Payphones: yes, they still exist

01 Nov 2012

Inevitably, reports from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy have included a telecoms tech angle – not just in terms of network impact, but also consumer usage.

For example, there’s this smartphone charging station in the East Village [from].

Then there’s this photo seen on Instagram of people in New York lining up to use a payphone. A comment from Gizmodo speaks volumes about the novelty of this from the average urban-dwelling American:

When was the last time this happened in the industrialized world? 1993?

And who even remembers anyone else’s phone number anymore?

The Wall Street Journal did a whole piece on the payphone angle, noting how for some people it’s a major adjustment, while for others it’s a whole new experience:

Alison Caporimo, a 24-year-old who lives in Manhattan's East Village, is undaunted by newfangled smartphones and computers.

But as for old-fashioned, coin-slot pay phones? The magazine editor had never really trained her Warby Parker eyeglasses on the contraptions.

"I lost a lot of coins," confesses Ms. Caporimo, who didn't even know how to work a pay phone before Tuesday.

As someone who had to make do with payphones as an out-of-home comms tool until I moved to Hong Kong in the mid-90s, that last line knocks me out.

But that’s where we are in 2012, when mobile phones are the norm and payphones have become, for most people, unnecessary. From that perspective, it’s a wonder there were still any payphones working at all in NYC.

Then again, maybe not. The Payphone Project has been running a photo essay of people in NYC actually using payphones in 2012 to make the point that people do still use them, even if they’ve become as invisible as payphones themselves.

That got me to wondering about the state of payphones in Asia. After all, even in developing markets, feature phones are cheap and prepaid plans affordable. How many young people in emerging countries have never used a payphone?

I have no idea, but I did come across a 2011 research paper [PDF] written by two students at National University of Singapore and Michigan State University (published in Information Technologies & International Development) that looked at payphone usage in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand amongst low-income ICT users (referred to here as “bottom of the pyramid (BoP) users)”.

The data is decidedly outdated, as most recent figures come from 2008-2009, but in essence the paper found that payphone usage has indeed declined with the rise of mobile – even in markets where mobile hasn’t yet become saturated. One reason: people who may not own a mobile phone may know someone who does – family, friends, neighbors, etc.

Yet payphones still exist, if only because it’s part of USO requirements in a given market. And people still use them – even mobile owners, who sometimes rely on public phones for situations where their battery or their prepaid credit runs out (though advances in top-up services since the survey was conducted may mitigate the latter).

Anyway, not to make light of the overall impact of Hurricane Sandy, but it’s fascinating to watch people struggle with the concept of payphones after years of becoming dependent on mobile.

And now I’m also curious: When was the last time you used a payphone?

And how many of you have never used one?

Answers in the comment box, if you please.

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