Mink, Louisiana, hears new sound: a ringtone

IF THE telephone manners of Alma Louise Bolton are impeccable, it is because she has been readying them all her life. This week she finally got to show them off.

"I'm enjoying it immensely," the 83-year-old told The Independent, speaking on her spanking new phone. "I have had a lot of calls from a lot of different places." This week, Mrs Bolton was one of 14 householders in a remote community in south-west Louisiana that finally received a telephone service after decades of campaigning. The hamlet of Mink - barely even a hamlet, really just a scattering of houses - is believed to be one of the very last places in the US to get land lines.

The benefits of the new service have come immediately. A query as to whether a neighbour can lend a cup of sugar no longer requires a car journey or a hike through the woods of a mile-and-a-half. Now, Mrs Bolton can simply pick up the phone and just ask. "Mostly we're just retired people - we're out in the country," she said.

"Before we just did what we had to do. If we wanted something we had to send a message. It was seven miles to the nearest phone. This has made a huge difference to the community."

The people in Mink, set in deep forest about 100 miles south-west of Shreveport, had been pestering the state authorities for years about getting phones but the remoteness of the community and the associated cost were stacked against them.

The villagers did the best they could. It is not entirely true that Mrs Bolton and the others had no experience of phones: some of the villagers had huge, analogue mobile devices - known as bag or sack phones - that worked in a very limited number of specific locations. Moving just a few yards, from the kitchen to the living room for instance, would lose the signal.

Julian Ray, another villager, said one of the places blessed with a signal was the crossroads at the local store. He said you would regularly see the locals gathered at the spot, their bulky phones pressed to their ears.

Mr Ray was luckier than most. His home also had a hotspot so he could make and receive incoming calls, though not to or from any of the villagers - unless, that is, they happened to be standing at the crossroads when he called.

"I think this is going to give people a little more peace of mind," said Mr Ray, a travelling salesman who grew up in the area, moved away to Kansas for 20 years, and then returned to the forests around Mink.

The phones have not come cheap. The phone company, BellSouth, spent a total of $700,000 (pounds 380,000) installing 28 miles of cable and other equipment. Even Jimmy Webb's Wichita Linesman, popularised by country singer Glenn Campbell, would have struggled to complete the job on his own.

"It was a lot of expense," admitted Kevin McCotter, a BellSouth spokesman, who said the Louisiana Public Service Commission ordered the company to install the lines last year after decades of pestering from the locals. "It is a very, very rural area. The people just chose to live out in the middle of a forest. It's not a town or even a municipal district - they just live there." The company finally completed its work last weekend and the phones went live on Monday. The occasion was marked by a ceremonial phone-call by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco who telephoned Mrs Bolton from her office in the state capital, Baton Rouge. While most villagers appreciate the benefits of their new phones and have talked enthusiastically about the new "freedom" it has given them, they have also learned some of the perils that can associated with modern telecommunications such as these.

Just 15 minutes after Elaine Edwards' phone was installed on Monday, she received a call from a telemarketer.

Fortunately it appears Mrs Edwards is also blessed with Mrs Bolton's politeness. "It was no trouble," she said. "I just told them `No, thank you' and hung up." Perhaps she's a lesson to many of us who have had a telephone for a lot, lot longer.

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