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OVERHEARD: Hello, Operator?

Tue, 07/04/2023 - 14:30
Christine Sampson

A payphone still stands in East Hampton, behind Town Hall on Pantigo Road. Pick up the receiver and you’ll get an actual, albeit staticky, dial tone. Got your quarters ready? Thanks to 20-plus years of inflation, you’ll need two. A working payphone, in 2023 — is this really happening?

If you’d like to make a call, well, you’d better have a cellphone handy. The too-good-to-be-true phone turns out to be a disappointing, inoperable vestige of the past. A museum-worthy relic or monument to simpler times, before we all started carrying tiny, expensive computers in our pockets and unlimited data plans became a must-have. If a payphone is of any use to most Americans today, it’s as the subject of an ironic Instagram post.

That the last pay phone in town doesn’t work shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering most major players in telecommunications got out of the payphone business years ago.

Sprint ditched theirs in 2006, followed by AT&T in 2008, according to a March 2018 report by CNN. Verizon sold its last 50,000 payphones in 2011, according to an industry publication called Fierce Telecom.

Payphone trivia time:. They were invented in 1889 by William Gray, who two years earlier had patented a piece of padded chest-protection equipment for baseball catchers.

NPR reported in May of 2022 that New York City had removed its last two working city-owned payphones, a double booth in Times Square, and replaced them with LinkNYC kiosks featuring revenue-generating charging ports, public Wi-Fi, and screens with maps and other services, plus buttons to press for 911 calls. Several privately operated payphones remain, though, mostly on the Upper West Side, according to The New York Times.

In 1999, there were five million payphones in the United States. Nearly 20 years later, CNN reported, about 100,000 remained, many of them owned by a San Ramon, California-based company called Pacific Telemanagement Services, or PTS for short.

The nonworking payphone behind Town Hall bears a PTS label, along with a yellow sticker that advertises several free — and amusing — dialing options.

To receive “God’s blessings,” dial *10.

Need help finding a job? Press *12.

Gotta reach the Social Security Administration? Dial *13.

The list goes on.

In March of 2021, the Federal Communications Commission — which deregulated the payphone industry in 1984 — officially listed PTS as “inactive.” A call to its main line “cannot be completed as dialed,” says that still-familiar recorded operator’s voice. However, two emails sent to company representatives whose addresses were found via Google searches that turned up government payphone contracts don’t get bounced back, suggesting the existence of someone, somewhere, on the receiving end of those messages.

According to Mark Thomas, a New York City blogger whom AT&T has credited with tracking “the de-evolution of payphones and phone booths” with his Payphone Project since 1995, PTS is still in business, though he hasn’t heard from them in a while.

“They’ve diversified into vending machines, and with Covid they got into hyper-sanitation supplies and other things,” Thomas said in an email to The Star. “The core of their payphone business today is in places like rehab facilities, hospitals, jails, and other nonpublic places where PTS typically collects a monthly fee per phone to keep the dial tone alive. “

“They also have long-term contracts with government buildings, national parks, transit hubs, etc. These are places where a payphone being ‘profitable’ on coin or credit-card revenue does not matter. The entities retain PTS to provide the phones as an amenity.”

There’s at least one other PTS payphone in town that East is aware of: the one at the West Lake Drive comfort station in Montauk. But that one won’t even give you a dial tone.

The Pew Research Center found in April of 2021 that 97 percent of Americans owned a cellphone, up from 83 percent about 10 years before. But cellphones, and smartphones in particular, are obviously pricey when compared to their coin-operated counterparts. In February, the research website Statista reported the average cost of a smartphone in the U.S. was about $718 — though that’s expected to decrease in the future — and in 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the average monthly cost of having a smartphone at $114.

This cost of technology can be seen as a barrier to equality, creating a reality of digital “haves” and “have-nots.” Some people can afford high-tech devices plus access to regional wireless infrastructure, and some people cannot. The Pew Research Center reported in August of 2021 that the percentage of rural Americans who own smartphones, 80 percent, lagged urban smartphone owners by 9 percentage points.

That’s why old-school, copper-wired payphones still serve a purpose, says Anthony Lepore, an attorney who is president of Cityscape Consultants Inc. of Orlando, Fla.

“You want redundancy in communications,” says Lepore, whose company partners with municipalities to improve communications systems. “Everybody who’s involved in communications always has redundancy; it’s why NASA built two space shuttles instead of one. The two systems, although one is obviously much older than the other, complement each other. However, maintaining that old, copper-wire network is expensive and can be a black hole for phone companies because everybody’s cutting the cord. The remaining people who have it pay more — just like cable TV. You can overlay those two scenarios and exactly the same thing is happening.”

When a hurricane blew the roof off his Florida house years ago, Lepore’s landline still functioned properly. “Thankfully, it’s not quite as bad on the eastern end of Long Island, but you still have to deal with the potential for hurricanes and other issues that make having a redundant communications system important. Copper is less of a desired methodology, but having fiber and wire-line phones that work on fiber is an important asset to have. . . . There’s a place for both technologies in today’s world.”

Long Island’s East End is still kind of a mixed bag when it comes to cell service. Just ask anyone trying to send a text message on a summer Saturday in Sag Harbor, or anyone trying to make a cellphone call near Fort Pond Boulevard in Springs. It doesn’t matter how much money you spent on your phone. If the wireless infrastructure isn’t there, those calls and texts are just not going through.

Fortunately for cellphone users here, East Hampton Town is trying to remediate those dead zone. The municipality has contracted with Cityscape to improve cell phone infrastructure in town.

“It’s being actively worked on,” says Lepore.

If we get a call back from anyone at PTS, we’ll let you know.

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