Pay phones fade away at AT&T
Relic loses place to cell phones; only a million left
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
U S West retiree Jim Killorin bought a beat-up phone booth at a Bell secondhand shop in
When he scraped off the old paint, he found solid birch and
maple underneath. As a retirement project, he restored the
phone booth to its previous glory, then watched his grandkids
spend hours playing with it in the basement of his
Today, thanks to a donation by Killorin a few years ago, the
phone booth is on display in a museum operated by the
Telecommunications History Group Inc. at 14th and Curtis
The phone booth is a relic of an age nearly gone by.
On Monday, the venerable AT&T announced plans to phase out its
pay-phone business by the end of 2008. The move affects
AT&T pay phones in its traditional 13-state service area.
BellSouth, acquired by AT&T in 2006, had previously exited the
As had Qwest Communications. The
telco sold its retail pay-phone business in its 14-state region,
including Colorado, in 2004.
Qwest said at the time that the pay-phone business didn't fit
with its strategy to focus on growing businesses.
Killorin, who painstakingly restored an old
Northwestern Bell phone booth, takes the change as a
sign of the times.
While pay phones "were necessary in the past, there's nothing
they do anymore," he said Monday, noting that people have cell
phones or other ways to "reach out and touch someone," a slogan
introduced by AT&T in 1979.
Jody Georgeson, executive director of the Telecommunications
History Group, agrees, but said it still makes her "a little"
sad. She said she is concerned some people still need pay
phones in an emergency but can't find them on the street.
Pay phones came onto the scene in 1878, operated by predecessor
companies to AT&T. Initially, attendants collected the
money from callers. The first coin-operated phone was
installed in 1889 at a bank in Hartford, Conn.
Pay phones, especially those in booths, have played a rich role
in U.S. pop
used them to change into Superman in the 1940s. A phone
booth doubled as a time machine in the 1989 movie Bill & Ted's
Excellent Adventure. And many will remember pictures from
decades ago of young people crowding into phone booths for fun.
More recently, actor Colin Farrell played a man trapped in a
phone booth by a sniper in the film appropriately named Phone
Not everyone has phased out phone booths. Pay phones still
exist at Denver
Airport, for instance.
In many cases, independent companies have continued to operate
San Antonio-based AT&T said pay phones in the United States reached their peak in
1998, with 2.6 million. That number has fallen
precipitously to 1 million this year, AT&T said.
The competitive culprit: cell phones. About 80
percent of the people in the
now have cell phones, according to CTIA - The Wireless
Association, an industry group. Wireless subscribers have
quadrupled in the past decade alone.
David Huntley, an AT&T senior vice president, said in a
statement the decision to exit the business will allow AT&T to
"refocus our resources to areas that offer stronger growth
potential and greater opportunity for the company." He
said AT&T expects independent providers to pick up much of the
Verizon Communications is the only major carrier still operating
pay phones, with about 250,000 of them. "There are people
who still need them, and so we still sell them," Verizon
spokesman Jim Smith said.
Pay phone history
* 1878: The first pay phone had an attendant who took
* 1889: The first public coin telephone was installed by
inventor William Gray at a bank in
Conn. It was a "post-pay"
machine -- coins were deposited after the call was placed.
Gray's previous claim to fame was inventing the inflatable chest
protector for baseball.
* 1898: The Western Electric No. 5 Coin Collector, the
first automatic "prepay" station, went into use in Chicago. Depositing coins before placing
a call gradually would become the norm in pay phones until "dial
tone first" service was introduced in 1966.
* 1902: There were 81,000 pay telephones in the United States.
* 1905: The first outdoor Bell System coin telephone was
installed on a Cincinnati street.
It wasn't an instant hit; people apparently were reluctant
to make private calls on a public thoroughfare.
* 1950s: Glass outdoor telephone booths began replacing
* 1957: "Calling from your car" was first tested in Mobile, Ala., and Chicago. Drive-up
pay telephones proved popular and are still in use today.
* 1960: The Bell System installed its millionth pay
telephone. Today, there are about 1 million pay phones,
down from 2.6 million in 1998. Local calls on pay phones
also have dropped 30 percent since 1998.
* 1964: When the Treasury Department decided to change
the metallic composition of
coins, it consulted with Bell Laboratories to ensure that the
new coins still would function properly in pay phones.
* 1966: "Dial tone first" service was introduced in Hartford, Conn.
This essentially turned coin phones into emergency call
stations, because such calls could be made without first
* Feb. 2, 2001: BellSouth announced that it was getting
out of the pay-phone business. It was the first major
phone company to do so.
* Dec. 3, 2007: AT&T Inc., the biggest U.S. phone company, announced plans
to leave the pay-phone business after 129 years.
For more information on phone booth history, go to