Independent operators face higher rates in Ohio than in other states..
DAYTON (AP) -- Pay telephones were once a big part of Matt McMullen's life. When his car broke down, when he got paged by family or friends, he looked for a pay phone.
But thanks to cell phones, those days are over.
"I can't recall using a pay phone in the last three or four years," said McMullen, 27, of suburban Centerville. "I can't say I miss anything about them. The convenience of them really isn't that great."
The popularity of cell phones is one reason why pay telephones are disappearing nationwide. The decline in Ohio is being made worse because independent pay phone operators are finding it cheaper to operate in other states.
"Our fear is that at some point there is just not going to be enough pay phones out there to support the need, especially in rural areas," said Tom Twiss, president of the Pay Phone Association of Ohio.
In 1985, there were about 125,000 pay phones in Ohio. Today, there are about 50,000.
The number of pay phones in Ohio owned by small, independent companies fell from 15,224 in March 2003 to 11,502 in March 2004, down 24 percent. That compares to the national average decline of 6.4 percent.
A majority of pay phones in Ohio are owned by the large telephone companies. But the rest are owned by 40 smaller independents.
The independents have to lease the phone lines from the large companies. The problem, Twiss says, is that in many cases the large companies are charging the independents far more in Ohio than in Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
"What we're doing is moving our phones out of Ohio and putting them in other states," Twiss said.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which regulates the telephone industry in Ohio, doesn't take into account what independents are charged in other states, said spokesman Matt Butler.
The agency bases its rate decisions solely on the data presented by the Ohio telephone companies, he said.
Butler said the independents are being charged the same rates as what other businesses pay for a business line.
"They're not being discriminated against," Butler said.
The disappearance of pay phones is raising concerns that it will hurt the poor -- people who can't afford cell phones and often rely on pay phones.
"It's a fact of life that some low-income customers use pay phones as their only phone," said Ryan Lippe, spokesman for the Ohio Consumers' Counsel. "There certainly are needs for pay phones."
There are now fewer than 1.4 million pay phones nationwide, down from 2.6 million in 1997.
But some people believe the decline of pay phones is over, saying the number of people who own cell phones seems to be leveling off.
"I think we're pretty much at the floor, or at the cellar," said Willard Nichols, president of the Virginia-based American Public Communications Council Inc., which represents independents.