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The vanishing pay phone

Pay phone use is declining rapidly so phone companies are removing many of them.

Published August 13, 2003

[Source: CTIA, Payphone clearinghouse Times Art]

Once upon a dime, it seemed like they were everywhere - from outside supermarkets to inside hotel lobbies. They used to cost 10 cents. Then a quarter. Now, nearly all of them are 50 cents.

They were located in actual booths that lighted when you opened the door. And they were cool. Superman always seemed to need one, and Jim Croce wrote a hit song about a conversation he had while using one.

The increasingly elusive public telephone.

About half of all Americans - 140-million to 150-million people - now own cellular phones. At the same time, the number of pay phones is headed in the opposite direction.

The total number of pay phones in America has declined to around 1.6-million, according to the National Payphone Clearinghouse, a Cincinnati-based firm that coordinates payments from long distance companies.

In 2002, the NPC reported about 1.9-million pay phones, and in 2001, about 2.1-million. In 2002, Verizon had about 11,500 pay phones in Florida, about 10 percent fewer than the previous year, the company said.

"The number continues to go down," said NPC operations manager Kim Smith. "And the biggest contributing factor is wireless phones."

Although phone companies own most of the pay phones in America, anyone can buy one and have it installed in their home or business. And pay phones are not required to be in certain locations, such as hospitals or public buildings.

"They're required to be where they will generate the most money," said Verizon spokesman Bob Elek, adding that malls, airports and convenience stores are the most popular locations.

"What dictates their being in a certain location is their usage," Elek said. "We can tell just by the coins in them. Low pay areas are eliminated."

But not always.

"It doesn't happen often," Elek said, "but we may go out to pull a phone and the person at the location may say he or she wants to keep it. If they're willing to subsidize it, we'll keep it in."

Telecommunication experts say as pay phones disappear from gas stations and restaurants, the industry is developing other money-making uses for them.

But that's of little comfort to people who depend on the corner pay phone.

Rondell Jenkins doesn't have a telephone in his apartment, so if he needs to call his sister or his boss at the construction company, he comes to the pay phone outside the Food Max grocery store on 18th Ave. S in St. Petersburg.

"It's 50 cents a call, so you have to watch it," Jenkins said Monday evening after using the phone to find out when he had to work the next day. "It's no fun to come out here when it's late at night or it's raining." He examined his right hand, the one that had just held the phone, and wiped it on his pants. "What else am I going to do?

"If they took this (phone) out, I'd probably have to walk a little farther and try to find another one."

Elek and others say schools are among the places pay phones are disappearing at the highest rate. In January, BellSouth removed all the pay phones at Jacksonville State University in Alabama because they weren't being used.

Elek, of Tampa, has a 16-year-old daughter who has never used a pay phone. "We just got her a cell phone," he said. "And even when she didn't have one, she used someone else's.

"It's a generational thing. But even that's changing."

Still, Elek said there always will be a market for pay phones. "There's always going to be a small percentage of people who don't have home phones," he said. "And a lot of people don't have wireless phones or their batteries have run down."

Or, like Denise Chapman, they don't like paying for a cell phone and a home phone.

"I just wish you could find more of them," Chapman said as she dug through her purse for correct change for a pay phone last week at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. People passed by casually chatting on their cell phones, but she was undaunted. She and her two children were going to the movies, but before they could, she needed to call the parents of another child who was to join them.

Chapman found two quarters and smiled sheepishly.

"I remember when it was just a dime," she said.

A call to nowhere

Call to a pay phone outside the Swan Motel on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa:

Times: Hi. I'm calling from the St. Petersburg Times about people who -

Woman's voice: "Are you a cop?"

Times: No. I just wanted to see if anyone would answer the phone. Do you live nearby?

Woman: "Yeah. What's this about?"

Times: I'm trying to ask people who -

Woman: "I think you're a cop. I'm gonna go."


[Last modified August 13, 2003, 01:32:38]

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