Are there any payphones left? [telecom]

Spring is in the air, and the eternal quest for new nostalgia has once again perfumed the air at Telecom Digest Central with the heady aroma of Bakelite.

I find myself wondering if there are any payphones left that are provided by ILECs. In other words, do any of the "Baby Bells" still have payphones in service?

Inquiring minds want to know!


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Bill Horne
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Pacific Telemanagement Service (PTS) is the nation's largest payphone service provider (PSP), with about 25,000 phones nationwide. PTS acquired many of its phones from the likes of Verizon, Qwest, AT&T, and other diversified telecoms that got out of the payphone and calling card businesses years ago. Verizon was the last major telco to dump its payphones in 2010.

You never know where you'll find one but PTS's phones are found in state and national parks, government buildings, desert highways, transit hubs, hospitals, etc. I once found a working PTS phone in a cemetery.

PTS also has a lucrative presence in some states' prison systems.

A payphone that is profitable solely on coin or calling card revenue is rare, and probably non-existent. It's been a long time since larger ILEC's and telecom companies have had interest in maintaining them. The cost of paying someone to go to the phones, empty them of coins, fix busted handsets, etc.; all these costs greatly exceed the amount of money coming in. It's like good money chasing bad.

PTS's model is to negotiate long-term contracts in which businesses or government entities pay PTS a fee of something like 75 dollars a month for providing what amounts to a concession, or a convenience. Some of these contracts include a percentage of revenue share on coin and calling card payments. With so little money coming in many contracts don't even include this.

The FCC released stats on payphones a couple of years ago, estimating the nationwide population to be about 100,000. The agency will probably not compile such stats again, but it's safe to assume the number has declined since then.

Here in New York, as of a few months ago, we still had about 3,000 outdoor payphones. But in March the City's technology agency ordered the removal of "hundreds" of payphones. By my observation this long-promised payphone apocalypse finally commenced sometime in the last 5 or 6 weeks, probably delayed by the pandemic lockdown, and the "hundreds" directive probably escalated to "thousands". In the areas I've spent most of my pandemic time I've seen at least three dozen payphones removed in the

from Midtown Manhattan.

New York has maintained a conspicuous quantity of payphones, a supply that far exceeds demand, not on account of the phones being in demand but because the revenue from the display advertising on the enclosures makes a decent amount of money for both the payphone owners and the city agency that oversees their operation. Display advertising on New York's payphone enclosures has essentially subsidized the business since the mid-1980s, when NYNEX went rogue and started slapping ads on its payphones without obtaining City approval.

Today, speaking only of outdoor phones located on City sidewalks, virtually all of New York's payphones are owned by CityBridge, a confusing consortium of technology, advertising, and media companies that includes Alphabet among its principle investors. Who'd'a thunk that the payphones of New York are kept alive, in part, by The Big G?

Google's acquisition of most New York City payphones came in 2015, when New York awarded the CityBridge consortium a monopoly franchise on outdoor payphones and information kiosks throughout the 5 boroughs. Since 2016 the consortium has removed hundreds upon hundreds of payphones, replacing them with LinkNYC kiosks, a product CityBridge calls "the payphone of the future".

Akin to the payphones they replaced, which made *almost* all their money from display advertising, LinkNYC's revenue stream comes 100% from ads. The kiosks are said to cost taxpayers absolutely nothing, a claim many observers refuse to believe.

Link kiosks are also found in Newark and Philadelphia, but at nowhere near the quantity of New York, which presently has about 1,800 Links.

The controversies and failures of the LinkNYC program are subject for a separate discussion.

PTS, the nation's largest PSP, owns what is probably the largest number of payphones under one roof in New York, with about a dozen phones at Penn Station. Despite that, and with a surprising quantity of phones at both Staten Island Ferry Terminals, the company today has a relatively small presence in New York. PTS had acquired all of Verizon's subway payphones but they've given up on almost all of those. PTS also had phones in many of the city's parks, acquired from Verizon, but those, too, are done.

Until as late as 2015 the Port Authority Bus Terminal housed a ludicrous quantity of what must been over 100 working payphones, virtually all languishing in disuse, owned and operated by G-Tel. Those phones disappeared in March, 2015.

What killed off the payphones? Well, for starters, they're not dead yet, even though many people seem to think so.

The payphone's main assassin has no doubt been the now-ubiquitous cell phone, said to be in the pockets and handbags of 95% of Americans.

But people in the payphone industry (what's left of it, that is) say the Federal Lifeline Assistance Program, which gives free or low-cost cell phones to those who qualify, is what really siphoned away the payphone's last reliable customer base: The poor.

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mark thomas Forums website is not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or service providers discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.