Wednesday, March 16, 2011

From the Archives: The Unglamorous Life of a Pay Phone

These days it seems that everyone has a cell phone. Most of us walk by public pay phones without a second glance in their direction. I definitely do—until Wednesday, when I stumbled upon a couple actually using a pay phone! Yes, they were likely tourists (I made that assumption based on their attire), but hey, it turns out that those ugly, dirty booths, kiosks, and stands actually do work. Well, sometimes. 

Ed Note: AiP is on a break this week, but tell me, when was the last time you used a public pay phone?

Once prevalent throughout New York City and the rest of the country, the rise of cellular technology has meant the decline of the public pay phone. The first public pay phone was installed in 1889 in a bank in Hartford, Connecticut. Meant to provide a measure of convenience, by 1902 there were 81,000 pay phones throughout the country. The outdoor phone booth made it's appearance in 1905, and by 1925 New York City boasted ownership of 25,000 phone booths. According to the NYC Department of Technology and Telecommunications, as of July 2009 there were 18,090 active public payphones available throughout New York City. Though unfortunately, the vast majority of those available don't work—you can count on a dial tone for only one in four of those in the subway, not that you would want to encounter the grime and germs that call them home. The fact is that the maintenance costs associated with these once popular service providers are no longer offset by the revenue they bring in from actual calls. According Verizon spokesman Jim Smith, "on average, a Verizon pay phone should handle at least 150 calls per month in order to cover its individual operating costs. Based on that 150-call minimum, a pay phone requiring 50 cents for a local call would need to earn $75 a month to financially justify its existence." 

A couple use a NYC public
pay phone. Feb. 2010
In all the time I've worked at this particular location, I have never seen a single person use the pay phones on the corner. I myself couldn't tell you the last time I placed a call from a public phone—any public phone. Are pay phones still necessary? Well, yes. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2003 blackout, hard wired phones were the only phones that worked. People stood in line to use them. Nonetheless, the public pay phone continues to be overlooked and possibly looked down upon. How does the public perceive an individual who needs to use a public phone? Is it a mark of lower status to not have a cell phone? Of course, there are still individuals who rely on public pay phones—individuals who don't own a cell phone (17.6% of the US population did not own a cell phone as of Nov. 07, which seems to be the most recent data available) and international visitors are the ones who are most likely to look for a public pay phone. Still, these groups don't use phones often enough to meet Mr. Smith's projections. Nonetheless, I doubt they will ever completely vanish. For one, it's estimated that public phones generate $62 million in advertising, of which the city gets about a third. Think about it—for the cost of a billboard in Times Square, an advertiser could cover the city with her message via phone booth and kiosks. But this doesn't mean that working phones are located where people most need them. Advertisers want their messages in highly visible, high traffic areas, which doesn't necessarily include some lower income neighborhoods. Is this another element in the technology divide?

What's the status of public pay phones where you live? Are they disappearing? When was the last time you used one? I know you're out there—post your comments below!

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels


  1. I think, given the prevalence of cell phones, for the most part the reaction to someone using a pay phone would be confusion, or assuming they can't use their cell phone for some reason - poor service, dead battery, etc. It's so rare now, I don't know that it has a stigma left - it's more a question of why someone would be doing something so old-fashioned rather than assuming that they're poor or a luddite.

  2. Confusion is certainly a possible—and likely—response, but there are any combination of factors that guide how the pay phone user will be judged, including where the phone is and what the person looks like (e.g., how dressed, race, age). Given the meteoric rise of mobile technology, pay phone use does seem anomalous—particularly since we seem to so many opportunities to charge up our devices if we need to. I've sort of started thinking of pay phones as decorative in their own way :)

  3. I was in NYC last year and used payphones constantly to call friends and check messages at home (yes, I do have voice mail, at least). I am one of the 17% or so who don't see a need for a cell phone. Anyway, people I knew in New York were perplexed at how I managed to "find" a public phone, when in fact, on major streets they're everywhere. It was like they literally didn't see them anymore: these phones had so faded into the background and visual clutter that my cell phone bearing friends no longer seemed to register them AS phones, or something.

  4. To be fair, the government has a program providing free cell phone service to low income individuals. So even very poor people can have cell phones, which I think makes them really billboards that may or may not have a working phone attached, but which nearly nobody ever needs.