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The vanishing pay phone

They're all but gone but in the cellphone age, but they're far from forgotten.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 6, 2012 11:02AM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


Len Penzo dot Com on MSN MoneyOne of my favorite bands, Maroon 5, has a hit single out right now titled "Payphone," and every time I hear it I can't help but wonder how many of their fans have ever used one.


Row of pay phones. Credit: ©Nikada/Vetta/Getty ImagesLong before anybody ever heard of a cellphone, pay phones were everywhere. In addition to the iconic phone booths found at busy intersections, it was common knowledge that you could almost always find a pay phone at a gas station or the supermarket. In fact, there used to be so many of them that, as late as the turn of this century, there were still 2 million pay phones in the U.S.


Not anymore.


According to the American Public Communications Council, a pay phone industry proponent, fewer than 500,000 remain from sea to shining sea.


Even so, there are still 1.7 billion phone calls made from them. (Post continues below.)

That may seem surprising, but pay phones are invaluable in remote areas that don't have cellphone coverage. And the APCC says they're also relied upon by 140 million Americans who don't have cellphones.


Not everyone is a fan of pay phones; some communities have considered banning them because they tend to be a magnet for illicit activities.


When I was a kid I always kept a quarter on me in case I needed to use a pay phone to call home.


OK, you got me -- it was dime.


Of course, dialing the operator is free, and most kids with empty pockets back then knew how to make a "collect" call from a pay phone without it costing Mom and Dad. For example, in my case, it would go something like this:


"Um, yes, operator. I'd like to make a collect call. It's very important!"


"What number, please?"




"And who should I say is calling?"


"Um, Len."


"Please hold, young man, while I dial the party."


After somebody at home picked up the phone, the operator would then identify who was making the collect call. Luckily, that left a painfully short gap to get a quick message out. "Dad! Veterans Park! Bike broke!"


Naturally, Dad would decline the call -- and then he'd be at the park 10 minutes later.


When I was a kid, I used to love checking pay phone coin returns for abandoned change. Pay phones returned your money if they couldn't complete your call.


Well, if you were lucky, they did.


By the way, people who have never used a pay phone may be surprised to learn that they don't make change. So if you need to make a call that costs, say, 60 cents, and all you have in your pocket is three quarters, you can still make the call. You'll just overpay for it by 15 cents.


Perhaps that's why pay phones have been unfairly saddled with a reputation for being extremely expensive.

For its part, the APCC notes that using a pay phone can actually be less expensive than wireless alternatives. They also claim that putting coins in a pay phone can be cheaper than using a calling card.


Maybe that's true. Of course, first you have to find one.


More on Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:



Jul 6, 2012 3:05PM
I used "1-800 Collect" to contact my parents. It would say what is your name" ready mall". My dad would decline the call and he was on his way to pick me up.
Jul 6, 2012 1:07PM

I am in the cellular industry and pay phones are going away.  By  the way, most of our communication today takes place over data/fax lines.  Face-to-Face communication is next to go into the museum.

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