Pay phones still exist in digital age, but numbers are dwindling

ssloan@herald-leader.comSeptember 19, 2011 

Of Windstream's 10,000 employees in 29 states, including Kentucky, the telephone provider has just two focused on pay phones.

Even that number might surprise some, though, as the phones and their 50-cent calling rates have virtually fallen off the landscape because of the prevalence of cellphones.

In all of Lexington, Windstream's second-largest market behind Lincoln, Neb., the company has just 327 pay phones, down almost 50 percent from five years ago, said Barry Bishop, regional vice president of operations. In all of Kentucky, Windstream has 720, down roughly the same percentage compared to five years ago.

For Ann Williams, Windstream's only Lexington employee who focuses on pay phones, it's been a circle of sorts. When she started with the phone company nearly 35 years ago, she also focused on pay phones.

"Back then, we were responsible for pay phones in four states, and we dispatched collectors and counted the money they sent back to the office every day," she recalled.

Today, she and a colleague in Dalton, Ga., are responsible for repair and, yes, even placement on occasion of some phones for the company.

So where are these vanishing forms of communication? The biggest site for pay phones in Central Kentucky is the University of Kentucky, which has 70 Windstream pay phones scattered across campus. The city government is the next largest user with 35, of which nine are seasonal and found at swimming pools, Bishop said. Trailing the city is Keeneland, with 14.

Places such as airports tend to have some, but Bishop relayed what he most often sees when he's traveling. "When you're at an airport and see someone at the pay phone, it's usually because they're using the electric plug underneath it to charge their cellphone," he said.

"With our pay phone business now, it's as much a community service as a moneymaker," he said. "In fact, it's probably more of a community service."

Bishop said there might be some pay phones that still do pretty well, and those are typically in places where cellphones are barred, such as Eastern State Hospital in Lexington.

"I can assure you that not all of those 327 phones in Lexington are profitable on their own," he said.

For those still in service, it often might be because "they're out of sight and out of mind," he said. Most often, Windstream takes out the phones only if a customer requests they be removed or if they're vandalized.

And on the rare occasion that someone requests a phone be installed, it's not a cheap proposition, Windstream said.

Customers essentially rent the phones from Windstream and are responsible for collecting the money and taking care of any reports of trouble, Bishop said.

"The actual instrument is very expensive. We typically refurbish them, and even refurbished ones cost $300 to $1,000, depending on the model," Bishop said. "It's still a very expensive piece of equipment."

Windstream is not the only provider of pay phones in the area. When the business was deregulated in recent years, private companies and individuals began operating them. The state Public Service Commission requires the users to register "to let us know they're out there," said spokesman Andrew Melnykovych.

But the state doesn't require them to state how many phones they operate, "so we don't have a clear sense of how many are left," he said.

The PSC also has a system in place in which communities may request that a pay phone be installed if there isn't one and it's deemed to be in the public interest.

But since that program was put in place in 2004, there hasn't been a single application.

So when will the phones vanish completely?

"Right now, the community service is something to us," Bishop said. "We'll keep them out there as long as somebody needs them."

Reach Scott Sloan at (859) 231-1447 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1447.

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