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Do We Still Need Payphones?

Audio

Aired 6/21/10

Has the pervasiveness of cell phones has eliminated the need for many public pay phones in San Diego? We'll find out who uses payphones and where payphones are required by law.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. By the end of this month, there will be no more pay phones on the campus of San Diego State University. School officials say the phones are just not used enough and therefore, it's too expense to maintain them. Some emergency phones will remain connected to campus police. The elimination of the payphones on campus follows a trend that's been going on for almost 20 years. Little by little, the cell phone is killing the public pay phone. Some people are not sad to see them go. Payphones have a history of being out of order a lot, and often quite unpleasantly unclean. But it is a little disturbing to think of a world where there are no public payphones. Here to tell us a little about the history of payphones in San Diego and what relevance they may have in the future is my guest. Victor Rollo is president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. And, good morning, Victor, welcome to These Days.

VICTOR ROLLO (President, San Diego Payphone Owners Association): Oh, thank you, Maureen. Good morning to you, too.

CAVANAUGH: Now we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. When was the last time you used a public payphone? What do we lose if the payphone disappears? And if you are near a payphone, why don’t you call us from one? We’ll be sure to get you on the air. Call us at 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, Victor, you’re on the phone but you’re not on a payphone right now, are you?

ROLLO: No, I’m not.

CAVANAUGH: No?

ROLLO: Not right now. I use them enough, though, during the month, so…

CAVANAUGH: So where are payphones most often used these days?

ROLLO: Most places, I mean, we still have payphones located throughout many different businesses in the cities and hospitals, gas stations, liquor stores. I mean, they’re still out there. As you said, they’re slowly going away but we still have them in several locations.

CAVANAUGH: Who’s the typical person who uses a payphone now?

ROLLO: Probably your local Spanish speaking person.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ROLLO: That’s probably the – our main user. We do a lot of rehab facilities. You know, that’s probably the second most-used place.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, I’m wondering, in the past, we’re talking maybe 15, 20 years ago, what kind of volume did payphones have in San Diego? And were they available in a lot more places than they are now?

ROLLO: Definitely available in a lot more places, not much change in where they’re available but over the past, let’s say, 5 years or so the decline in the payphone industry has been about 30 to 35% reduction.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us about that, Victor. When did that start to become obvious?

ROLLO: Probably within about the last 3 to 4 years…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ROLLO: …it’s been significant. Costs, there’s been a shift in the costs associated with payphones. There was a deregulation of the phone industry, specifically the business market and the home market. Tried – They tried to deregulate the payphones but several of us got together and held that off. And we’ve held that off for a while but costs have increased for the dial tone, just to have the phone out there.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to you a little bit more about that but first I want to remind our listeners that we are inviting them to join the conversation. When was the last time you used a public payphone? What did you use it for? And if you’re near a payphone, why don’t you give us a call. We’re love to hear from you. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Now what does that mean, Victor, that the dial tone is costs – is costing more?

ROLLO: Well, the actual hard cost to us as payphone owners has actually increased over the last few years. You know, let’s say if, you know, people look at their home phone service. That’s increased as well. If you’re paying, you know, $10.00 a month 3 or 4 years ago just to have the phone line in your house, you know, and now it’s gone to $15.00 or $16.00, well we’ve had those same increases in the industry with payphones where, you know, we’ve gone upwards of about, you know, 15 to 20% increase and in a market where we’re getting a decline in revenue, it’s – the profit margin is kind of shrinking.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I could see that. Now who decides where payphones will go in San Diego?

ROLLO: You know, it’s pretty much up to the business owners and the payphone companies. You know, we basically solicit or we get calls from local businesses to ask if they – we can put a payphone in and, you know, we decide whether or not it’s going to be a profitable location or not. And so we have agreements with local businesses and places that we choose to put the payphones in.

CAVANAUGH: And who actually owns the payphone? Like if you go to a convenience store and you use a payphone that’s outside, who actually owns that phone?

