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Published: Tuesday, 12/11/2007

Demise of the pay phone

PAY telephones are an endangered species, and now they are about to get even rarer. AT&T, the longtime telephone industry leader, is about to get out of the pay phone business. But while they are dwindling, there will still be a million of them from coast to coast at least for a while.

Without any doubt, AT&T's decision to abandon the field is related to the amazing proliferation of cell phones that Americans at all income levels now find affordable. The days when parents would tell their children - especially their daughters - to always carry a dime so they could call home in an emergency seem as distant as the Triassic era.

These days, even if you could find a pay phone, you couldn't get a dial tone with a dime. In most places, the cost of calling is 50 cents. And the standard method of keeping in touch with one's children has radically changed. Pay phones were long ago replaced by pagers, then cell phones.

Today's kids have high-tech devices that many parents don't know how to use, which we suspect is part of the attraction. But teenagers know, or care, little about pay phones, not to mention a telephone booth. Some baby boomers might recall trying to get as many people as they could to squeeze inside one of them.

If young folks are passing familiar with phone booths, it's probably because they watched an old Superman film, in which newspaperman Clark Kent used a phone booth to change clothes and become the Caped Crusader.

By the end of next year, though, the Man of Steel won't be able to count on AT&T, which expects to be out of the business of operating its 65,000 pay telephones. This doesn't mean extinction for the pay telephone; not quite yet, anyway. There are still a million of them, down from 2.1 million in 1999.

Not everyone has a cell phone, however, or even a land line. Amazingly, 5 percent of all U.S. households don't have any kind of phone, meaning for them, a pay phone could be their only hope in an emergency. For their sake, let's hope this classic American icon endures a little longer.

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