AP Technology Pay Phones Suffer As Cell Phone Use Rises
By SAMANTHA GROSS
Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK -- A stroll along Ninth Avenue in Manhattan reveals an ugly
picture of the state of the pay phone these days. The phones are
sticky, beat up and scarred, and some don't work at all. A child's
change purse is stuffed on one phone ledge, along with a large wad of
wrapping plastic. On a nearby ledge, an empty bottle of tequila sits
in front of a hole that once held a phone. Empty cans of malt liquor
sheathed in brown paper bags are a frequent sight.
With rising cell phone use and vandalism and neglect taking their
toll, pay phones are disappearing around the nation. Consumer
activists and advocates for the poor have protested the drop in
numbers -- saying that public phones are necessary in emergencies and
represent a lifeline for those who can't afford a cell phone or even a
"If you have a cell phone, you hardly look for the pay phones," said
25-year-old Sayed Mizan, listening to his iPod on a subway platform.
"Besides, most of the time if you see the pay phones, they're either
out of order or they're too filthy to touch."
Public phone operators insist that the bad reputation of pay phones is
undeserved -- though they do concede that they have removed many
stands in recent years due to falling use.
Nationwide, the number of pay phones has dropped by half to
approximately 1 million over the last nine years, according to an
estimate by the American Public Communications Council, a trade
association for independent pay phone operators.
"If a pay phone isn't covering its costs, we take it out," said Jim
Smith, a spokesman for Verizon, which operates more pay phones in New
York than any other company. "Toward the late '90s, the wireless
phenomenon really got some momentum. That really put the squeeze on
the pay phones."
The drop in pay-phone numbers angers advocates, who are quick to point
out that cell phones -- and sometimes any phones at all -- are
prohibitively expensive for many people.
A full 7.1 percent of the nation's households had no phone of any kind
in November 2005, up from 4.7 percent three years earlier, according
to the Federal Communications Commission.
For those people, and for the estimated 43 percent of U.S. residents
with no cell phones (as of June 2004), pay phones are especially
crucial, advocates say.
"Pay phones are a big deal for them," Sage Foster said of the homeless
men and women he works with as a housing counselor. "For most of them,
it's their only means of communication."
Pay phones also served an important purpose during two recent
catastrophes in New York City -- the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and
the 2003 blackout that darkened much of the Northeast. Cell phones
failed during the crises, but many pay phones kept working because of
their direct wiring and the phone company's backup power stores.
Ragan Belton remembers queuing up at a pay phone with 30 others to
call her daughter on Sept. 11. "God forbid there's an emergency and
you have to go several corners to find one that's working," she said.
But public telephones were not always regarded as such a blessing.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, the phones became increasingly
unpopular with community boards and local officials afraid of drug
dealers. Eventually, Verizon changed all its phones to refuse incoming
calls and removed phone booths, which had become grim repositories for
trash and human waste.
"There was a time when all kinds of criminal elements would set up a
sidewalk office using a pay phone," recalled Smith, the Verizon
But the phone stands that replaced them are still magnets for trash
and vandalism, and some still smell distinctly of urine.
"Some operators have just abandoned locations," said Willard
R. Nichols, president of the independent operators' trade group. "If
you've got vandalism and damage, it's very hard to keep the phone in
service, because the repair costs are too high."
Despite the rising costs, it is unlikely that pay phones will be
phased out entirely, according to industry representatives who say
demand remains high in working-class neighborhoods and in locations
like truck stops and airports.
Marilyn Ginsberg, a retired city employee who at 63 relies almost
exclusively on her cell phone, says she hopes they are right.
"They're important to have around, if for no other reason than if
there's an emergency, someone can dial 911," she said.
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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: I used to be the proprietor of two pay
phones in Skokie, Illinois at the Skokie Swift station. I had them
both set for 25 cents unlimited timing on local area 847 calls and
one dollar (four quarters) for three minutes on long distance calls.
I kept the phones clean and in good working order. This was in 1998
when I still lived in the area. Eventually though, Chicago Transit
Authority came around and told me I had to remove them, which at first
I did not do; after all, my phones were by the Greyhound Station and
were clean and not rip offs like theirs. CTA then sued me, to force
the removal of the payhones. I countersued CTA, claiming that they had
not kept up parts of their lease for the Greyhound Station, but
shortly after that I was given the full time job opportunity in
Junction City, Kansas and decided to wash my hands of the whole thing
in Chicago. I was really glad to get out of the area finally. PAT]