Where are all the payphones? - Page 2

Deregulation and industry greed are wiping out a form of old technology that's a critical lifeline
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Ditto in the summer heat wave of 1999, when New York air conditioners on overdrive toppled wireless transmitters like dominoes, silencing cell phones from NYC to the Great Lakes. Landline telephones — including pay phones — continued to ring. And when the waters rose in New Orleans, residents flocked to pay phones made available for free use to contact loved ones and let the world know they were stranded.

Landline pay phones — like wired home and office phones — are simply more durable and reliable. "I love my cell phone," said Natalie Billingsley, who heads the California Public Utilities Commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates. "But I wouldn't give up my landline. There's not enough [wireless] network redundancy."

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area in 1989, electricity and cell phone service were out for hours, but, Billingsley said, "landline phones were back up in 10 minutes."

Regina Costa of San Francisco's the Utility Reform Network recalled that when the quake trashed Pacific Street in Santa Cruz, the public switch connecting local phones to the larger network worked despite a local power outage.

The reason, Costa says, is that the traditional wired phone network has a robust, independent electrical backup. Not so wireless transmitters and cable fiber-optic systems, both powered by the public grid.

"Wire lines are a really big public safety feature," Billingsley told us. Backup generators at switching points, where regional and long-distance lines converge, create "all kinds of redundancies" for rerouting calls if parts of the network go down.

That's not just a technological issue. The new tech networks lack robustness and redundancy, Billingsley said, in part because such standards are no longer mandated. Before telecommunications were deregulated, companies were required to pay for reliability. Now reliability is no longer a public service. Under deregulation, reliability is more spotty. Last year state legislators addressed the need for adequate backup power-pack standards for Internet phones — but in the end, consumers will need to buy the backup systems.

In Japan, where the old but vital wired pay phone network has been reduced by more than half (from 910,000 to 390,000) since the public phone company was privatized in 1985, a public safety official recently warned against such shortsightedness. "To remove public telephones amounts to decreasing the means of communication during emergencies," disaster prevention program director Hitoshi Omachi of Yokohama's Chiiki Bosai Laboratory observed in a May 8 Asahi Weekly article about cell phones overtaking pay phones. "People should think about measures to maintain public phones, including financial assistance from the central or local governments."

Then there are the social issues. Beth Abrams, director of Grupo de la Comida, which feeds 2,000 immigrants and refugees in the Mission each week, said many are dependent on pay phones. "The thing to remember," Abrams told us, "is that a pay phone could mean somebody's life in an emergency, when time is of the essence." A child suffering an asthma attack or an adult with heart disease or diabetes (the occurrence of which is high in the immigrant community) "often needs immediate response and has difficulty walking far," Abrams said. Many people whom her group serves don't have cell phones and rely on pay phones when caring for children outside the home or answering job ads.

Howard Levy, attorney and executive director of Legal Assistance to the Elderly, which serves about 1,000 clients a month, told us many seniors in the Tenderloin and in SoMa hotels don't have home phones or cell phones.

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