ROLLO: That would be mostly payphone companies like myself.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ROLLO: We have a payphone company and we own the phone, the equipment, the line, and we just have an agreement with that local business to have that payphone on his property and that’s how they get there.

CAVANAUGH: So when you go in and say the payphone ate my quarters, the business owner’s not going to be able to do anything for you.

ROLLO: Well, you know, it’s funny. I laugh because there are some business owners who do that and there are some business owners who actually own their own phones.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see.

ROLLO: So you may go to a, you know, a liquor store, 7-Eleven or whatnot, and he may be the owner of the liquor store as well as the owner of his phones. And then somebody like myself, who’s got a payphone company, may just service those phones for him, keep them, you know, keep them operating properly and clean and so that, you know, people will use them.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I’m speaking with Victor Rollo. He’s president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. We are talking about the vanishing payphone in San Diego and across the United States. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. Right now, Don is on the line from Miramar. Good morning, Don, and welcome to These Days.

DON (Caller, Miramar): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great. Thank you for calling.

DON: Well, I just called per your request. I used a payphone recently. I had to. It was at the top of the grade at Palomar. There’s a payphone at the little store there. I had my cell phone with me and it didn’t have a signal and I was trying to hook up with a friend up there and my cell phone also had died so I couldn’t get his number so I had to use the directory assistance and then try and call him and I think I ended up dumping about $2.00 in change in this little phone and I didn’t get anywhere with it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, did you feel relieved that it was there, though?

DON: Initially, and then I had to use it. What a pain.

CAVANAUGH: So you didn’t have much luck, Don.

DON: No. In fact, they weren’t forthcoming with giving me change for the machine either. So I had to dig through my car.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I appreciate the call in, and I’m sorry you had such a bad time. Thanks so much, Don, calling…

DON: All right.

CAVANAUGH: Do you find, Victor, that perhaps people are now unfamiliar with even how to use a payphone?

ROLLO: Not so unfamiliar. I think, you know, part of the problems with what Don is talking about is there’s so many payphone owners that are leaving the business and they’re just leaving their equipment out there and, you know, it doesn’t work, they don’t keep it up, and it’s one of the things, you know, in San Diego what we’re trying to do is educate some of the people that are leaving the business and say, hey, you know, can you remove your equipment. We’ve talked about some things in our association about how we can get that equipment out there so that people like Don don’t have bad experiences with payphones.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. So there are perhaps like phantom ghost payphones dotting the landscape these days?

ROLLO: There’s a significant amount of those payphones that are out there. You know, I drive by payphones every day and sometimes will stop and see who, you know, the owner of the payphone is because it’s supposed to be labeled who the owner is, and, you know, I find that, you know, the payphone’s dead, maybe the payphone’s missing but the pedestal’s still there. And, you know, a lot of it has to do with the people that are getting out, you know, really don’t have the money to remove that equipment and on top of not having the money, they don’t have a place to actually take it to. You know, the payphone equipment’s not, you know, some of those enclosures are pretty good size.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. We’re taking your calls about payphones. When is the last time you used one? Or if you’re near one, why don’t you call us from one? 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. John’s calling us. He’s on the road. Good morning, John. Welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, Mobile): Hi, how you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great, thank you.

JOHN: Yeah, I was, you know what, I was just thinking long and hard and I just come to realize that the last time I used a payphone was over 15 years ago and it was – I was in junior high at the time. And I remember that I had a girlfriend, one of my first girlfriends, and I remember taking money from like my allowance or part time job that I had, and going to the bank and getting just rolls of quarters and then there was this one particular payphone at a baseball stadium that I’d have to sneak into, jump over the fence because it was nice and private. And I remember taking along like wipes to wipe it down because I’d be on there for a while and, of course, I’d always eventually – I developed a system where I’d unwrap all the quarters, have them in sets of four there because one time I was running out of time and I had to unwrap some quarters, they fell all over the place and the call disconnected and I had to do it all over again.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that memory, John. That’s great. So payphone for romance, that’s wonderful. Victor…

ROLLO: It is.

