Across North Central Washington and the nation, phone users are abandoning a century-old technology that's often viewed as unreliable, immobile and downright inconvenient
WENATCHEE — Aren Magnussen entered his phone company’s dark cellar and flicked on the light. The dead stared back.
Hundreds of old pay phones, unwired and unwanted, stood in silent rows on the concrete floor and ceiling-high shelves in the basement of Interwest, the leading pay-phone vendor in North Central Washington.
Some were scarred and battered, some had internal damage, some leaned with mangled appendages or twisted levers.
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“This is the graveyard,” said Magnussen, the company’s operations manager. “This is where our pay phones come to die.”
Across North Central Washington and the nation, the once-ubiquitous pay phone now faces the rudest of hang-ups as phone users abandon a century-old technology that’s often viewed as unreliable, immobile and downright inconvenient.
Yep, most folks have switched to cellphones. It’s a fundamental shift that, in the last decade, has nearly sent pay phones to the 21st century’s Heap of Obsolete — that growing pile that includes film cameras, bookstores, video-rental outlets, stamped mail, fax machines, electronic pagers and more.
According to the American Public Communications Council, a trade association for the pay-phone industry, the number of pay phones in the United States has shrunk from about 2 million in the late 1990s to fewer than 500,000 today.
In Central Washington, phone-company executives have estimated a 65 percent drop in the number of pay phones since 2001. Interwest has just under 200 pay phones in service, down from a high of 600 in the late 1990s.
Magnussen estimates that his company’s pace of pay-phone disconnects has held steady since 2007. This year, up to 20 percent of Interwest’s lesser-used phones could be “uninstalled,” he said, and destined for his company’s basement.
Down to 93
Frontier, another of North Central Washington’s primary pay-phone providers, has 93 pay phones in Chelan and Douglas counties, according to a company spokeswoman. That’s down from hundreds a decade ago when Verizon competed head-to-head with Interwest, GTE and others for pay-phone customers. Last year, Verizon sold its landline phone operations to Frontier.
“Pay phones had their heyday, and now they’re slowly, sadly, going away,” said Frontier’s manager of pay phones Vicki Leonard, who has worked with pay phones for more than 16 years from her Illinois-based service headquarters.
“The numbers are dwindling everywhere,” she said. “Well, except in mountainous regions — those areas where hills and valleys play havoc with cellphone reception.”
At Interwest, Magnussen agreed. “The end of the pay-phone era is right around the corner,” he said. “Some people see it as sad, but I see it as an inevitable result of a progressing technology. I mean, who wants to carry around a pocketful of quarters to make a phone call?”
The 28-year-old Magnussen, a co-owner of Interwest, grew up in the family-owned business amid some of the telephone industry’s most turbulent times. Those included deregulation, the resulting upheaval in long-distance pricing, phone-company mergers, and the rise of cell technology, texting, video streaming and mobile access to the Internet.
A decade ago, he spent summers on the company’s pay-phone service route, traveling hundreds of miles through the region to service and collect money from 50 to 75 phones per day.
“In those days, it seemed like there was a pay phone on every corner,” he said. “It was big business. There was money to be made.”
Comes down to coins
It all comes down to coins in the slots, said Magnussen, and whether an individual phone can earn enough to pay its operating expenses — an estimated $150 per month — and make a profit for the phone’s owner.
That’s why, he said, many grocery, drug and convenience stores have yanked out their pay phones and replaced them with ATMs, DVD rental machines and other devices.
It’s also the reason many isolated, seldom-used phones are pulled out of service, even though a small number of people have come to rely on each one of them, Magnussen said. “Usually the phone isn’t earning its keep.”
Still, some pay phones will serve the public for years to come, said Steve Sandman, general manager for Frontier in Wenatchee. “Top locations for a successful pay phone? Convenience stores, gas stations and transit areas — anywhere there’s a flow of people who need to talk to other people.”
Seeing the writing on the wall, Interwest began in 1996 to move away from pay phones to offer other communication services. Today, pay phones are a small fraction of Interwest’s business, Magnussen said.
“They [pay phones] have had a long and profitable life but now they’re on their way out.”