Where are all the payphones? - Page 3

Deregulation and industry greed are wiping out a form of old technology that's a critical lifeline

Besides the disincentive of cell phone cost, "folks beyond a certain age don't feel comfortable with the technology," which is not designed for people "whose vision isn't so great," Levy said.

Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homelessness told us that "a lot of folks do have cell phones nowadays, on a prepaid card," but have only intermittent access, and none when the card runs out. "Poor people in general — people who have extremely low incomes — even if they have a phone at home, [it] can be shut off at times," she said. "Pay phones are really important for emergency situations for folks living outside," or when homeless people are first on the scene, to report an emergency.

In an impromptu survey of eight clients at the Independent Living Resource Center, a San Francisco disability-rights advocacy and support group, services coordinator Diane Rovai found three who had been seriously inconvenienced by lack of pay phone access. One needed a ride home from the airport and was stranded after an entire bank of pay phones was removed; another "missed a really important meeting" after getting wrong directions (the phone she finally found "was dirty and not in good repair"); and the third, who has no cell phone, has problems when she goes out to meet people.

"There are still people who depend on pay phones," particularly in rural communities, Anna Montes said. She belongs to San Francisco's Latino Issues Forum and is a member of the PUC advisory committee on Universal Lifeline Telephone Service, which subsidizes phone service for low-income households.

Four percent of state households don't have basic phone service, she said, and many of those are poor and Latino and rely on pay phones.

"Pay phones should be supported because there are individuals who can't afford [cell phones] and places where wireless doesn't work," said Bill Nussbaum, a telecommunications lawyer at TURN. "Public policy is a reason to wrap [pay phones] into the goal of universal service, the concept of maximum penetration with reliable and affordable phone service for all."


One reason the government has allowed pay phones to disappear is that most people don't think about them. Cell phones often seem like all one needs to stay in touch, at least to those who own them.

"There's an unfortunate assumption that everyone has a cell phone. It's not true," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit public interest media and telecommunications law firm.

Regulators used to feel it was important for people to have access to public phones, but "they don't think it's important anymore," he told us.

Feld pointed out that pay phones used to be owned by AT&T, which created and maintained the pay phone network as part of a widely accessible phone system. Government-guaranteed profit on the company's investment essentially subsidized even those pay phones that weren't profitable, an arrangement institutionalized by the 1934 Telecommunications Act. Moreover, as a regulated public utility, the phone company needed permission to get out of the pay phone business.

With the monopoly's breakup in 1984, competitors could enter the pay phone market, and by 1996 AT&T could get out of it.

"The old Bell monopoly came with a historical sense of public service that did not survive the [company's] breakup and the new cost-benefit accountants and the MBA bottom-line artists," technology historian Iain Boal, coauthor of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso, 2005) told us. "Under neoliberal economic doctrine, all public goods are suspect."

Boal noted, "The new telecom companies had little or zero interest in the public phones they inherited.

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