weird commerce

Has The Call For Payphones Dropped Entirely?

Think hard: When was the last time you made a call using a payphone?

We’ll give you a moment here. It’s likely it’s been so long that you can’t even remember.

Give up? We do, too.

Payphones are just one of those things that seem to have become obsolete. Almost everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, so using a payphone wouldn’t even cross most of our minds. 

But there are payphones out there.

Quickly, a little history lesson: The first public coin-operated telephone was invented by William Gray in 1889 and installed at a bank in Connecticut. By 1902, there were more than 80,000 payphones in the U.S., and by 1960, that number hit 1 million.

Some say the number of payphones peaked in the mid-1990s with more than 2.6 million payphones in the United States alone. Less than 20 years later, by 2013, the number was down to about 500,000, as major telecom companies, like AT&T and Verizon, made the call to drop the payphone business to independent payphone companies. Payphones are indeed an endangered species: Some people have even spoofed a “Payphone Funeral” to commemorate this dying breed of communication.

But here’s the thing: They’re still out there.

So, where are all of these hidden payphones, you ask? Rob Reehl knows.

“The phone business really started to die off in 2010 when the federal government allowed those on welfare to get subsidized cell phones,” said Reehl.

He’s the founder of Payphone411, where the mission is to “preserve, support and share the history, technology and information on one of the first consumer-used communication networks.”

Reehl said he’s always had a penchant for coin-operated things and even remembers prank calling Bell System operators as a kid. Now, he runs the site as a hobby because he has a “love of old tech” and just likes helping people find, buy and run payphones.

“I work people through their issues and program their phones for them,” said Reehl. “Whenever I find documentation that might help, I post it to my site.” He’s certain his site is the only place on the internet where you can find a wide range of payphone documentation. Reehl said he programs about seven phones a month and gets just under a dozen monthly emails seeking payphone operational help.

Sure, the payphone business isn’t lucrative, but it still exists.

Of course, jails and prisons allow them for “your one call,” but there are also the ongoing calls between inmate and family. And there is a market there. In fact, the prison phone system has recently come under fire due to sky-high rates that seem beyond unjustified. Surprisingly, some 15-minute conversations can cost $13.

But the unicorn payphone you might find at a lonely gas station, Amtrak train station or on a random street corner, who uses those? Reehl said out-of-town travelers and those who cannot afford a cell phone. And, of course, emergencies.

“I would have to say at least 50–60 percent of payphone usage is from emergencies,” said Reehl. “It shows there is a need. Most people would not lend you their cell phone so you can make a phone call or send a text to a loved one that you arrived at the airport OK.”

But who runs those payphones?

“Many of the companies still in business bought up the payphone routes from the baby bells as they sold them off,” said Reehl, who adds that these businesses have expanded some of their offerings. “The companies who are still in business don’t just have payphones but also provide other telecommunication services, such as networking, VoIP, directory assistance, international calling and so on.”

As for the future of payphones, will they ever completely disappear? Reehl said he doesn’t think so: “I am sure the old-school Ma Bell Fortresses we are so used to seeing will be long gone, as most will be replaced with a more modern model.” He gives the example of free Link stations, which provide voice, Wi-Fi and phone-charging options, but the revenue will come not from coins but from the advertisements on the side of the station.

But for those still wondering where your local payphone is? You’re not alone. There’s a site — or two — for that. PYMNTS discovered a national directory categorized by U.S. state and even one for those curious in Canada.

So, the next time there’s a rare payphone sighting, will you make the call?

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