CAVANAUGH: …I wonder if – you know, I started this off by saying that there will be no more payphones on the campus of San Diego State University by the end of this month.

ROLLO: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering if there’s a sort of a generational aspect as well to people and their affection for payphones. Perhaps young people don’t have much of a history with using a payphone for an emergency or for, as we just heard, for a little chat with the girlfriend or the boyfriend.

ROLLO: You know, I think that’s true. You know, a lot of the younger children, younger kids in today’s society are, you know, growing up with cell phones so they’re not used to the payphones. You know, we’ve noticed over the last few years that some of the schools have started removing their payphones. But even with that said, a lot of the schools still maintain them because they know they need them for the emergency type things and there are still a lot of kids at the schools that do not have cell phones, you know, for economic reasons most likely. So kind of, you know, balance there, do we need them, do we not need them? And, you know, do the payphone owners want to continue to provide them when there’s no cost? One of the things that some of the schools do do is we call them semi-private phones where the schools actually pay payphone owners to have the payphones there so there’s a little subsidy that’s done with the vendor and the school itself. So that helps maintain them, you know, being able to keep the phones on the school property or on the premises.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Victor Rollo is my guest. He’s president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. You know, we have a visiting student producer this summer. He’s from France. His name is Julien Pearce and we asked him to call in from a payphone this morning. And, Julien, are you on the line?

JULIEN PEARCE (KPBS Visiting Student Producer): Yes. Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Where are you, Julien?

PEARCE: Well, I’m just 100 yards from the KPBS building in front of College Avenue. The payphone is placed on the wall of a 7-Eleven.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, did you have to wait in line to use that phone?

PEARCE: Not at all. When I came 5 minutes ago, nobody was using the line or waiting for it. And it’s still the same now, nobody’s waiting for the line.

CAVANAUGH: Now how much does it cost for you to make a call?

PEARCE: Oh, fifty cents.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And what is the condition of the phone, Julien?

PEARCE: Oh, the receiver is very greasy and the rest of the payphone is dirty. Obviously, nobody cleans this payphone since a long time. By comparison, the DVD rentals box, which is placed on the same wall, is brand new and clean.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, in France, Julien, we’re talking, as you know, about the decline of payphones in the United States, in France do people still use payphones a lot?

PEARCE: Oh, no, not really. People use their cell phones. But we have exactly the same situation in France. 12 years ago, 241,000 payphones were in service around the country and today only 157 have survived. However, the only operator of France Telecom is experimenting in Paris a new generation of payphones and they have a large touch screen to go to the internet but you can still, of course, make a phone call.

CAVANAUGH: I see, a new generation of payphones. That’s very interesting. I’ll ask Victor about that. Julien, thank you so much for calling in, and I’m glad that you found a payphone that worked.

PEARCE: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

PEARCE: All right.

CAVANAUGH: That’s Julien Pearce, our student producer this summer. He is with us from France. And Victor Rollo is my guest, president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. Let me ask you, Victor, is the payphone industry finding the decline of usage something that’s happening globally?

ROLLO: Yes, yes, but not – I mean, there’s still – South American countries aren’t so bad. The United States, obviously, is probably one of the worst right now because we have the most payphones, I think, in any country.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ROLLO: But I know a lot of the foreign countries – there are some countries that are actually putting more phones in, part of the reason being is the access to cell phones. You know, Don had that problem up on Palomar Mountain, which is not – there’s a lot of places throughout the country that don’t have access to cell phone service and they have to use a payphone if they want to make a call.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, because I was going to make the point that it’s something to remember that, indeed, public payphones are landlines.

ROLLO: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: And…

ROLLO: And they still operate off of copper wire which is, you know, still copper wire in the ground and, you know, it’s not a satellite signal and so it’s hardwire that we’re using for our payphones.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Debi is calling us from Chula Vista and, Debi, you’re on a payphone.

