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Save the pay phone - a suddenly endangered species

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Long gone are the phone booth's golden days when Superman metamorphosed inside and anonymous informers called in tips from the street corner.

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But even as the plastic cracks, the cords are snipped, and wads of old chewing gum jam the coin returns, a modest movement to preserve the phone booth is rippling through state legislatures. To the phone booth's defenders, it is more than a matter of simple nostalgia: It cuts to the roots of social equality, public safety, and common sense.

That's why state Rep. Herbert Adams (D) of Portland has sponsored legislation to preserve or create "public interest payphones" (PIPs) in designated areas where a lack of phone access poses a risk to residents' safety, health, or welfare. His bill follows similar actions from Alaska to Indiana to save the venerated pay phone when it is deemed in the public's best interest to do so.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the number of pay phones in the US dropped to 1.5 million in 2003, down from 2.1 million five years earlier - as the number of cellphone users surged. In Maine during that same period, the number of pay phones declined by almost half, says Mr. Adams.

Yet not all Americans, especially older Americans, have cellphones or live in places where coverage is available or adequate. Not to mention the human factor: inadvertently leaving a phone at home or forgetting to recharge the battery.

For many, though, the fight boils down to a battle for equal access.

Even in this age of BlackBerries and camera phones, of blinking and beeping pocket accessories of every stripe and sound, 6.5 percent of American households have no telephone. Many use pay phones as their primary means of communication. And supporters say that resisting the demise of the pay phone - even as cellphone coverage continues to expand and costs go down - is an attempt to close the gap between the technological "haves" and "have nots."

"Demand might be low, but the people that need pay phones really need them, and that's the point. That's why the state has to step in," says Wayne Jortner, senior counsel at the Maine Public Advocate's Office.

The first public coin telephone was installed in 1889 in a Hartford, Conn., bank. Throughout the 1900s, they proliferated on America's streets - opening up phone access to millions.

But the removal of pay phones, driven by a decline in their revenue from $2.2 billion in 1999 to half that last year, according to the FCC, can leave entire towns without a single public phone. That is a discomforting prospect for Adams, whose alternator once blew during a night trip. He walked to a phone in the nearest town, two miles away. But "if that phone had not been there, it was 15 miles to the next town, with logging trucks blowing by."

His bill requires that pay-phone providers notify the state if they plan to remove a phone and allows residents to petition for phones in places that would otherwise be unprofitable - from island communities, to battered women's shelters, to dock landings. In the first year, $50,000 of support would come from the state's Universal Service Fund.

Peter Reilly, the Maine spokesman for Verizon, a major phone-service provider for the state, says the business has grown more competitive and having the phone companies pay for PIPs could mean less profit, and therefore fewer phones, in the future. "We can't subsidize those [pay phones] that are not carrying their own weight," he says. "It's a rare occurrence when someone who needs [a pay phone] can't find one that's convenient."

For those who have seen such rare occurrences, however, pay phones can be vital. Last year the phone on Cliff Island, Maine, an hour's ferry ride from Portland, was pulled because it wasn't generating enough revenue.

Jane McClarie Laughlin, president of the Casco Bay Island Development Association, witnessed an accident on the boat dock last summer. Someone happened to have a cellphone - but coverage is so spotty that a connection is no guarantee. "People think that there aren't any isolated places anymore," she says. "But there are."

Elizabeth Ostrander, hanging up a pay phone receiver outside a Portland movie theater, says she owns no cell. "I'm very dependent on pay phones when I come here [to Portland]," says the resident of Eastport, on the northeast tip of Maine.

In 1996, the FCC put states in charge of setting up and funding PIP programs. Mr. Jortner says that at least five other states have moved to put similar programs in place. It's a number that many expect will grow if pay phones keep disappearing - although those without phone connections may be the least aware of their options. "I think there is a lot more dissatisfaction than the complaint ratio would suggest," says Jortner.

In New Hampshire the legislature set up a PIP program, which will take effect in July. It couldn't come soon enough for Mike Lewis, proprietor of the Stinson Lake Store in Rumney, N.H., who has let customers use his phone in a pinch ever since the pay phone was removed. "They have no heart," says Mr. Lewis of the phone company's decision. When his store is closed, "people have to go door to door trying to find people who have a phone."

There are others who insist that the pay phone is not a dying breed.

Mark Thomas, a New York pianist who runs a website (www.payphone-project.com) to help people track the locations of pay-phone numbers, says that as long as people need them, pay phones will endure - and that they should not be required to be profitable any more than streetlights are.

Says Mr. Thomas: "Those things are lifelines to some people."

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