can’t do without them.”