DEBI (Caller, Chula Vista): Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for calling in.

DEBI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Besides this morning, when was the last time you used a payphone?

DEBI: Oh, I can’t remember. Yeah, I really don’t remember.

CAVANAUGH: And where are you? Where’s the payphone that you’re at right now?

DEBI: Actually, I’m in a swimming pool area. I was driving to the pool where I come every day and when you said this on the phone, I thought, oh, there’s a payphone in there. So I see this phone every day.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And you’ve never used it before.

DEBI: No. I see people use it, though.

CAVANAUGH: That’s very interesting. Debi, I want to thank you. Thanks so much for calling.

DEBI: Okay. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Bye-bye. Now are public pool areas places that are mandated that they must have a payphone?

ROLLO: In a lot of cities, yes, they are. For – And it’s basically for the 911 emergency access, so we have put in several over the last few years into public pool areas, condominium projects, housing complexes, that are required and the builders know and so they give us a call and we put the phones in there and get them all set up. So that’s one of the places that will probably into the future be requirements for – and it may not be a payphone but it’s got to be some type of phone that has access to emergency – We hope that it’s payphones…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROLLO: …obviously, because that’s our business.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Now what are some of the other locations that are required by law at least in some places to maintain a payphone?

ROLLO: Tow yards, the Vehicle Code actually has the requirement for tow yards to maintain a payphone. They have…

CAVANAUGH: Places where cars are towed?

ROLLO: Yeah, if your car’s towed to a pay, you know, a tow yard…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ROLLO: …and you go to that tow yard to get your car out, there’s got to be a payphone outside of the office so that you can call into the office if you don’t have a cell phone.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right.

ROLLO: So that’s one. Hospitals is another. There’s some requirements at hospitals for some of the waiting rooms and areas in a hospital. Those are the two most prevalent areas that payphones are still required. A lot of hospitals, we have several hospitals throughout the United – throughout California and the United States where payphones are still there and the hospitals kind of move them around a little bit for profitability purposes as well.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there used to be, I recall, I don’t know because I haven’t been in a hospital lately, knock wood, that there used to be a requirement that prohibition of using cell phones in hospitals. Is that still in effect?

ROLLO: Yeah, that is still in effect in certain areas of the hospital. You know, in your lobby areas, no, but some – in the x-ray areas and the surgical areas and things like that, yes, that’s correct, they do not allow you to use your cell phone.

CAVANAUGH: How about airports or train and bus stations? Do they have to have public payphones?

ROLLO: They – It’s not required to have public payphones but the payphones are there. I think the jurisdictions know that it’s probably good for the payphones to be there. San Diego Transit has payphones at pretty much every one of their locations that I know of. And there’s a place where they’re still used considerably. People who use public transportation seem to be higher users of payphones as well.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the use of payphones, the vanishing payphone, here in San Diego and across the country. And I’m speaking with the president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. We will return and take your calls either about the last time you used a payphone or if you’d like to call in from a payphone. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll be taking your calls here on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are talking about the disappearance of the payphone. By the end of this month, there will be no more payphones on the campus of San Diego State University. And yet in some areas around San Diego, as we’ve been hearing, the payphone is still alive and well. I’m speaking with Victor Rollo. He is president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. And we’re taking your calls about perhaps if you would like to share when the last time you used a payphone or if you’d like to call us on a payphone, we’d love to hear from you. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Let me ask you, Victor, are all payphones the same?

ROLLO: No, they’re not. They’re – I mean, the structure of the payphone is the same but the owner of the payphone determines a lot of the rates that are charged on the phone. You know, you can go to a payphone, a local call may be fifty cents, some may be seventy-five, some may be a dollar. We still have payphones out there that are a quarter for a local call. So each individual payphone owner determines those charges for the calls that are made from that phone. And that goes from, like I said, your local calls even to your long distance and international calls. And the other types of calls that are made, what we call the 0-plus calls, where somebody dials 0, plus the 10-digit number, and they make a collect call or a calling card or a credit card call, even those are different charges depending on the payphone owner itself.

