Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nickel in the slot

Having had my cell phone stolen by a thief who should be arrested shortly for making several local calls on it, I had to make a phone call on a pay phone recently. You may have noticed the empty nooks and closets in public places that once housed several pay phones. Pay phones seem to be on the decline at the hands of the cellular phone. I found the process of locating a pay phone and making a call annoying and nigh unto impossible. I wonder how many other people find the situation as difficult as I did.

Richard John, an historian of technology, gave a paper at the Urban History conference last fall about the nickel-in-the-slots, an early form of public phone. The thinking has long been that the telephone, in allowing the public to communicate in real time across long distances, allowed cities to get bigger and subsequently allowed business to be conducted across the continent -- another of the forces leading to the end of urbanism (in Doug Rae's words). Now we have almost completely scuttled our public-access phone systems, meaning that it is nearly impossible to make a phone call if you don't have a cell phone or your own office. I can't help but think this is a terribly foolish decision in terms of equity, one which we will come to regret like tearing up our trolley tracks. We are making the marginal -- those who can't afford cell phones and service -- even more so by eliminating any reasonable means of communication, particulary one that doesn't require significant long-term commitments. Not only that, one cannot make a long distance phone call from a pay phone in Michigan anymore. I was totally stymied.

I read an article in The Economist about Voice Over Internet Protocal winning out over digital cell telephony, since it would be so much cheaper. I hope they're right, and that we can essentially make land lines (necessary for VOIP) plentiful again, and hopefully cheap. I've still got a year-plus on my cell phone contract, but I'm wondering if trying to switch to a land line wouldn't be a better idea.


Anonymous Scott T. said...

I think it is in Britain where they are adding wifi service to payphone locations -- they've already got wires and power, they just need a little extra hardware. Brilliant, I say.

4:15 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

That is damn smart. I'm regularly lamenting the lack of wifi on the Diag and other similar public places where people like to hang out.

Maybe the way to make this profitable is a program entailing buying a card or account with SBC and thus being able to connect via those payphones anywhere they have service, along with a reciprocity agreement for when you travel. If cities wanted to offer this with tax dollars, though, it might be a smart way to make some neighborhoods more attractive to the young people.

4:29 PM  
Blogger peter said...

VoIP won't replace mobile phones -- mobile phones will migrate to (IP then to) VoIP

11:47 PM  

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