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As society makes quick change, phone booths disappear

By Janine Zeitlin

The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press

June 10, 2012

 

FORT MYERS, Fla. (USA TODAY) Pay phones still exist? Operators are used to questions about their endangered nature.

"If Superman calls, he asks, 'Where am I supposed to change?' " joked Thomas Keane, CEO of Pacific Telemanagement Services.

 

The California-based company has become the largest public pay phone company in the country, with about 45,000 public pay phones, as it has scooped up AT&T and Verizon's pay phones while those companies have scouted for escape routes.

"We're sort of the last guy standing on pay phones," Keane said. "I call it my buggy-whip strategy. I'm sure somebody somewhere is happily making buggy whips at some level."

Once phones are acquired, the company removes the ones that aren't making money. It only takes about two to three calls a day to make a profit, he said, noting company revenue approaches $100 million.

 

In Florida, the state Public Service Commission doesn't track the number of pay phones. It only does on-site visits into complaints when the phones happen to be in a place officials are traveling to for some other reason.

 

Still, industry leaders believe there is a future for pay phones.

"There's an enormous growth of people below the federal poverty line," Keane said. "This is not anything that makes me sleep better at night, but our business is people who have literally scraped two coins together."

 

Operators say many calls go to toll-free numbers for social service agencies.

Brian Hamman, a CenturyLink spokesman, said the Monroe, La., broadband and telecommunications company sees demand for pay phones at airports, correctional facilities, transitional housing and homeless shelters, substance abuse recovery centers, jails and prisons.

 

"We don't know how long they'll be popular at those locations," he said.

Pacific Telemanagement Services is experimenting with offering free Internet portals at airports. Other industry leaders say the prognosis is grim without support from the government to level the field with free cellphone providers and to enforce rules that require long-distance carriers to pay operators.

 

"If nothing else, the phone provides free emergency calling" said Bruce Wayne Renard, executive director of the Florida Public Telecommunications Association. "There will always be some phones out there where there's advertising to support phones and in very poor areas and in rural areas.

 

"It hasn't hit the bottom yet, although it's close."


Copyright 2012 USA TODAY