The cell phone is getting static again?not for making airports unbearable or for allegedly causing brain cancer and car crashes, but for hurting an institution that has helped everyone from Superman to gangsters: the public pay phone.
Atlanta-based BellSouth plans to hang up on the pay phone business by December 2002; its 143,000 pay phones are for sale. San Antonio-based SBC Communications, though it dropped plans to quit the dime-and-quarter business, won’t comment on reports that no one wanted to buy its pay phones. Meanwhile, Verizon admits, not a little defensively, to having 10 percent fewer pay phones than it did in 1998: “We’re not leaving a tiny hamlet in Illinois without a pay phone,” says a spokesperson about the New York City-based company’s decrease to 360,000 pay phones.
Overall, the number of U.S. pay phones has dropped to 2.2 million, down from 2.6 million in late 1997. And that adds up to trouble for the 5.4 million U.S. households that lack residential phone service, says the Fairfax, Va.-based American Public Communications Council (APCC) trade group. “The majority of the U.S. does not have a wireless product,” says APCC President Vince Sandusky, noting that pay phones provide a public service. “They’re used in emergency situations and the mundane as well?for some kid to call home for a ride.”
The APCC has urged the FCC to address the industry’s economic problems, one of which is the issue of compensation for toll-free, calling-card and 10-10 number calls handled by pay phone providers. Reportedly 20 percent to 50 percent of those calls go unrecompensed, because so many different companies handle the call between dial tone and ring. The FCC actually took a step to remedy that on April 5, 2001, requiring the first long-distance carrier on such a call to compensate the pay phone.
Will that be enough to save a cultural icon? If not, we can only hope for someone more powerful than the wireless locomotive to come to its rescue.