CAVANAUGH: And how about payphones that take credit cards? I’ve seen them in airports but not too many other places.

ROLLO: You know, a lot of people – a lot of vendors do not use those types of payphones and part of it is the cost of the phone itself. They’re more expensive to purchase. And you can use a credit card by just dialing an operator and saying you want to make a credit card call. Most of the long distance carriers that provide that service will accept credit cards.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I didn’t know that. So even any payphone as long as you put in enough money to contact the operator…

ROLLO: Well, the operator call is free.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

ROLLO: So you just dial zero plus your number…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ROLLO: …and you get in to an operator. There’s usually an automated prompt that says you want to make a collect call or do you want to talk to an operator? We actually have a program designated to make it easier for people to call – to make those types of calls. It’s a program through AT&T called “Star 9-1.” So if you walk up to a payphone that has the “Star 9-1” program, you dial *91, it gets you into an AT&T operator and you can make your call either with a credit card, you can do a collect to cell, there’s various different calls you can make and you don’t even need coin to do that.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Thank you. We’re taking your calls. Lots of people want to join the conversation. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Jane calling us from an Encinitas 7-Eleven. Hi, Jane. Welcome to These Days.

JANE (Caller, Encinitas): Hi. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Hi. Great. Are you calling from a payphone?

JANE: No, sorry.

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

JANE: No, and I was going to make the comment that the last time I used a payphone was when my cell phone died.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

JANE: And then because I could not remember – you know how when we were kids, we knew everyone’s number?

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Right. Yes.

JANE: We don’t know them anymore.

ROLLO: That’s true.

JANE: So that’s comment number one. I – You know, without your cell phone, you’re kind of lost. You can’t find the numbers that you need.

CAVANAUGH: You don’t even know what the numbers are because you just press the speed button.

JANE: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

JANE: Either that or, you know, it just – Right, you just scroll down through your, you know…

CAVANAUGH: Exactly.

JANE: …cell phone and there it is. That’s number one, and then – but the second comment I had was I think they’re invaluable for times like that and for people who don’t, you know, who can’t afford – I have an awful lot of – I have a house in Mexico also. And I have an awful lot of friends who don’t have cell phones and who can’t afford them. So they’re invaluable to them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you so much for your call. Thank you. Let’s hear from Chris, calling from Chula Vista. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, Chula Vista): Yeah, thanks, Maureen, for taking my call. I guess my big question is, is related to public safety, especially with all of the payphones coming off of the San Diego (audio dropout) campuses, what happens if a girl’s walking across campus and, you know, late night and she feels that she’s in danger and her cell phone doesn’t have a signal? What can people like that do related to public safety? I’ll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Curt (sic), I just want to tell you now on the campus of San Diego State University, school officials said that some emergency phones, public phones, will remain connected to campus police for just that contingency. But, Victor, I did want to follow up on both of these calls – callers and ask you who is hurt when payphones are removed?

ROLLO: Well, basically the people who can’t afford cell phones, the people who have emergency situations, you know, where they need to use 911 and there’s no payphone there. Those are the two biggest people that are hurt by eliminating the phones. And there are still, in this country, several million people who do not have cell phones. I mean, it’s – you know, the cell phone is everywhere but not everybody has one so they still need access to public phones. You know, a lot of your callers have been saying that the last time they used a payphone was when their cell phone went dead or they didn’t have cell phone service. You know, there’s still a lot of areas that – where that exists and payphones are definitely needed.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 or if you’d like to post your comment online—I know that sounds a little silly since we’re talking about phones—but you can go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Sherry is calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Sherry. Welcome to These Days

SHERRY (Caller, Carlsbad): Oh, good morning. Well, I used a payphone for the first time probably in 15 years and it happened to be this week. I was at O’Hare International Airport with my 3 young daughters and AT&T service was knocked out and I was urgently trying to get ahold of my parents and I didn’t realize how important it was to have some kind of payphone around when service does get knocked out or you lose your phone or something else. So I’m all for keeping some payphones around and I never would’ve realized how important they were until last week.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thanks for the call. I appreciate it. So, Victor, in face of the rollback on the number of payphones available, I think that you – it sounds as if you have a reason to believe that there’s always going to be some reason for some kind of public payphone.

