Are phone booths public monuments to a time gone by?

08 August 2012 | Tim Phillips


“We payphone users have to look out for each other. We have to stick together”, says Mark Thomas of The Payphone Project (www.payphone-project.com), a lovingly-compiled blog based around the US payphone network.

If you mourn the passing of the phone booth, then Thomas’s site is a bittersweet museum of how we used to live. He mounts a passionate defence of the function of a payphone: to provide access for people who need a phone, but have too little money to use the cellular or private domestic network.

Globally, those people are getting as hard to find as the booths they occupy. In the US there are only around 425,000 booths nationwide – down from 2.6 million in 1998.

The carriers are dumping their public phone operations; Pacific Telemanagement Services, a specialist in buying up public phone sites, announced last month that it is buying the operations of Fairpoint Communications.

It previously bought Verizon’s remaining public phones in October 2011. AT&T got out in 2008, also selling up to PTS, and Sprint Nextel left the business in 2006. Low-cost independent providers now operate nine out of 10 US public phones.

There might still be enough traffic to make a small profit: Verizon estimates 150 users per month is all it takes, the American Public Communications Council (APCC) estimates 100 a month. But those profits are heading in the wrong direction.

The independent companies that are buying up the sites in the US are also finding new uses for them, following a global pattern. A company called City24x7 is piloting 250 touchscreen booths in New York, with VoIP video calling, as well as news and restaurant info.

As ever, the problem in making cash from this is that the people who would think of using a computer on the street to find a restaurant are exactly the type of people who already own a smartphone.

When it comes to repurposing public telephones, the UK has an advantage: the old red ones look good. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, BT sent out clean-up crews to repaint 400 of its remaining traditional phone boxes in preparation for the arrival of tourists. Presumably they didn’t think that many visitors would be using them to phone home, but they can still stimulate telecoms traffic.

It’s a far cry from the last London Olympic Games in 1948, where public telephones were such essential communications tools that some were commandeered by the organisers: Olympic staff would report the progress of the marathon runners from inside the nearest phone box.

Even Mark Thomas probably wouldn’t recommend a payphone for that today – not least because he now struggles to find one
he can use.

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk