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Pay Phones: What’s The Story?

By: Joleene DesRosiers Moody, Contributing Writer

Right out of the gate I will say this: Pay phones may be fewer and fewer, but they should not go entirely away.

And here is why:

I left my house the other day without my (cell) phone. I could have turned around to go back for it but I chose not to.

I decided I would leave my telephone, e-mail, Internet and Words With Friends addiction behind me for a few hours.

This base, now being used as an outdoor ashtray, is all that's left where a pay phone once stood in Oswego. The increase in cell phones is forcing more and more pay phone out of existence.
This base, now being used as an outdoor ashtray, is all that’s left where a pay phone once stood in Oswego. The increase in cell phones is forcing more and more pay phone out of existence.

A little peace and quiet never hurt anyone, right? I never once thought how the convenience of my Android would come in oh, so super handy.

I was on my way to Syracuse.

I had to reach my destination by 7 p.m.

Unfortunately, a fender-bender with a kindly old woman brought my evening to an abrupt halt.

No one was hurt. (She just kind of drove slowly into the back of my car at a red light.)

Her old Buick suffered fender damage. Me? No dings or anything.

As we waited for help, she pulled out a flip phone and called her daughter.

I reached through the window of my car for my Droid to call my husband. But there was no phone.

It wasn’t cradled in the center console where I usually put it.

It was home.

On the kitchen counter.

Laughing at me.

I contemplated asking the older woman if I could use hers but decided to drive to the nearest gas station instead. I had quarters and would call my husband to tell him my little story. He would have to call John Keegan, the stage manager of where I was expected to be, and let him know I likely wouldn’t be there.

After a brief formality with a police officer and a phone call with the insurance company, I headed to a gas station/car wash/convenient store (you know the one) and walked inside to use the pay phone.

I looked everywhere, including under the carpet.

The pretty blonde behind the counter smiled at me as I turned to her a bit frantic and asked, “Where is your pay phone?”

“Our what?” She was seventeen or so.

“Pay phone?”

“Oh. We don’t have one of those.” She stared at me.

I was dumbfounded, I’m not gonna lie, so much so, that I didn’t even think to ask her if I could use the store’s company phone.

I just got into my car and thought, “Really? No pay phone at this super popular, heavily populated retail chain gas station?”

I get that technology has us in a place where they are rarely, rarely needed, but shouldn’t there be some kind of public telephone option for emergencies?

I drove down the road to Wal-Mart. There had to be a pay phone at Wal-Mart.

And there was. I tossed two quarters in the slot and waited for – nothing. Not a sound. The phone didn’t even make a connection.

I slammed the receiver down in frustration. (Yes. Me. Frustrated.)

What if I had a real emergency with no access to any kind of telephone?

How does one without a phone get help?

The answer used to be pay phones.

But it appears the majority of us tied to a cell phone doesn’t have the need for them anymore.

So what’s the story with pay phones? Are they slowly disappearing, never to be seen again?

Or, is there a small niche with payphones that still exists?

“Pay phones are costly to maintain,” said Tom Keane, chief executive officer of Pacific Telemanagement Services in California. “If people don’t use them, we don’t make money. And if we don’t make money, we can’t keep them where they are. If we can’t get 90-100 calls a month off of a phone, we can’t keep the phone there.”

Pacific Telemanagement Services is a private business that owns nearly all pay phones throughout the United States. In 2011 they acquired the last of Verizon’s payphones, making PTS the largest owner of payphones, with roughly 375,000 phones available nationwide today.

That’s down from a reported number of 425,000 phones available nationwide in October of 2011 (wsj.com).

“Pay phones used to be what we used in case there was an emergency,” Keane said. “They were used for lots of different things. But cell phones are rapidly changing that. The only way we can keep phones operable and in their current locations is to ask people to use them.”

The majority of pay phones that are utilized are often found in busy airports, convenience stores and big box stores like Wal-Mart. (Although the one I found that day at my local Wal-Mart didn’t work, but that’s a different story.)

So, if you’re in a remote area and plan on rolling to the nearest one-horse-town gas station to find a pay phone, don’t be surprised if tumbleweed rolls past it when you get there.

Keane recognizes that pre-paid cell phones are also a big part of the dwindling pay phone enterprise.

If someone is smart enough to keep one in their vehicle, they won’t need to use the black and silver pay phone at the corner of First and Main.

But for those that don’t have a cell phone option, that pay phone is pure gold.

So, before I go back through the gate, I will say this:

Spend $30 on a prepaid cell phone and put it in your car. You will always have access to a phone.

Or you could just turn around and head back to your house before you get too far out of town and grab your regular cell phone.

Either way, consider the remote places where you could end up and where pay phones certainly aren’t used up to 100 times a month.

If you end up in that remote place with an empty tank of gas or flat tire; that antiquated pay phone isn’t gonna help you at all.

For those of you that are saying to the screen right now, “Well, what happens if there is no cell reception where I am or the battery dies in my little prepaid? Then what? Huh, Joleene? Then what?”

Well then, I guess you better start walking.