Accessibility links

Technology Spurs Demise of the 'Pay Phone'


The sound of coins being dropped into a phone or a rotary dial are way out of date. But, the real dinosaur is the pay phone itself. It's fast becoming a museum piece.

Look! Up in the Sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman!!!

But what's Clark Kent, the mild-mannered newspaper reporter, to do? In comics and movies and on television, he dashes into a telephone booth to change into his Superman costume.

These days, he'd be hard-pressed to find a phone booth anywhere in the United States. Even the little pay-phone kiosks are disappearing.

According to Qwest, one of America's big, regional telephone companies, there are 1.3 million working pay phones left in the country. That's just half the number of five years ago, and crews are ripping out pay-telephone kiosks by the thousands each month. Bob Elek is a spokesman for Verizon, the nation's largest pay-phone provider. He says the company still has about 400,000 pay phones in malls, airports, bus terminals, and convenience stores, but is removing them from many street corners, hotels, and gas stations, where the number of quarters pumped into the coin slots has dropped off dramatically over the years. Still, Mr. Elek says ..."Verizon believes there will always be a place for pay phones. You just have to be willing to adjust to market conditions."

Another big regional phone company, BellSouth, got out of the pay-phone business at the end of last year.

"Over the last few years, and particularly since 1998, we've experienced a significant decline in pay-phone usage among our customers," said Rachel Russell, president of BellSouth's public communications division. "It varied, that decline, depending upon which type of installations are out there, but all areas are down."

Some of BellSouth's 143,000 pay phones were sold to smaller companies that still provide pay-phone service. Other coin phones that had rusted, corroded, or been badly vandalized went to junkyards. Still more were sold to collectors or donated to telecom museums. The oldest pay phones, dating to the 1890s, were attachments to desk phones. They included little gongs that operators could hear and know that the right coins had been deposited.

Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, who studies popular culture, remembers the day when pay phones were a beacon, a proverbial port in the storm when you were lost late at night or needed to hear a special voice. Often you'd find a line of people waiting their turn for the phone.

"In the old days, if you were at a pay phone during the day, it usually meant you were important - walking in and out of the phone booth with that decisive movement of the accordion doors, so busy that you couldn't wait till you got to the phone in your office or home," he said. "You had to transact this business immediately. Now, to be caught using a pay phone is to some extent a sign of your falling down the social food chain. You're sending a message that you haven't paid your cellular phone bill, can't even get such a cellular contract, you've lost your cell phone, or that you're such a Luddite that you have not been welcomed, yet, to the 21st century and are still using phones connected to walls."

And Americans still hunt for one from time to time - during last year's Northeast blackout, for instance, when so many cellphones were in use, millions of people could not get a signal.

Suzanne Grant, who works at the American Heart Association in the Dallas, Texas area, says her husband calls her the chronically unreachable wife, since her cellphone battery routinely runs down and dies. Once, in a panic while attending a conference at a hotel, she needed to reach him fast to ask him to pick up their son after school.

"I saw signs that said, 'Pay Phones This Way.' I get to this bank of pay phones. There must be 20 of them there. Each and every one of them was disconnected. And I was beginning to get panicked," she said. "Luckily there was a gentleman standing there, and he lent me his cellphone. You buy a cellphone, hoping it will be there for you in emergencies. But they go dead. They have poor signals. And there aren't the payphone backups that there were. We grew up knowing that there were going to be pay phones at school, pay phones at the mall, pay phones at the movies, so that you could call if there was an emergency, or you needed to get picked up or something. Now they're not there, and the even-more-disheartening thing is, they look like they're there, and they've been turned off. They're disconnected."

Or, as happened to Roberta Carlton of Lexington, Massachusetts, you're headed out to dinner and need to call home - but forgot your cellphone. Between finding a working pay phone and figuring out how much money to put into it, it took her half an hour to make a three-minute call.

"I got back to the table and told everybody I had forgotten how to use a pay phone. And everybody kind of laughed at me," she said. "And basically as one, everybody at the table pulled out his cellphone and handed it to me and said, 'You could have used mine.'"

A growing number of U.S. urban areas offer a high-tech replacement for pay phones. Near what are called Wi-Fi hot spots, including some existing pay-phone kiosks and in many coffee houses, people with lap-top computers or hand-held devices can access the Internet wirelessly. Some of these Internet services now offer voice communication. So people who are out and about can still call each other for a connection charge. But at least they don't have to fumble in their pockets or purses for two quarters to do so.

XS
SM
MD
LG