Hanging it up

Recently, BellSouth began removing the last of its area pay phones.


After arriving on a flight Friday afternoon at the Gainesville Regional Airport, Sr. Airman Earl Campbell speaks on his cell phone while waiting for his girlfriend.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 12:57 a.m.
The long-term future of a 104-year-old icon, the coin-operated telephone, could be expressed by the same word used to end a phone call.
Goodbye. The stark reality of life in the cell-phone age continued to be expressed earlier this month as BellSouth - which announced in 2001 that it was getting out of the pay-phone business - began in earnest to remove the last of its untransferred phones from businesses and street corners in Gainesville and across the Southeast.
"We're officially out of the business now," BellSouth spokeswoman Marta Casas-Celaya said. "We started this month to pull all the remaining pay phones that haven't been transitioned to another company, and we have about a 45-day window to remove them."
She said BellSouth owned about 148,000 pay phones in its nine-state region in 2001. By the end of 2002, it had 90,000 phones in an increasingly unprofitable segment of the telecommunications industry.
"The cell phone certainly had an impact, and wireless pagers too," she said. "But it wasn't so much because of profit that we got out. The basic reason is that we're concentrating on our core business of land lines, the DSL (digital subscriber line) market and other new areas of technology."
While BellSouth got out of the business, many independent pay-phone companies came in, buying BellSouth contracts and equipment and assuring at least a short-term future for an institution that debuted in Hartford, Conn., in 1889.
But the coin-operated phone continues to disappear from the Florida landscape.
In May 1999, there were 112,000 pay phones and 1,000 pay phone companies operating in the state, said Thelma Crump, spokeswoman for the Florida Public Service Commission. Today, 476 companies operate 73,000 pay phones in Florida, most charging 35 to 50 cents for a 15-minute local call.
"It appears to be declining because of the cell phone," said Crump, who had no breakdown of numbers for the Gainesville area.
The removal of the two pay phones at Shoney's on Archer Road left empty spaces on the wall. But it also left a communications void for some of the restaurant's staff and customers.
"It's been a little inconvenient," Shoney's manager Chaka West said. "Some customers traveling on (Interstate 75) stop in for something to eat and make a call. Now we have to direct them to the nearest pay phone, and I'm not even sure where that is."
He said his employees who had cell phones previously were not allowed to bring them to work. They also can't use the restaurant phone for personal calls. So staffers often used the pay phone on their breaks to check on their children or arrange a ride home.
"Not everyone has a cell," West said, adding that employees now are permitted to bring cell phones to use on breaks. "It's not a major issue, but the pay phone was nice to have. We might be looking to get another (pay-phone) company."
Among companies that might be interested is MPP, for Metropolitan Pay Phones, a firm based in New York City that owns and maintains about 3,500 phones in Florida.
"I probably have 50 to 70 pay phones in the Gainesville area," said Lonnie Clark, MPP's DeLand-based director of operations. "A lot of them are in low-income areas where people don't always have cell phones."
He said cell phones, as well as calling cards, have cut into the profitability of pay phones. But for smaller companies that don't have the high overhead of BellSouth, Clark said, "There's still money to be made in the pay-phone industry."
Louis Galanos, a retired teacher who lives in Gainesville, said he noticed the disappearing pay phone on a recent trip to Palm Harbor near Tampa.
"You can go around Gainesville, too, and see all those empty spaces," said Galanos, who remembers when pay phones cost a nickel and often were inside lighted booths. "It's a shame. I think pay phones are a public service."
Crump said the Florida Public Service Commission is responsible mainly for inspecting pay phones and evaluating service from companies that own them. She said she knows of no state rule requiring pay phones to be placed in certain areas, such as a public building.
A spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., said he, too, knows of no federal, state or local regulations requiring pay phones in certain places. He said phone carriers once were required to provide at least one pay phone in an exchange area - basically one per town, he said - but that requirement was dropped in the late 1990s when the industry was deregulated to increase competition.
Clark said that while there's still a market for the pay phone, he doesn't have "a crystal ball" to see if it will disappear altogether.
But the pattern of recent years suggests that, at some point, history is going to hang up on the pay phone.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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