Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
They survive where people still use them.
Pay phones. They require an arcane thing called "change" in order to place a call. And yet, there they are: on certain corners and busy streets across the United States, pay phones not only still exist, they're available in fairly large numbers. Some of these clusters of antiquated technology are more noticeable than others: They jump out at you in immigrant-rich neighborhoods like D.C.'s Columbia Heights. They are everywhere on some Hawaiian islands.
Most might consider them a relic—from an era when people knew enough phone numbers by heart to use them, and rock bands wove them into angsty love songs.
But where you do still find them today, they are there for a pretty obvious reason: Despite the near-total integration of mobile phones into modern life, enough people still use pay phones to warrant their continued existence. And to serve these people, pay phones are concentrated in places where their users live, work, and travel.
"There’s something in the neighborhood of 200,000 pay phones still deployed in the [United States]," estimates Randy Nichols of the American Public Communications Council. His estimate is 50,000 phones more than the Federal Communications Commission's number—though both numbers have been and continue to shrink rapidly.
Nichols' association represents owners, suppliers, and manufacturers of pay phones. In the old days, these were the big telecommunication companies, but within the past decade, all of them tapped out of the business. Most of the pay phones that are currently operational now are run by much smaller firms, says Nichols.
These small- to medium-sized companies don't have money to throw around. So if pay phones aren't being used to make enough calls (at least 100 per month, Nichols says), they're most likely going to be taken out of service.
"Somebody has to pay for the phone," says Mason Harris, president of Robin Technologies, a company that owned 900 pay phones in D.C. and surrounding areas back in the pay-phone heyday. If the machine isn't in use, the ongoing costs related to the phone line, equipment, and maintenance are too much to keep it in the ground.
So one reason you see functional pay phones in certain places is because people in those places are making enough calls for them to be worth keeping.
These callers might be people who don't own cell phones—which includes roughly 10 percent of the U.S. adult population. Despite government-subsidized mobile phones such as lifeline phones, many people still can't afford them, don't know about them, or might be uncomfortable with the technology.
In heavily immigrant neighborhoods, pay phones stand plastered with advertisements for long-distance calling cards.
"Immigrants are one of the niches that the pay phone community serves very well," Harris says. "If someone wants to call home, say to El Salvador, it can actually be less expensive for them to use a public pay phone than a cell phone."
These international calls make up almost half the profit of an individual pay phone, Nichols says.
For similar reasons, pay phones are also concentrated in corners of urban retail districts that employ low-wage workers, in rural areas where migrant farmers work, and outside of prisons.
In certain cities, they seem more evenly distributed. Whether it's New York City or one of the Hawaiian islands, tourist destinations are still studded with pay phones. Hordes of bodies trying to navigate and coordinate in unfamiliar spaces need to communicate, especially if some have chosen not to travel with expensive phones and data plans. This is also why transit hubs like interstate truck stops, bus terminals, and airports still have the antiquated-looking—but perfectly useful—devices.
In other spots, even if there aren't enough people using them, local governments might subsidize pay phones in the name of public service, Nichols says. Hardly any new installations take place anymore, but sometimes when new structures like baseball stadiums, schools, or hospitals are being built, cities will pay to put in phones for emergencies. They've proven themselves to be useful in natural disasters, when wireless towers are down or networks are jammed—during Hurricane Sandy in New York, for example, old-school, coin-slot technology came to the rescue.
This is precisely why the city of New York wants to keep many of its pay phones, despite the fact that the number of people making calls from them is shrinking. In fact, the city is in the process of upgrading its 7,000 remaining public pay phones with free Wi-Fi. NYC has entered into franchise contracts with 10 companies to operate and maintain its pay phones. Of the total revenue the companies make from coin collection and advertising, they will owe the city a 50 percent cut.
Unless more cities decide to invest in such pay phone makeovers (or decide to subsidize the relics), the old phones might not make it much longer. They will become a vestige of a communications time now gone, ultimately reduced to fodder for artists—and those of us who like to capture the skeletons of old phones with our new phones.