Bringing Back Payphones

My last blog for the year includes a nostalgic look back at my days as a telephony guy – many of my older readers will get it. The Washington Post recently had an article about Mike Dank, who is working to bring free payphones to Philadelphia.

I can remember growing up when payphones were ubiquitous. The peak of the market was 1995, when there were 2.6 million payphones in the country. There was an outdoor payphone at every gas station and around many retail stores. There were payphones inside businesses like hotels, malls, and any other place where a lot of people gathered. And there were big banks of payphones at airports. Anybody who did business travel in the days before cellphones can remember rushing off airplanes to try to find an open payphone.

I rode along once with folks in the payphone department at Southwestern Bell who told me about the elaborate process for collecting coins from phones and for making sure that the coin boxes weren’t getting robbed or embezzled. It required an elaborate effort in large cities to continually empty and count the coins from payphones.

In the days before the deregulation of the big telephone companies, most payphones were provided by the big Bell Telephone Companies. After divestiture into the regional Bell companies, the payphones all got relabeled as AT&T. When traveling, I’d run into payphones from smaller telcos, such as the banks of telephones in the Pittsburg airport that were provided by the North Pittsburgh Telephone Company, which happened to be the monopoly provider at the airport site.

Eventually, the FCC broke up the payphone monopoly, and the payphone business went a bit crazy. There were banks of phones in airports from companies you had never heard of with signs luring travelers to use their phones instead of the telco phones. Hotels were besieged by salespeople trying to get their phones into the lobby. Everybody walked around with a few calling cards in their wallet. But eventually, the ubiquitous presence of cell phones killed the payphone business. One by one, the old telephone booths and wall payphones were torn down and junked.

Payphones aren’t entirely gone, and this Google Map site supposedly shows the remaining payphones. If this site is right, there are still 307 working payphones in the country. Here in North Carolina, the only remaining payphone shown is at the Greensboro airport.

Mike Dank is a 31-year-old guy who became intrigued by payphones. He picked up a payphone for $20 at a flea market a few years ago that has been sitting in his basement. He heard about a group in Portland that had installed ten payphones that provide free calling to the public. This provides a public service to folks who can’t afford a phone or who need to use one in an emergency. In case you don’t remember, you could always call the operator for free from a telco payphone.

He rewired the phone so that it could work fusing WiFi, and he talked a Philadelphia books store, Iffy Books, into installing the phone. The phone uses online software to place a phone call to anywhere in the country (and many places around the world). The bookstore reports that the free phone has been popular and is in steady use.

Dank says that he’d love to rehab more old phones if he can find them. He estimates that it costs around $300 to refit a phone to be able to connect to broadband, so this is a labor of love – but one that I think most old telephone guys will appreciate. Do any of you old telco guys still have old payphones in the basement?