Pay phones hit hard by popularity of cell phones

Monday, February 17, 2003

Waiting for her ride outside the University Center on a rainy Friday afternoon, Cassie Harriman was chatting on her cell phone while standing not two feet away from an idle pay phone.

That's a telling scene.

The increased use of cell phones means pay phones are disappearing from America's landscape. The number of pay phones in the United States has dropped from a high of 2.7 million in the mid-1990s to about 1.9 million now.

"I don't remember the last time I used a pay phone," said Harriman, a 19-year-old Illinois resident attending Southeast Missouri State University. "I guess it was in high school. Why would I use the pay phone if I have a cell phone?"

'It's the way things are'

She wouldn't -- and people aren't, according to Ric Telhorst, president of the Missouri Telecommunications Industry, a not-for-profit trade association that represents the telecommunications industry.

"Pay phone use and the number of pay phones certainly are decreasing," Telhorst said. "Cell phones are a big piece of it. People are carrying wireless phones and using them to communicate when away from their home or office. It's the way things are these days."

Numbers for Southeast Missouri pay phones were not available; local telephone companies said they wouldn't release that information for propriety competitive reasons.

But Marsha Haskell, the regional director for external affairs for SBC, said the number has steadily decreased in recent years.

"We haven't, but some local companies have chosen to exit the pay phone industry," Haskell said. "Pay phone use has declined because of prepaid phone cards and, of course, wireless phones have had an impact."

Maintaining pay phones is also labor-intensive and not cheap, Haskell said. The equipment is complex and has to register the coins coming in. Some phones no longer accept coins and require prepaid cards or credit cards. Pay phones also are sometimes vandalized.

Those factors have caused most phone companies that maintain pay phones to raise their prices to 50 cents. At Westfield Shoppingtown West Park, 50 cents will only get callers three minutes.

The number of pay phones at the university has dwindled, too, said Rodger Chisman, director of telecommunications. Two years ago, there were 75 phones on campus. Today, there are 20.

"Every six to nine months, Southwestern Bell has been approaching us, telling that usage is continuing to drop," Chisman said. "It's not at the request of the university. Southwestern Bell says they're not being used."

It's the same story at Northwest Missouri State University, where it was announced in January that all coin-operated phones would no longer be available on campus.

"The majority of students have cell phones these days," Chisman said. "They're like everybody else, they're just not using pay phones any longer. And the sense I get is that nationwide numbers of pay phones are declining."

BellSouth moving out

A recent Washington Post story reported Verizon maintains about 425,000 pay phones nationwide but has taken out about 25,000 over the past two years. BellSouth this year plans to phase out the 143,000 pay phones it maintains. It will be the first major company to get out of the pay phone business.

Jim Watkins has studied the cell phone situation in Cape Girardeau and he says there are a "handful of pay phones at best. Maybe a handful."

He saw that as a problem when he worked at Caring Communities. One of the things he was trying to do was to get another pay phone on the south side of town, where he believed it would be needed. According to Watkins, who now works for United Way, there is only one pay phone south of William and east of South Kingshighway, at the 1000 block of South Sprigg.

"We had concerns about not everyone having access to a phone," he said. "Some people don't have phones in their home and if they can't afford a phone in their home, how would they afford a cell phone? They couldn't."

But Haskell said she wouldn't call the pay phone dead.

"We're still in the pay phone business," she said. "There will always be folks who need pay phones. We're committed to serving that need."

335-6611, extension 137

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