They sit, silent and unnoticed, amid crowds of people rushing
by. You may never notice them, but payphones still lurk in
public areas. And every once in a while, they get called into
Ron Szulwach, who flew from Texas to Atlanta last month,
discovered upon landing that his cellphone service didn't
work at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
"So out of desperation, I'm using a payphone," he said after
dropping the receiver back on its hook. The last time he
remembers using a pay phone: 2005, in war-torn Iraq, while
with the Texas National Guard.
Many are wondering what role pay phones should play in
today's wireless world. A decade or two after cellphone
technology has passed them by, the number of pay phones is
In 1998, there were more than 2 million pay phones in the
United States. That has plummeted to 243,000 pay phones
nationally, according to the Federal Communications
Industry estimates paint a slightly brighter picture of about
400,000 pay phones nationally, though those figures also
represent a drastic decline.
Some still see a need to keep the anachronistic connection
available for the elderly, the poor and others without a
Even people with cellphones may someday find themselves in a
need of a pay phone, say industry leaders, who point to
disasters like Superstorm Sandy last year when cellphones
went dead and people in the Northeast found themselves lining
up at pay phones to keep in touch with friends and family.
Yet there is scant demand to keep pay phones profitable. Many
major phone companies have left the pay phone business.
Verizon last June sold off its last batch of pay phones,
which dotted the streets of New York City.
"It just wasn't germane to our business strategy," said
Verizon spokesman Bob Elek.
Many of the last holdouts are in places like truck stops,
convenience stores and some hotels.
"They are still a pretty critical piece of the
infrastructure, especially for the poor in American society,"
said Randy Nichols, president of the American Public
He said the image of pay phones as crime magnets is a
"perception issue." Disposable cellphones are the preferred
communications device of drug dealers, Nichols said, because
pay phones can be tapped and convenience stores may have
"Any self-respecting criminal knows that," he said.
Instead of instruments of ill-doing, Nichols sees pay phones
as "a critical part of the communications infrastructure for
the country." He said they can work during natural disasters
as long as the local telephone company switch is above water.
More than a decade ago, it wasn't uncommon to see banks of
pay phones everywhere. But, along with the rise of
cellphones, the 1996 Telecommunications Act laid a piece of
the groundwork that put a stake through the heart of the pay
phone business - the prohibition of "cross-subsidizing" pay
phones with revenue from regular phone bills, according to
"So the pay phones had to stand on their own to prevent (the
Bells) from being able to frustrate competition by
subsidizing the business," Nichols said. Pay phone use
declined, and the Bells "ultimately made the decision to
abandon the pay phone business."
That has left pay phones mostly in the hands of small
businesses that, in many locations, struggle to cover
connection charges of $25 or $30 a month with the paltry
quarters and card charges coming in.
Pay phones are still an affordable way to make 50 cent local
calls. But rates for long distance vary widely, depending on
which long distance provider the caller chooses, and high
prices can be an unpleasant surprise for infrequent pay phone
"Our industry has gone to hell in a handbasket," said James
R. Kelly III, whose Atlanta-based firm KELLEE Communications
operates pay phones at Hartsfield-Jackson and several other
His company has removed thousands of its pay phones across
the country and entirely pulled out of more than 15 airports.
Others are trying ideas to transform the pay phone. New York
has launched a program to reinvent pay phones as Wi-Fi
hotspots. Denver International Airport in November launched
free landline phones to be supported by ads on LCD screens on
At Hartsfield-Jackson, more than 1100 pay phones have been
pulled out, relegated to warehouses before being junked.
"You cannibalize them for parts and then you toss them. And
even after a while, there's more parts than you need," Kelly
With pay phone revenue down, the airport and KELLEE
Communications were unable to come to an agreement for a new
Some airports have done away with pay phones altogether. But
at Hartsfield-Jackson, Miller sees a need for them for
customer service and plans for the airport to subsidise the
cost of installing phones when striking its next contract. He
said that's because pay phone providers won't spend money to
provide the service when they can't make much money doing it.
"People are sitting around in the telephone booths and
they're talking on their cellphone," Miller said. "That's
common at airports across the country."
In the pay phone business, "The Atlanta airport is one of the
last airports to fall," said Kelly. International flights
help, with travelers from abroad seeking to avoid
international cellphone charges. Hartsfield-Jackson's
international terminal opened last year has no pay phones,
but Miller plans to add that in a new contract.
Some who grew up in the cellphone age, like 21-year-old
University of Georgia law student Alex Carteret, have never
even used a pay phone.
"Nobody even thinks about pay phones anymore," he said.
Fellow UGA law student Sven Boesing countered: "Nobody ever
thinks about them until you need one. And then you think,
‘Damn, why don't we have them anymore?' "