The Association of U S West Retirees



Pay phones fade away at AT&T
Relic loses place to cell phones; only a million left
By Jeff Smith Rocky Mountain News  
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

U S West retiree Jim Killorin bought a beat-up phone booth at a Bell secondhand shop in the mid-1980s.

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 Arvada home.

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 streets.

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 business.

As had Qwest Communications.  The Denver 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 culture.

Clark Kent 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 Booth.

Not everyone has phased out phone booths.  Pay phones still exist at Denver International Airport, for instance.  In many cases, independent companies have continued to operate them.

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 U.S. 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 business.

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 callers' money.

* 1889: The first public coin telephone was installed by inventor William Gray at a bank in Hartford, 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 wooden ones.

* 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 U.S. 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 depositing coins.

* 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.

Learn more

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