The number of pay phones has dwindled as the number of cell phones has risen.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
PORTLAND, Maine -- Long gone are the phone booth's golden days when Superman metamorphosed inside and anonymous informers called in tips from the street corner.
But even as the plastic cracks, the cords are snipped and wads of old chewing gum jam the coin returns, a modest movement to preserve the phone booth is rippling through state legislatures. To the phone booth's defenders, it is more than a matter of simple nostalgia: It cuts to the roots of social equality, public safety and common sense.
That's why Democratic state Rep. Herbert Adams of Portland has sponsored legislation to preserve or create "public interest pay phones" in designated areas where a lack of phone access poses a risk to residents' safety, health or welfare. His bill follows similar actions from Alaska to Indiana to save the venerated pay phone when it is deemed in the public's best interest to do so.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of pay phones in the United States dropped to 1.5 million in 2003, down from 2.1 million five years earlier, as the number of cell phone users surged. In Maine during that same period, the number of pay phones declined by almost half, Adams said.
Yet not all Americans, especially older Americans, have cell phones or live in places where coverage is available or adequate. Not to mention the human factor: inadvertently leaving a phone at home or forgetting to recharge the battery.
For many, though, the fight boils down to a battle for equal access.
Even in this age of BlackBerries and camera phones, of blinking and beeping pocket accessories of every stripe and sound, 6.5 percent of American households have no telephone. Many use pay phones as their primary means of communication. And supporters say that resisting the demise of the pay phone -- even as cell phone coverage continues to expand and costs go down -- is an attempt to close the gap between the technological "haves" and "have nots."
"Demand might be low, but the people that need pay phones really need them, and that's the point. That's why the state has to step in," said Wayne Jortner, senior counsel at the Maine Public Advocate's Office.
The first public coin telephone was installed in 1889 in a Hartford, Conn., bank. Throughout the 1900s, they proliferated on America's streets -- opening up phone access to millions.
But the removal of pay phones, driven by a decline in their revenue from $2.2 billion in 1999 to half that last year, according to the FCC, can leave entire towns without a single public phone. That is a discomforting prospect for Adams, whose alternator once blew during a night trip. He walked to a phone in the nearest town, two miles away. But "if that phone had not been there, it was 15 miles to the next town, with logging trucks blowing by."
His bill requires that pay-phone providers notify the state if they plan to remove a phone and allows residents to petition for phones in places that would otherwise be unprofitable -- from island communities, to battered women's shelters, to dock landings. In the first year, $50,000 of support would come from the state's Universal Service Fund.
Phone company perspective
Peter Reilly, the Maine spokesman for Verizon, a major phone-service provider for the state, says the business has grown more competitive and having the phone companies pay for PIPs could mean less profit, and therefore fewer phones, in the future. "We can't subsidize those [pay phones] that are not carrying their own weight," he said. "It's a rare occurrence when someone who needs [a pay phone] can't find one that's convenient."
For those who have seen such rare occurrences, however, pay phones can be vital. Last year the phone on Cliff Island, Maine, an hour's ferry ride from Portland, was pulled because it wasn't generating enough revenue.
Jane McClarie Laughlin, president of the Casco Bay Island Development Association, witnessed an accident on the boat dock last summer. Someone happened to have a cell phone -- but coverage is so spotty that a connection is no guarantee. "People think that there aren't any isolated places anymore," she said. "But there are."
Elizabeth Ostrander, hanging up a pay phone receiver outside a Portland movie theater, said she owns no cell. "I'm very dependent on pay phones when I come here [to Portland]," said the resident of Eastport, on the northeast tip of Maine.