Public Telephones have played a vital role in communications for over 130 years. In 1888, William Gray was inspired to invent a coin-operated telephone that would function without an attendant when his wife fell ill and he asked a nearby factory if he could use their telephone to call a doctor. While sources differ as to whether the factory allowed or denied him access to their telephone after he explained, Gray set out to patent an invention that has prevailed for over a century. By 1902, there were more than 80,000 public telephones in the United States alone. By 1905, the first phone booths were installed in the US. Public telephones became prevalent anywhere it was likely that someone might want to (or need to) make a telephone call. By 1926, there were 25,000 telephone booths in the Big Apple alone and, in 1960, the Bell System installed its 1,000,000th telephone booth.
Public telephones, pay telephones, or payphones as they are more commonly referred to, reached their peak in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when over 2,000,000 of them existed. Their decline has accelerated rapidly in recent years. Perhaps the most famous public telephone removal was that of the Mojave Phone Booth, which was removed in 2000 by Pacific Bell itself at the request of the National Park Service.
Note: The distinction between payphone and public phone is a small one — today, many courtesy phones in hubs like airports allow free calling to a limited extent. They are still public telephones that serve all — but they may no longer necessary require a coin deposit. All payphones are inherently public phones, but not all public telephones are actually coin operated telephones.
While the number of payphones continues to decline worldwide, their importance and purpose has not diminished at all. The payphone was originally created to allow non-subscribers, or people who did not have their own telephone subscription, to be able to place telephone calls when needed for a small fee. While one of the primary reasons for the payphone’s decline is the advent and surge in popularity of mobile phones, these devices require subscriptions.
Apart from not requiring a subscription, since the phone is not owned by its users, there are several important advantages of public telephones that are often overlooked. Payphones are landlines, meaning they are hardwired to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), just like a standard home phone. Landlines, which are assigned fixed numbers, also have a fixed location. In an emergency, calls made from a landline to Emergency Dispatchers will include accurate and precise location information that can be used to identify the whereabouts of a caller. Even if a caller has a mobile phone, if there is a public telephone nearby, he is better off using the public telephone to summon help. Mobile phones do not provide accurate location information, since they provide coordinates and not an address.
Call quality is also an important situation. Because all payphones are landlines, payphone-users do not have to worry about call interference, static, or other problems with which mobile phone users generally must contend.
Finally, public telephones are convenient. People who rely only on public telephones for communication do not have to worry about paying for, maintaining, and bringing along a mobile phone everywhere they go. It is one less bill to pay and one less thing to worry about. The freedom of being able to escape the clutches of communication is becoming all the more desirable these days. A growing number of people are cancelling their mobile phone subscriptions and choose to instead rely on their home landline at home and public telephones when on-the-go. They no longer have to worry about charging and paying for such a nuisance, and they don’t have to worry about the health risks of mobile phones either.
Today’s telephone companies are not interested in their customers. Despite the convenience and important of public telephones, you will not be able to easily find an operational phone booth these days, or any type of payphone for that matter. Declining revenue from payphones has not heightened incentives for telecommunications corporations to maintain these vital resources.
Today, we have come full circle. We started off in 1881, unable to make a telephone call, even in a life-or-death situation, if we ourselves did not possess did not possess a telephone subscription. Today, if someone is on-the-go and lacks a mobile phone subscription, he or she is no better off than we were more than 135 years ago*. Effectively, we came so far — and lost it in just a couple short decades.
Slight Correction: Today's level of payphone coverage corresponds roughly with payphone coverage levels in 1910. So we are no better off than we were 110 years ago.