— Last week, amid great fanfare, President Ernesto Zedillo opened Telmex's San Diego telephone operations base. This, he said, was the beginning of a new era in cross-border cooperation.

So how come I'm standing by this pay phone near McDonald's in San Ysidro with 56 quarters in my hands, just so I can call my friend Héctor, who's a thousand paces away across the border in Tijuana? If it weren't so noisy down here I could practically holler.

The quarters are for, first: directory inquiries. "Please deposit $7.95 cents..."

Now I'm calling Héctor. 011-52-66... "That'll be $5.00 for the first three minutes. Please insert your coins slowly." Yeah. And $1.07 for the next three minutes. Fourteen dollars to project my voice 1000 yards. I discovered too late that I could have called directly for $3.95. Big deal. I could call New York, 3000 miles away, for $3.70, with 99¢ plus tax for directory assistance.

I start calling around. MCI and Sprint, you have to be on their plans to call from a pay phone. With AT&T and MCI, you can call Mexico for 10 cents a minute if you're on one of their plans. Sprint quotes me 25 cents -- also on a plan. These involve a monthly separate outlay of $20 to $30, depending on how many services you use. But with 94 million people crossing the border legally into California each year (those are U.S. Customs figures for 1998, up from 91 million the year before) and 58,000 cars coming into San Diego County every day, how many tens of thousands of daily workers need to call back home and have to use pay phones and pay shockingly high prices? My repeated requests for quotes for an all-cash, non-plan call to Héctor brought quotes varying from my initial $5.00 for the first three minutes to $4.05 for the first one minute to $5.75 for the first minute.

This is supposed to be a seamless binational community? Perhaps for those who have residential phones with cheap calling plans. For the rest of us, it's gouging. It's robbery.

Former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lawyer John Eger thinks so too. "Some people have called it a 'digital divide,' " he says. "An 'information apartheid' in our region. This is the busiest border-crossing in the world. And 60 to 70 percent of the people who cross, cross it every day. So we're talking about millions and millions of crossings."

Many of these people, Eger acknowledges, don't have access to a private phone to use on this side of the border, don't have an AT&T calling plan. If a working mother wants to check if her baby's okay, the call won't cost 10 cents, it'll cost her $5.00. Equally, says Eger, because of crazy nationalist rules on both sides, San Diego television stations can't do satellite transmissions from Baja. They have to videotape their story, then hoof it to the border, no matter how far south the news item is. Maquiladoras either have to pay international rates to transfer volumes of data north to their San Diego-based executive offices, or drive it up by cab.

"This is crazy!" says Eger, who, besides his FCC career, was adviser to presidents Nixon and Ford and SDSU's Van Deerlin Professor of Communications for most of the past decade. He is also executive director of the SDSU International Center for Communications, formed nine years ago.

In 1994, Eger came up with an idea: Bend the border! Both ways. Create a different, flexible electronic border, a bubble enclosing both cities so all calls inside would be local.

"In 1994 we chaired, staffed, and wrote a huge report to the city and county of San Diego and Tijuana. It was called 'The City of the Future Commission.' Mayor Golding launched it. But it was really a joint effort.

"And we looked at ways of using telecommunications to create a regional information economy, based not on the production of goods and services but on the transfer, storage, and use of knowledge or information.... Knowing that globally we're seeing a basic structural shift in the nature of the economy [to one] in which information is a commodity, the new wealth. And information technology, including telecommunications and computers, are the tools of wealth-creation. We said, 'How can we link the maquiladoras on both sides of the border in a seamless way? How can we create a broadband grid for Internet use, for television, for data of all kinds?

"And thirdly, 'How can we benefit all the citizens, the average Joe and Jane who cross the border every day because they live on one side and work on the other?'

"So we developed our proposal: 'The Border-Free Telecommunications Zone.' The concept is simple. It says, 'There's nothing [set in stone] about an international border, if two countries can get together and agree on changes.' Certainly for telecommunications, we could shift the border, so the demarcation line, as to when a [telephone] call becomes international and when it's local, could be shifted 40 miles north and 40 miles south of the physical border.

"That would create what we call a 'free-trade zone' for telecommunications. And all the communications within that zone would be local. This has been a major part of our research: How do you use technology to knit communities back together again? How do you use technology as a source of economic development?

"I went to Washington, and I met with a former FCC chairman and an adviser to the current president. Both of them said, 'You know, if the community wanted to get together and push this item, we think, in the wake of NAFTA, that this would be an interesting thing to look at.' "

So who wouldn't agree with that idea? Perhaps, says Eger, those getting fat off the status quo -- like the long-distance phone companies. "I have had [people] say to me that AT&T would be opposed to this -- as anyone would be who is benefiting now by the current structure. Because every time you or I make an international call, the international carriers get a huge premium. And any time the maquiladoras have to send a package of data across the border, again, it's the same people who benefit."

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