HOLMBERG: Pay phones almost gone in cellular era. Are we better for it?

Posted at 11:34 PM, May 17, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-18 00:53:52-04

ASHLAND, Va. (WTVR) -- “Pay phones are gone! Everywhere you look,” says William Kennard of Ashland. He relied on payphones for long conversations that would chew up the minutes on his cell phone.

He’s right.

Consider that in 1999, there were 54,323 pay phones in Virginia.

Ten years later, in 2009, that number had dropped to 17,501.

Last year in the state there were 5,591 pay phones.

And that’s been halved again in 2013, down to 2,874 phones in the Old Dominion.

Older people who haven’t bought into the cell phone world and poor people have really  been hung up on.

Pay phones and phone booths were once a crucial part of American life. Many of us older folks can remembers the sights, the sounds, the smells of public phones.

Even younger Richmond residents like Alonzo Washington remember how critical pay phones were when family members tied up the house phone.

“I’d sneak out and go use the pay phone to talk to one of my little girlfriends I used to have when I was younger.”

Where would’ve Superman been without his changing closet. What would Hollywood have done without the pay phone?

Now cell phones are so cheap and pervasive, hardly anyone needs a pay phone.

Unless you don’t have a cell phone.  Or if you pay by the minute for your cell.  Why burn up all your minutes for a long call or when you’re put on hold while trying to talk to your doctor when you can chat forever for 35 cents?

“I’ve got a brother who is a retired, decorated police officer,” said William Kennard of Ashland. “And he had brain trauma. I talk to him a few times a week and I’m running out of minutes (on his cell phone) and I hate to cut him off.

“Every time I found one (a pay phone) that was working,” he added, “I’d come back and it would be gone the next week.”

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, the benefits of a land line hit home. There were long lines at the pay phones that were still working. The Big Apple recently staged a design competition for modern pay phones that can do a lot more. Existing pay phone can be used as neighborhood tour guides. You dial a certain number, and a noted neighborhood resident from that area talks about how it used to be there.

Here in Virginia, Verizon completely got out of the pay phone business in late 2011.

Their phones were bought out by Jaroth Inc. of California, which has about 1,500 pay phones in Virginia, according to the State Corporation Commission. Most of the other 46 pay phone providers in the state operate  just one or a few phones.

There’s no question cell phones have changed our world. They’re convenient, so smart. But we seem more immersed in their little screens than in much of the world around us.

William Kennard believes we should hang up and live . . . pull off or walk a block or two to talk on a good, old-fashioned pay phone.