Every so often, I come across an old pay phone. They’re usually as raggedy as an old alley cat, broken, and left in the strangest places: parking lots, alley ways, an occasional main street.
This was a business that routinely operated in the tens of millions of dollars. Between massive independent contracts with companies like AT&T and the prison system, it was extremely profitable. I left that company in 2002, onto greener pastures, but it still exits in some form, mostly focused on the prison industry.
Flash forward 20 years and payphones are still around, but not in the way you might think. While they have mostly disappeared from city street corners, (I found one in the Akron airport back in 2014), for-profit payphones are still very present in the prison industry and rural areas where cell phone service is nearly non-existent. Besides these outliers, payphones are might truly be nearing their inevitable end.
The collect calling system is how companies like the one I worked for made most of their money, skirting it was not preferable for those in the industry, I recall my boss always having a fit at seeing the disconnection-after-dialing statistics (which I prepared, as a budding analyst). These numbers directly correlated to the system being abused, but would ultimately be rendered obsolete by text messaging a few years later as well as the fact that many of us just didn’t carry pocket change.
“I never had coins and if I did, broke teenage me didn’t want to use them for a call,” says automotive journalist who probably wouldn’t stop to use a shady rest area payphone now Nicole Wakelin. “So if I had to call my Mom to come get me or let her know something, I’d make a collect call and when the system asked for my name, it was always ‘Comegetmepracticeisdone’ or ‘Imnotleavingforanotherhour’ or whatever I could say in the two seconds I had to record a name.”
Free texting before today's texting.