Monday, December 10, 2007

AT&T saying good-bye to its last pay phones

By Jon Van and Wailin Wong
Tribune staff reporters
December 4, 2007

After years of seeing its public pay-phone business migrate to cell phones, AT&T Inc. said Monday that it will phase out its pay phones in Illinois and 12 other states by the end of 2008.

While AT&T's decision doesn't mean the end of the pay phone -- independent firms still will offer the service -- public phones will become even more difficult to find.

The days when pay phones were stationed on nearly every busy street corner ended a decade ago. In 1998, there were an estimated 2.6 million pay phones operating nationwide, a figure that has declined to 1 million today, according to AT&T. About 250 million cell phones are in use in the United States.

The trend has been obvious for a long time. A decade ago, Ameritech Corp., the Chicago-based phone company that was dominant in the five Great Lakes states, tried to sell its pay-phone business, which included about 70,000 pay phones in Illinois, but failed to make a deal. When Ameritech was taken over by SBC Communications Inc., SBC executives also shopped around the pay-phone business and found no takers.

The company, now operating under the name AT&T, has been phasing out pay phones and is down to 9,000 in Illinois. That is fewer than the 11,000 pay phones in the state that are operated by about 50 independent firms.

AT&T will walk away from the pay-phone business, turning phones over to independent pay-phone companies in some cases and taking out the phones altogether in others.

"We expect that independent providers will pick up much of this business," said David Huntley, AT&T senior vice president for customer information services.

These days there are no visible pay phones along Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Ontario Street. The closest phones are on Ontario at LaSalle Street and are owned by Schaumburg-based Express Telephone Systems, a five-employee outfit that operates roughly 600 public phones in Chicago and Milwaukee, according to company President Mike Simon.

Simon said pay phones remain important for public safety, especially in emergency situations when cell phone networks suffer major disruptions or overloads, like on Sept. 11.

OBM: Ok I thought local utilities were suposed to serve the local public??? That's suposed to be apart of of their exscluive city deal. Also...should the pay phones in lower income areas not still be maintained??? OH...I forgot...low income people are not citizens. Privet companies will not maintain the few phones properly because they are under no regulation. Are pay phones important for public safety, especially in emergency situations when cell phone networks suffer major disruptions or overloads, like on Sept. 11 & Katrina. Ok so during desaster or trouble we "the phone company" will assure there are few or no working pay phones, we will turn off cell towers and disable cell phones, but you can gladly take our RFID Tracking Arm band for your processing & safety....
AT&T RFID Tracking

"We're just trying to survive and provide a good service I think is necessary," Simon said.

He acknowledged that the boom in cell phones has caused pay-phone traffic to drop off sharply, but Simon said the real culprit is the growth of toll-free dialing. Simon estimates that 70 percent of calls made from pay phones and 80 percent of call time are toll-free calls. On his pay phones, it costs 50 cents to make a 10-minute local call.

In exiting the business, AT&T is following a path taken by BellSouth Corp., which quit operating pay phones several years ago. When that happened, independent operators took over many of the phones, said Michael Ward, an attorney for the Illinois Public Telephone Association.

"BellSouth's exit helped the independents," said Ward. "The business has been difficult for incumbents and independent operators."

Because most people carry a cell phone in a pocket or purse, few bother with putting 50 cents into a public phone to make a local call. Five years ago, AT&T stopped allowing people to make long-distance calls from pay phones using coins, requiring that they use a credit card instead.

Ward said that much pay-phone traffic these days comes from people whose cell phone batteries have gone dead or who are getting poor reception, as well as from people who don't own cell phones.

"The industry has suffered from some bad public policies," Ward said. "Some municipalities wanted them removed because city officials wrongly associate pay phones with crime. We've argued that if there's crime on a street corner, don't tear out the phone, put in a video camera."

AT&T's decision will affect some 65,000 pay phones the company operates in 13 states, said Chris Comes, a company spokesman based in Chicago.

Qwest Communications International Inc., the one-time Bell company based in Denver, also has left the pay-phone business, leaving only New York-based Verizon Communications Inc. as the only large U.S. telecommunications carrier that maintains a pay-phone business.

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