With mobile phones reducing payphone use, US payphone numbers have plummeted by more than half in the last 10 years. Will kids born in the next 10 years ever see a pay phone? Ashwin Tombat reports.
The shrinking pay phone population in the US got a body blow on Monday 3 December, when telecom major AT&T announced that it could no longer afford to maintain its remaining herd of 65,000 payphones, and that it has decided to turn them loose.
Till 1998, the US had 2.6 million payphones, but with the growing mobile phone population reducing payphone use, payphone numbers have plummeted to just 1 million today.
If independent pay phone operators do not take over the phones that AT&T abandons, telephone services are likely decline further in needy locations like prisons and across the less affluent 13 southern and mid-south states where Southwestern Bell once provided telephone services.
But AT&T executives have expressed cautious optimism that most of the phones they let go will survive, over the phase-out period that is expected to last the next year or so. The group that represents the independent operators agrees.
The optimism comes from the fact that AT&T recently cut the number of payphones it operates by about 150,000. Logically, feel the independent operators, most of the remaining units ought to be profitable.
Long and winding road
America's first payphone appeared in 1878. Like at India's STD booths, customers made their calls, got a bill and paid the money. The first coin-operated pay phone was installed in 1890, in Hartford, Connecticut.
By 1902, there were 81,000 in use. But most of them were in the north-eastern cities of the US. They seem to have spread rather more slowly into the south. Texas newspapers first mention payphones in 1909.
Outdoor pay phones were first installed in 1905 in Cincinnati, but they struggled for business until after the First World War. In the early days, it seems, people refused to hold private conversations on public streets.
That is what gave birth to the telephone booth, which was more or less soundproof and offered privacy. These wooden structures were expensive and they attracted vandals, but they also brought enough business to make the payphone profitable.
Superman's changing room
Reporter Clark Kent first used a phone booth to change into Superman in 1938. Later, college kids in the 1950s regularly held contests to see how many students they could squeeze into a telephone booth. The world record, according to the Guinness Book, stands at 25.
The cell phone, which is primarily responsible for the decline of the payphone, was first invented by engineers at Bell Labs as early as 1947. But the high cost of the new technology versus the easy availability and affordability of payphones at every street corner meant that it took 45 years for the mobile phone to be able to challenge the payphone.
Now the cell phone population in the US is over 250 million - nearly one per person - and continues to grow. Not surprisingly, most of the nation''''''''s big phone companies have either sold-off or abandoned their payphones.
BellSouth, which is now part of AT&T, abandoned payphones in 2003. Qwest followed suit soon after. And AT&T''''''''s announcement on Monday makes Verizon the only big telecom player that still operates payphones - about 225,000.
Will the payphone survive?
What does the future hold? Will kids born in the next 10 years ever see a pay phone? That isn't going to be easy, considering that a payphone must log at least 100 to 110 calls a month to be profitable.
The total number of payphone calls has fallen from about 3 billion to about 1.6 billion over the past five years. But, hopefully, the payphone is evolving, and not moving toward extinction.
The telecom industry believes that payphones will survive in the foreseeable future, not least because 7 to 8 million US households still don't have a phone of any kind, and the number is growing. People who live in these homes will continue to need payphones, and will give them the business they need to survive.