Where are all the payphones?

Deregulation and industry greed are wiping out a form of old technology that's a critical lifeline
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When the big earthquake, terrorist attack, or other civic disaster finally hits San Francisco, a lot of people are going to be in for a major shock: their high-tech cell phones and computer-based office telephone systems might not work.

But after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, residents found there was still a way to reach their loved ones and let the world know they were OK; they used an old-fashioned communications tool that's low tech, securely grounded, publicly accessible, and reliable.

It's called a pay phone.

Next time there's a disaster, we may not be so lucky: pay phones, fixtures of the public landscape for more than a century, have been quietly disappearing. And many of those that remain don't work. These essential communication tools — good for emergencies, privacy, and the poor — are falling victim to deregulation laws, the greed of telecommunications companies, and the public's obsession with high technology.

In San Francisco they've departed in droves from sidewalk carrels; corner stores; bus shelters; subway platforms; office, museum, and movie theater lobbies; supermarkets; shopping malls; city swimming pools and YMCAs; diners; parks; and gas stations. They've been disappearing at a rate of about 10 percent annually for the past four years, down from roughly 400,000 at the height of the dot-com boom to 150,000 today, trade group attorney Martin Mattes told state regulators last year. The decline in San Francisco mirrors those in California and the nation.

And while pay phones may seem like quaint relics of another era, they remain an important part of the nation's communications system, serving millions of people who for one reason or another don't have or can't use cell phones. And consumer advocates say the loss of the pay phone system is a serious problem.

Although cell phones are pretty ubiquitous, not everyone can afford one — and not everyone can use one. For socially marginalized people, pay phones are still a lifeline. For people who can't use wireless technology — and can't afford a home phone line — they're essential.

Why are pay phones vanishing? The ready answer — cell phones — identifies the technology that's replacing them and cutting into their profits. But it doesn't completely explain why a society that once valued pay phones — and may ultimately remember that it still does — has let them disappear. That story has more to do with the politics of deregulation and the profits of telecom companies.

THE POWER OF OLD TECH

In the 2004 climate-change disaster film The Day after Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid plays a climatologist who anticipates dire consequences from a sudden oceanic temperature drop, which is triggered by global warming and leaves New York City frozen solid. From the beaux arts NYC Public Library where he's taken shelter, the Quaid character's son (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) needs to call Dad in Washington, D.C., but the cells don't work. So he finds a half-submerged mezzanine pay phone with a dial tone ("It's connected to the telephone lines," he notes brightly), drops in a couple of coins, and bingo — he gets Dad's insider travel advisory.

Such a scenario — at least the pay phone part — isn't science fiction. In fact, it has played out like that in NYC a few times and also did so in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. When the Twin Towers went down Sept. 11, cell phone masts went down with them. Lines were endless as outgoing calls from lower Manhattan funneled through two nearby landline pay phones, as reported on NBC's Today.

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