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Public Phone

TUESDAY - AUGUST 28, 2012 - NAPA, CA - Public phones, like this one at the intersection of Third and Fourth streets, are becoming more of a rarity. J.L. Sousa/Register

They still stand outside gas stations, convenience stores and supermarkets.

Some are empty now, save for a dangling wire or graffiti written on the side panels. Others remain intact, only to be ignored by passers-by who once relied on them to hail a taxi or reach a relative — the same passers-by who now are inseparable from the cellphones on their ears.

For an increasing number of Americans, pay telephones, if not quite out of sight, are out of earshot. Yet several dozen of the black metal handsets remain on various Napa streets, ready to take calls from those nearby even when most humans barely notice their existence.

“It’s been at least 12 years, maybe — when I was in high school and I called my mom, collect, to come pick me up,” said Sara Southam, a 30-year-old Napan who got her first mobile phone in 2001 shortly after starting college.

“I have no idea — I honestly don’t remember when I used a pay phone,” said Jeanette Beatty, co-owner of the Napa Valley Toffee Company on First Street. “I can remember going to the beach with my friends and using one to find a ride home, but I was a teenager then, so that would have been, what, 1980?”

The gradual disappearance of once-ubiquitous coin-operated phones, so little noticed by phone users, has been the mirror image of the rise of the mobile phone from the unattainable luxury of 1980s Wall Street moguls to a commodity used even by the homeless and subsidized for low-income families.

From a peak of about 2.2 million in 2000, the number of active pay phones in the U.S. has slid to 425,000 today, according to Willard Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council, a trade group representing 778 coin-phone operators.

An informal survey Thursday evening of 21 phone booths and stalls from Old Sonoma Road north to Trancas Street revealed empty spaces at seven locations, as well as a dead phone outside a Safeway supermarket at Jefferson and Clay streets.

Only one caller stopped by during a three-hour span, a woman who spent a few minutes on the phone beside the Rite Aid pharmacy on Old Sonoma Road before stepping inside.

Empty and active phones alike showed signs of disuse: a long-obsolete Pacific Bell logo on a booth outside the Trancas Street Shell station, or plastic covers attached to booths that once contained phone books that had later been ripped out. Large stickers inside some of the booths gave possible clues to their clientele; the notices included numbers for job banks, a Social Security office, a payday loan outlet.

Even as pay phones fade from streetscapes and consciousness, however, some business owners have held on to the devices or even doubled down on them, as if striving to be first among buggy-whip makers.

One such businessman is Tom Keane, whose San Ramon-based firm Pacific Telemanagement Services (PTS) owns some 45,000 pay phones nationwide — and thousands more he acquired last week from Verizon Communications, one of the last major telecommunications companies with a place in that market. PTS owns 83 coin phones in the city of Napa — 60 of them at Napa State Hospital — and 93 other booths elsewhere in the county.

Having entered the business shortly after the federally mandated breakup of AT&T in 1984 loosened its once-monopolistic grip on pay phones, Keane has witnessed the market swell in the 1990s, thanks to the popularity of calling cards and pagers, then shrivel the following decade along with the size of the mobile phones filling former customers’ pockets.

“In the circles I run in, 10 years is the median gap” for people’s last use of a phone booth, he said. For those few who have picked up a handset in recent memory, they often cite “dead battery” in their cellphone, he said.

“In airports, they (look for) better connectivity, or they say ‘I was good to go but I’m preserving my battery’ or ‘I forgot my phone’ or ‘I ran out of minutes this month.’”

Neglected as coin-operated phones may seem, Keane said his company usually leaves the devices in place so long as enough calls go through to turn a profit after covering the fixed monthly cost of $30 to $35 for long-distance carriers — usually about $65 a month per phone. While the devices have largely disappeared from many malls, stores and restaurants, other niches remain: airports, train terminals, government buildings, and especially lower-income areas where even subsidized cellphones may come with too few minutes to carry a user through the month.

“Sixty minutes doesn’t get you to the second week of the month; you could use up 60 minutes getting put on hold for two calls to county services,” Keane said Thursday.

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