Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007

Public phones losing fight against wireless

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Nancy Hernandez, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and another Metro passenger use their cell phones near the payphone booth at the Bethesda Metro station during rush hour on Sept. 13. Payphones are falling out of favor as more people carry cell phones.
What’s a man to do when he needs to make a call from the Bethesda Metro station, but he doesn’t have his cell phone?

Doug Berz looked around and found a payphone. It was the first time he had used a payphone in six years. Berz, a restaurant maitre d’ from Bethesda, had lent his cell phone to a friend who had dropped hers into his toilet the day before.

‘‘I’m so used to using my cell phone or house phone that it felt strange to actually insert money into a phone,” Berz said.

Berz was one of two men who used the payphones near Bethesda Metro station’s bus depot during a one-hour cross-section of a recent Monday rush hour. The other payphone user, a man from Mexico, declined to comment because he didn’t speak English — and as he left the phone booth, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone.

More than 50 commuters passed the phone booth with cell phones clutched to their ears.

The scene confirmed what payphone experts are saying: Public telephones are going the way of the telegraph, becoming relics of yesterday’s technology.

‘‘In the last five years, I would estimate that nationally, 30 to 40 percent of payphones have been removed,” said Mason Harris, Rockville-based president of the Atlantic Payphone Association.

Harris’ company, Robin Technology, is one of Montgomery County’s payphone service providers who have survived the emergence of wireless technology.

The number of payphones in Maryland dropped by 57 percent between 2000 and 2006.

There were 2 million payphones in the United States in 1997, according to the Federal Communications Commission. By last year, that number had dropped to 1 million.

The decrease is because of cell phones, according to Harris and federal and state telecommunications spokespeople. With wireless companies offering a totally portable device with unlimited talk time, cell phones are becoming the norm, edging out their coin-operated competitors.

Payphones in Maryland have diminished by more than half since 2000, while cell phone use in the state has more than doubled in that time. The state’s 5.6 million people paid for about 4.7 million mobile telephones last year.

Harris and others said the downward slide is significant because payphones are a public necessity.

The traditional payphone is ‘‘publicly accessible. It doesn’t discriminate against income,” Harris said.

The average public phone customer could be a wealthy professional whose Blackberry battery ran out, or someone in the immigrant community who ‘‘doesn’t find it easy to get cell phones, particularly with low monthly rates,” Harris said.

Payphones also stay operational during emergencies. Harris and others pointed to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the northeast blackout of 2003, and Hurricane Katrina as times when public phones were the only way for some people to keep in touch.

There are nearly 1,200 payphones in Metro stations — useful when cell phone reception is spotty, or in an emergency. The Bethesda and Medical Center Metro stops have 13 payphones and Friendship Heights has 18, according to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The official tally of registered payphones in Maryland is 21,925, operated by 211 providers, according to the state’s Public Service Commission.

It costs 50 cents to place a local call from most payphones, although companies like Verizon have begun offering promotional rates to boost payphone use.

Verizon is one of the major players in the local payphone market. The company puts payphones in places with a lot of foot traffic, where pedestrians are most likely to stop and make a call: at Metro stations, outside of supermarkets and at gas stations.

‘‘Payphones are a niche market for Verizon and for other providers,” said Christy Reap, spokesperson for Verizon. ‘‘They’re familiar to everyone, they’re easy to use.”

Verizon also rents its payphones out to private parties, like apartment building managers. It costs about $70 per month to rent a Verizon-operated phone.

But if Verizon notices that a payphone is handling fewer than 150 calls per month — about five per day — the company will probably kill the dial tone at that particular location. The company may also decide to move a payphone that has been targeted for graffiti or vandalism.

The cost of operating a payphone is higher than the revenue it earns, in some cases. Public phones need repairs, maintenance and replacement. They also need to be serviced and monitored.

Harris’s company dials each of the phones in its network every night to make sure the phone is working, and to check how much money is in its coin box.

‘‘There’s still clearly a demand for payphones,” Harris said. ‘‘Though it seems like everybody in the world has a cell phone, that’s not the case.”