ROLLO: Yeah, I would agree with that. You know, obviously, it’s my business and, you know, we hope that that’s the case. I’ve worked with several different organizations in the past couple of years to get that message across to our legislators and lawmakers in California and Washington, D.C. It’s a big push and, you know, we center a lot of our talks around, hey, payphones are needed, look at what happened with 9/11, and you don’t want that to go away. What can we do in order to keep the payphone owners in business, keep the costs affordable so that we can keep the phones out there?

CAVANAUGH: And at 9/11, cell phone service shut down, is that right?

ROLLO: Yeah, that’s correct. And there were a lot of people at that time that were using payphones on that day…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROLLO: …until they got the service back up and running. And, you know, that’s – it’s a big reason that the hardwires is necessary so that we can hook our payphone up to it.

CAVANAUGH: When we were talking with Julien Pearce, when he called in and told us about some things that they’re trying in France with a computer screen that you can make a call from, what are some of the alternatives, the new advances in payphones that are being considered?

ROLLO: You know, there’s some – there are some people here in the States that are actually looking at those same types of things where you have a payphone with a screen that has access to the internet as well. I know some people in the industry that are working on those things now. Those are the major advances. We’re trying to make them so that they’re, you know, not so destructible that people who want to beat them up don’t ruin them.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROLLO: You know, there are some frustrations – And especially nowadays with people out there because of the payphones that don’t work. People get, you know, upset that the payphone’s not working. Because it’s still sitting there, they expect it to work. And, you know, but with that said, there’s a lot of – there’s several good vendors in the San Diego area that do keep their phones working properly, they keep them clean. You know, it’s one of the things that we strive to tell our members at SDPOA, you know, you – in order to be profitable, you need to keep those things going and, you know, less people are going to be frustrated with the payphones.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Curt’s calling from San Diego. Good morning, Curt. Welcome to These Days.

CURT (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. This is a question for Victor on the phones that have the yellow handset, the purpose of the yellow handset.

CAVANAUGH: What is the purpose of the yellow handset, Victor?

ROLLO: Well, the purpose of the yellow handset was actually a marketing idea that came about to – for people to say, hey, we see a yellow handset, it’s good rates internationally. You’re going to get a great rate internationally if you use a phone with a yellow handset. A company came out with that, I think it was about 7 or 8 years ago and that was one of their marketing ideas behind that. One of the things that we’ve actually tried here in San Diego, and I think it’s worked pretty well, is we use what we call a yellow dot sticker on our phones. And the yellow dot sticker actually says the cost of a local call. And at the time we started this program, it was at the deregulation of the cost of a local call. We were allowed to basically charge anything we wanted for a local call but several of us knew that if we went too expensive, people would be driven to cell phones so we can out with the yellow dot program that said, hey, you still can use a pay phone for twenty-five cents or thirty-five cents, and not the fifty or seventy-five.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting.

ROLLO: So there’s some designations on payphones that – for marketing ideas to get people to still use them.

CAVANAUGH: We have time for another call. Kristine’s calling us from Naval Base San Diego. Good morning, Kristine. Welcome to These Days.

KRISTINE (Caller, Naval Base San Diego): Well, thank you very much. I am a mother of two. I have a 13-year-old and almost 15-year-old. They attend school in Coronado. And we very much heavily rely on the public phone because their sports schedules are constantly changing and they do volunteer work at the library in Coronado, and they actually have a very clean public phone inside the library. I believe it’s twenty-five cents a call. I am a single mother, as I mentioned, and I cannot really afford the family plan of them carrying their own cell phones and neither do I really believe in them carrying their own cell phones, so it’s really worked for us and we’re actually very grateful that there’s a public phone available there.

