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In cell phone age, pay phones are a vanishing convenience
Patrons walk past two pay telephones Thursday at J&J Foods on Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

If the pay phone were a person, it would be lonely. It seems no one ever wants to talk on it anymore.

At one Atlanta Highway convenience store where a weathered pay phone stands outside, "maybe a couple of people a week use it," said the store's manager, Ricky Willson.

"The cell phone is so common now and it's so cheap to have one, the pay phone is no longer necessary," Willson said.

Indeed, since 2000, the number of pay phones in America has plummeted as cell phone use has skyrocketed.

In 2000, there were more than 2 million working pay phones in the United States, according to the Federal Communications Commission. By 2007, that number had dropped to 872,000.

"I'm sure since 2007, that number is even lower," said Bob Elek, a spokesman for Verizon, a wireless provider which also operates 125,000 pay phones in about 25 states, but none in Georgia.

At the same time, cell phone use has reached 91 percent of the U.S. population, according to CTIA, a wireless telecommunications association. At the end of 2009, there were 285 million wireless subscriber connections, according to the organization.

Art Martineau, a service technician for North Georgia Payphone Co., said the number of pay phones in his service area is "about a quarter of what it used to be."

Martineau said the major decline started in the early 2000s, after BellSouth, and then later, AT&T, opted out of the pay phone business. Pay phones in Georgia are now operated by a hodgepodge of smaller, independent phone service providers.

Martineau, who mostly repairs pay phones at warehouses and other large workplaces, estimates that to turn a profit, a pay phone needs to make about $3 a day, or six local calls at 50 cents per call.

"The revenue is not what it used to be," Martineau said. "The majority of people are using cell phones now."

Martineau said though cell phones may beat pay phones for convenience, the land line of a pay phone is still more reliable. He recalled that immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when the nation's cell phone networks were overloaded, "people were lined up to use the pay phone."

In rural areas where strong cellular signals aren't as readily available, the pay phone "would be a little more vital," Martineau said.

Still, Martineau is unsure whether the pay phone will survive.

"It's possible that 10 years from now, it will be pretty much extinct," he said.

Along Atlanta Highway, if pay phones are not extinct, they show evidence of being endangered. Old BellSouth-era blue signs for pay phones remain, but the stalls are no longer under them. Some stalls still stand but the phones have been removed.

The Payphone Project, one of the most comprehensive privately-run databases of pay phones in the U.S., lists 104 pay phone locations in Hall County, which has an estimated population of 187,000. But several phone numbers listed on the database were disconnected and the accuracy of the list could not immediately be verified.

Elek, the Verizon spokesman, said pay phones operated by his company outside Georgia tend to get the most use at transportation hubs like train or bus stations and also are well-used outside some jails. Verizon keeps close tabs on where their pay phones are or are not producing revenue.

"If there are phones that are not being used, we typically pull them out," Elek said.

Willson said the people using his store's pay phone are "people who are broke, or maybe they just don't want to have a cell phone plan."

Willson believes as the years go on, "I'm pretty sure there won't be any more pay phones," he said.

Said Martineau, "It's a dying breed."