Looking for change; finding a phone that works; waiting or having a snarling face waiting for you, will all be a thing of the past. In this case, it is real progress. Phone booths will not be missed.
AT&T to quit the pay-phone business
By Jeffry Bartash, MarketWatch
Last update: 3:34 p.m. EST Dec. 3, 2007
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- AT&T Inc., the nation's largest phone carrier, said Monday that it is getting out of the 129-year-old pay-phone business.
In a country full of BlackBerrys, cell phones and iPhones, it's really not surprising. Most Americans, whether rich or poor, now have wireless handsets, and pay phones have become increasingly scarce.
AT& T said that its pay phones will be phased out over the next year. A company spokeswoman declined to say how much revenue its pay-phone business generated, but the number is small and declining.
Although AT&T is exiting the pay-phone market, not every major phone company has done so. Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:43.09, -0.12, -0.3%) still operates them in the Northeast, particularly in busy urban markets such as New York and Boston.
The first public pay-telephone station was set up in 1878, just two years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the talking device. The first coin-operated pay phone was installed in Hartford, Conn., in 1889.
For decades after the pay phone's invention, many Americans relied on them because of the expense and difficulty in obtaining reliable home service. Only after World War II did the telephone become a household necessity.
Pay phones even found a place in popular culture. For example, Clark Kent, the alter ego of comic-book hero Superman, often changed in phone booths. Older movies often featured reporters rushing into such booths to report breaking stories.
Perhaps the oddest moment came in the late 1950s, when American colleges embraced an international fad to see how many people could be crammed into a booth. (The record is 25, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.)
Since 1998, however, the number of pay phones in service has shrunk from 2.6 million to about 1 million, according to AT&T (T:38.28, +0.07, +0.2%) . The main reason has been the proliferation of cellular phones, which were invented in the 1970s.
By late 2007, there were almost 251 million wireless customers nationwide among a U.S. population of 301 million, the CTIA industry trade group estimates. AT&T alone caters to almost 66 million mobile subscribers.
By contrast, AT&T operates just 65,000 pay phones in the 13 states formerly served by the local-phone company SBC Communications, which acquired the old Ma Bell in 2005 and then took its name.
AT&T said that it will continue to sell wholesale pay-phone service to independent operators, and it expects them to pick up some of its business.
Jeffry Bartash is a reporter for MarketWatch in Washington.