CAVANAUGH: Kristine, thank you for the call. I appreciate it. I’m wondering, Victor, what kind of reaction do you hear when a cell phone (sic) is taken out of a particular location? Is there any feedback from people?

ROLLO: You know, it depends on the location. Sometimes we do get business owners who call back and say, hey, you know, we need this payphone back. We shouldn’t have removed it. We’re getting requests for the payphone use. And, you know, depending on the area and whatnot, yes, we get reactions like that. Rare but we do get reactions like that, unfortunately.

CAVANAUGH: But generally speaking, they’re just – they’re taken out because they’re just too expensive to maintain?

ROLLO: They’re taken out, one, because they’re too expensive to maintain. The other reason is the business owner may think that, you know, it’s not needed and he decides, hey, I want this payphone out. My contract’s up with you guys and it’s just not generating enough money for me so…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ROLLO: …we remove them. We obviously try to keep them because we know they’re needed. And – and the other part of the population that needs them is the people who use the 800 numbers. There’s a lot of people who still buy the calling cards where they can dial in the 800 numbers and access the network to make their calls that way as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now you must have done a lot of thinking about this, Victor. What do you see as the future of the payphone industry?

ROLLO: Well, the future – The future, the payphone’s still going to be existence (sic), my belief is, for years and years to come. It’s never going to go away. It’s going to be limited in where you’re going to be able to use the payphones and where you’re going to find them. You know, one of the biggest locations that I talked about earlier is the rehabilitation centers and some of the hospitals and whatnot. You know, those are where our best payphones are right now. Some of the, you know, lower income neighborhoods, people can’t afford a cell phone, so they’re still going to be in existence for years and years to come. And those of us that choose to stay and remain in it will try to educate the lawmakers and to, you know, basically keep them in existence and help us with the costs to keep the cost low so that we don’t have to have a payphone that does several hundred dollars a month to be profitable. We can operate on a lower – lower level that’s generating from that phone.

CAVANAUGH: Just to be able to keep that there for those occasions when people absolutely need them.

ROLLO: Correct. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.

ROLLO: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been a wonderful time.

CAVANAUGH: Victor Rollo is president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association. I want to thank everyone who called in. There’s some people who called in we couldn’t speak to. If you’d like to go online with your comment, we’d love to read it later, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a moment here on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'gjemmott'

gjemmott | June 21, 2010 at 10 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

In recent years I've rarely found a payphone when I need one. At least in San Diego, though, I have always found a friendly stranger with a cell phone who doesn't mind lending it out for a moment!

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Avatar for user 'gjemmott'

gjemmott | June 21, 2010 at 10:08 a.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

Also, the last time I used a payphone was a major disappointment.

About 12 years ago, in school, I used the automated operator calls that Victor Rollo mentioned to bill calls to my parents' phone bill by dialing 0 first, then punching in their number and a PIN. The rates were about normal for calls. My parents checked the records, so I pretty much only used it to call them.

Fast forward 10 years - late in the evening, my cell phone was dead, I couldn't find a friendly stranger, and had no change. I found a payphone, used the automated operator to bill two calls to my parents' number (I still remembered the PIN!), but when the phone bill came in, each call cost about $35! Maybe it was because, as Victor Rollo mentioned, each payphone company can charge what it wants, or maybe all the rates are going up, but in any case, I haven't used a payphone since!

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Avatar for user 'Jocelyn'

Jocelyn | June 22, 2010 at 1:49 p.m. ― 3 years, 10 months ago

In eighth grade my middle school removed the payphone located outside the school office. This was the beginning of the cell phone craze. I actually got a cell phone that year for my birthday because I have an overprotective mother. This was in 2002, which I feel was a little early to be taking out payphones as many students didn't have cell phones yet. Actually, students weren't even allowed to have cell phones on campus yet. I just kept mine hidden in my backpack.

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