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November 05, 2012

New Yorkers Look for Public Pay Phones after Hurricane Sandy

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

Public pay phones are no longer relics of the past – at least during the trying days following Hurricane Sandy.

Because of widespread cell phone outages after the massive storm, many New York City residents were looking for coin-operated pay phones to make their calls.

That also means the 13 pay phone franchises in New York City were getting much more in revenue.

Image via Shutterstock

“Phones that normally do two dollars a day are taking in $50 a day,” Peter Izzo of Van Wagner Communications told The Wall Street Journal.

“During disasters, we sometimes have to empty them every day,” Thomas Keane (News - Alert), CEO of Pacific Telemanagement Services, which has pay phones in transit stations, hospitals and police stations, said in a statement quoted by TMCnet. “It takes 300 to 400 calls a day for that to happen.”

There are about 12,000 pay phones in New York City, 27,000 fewer than two decades ago, according to data cited by ABC News. In October 2014, contracts for companies which operate pay phones in New York will expire, which may lead to fewer phones in operation, news reports predicted.

But not every pay phone escaped damage from the storm. In fact, 35 percent of Van Wagner Communications’ phones in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn were not operating some of last week, The Journal reported.

But those pay phones that don't rely on commercial power were a welcome relief to New Yorkers searching for working phones, The Journal said. Many pay phones had a line of people in front of them. That was the case even though their sound quality doesn’t equal that of many sophisticated smartphones.

In addition, in a show of public spiritedness Van Wagner Communications made sure last week that some of their pay phones in lower Manhattan were free for callers – just as they did after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Pay phones were first offered in 1889, ABC News added, but fell out of demand after cell phones arrived.

As of late last week, the number of cell site outages from the hurricane dropped to 15 percent in the United States – from some 25 percent earlier in the week, the FCC said. New York and New Jersey were among the hardest hit states.

Also, the recent events may lead to more government regulation over the cell phone industry, or at least voluntary measures by the sector, Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge (News - Alert), a consumer advocacy organization, said in a telephone interview with TechZone360.

Consumers, too, may have second thoughts about acquiring back-up communications to their cell phones.

“One of the things this story shows is how much it pays to have a land line,” one person named, “Joerne,” commented on a New York magazine website. “I hate to be an advertisement for Verizon (News - Alert)--or whichever is your local phone company--but, as expensive as it is, it's wise to have a wired land line and a simple old-fashioned corded telephone (i.e., no lights, no features, no electrical plug) that you can get in the drug store for $10-20 (Amazon's got a couple for about $9). It's not 100 percent foolproof, but most times, during an emergency, even if the electricity goes out, the landline still works. Note that getting your phone from the cable company doesn't count--that requires electricity.”

“I think this Sandy disaster gives us a lesson about having back-up technology at least in cases of emergencies,” Sheridan agreed. “Those land lines should become more relevant again!”

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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