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Published:August 1st, 2006 10:32 EST
Saying Goodbye to the Pay Phone

Saying Goodbye to the Pay Phone

By Maria Grella

With the widespread use of cell phones today, pay phones have become yesterday's obsolete necessity.

In fact, in any major city, it would be hard to find one in working order. Pay phones are in disrepair and unsavory to use; chewing gum clings to the phone, numbers are smeared with grease and some are missing the receiver altogether, leaving the thick silver wire to hang pitifully from the stand. Trash, vandalism and the stench of urine surround the public phones. All these factors, combined with the increase of cell phone use have made one thing very phones may have out-stayed their welcome.

Public phone operators deny the bad reputation that pay phones have been given, regarding the filth and broken equipment factors. Still, many public telephones have been removed from the streets due to decline in use. The American Public Communications Council, a trade association for independent pay phone operators, has noted the decrease. According to the APCC, the number of pay phones has been cut by half across the United States, to nearly 1 million over the last nine years.

"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.'' While pay phones came to good use at one time, they also gave neighborhoods an uneasy feeling.  Criminals in the 1970s and early 1980s used public phones as their street office, setting up shop as drug dealing headquarters and angering local officials and surrounding communities. To combat the growing unlawful activity, Verizon changed all its phones to refuse incoming calls and replaced phone booths with stands, which had become filthy deposit sites for garbage and human waste.

These safer methods implemented don’t solve the financial burden.  Jim Smith, a spokesman for Verizon, the company which operates most of the phones in New York, explained why the pay phone has been phasing out from the streets. "If a pay phone isn't covering its costs, we take it out. Toward the late '90s, the wireless phenomenon really got some momentum. That really put the squeeze on the pay phones.''

Advocates for the poor and consumer activists are angry in the disappearance of the public phone. They claim that they are essential in emergencies, especially for those impoverished who can't afford a landline or a cellular. According to the FCC, in 2005, 7.1 percent of households in the U.S. had no phone, up from 4.7 percent in 2002. There is an estimated 43 percent of the population that have no cell phones. For all these people, pay phones are critical, as they are their only means of communication.

During 2001's terrorist attacks and the blackout of 2003, pay phones were crucial. While cellular phones had failed, the landlines of public pay phones and Phone Company’s backup power stores kept working.

While costs and the disappearance of working pay phones have increased, industry experts say that the demand in working-class areas and well populated neighborhoods, like airports, have also been on the rise, keeping the death of pay phones off the hook.