Please Stay on the Line

Remember pay phones? They’re still out there. You just have to know where to look.

The proliferation of telephones in the United States has never been greater. More than 285 million Americans, about 91 percent of the population, have mobile phones. As these numbers grow, there’s less need for pay phones.

But there are still people out there who depend on pay phones for daily communication, and finding those phones is getting harder and harder to do. According to Willard R. Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council, a national trade association that represents many of the country’s independent pay phone operators, there are more than 5,000 pay phones left in Nevada. And while the saying, “Here’s a dime, call someone who cares,” was once a popular retort, it doesn’t mean much these days as local calls from a pay phone are now 50 cents.

Where does one even find a pay phone these days? Often they’re located around transportation hubs and hotel-casinos, but the bulk of them are at gas stations and convenience stores. While there were about 2 million pay phones nationwide in 2000, Nichols estimates there are now about 555,000 in the U.S., with the biggest trend being telecommunication giants such as AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon getting out of the pay-phone field, and hundreds of independent companies controlling the market since the industry was deregulated in 1996.

“Where [big companies] used to be 75 percent of the pay phones, and the 800 or 1,000 independent mom-and-pop operators were 25 percent, it’s completely switched now,” Nichols says.

CenturyLink, better known as a broadband Internet provider, is one of the major pay phone operators in Southern Nevada, with more than 800 pay phones throughout the Valley. That number includes 104 phones at McCarran International Airport, with 98 at Terminal 1 alone. There were about 400 pay phones at McCarran in November 1997. The last major downsizing was in June when 170 phones were removed from Terminals 1 and 2.

Despite the decreasing numbers, CenturyLink spokeswoman Bree Witt says the company is committed to retaining its existing pay phones.

“If we find that there’s an area where there is the potential to have heavy pay-phone usage, we’ll set up there,” she says. “I guess there’s always the potential to add more, but we have no plans to eliminate all of our pay phones.”

Witt says the majority of CenturyLink’s pay phones are at locations where the property owner has requested them.

“We’ve found that Las Vegas is one of the most competitive pay phone markets in the U.S.,” she says. “You have such a mix of people here who would need to use a pay phone.”

Pay phones are still popular with travelers, and they are more likely to be found in low-income neighborhoods throughout a city. Bill Perna, general manager for Custom Teleconnect, another of the independent pay phone providers in Southern Nevada, says pay phones were essential for communications following national emergencies such as the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and are often used for emergency services because 911 calls are free.

Custom Teleconnect was incorporated in Las Vegas in October 1993. While the company once owned or maintained about 1,000 pay phones in Southern Nevada (most of them in hotel-casinos), Perna says that number is now closer to 100, with Custom Teleconnect owning about half of the phones and maintaining the other half for clients outside Nevada.

In the ’80s, one casino pay phone could generate about $17,000 in revenue per month, Perna says, and casinos has 100 or more of them installed. Now, companies are doing well if they can pay to maintain each phone with costs related to the line fees, site fees and maintenance. Casinos that have them at all usually don’t have more than 10, he says.

“You’re really just seeing the erosion due to profitability of the phones,” he says. “If the phone doesn’t cover the line charge in revenue a month—the average line cost is probably about $23 a month—it’s just not profitable. So you either charge the site to have the phone or you pull the phone.”

One common misperception is that pay phones are primarily used by drug dealers. But the fact is that dealers are much more hightech than that, says Las Vegas Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Barbara Morgan. “We don’t even deal with pay phones,” she says. “Drug dealers have cell phones; they’ve gone a little more high-tech. They rarely use pay phones.”

One demographic still using pay phones regularly is people calling to Mexico. Many pay phones in the south end of the Valley have stickers instructing callers on how to dial Mexico and how much it’s going to cost (between $1 to $1.50 for five minutes, in case you need to know).

So even though you might not see them as often as you used to, pay phones haven’t quite disappeared just yet. Roxanne Hogg, who manages two 7-Eleven stores on South Eastern Avenue, says her pay phones are used every day and that she doesn’t view them as a detriment.

“I haven’t had any problems,” she says. “I mean once in a while I may have a little bit of graffiti, but as far as having the phone damaged, no.”

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