Pay phones out, cells take over

first_imgCASTAIC – Outside the well-traveled truck stop, a phone booth stands with a filthy paper plate and an empty soda bottle inside. The pay phone itself is nowhere to be found. Down the way, two more pay phones sit. One doesn’t take coins. The other is busted. It’s a sad state of affairs these days for the old pay phone, almost fossils in today’s world of cell phones and wireless technology. At one time, people lined up to use them. But now, these landmarks are fading from the American landscape, going the way of record players, Atari games and typewriters. “If you really needed a pay phone, you’d be in trouble,” said Brad Baker, a trucker from North Carolina with a wireless phone clipped to his ear. “They are still around. There’s just not as many as there used to be.” The 44-year-old Baker based his observation on his 2,000-mile trek across the country each week. He stops along the way in cities like Santa Fe and St. Louis – places where he used to pull over and use pay phones, before he went cellular. His conclusion rings true with reports from the pay phone industry. The number of pay phones nationwide has plummeted by half over the past nine years, with about 1.1 million of them still in operation, according to the American Public Communications Council, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association for independent pay phone operators. Cell phones are the primary reason for the pay phone decline, said Willard Nichols, president of the trade group. About 45 percent of pay phones outside convenience stores, coin-operated laundries and taco stands are run by independent operators, in some cases where Mom does the books and Dad does phone repairs. Big-time phone companies, such as MCI and Verizon, own the rest. But with the focus these days on other speedy technologies, some of these telecommunications heavyweights have less incentive to maintain their coin-operated pay phones, leaving broken ones broken, dirty ones dirty. However, the need for these phones still remains, as nearly 5.1 million American households don’t have even residential phone service, much less cell phone access. What used to be a simple stroll to the corner market to use a pay phone can now be a multimile odyssey to find one that works. The demand for reliable land lines also appears when tragedies strike, such as 9-11 or the Northridge Earthquake – times when cell phone power is immediately knocked out. Suddenly, pay phones, with zero bling, flash or rhinestone covers, become attractive choices once again. “Cell phones remained down for several weeks after Hurricane Katrina, but pay phones continued to work,” said Nichols. “So the role is different today than it was 10 years ago, but we believe it remains critical.” As familiar as pay phones are to adults, they are unfamiliar territory to today’s iPod-toting teens. Sixteen-year-olds Joslin Hadley and Kristine Covert shot quizzical looks when asked about the last time they used pay phones. It was in sixth grade for Covert, who was lost with some friends in a new part of town and had to call home from a 7-Eleven. But first they had to find change, she recalled. Hadley remembered using one as a kid with her grandmother whose car had broken down. They called an uncle to pick them up. “I use my cell phone every day,” Hadley said with a shrug. Then thinking about how much in pocket change yesterday’s pay-phoning teen would need to keep up with her own cell phone use, Hadley added, “That would cost a kid a lot of money.” While pay phones are disappearing in some places, they are remaining largely visible at airports and other travel spots where cell phone reception usually is poor, if it comes in at all. Pay phones in these locations likely have about 10 times the call volume, but they, too, are experiencing a decline in use, said Mark Gram, president of Smartstop Inc., a Portland-based company that owns pay phones in travel spots. Prison remains the only other big demand for pay phones, he said. Cell phones are also wiping out the need for all 3,100 call boxes along Los Angeles County’s bustling freeways. During the call box heyday of the early 1990s, residents made about 100,000 calls from them each month for help with flat tires and leaky radiators. Now there are about 6,000 monthly call box calls, said Kali Fogel, field operations manager for L.A. Safe, which administers the call box program. Still, as cell phones have given pay phones a run for their money, some in the industry are hoping for a comeback with new technologies, like Wi-Fi connections. About 40 pay phones recently launched at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas now also operate as Wi-Fi spots. Wal-Mart may be next in line. So anyone looking to download music or access the Internet from laptops while sitting in the parking lot there could find access points through these pay phones. “This is breathing new life into the pay phone industry,” said Torre Mercogliano, CEO of Intera Group, Inc., which works with this technology. This could help rebound pay phones from where they’ve fallen today as garbage receptacles of greasy fast-food wrappers, cigarette butts and beer bottles. Outside a coffee shop they frequent, Valencia’s Richard Stubbs, 66, and friend Gus Ruiz, 69, couldn’t recall the last time they used a pay phone. “I see a lot of kids playing with them,” Stubbs said. “A lot of times I walk by and have to hang one up.” [email protected] (661) 257-5254160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more