More than 600 pay phones left in Boston, awaiting your change

May 9, 2014 02:04 PM

Adam Virnelson

By Adam Virnelson, Globe Correspondent

Pay phones may seem archaic, but hundreds of the devices are still scattered around Boston, waiting to collect spare change.

“I wouldn’t even know how much it would cost to make a phone call,” said Marilee Higgins of Watertown.

One company, Pacific Telemanagement Services, operates more than 600 pay phones in Boston. PTS has been buying up all the public phones once owned by Verizon.

PTS manages the majority of the phones, but inquiries at both the state and municipal levels were unable to uncover the total number of phones. No one seems to know exactly how many pay phones are left in Boston.

“There was one at my high school, but that was 10 years ago,” said Josh Vogel, a city employee. At the Malden Center T stop, which Vogel frequents, one phone remains.

“Maybe I’ve seen one or two people use it, to get in touch with families or to make international calls.”

“I honestly cannot think of one person who I know who does not own a cell phone,” said Carl Harkness, who was forced to use a pay phone at South Station after his mobile phone’s battery died. “Even my 78-year-old grandfather has a cell phone.”

There were once almost 2.5 million pay phones in the country, but only about 250,000 remain, and that number continues to shrink.

“We came in knowing it wasn’t a forever business, but it’s still viable,” said Tom Keane, chief executive officer of PTS.

Keane says the phones bring in substantial revenue with little to no competition. Most of PTS’s phones are concentrated in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic: hospitals, universities and airports are major hubs. Forty percent of the PTS phones in Boston are at Logan Airport.

Today PTS handles just under 40,000 pay phones in the U.S., which will see around 130 million calls this year, according to Keane.

“I think pay phones, unfortunately, are a thing of the past,” says Antonio Di Mambro, an architect, city planner and Boston resident whose award winning architectural and urban design firm has worked both in Boston and internationally. “They’re actually a nuisance to maintain.”

Di Mambro suggests that the phones be used as an emergency option for people without immediate access to a cell phone.

“We should rethink the concept of pay phones,” he says. “If something happens and you don’t have a phone, what do you do?”

To some extent, the reimagining of pay phones has already begun. Last April, PTS partnered with three other cable and telecommunication companies — RCN Business Services, DAS Communications, and LCC International Inc. — to turn existing pay phones into wireless hotspots, part of an initiative called FreeBostonWifi.

For many, though, pay phones are a fond memory. Di Mambro recalls using a public phone to talk to his girlfriend when he was in school.

“They used to be a very good service,” he said.

But for younger generations, the phones are just a curiosity, a remnant of a time when chatting required pocket change.

“I’ve never even used a pay phone,” said Jessica Spangler, a sophomore at MCPHS University in Boston. “I think they’re probably really gross.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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