While it’s nowhere near the lifeline it used to be, the pay phone isn’t extinct yet. It is, however, on the endangered list and hanging by a thin cord.
About 99,800 public pay phones still operate in the U.S., down from 2.1 million in 1999, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates operations. New York has the most of any state, about one-fifth of the remaining pay phones, and North Dakota has the fewest, about 100.
Colorado had 1,246 usable pay phones as of March 2016, the latest data available.
Not many remain in Colorado Springs. Those prime locations in front of convenience stores now are occupied by Redbox movie-rental machines, and the phones have been removed from city and El Paso County buildings, including jails.
Defunct pay phones with torn wires, missing receivers, graffiti or other vandalism can be found here and there, outside the Greyhound bus station downtown, in the parking lot of a Native Roots grass and gas station on Academy Boulevard and near a 7-Eleven in the Hillside neighborhood, for instance.
But a few still work, including one at Uintah Gardens on West Uintah Avenue.
A weathered phone book dangles beneath it. The cost to start a conversation: 50 cents. Prepaid phone cards and credit cards are accepted, and it has a local directory assistance feature.
Do many people use it?
“Off and on,” a clerk at a nearby gas station replies. “But not very much.”
Lack of use prompted the pay phone to be turned off last year in the Teller County Courthouse lobby in Cripple Creek.
Another sign of the technological times.
“In this day and age, everybody uses cellphones,” said Lynn Fenn, administrative assistant.
Many people don’t even notice the pay phone near the metal detector in the historical 1904 courthouse.
It’s become as much of a fixture as the sign where jurors check in, which says: “No claim jumping. Respect women, mules and the law.”
“It’s funny, when we questioned people in the building, ‘Do you ever see anybody use the pay phone?’ many said, ‘There’s a pay phone?’” Fenn said. “A few people knew — those who’ve worked here for many years.”
Anyone who needs to make a call but doesn’t have a cellphone can use an office phone in the lobby, she said.
Mobile phones are a primary reason for the pay phone’s demise, said Mark Thomas, who in 1995 started cataloging pay-phone locations as an art project. He was inspired, in part, by comedian David Letterman, who would call pay-phone numbers on his “Late Night” talk show to see if anyone would answer.
Thomas, a concert pianist from Queens, N.Y., created a website, The Payphone Project, which lists pay phone numbers, locations and industry news.
He traces the pay phone’s fall from relevance to the Lifeline program, which gives free phones to the poor, a reliable pay-phone customer base.
“Lifeline seemed like it was created to target all that was left of the business,” Thomas said.
Nowadays, people seek out pay phones when they lose their cellphone, forget it at home or the battery runs out, he said.
“I still encounter an occasional Luddite who will not carry a cellphone,” Thomas said. And, “I still see a lot of travelers using calling cards to call home from pay phones.”
More interesting, he said, are the cases of people who use pay phones so their call cannot be traced.
“It was reported that in some cities, there had been increases in 911 calls made from pay phones because people calling to report crimes did not want to be associated with them,” he said. “It is intended to be impossible to hide your cellphone or landline number from 911, so some who call 911 don’t want any chance of their number being involved in a criminal investigation. They look for a pay phone.”
To help keep the industry viable, the FCC lifted audit requirements in February, saying they were “no longer justified as payphone revenues have plummeted due to a changing communications marketplace.”
The expensive audits became “unnecessary to ensure that the few remaining providers are compensated fairly,” an FCC news release says.
But pay-phone eulogies are premature, Thomas said.
“There will always be a need for communication access that is available to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “I think all public pay phones should be free for local calls, and government subsidies could keep the dial tone alive in remote areas, national parks and poor neighborhoods. ”
More evidence that pay phones have not outlived their usefulness: In October, officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Washington state’s Snohomish County installed a new pay phone in Verlot, Wash., a scenic area where cellphone service is unreliable and the need for communication was seen as a public safety issue.
Thomas has been tracking the “pay phone of the future,” called the LinkNYC kiosk, which he says have been “popping up like mushrooms all over New York.”
The program converts old pay phones into Wi-Fi hotspots where free calls can be made to all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The 9½-foot-tall “Links” also provide Android tablet computers to access city maps, get directions and make video calls, plus two free USB-charging stations for smartphones, the ability to use calling cards to make international calls and a 911 button.
Thomas said he tries not to wax nostalgic about how, back in the day, neighborhood pay phones were society’s communications bedrock, and the phone booth provided privacy not only for telephone calls, but also for Clark Kent to transform into Superman.
“It’s not lost on me that there was something to be said for a time when pay-phone calls were important, and the pay-as-you-go motif made every minute and finish-line-second count,” he said.
“I would miss the rugged but comfortable call quality of a working landline pay phone. Call quality is so far superior to those LinkNYC machines that there’s no comparison.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.