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Is It Time To Commit To Ongoing Payphone Availability? 267

Posted by samzenpus
from the who-you-gonna-call? dept.
jenningsthecat writes "Public payphones seem headed the way of the dinosaur, as noted here on Slashdot 10 years ago, and again by the CBC earlier this year. Reasons typically cited for their demise are falling usage, (thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone), and rising maintenance costs. But during the recent disaster in NYC caused by Hurricane Sandy public payphones proved their worth, allowing people to stay in contact in spite of the widespread loss of both cellular service and the electricity required to charge mobile devices. In light of this news, at least one Canadian news outlet is questioning the wisdom of scrapping payphones. Should we in North America make sure that public pay phones will always be widely available? (After all, it's not as though they don't have additional value-added uses). And, should their continued existence be dependent on corporations whose primary duty is to their shareholders, rather than to the average citizen?"
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Is It Time To Commit To Ongoing Payphone Availability?

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  • No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Spazmania (174582) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:42PM (#41883145) Homepage

    It's time to both beef up the communications infrastructure to support reliable operation and to commit to helping your neighbors with access to things like a telephone, should you have one that works, during a major catastrophe.

    • by dywolf (2673597)

      The higher the technology, the bigger fall when it fails in a disaster.
      you cant overengineer everything.
      keeping around low tech backups is never bad, and is cheaper too.

    • by epyT-R (613989)

      The most reliable and robust communication systems are often the simplest.. In disaster zones, n-way radio is often the most reliable electronic communications. perhaps cellphones should have a p2p mode that kicks in when it can't get on the cellnet..

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:43PM (#41883171) Homepage

    This is a common problem: emergency and safety systems are completely pointless 99% of the time... until you have an emergency, at which point they're indispensable. It's like the bail-out bag in the closet with the first-aid kit and other necessities for an emergency: for years you wonder why you keep it because you never use it, until that day you didn't see coming when the fire department knocks on the door saying the fire's jumped the line and you've got 15 minutes before it gets here (which has happened here twice since I moved here, so not a theoretical example). Myself, I'd keep pay phones around as one of those necessary emergency expenses, the kind of thing you know you've needed in the past and will need in the future but that you won't have time to get deployed if you wait until you do need it.

    • by hawguy (1600213) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:59PM (#41883511)

      This is a common problem: emergency and safety systems are completely pointless 99% of the time... until you have an emergency, at which point they're indispensable.

      San Francisco still has thousands hardwired call boxes for the fire department on every other street corner, it's a fall back in case an earthquake takes out other forms of communication.

      http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Why-S-F-still-counts-on-street-fire-alarm-boxes-3081293.php [sfgate.com]

    • This.

      After twice, I'd have a WiFi external disk drive in the bail-out bag, that always held a backup of financial information and family photos.
    • Myself, I'd keep pay phones around as one of those necessary emergency expenses, the kind of thing you know you've needed in the past and will need in the future but that you won't have time to get deployed if you wait until you do need it.

      Why pay phones then? There are lots of problems with the existing pay phone infrastructure - they are vandalized regularly, and tend to be used as a branch office for drug dealers. Seriously - here in Seattle they've removed pay phones from some locations because they were only being used by drug dealers.

      If we really need such an item, then they shouldn't cost anything to use - otherwise it's government-sponsored profiteering during a disaster. Put them in accessible locations that are monitored, so we know

    • by s0nicfreak (615390) on Monday November 05, 2012 @03:56PM (#41885433) Homepage Journal
      There's no reason to use payphones for that. How about a phone that only calls the police/ambulance/fire truck, ala what use to be on police boxes? Once my car broke down completely on a remote highway during a cross-country trip, in the middle of the night. Fortunately I had a cellphone, but I didn't know anyone anywhere near there, I didn't know how to find a tow truck, I didn't know anything. So I called 911 and they said a police car was already on the way. How they saw me there, I have no idea; I hadn't seen anyone else on the highway. But the police got there and then they looked at the situation, and called the appropriate people, and drove me to a motel. If you break down, but you are near Uncle Bob's house, if you can get to an "emergency phone," explain the situation and ask them to call Uncle Bob, they will call Uncle Bob for you. If Uncle Bob can't help and you're just calling to tell him you're okay, you didn't really need to do that. So obviously these emergency boxes would have to come with a campaign for appropriate use, but payphones needed that already (the payphone is not a urinal, etc.)
  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:46PM (#41883263)

    Instead of maintaining a system that is practically obsolete we should put the effort into making the newer system more robust.

    How about building pico-cells into emergency vehicles with some sort of dedicated wireless backhaul? Figure out how to queue access to cell phones so that even if such a system can only handle 5-10 voice calls at once (due to backhaul bandwidth limits), anyone with a basic cell phone can virtually "wait in line" until it is their turn to talk.

    It doesn't have to be limited to emergency vehicles, we could build stand-alone units too that could be battery powered and deployed fairly quickly.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by CanHasDIY (1672858)

      Instead of maintaining a system that is practically obsolete we should put the effort into making the newer system more robust.

      In other words:
      Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.


      You sound like my Congressman.

      • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday November 05, 2012 @02:11PM (#41883745)

        In other words:
        Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.

        Uh no. Maybe you haven't noticed but payphones are going away because nobody is willing to spend an obscene amount of money maintaining them because nobody uses them. Meanwhile cell phone usage continues to increase. What i propose is to tweak the system that works 99% of the time so that it works 100% of the time.

        • by jeffb (2.718) (1189693) on Monday November 05, 2012 @03:03PM (#41884655)

          Sure, we've already spent so much money to get the system working 99% of the time. Why not spend the 1% more that it would take to get it working 100% of the time? Heck, spend 2% more, and get it working 101% of the time! Sometimes, you don't even have to dial!

        • In other words: Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.

          Uh no. Maybe you haven't noticed but payphones are going away because nobody is willing to spend an obscene amount of money maintaining them because nobody uses them.

          Nobody uses nuclear weapons, either, but I bet you'd be hard pressed to convince any government to ditch their supply (or stop spending obscene amounts of money maintaining them) because of that fact.

          What i propose is to tweak the system that works 99% of the time so that it works 100% of the time.

          I'm going to start by making the point that without citation, I find the concept that the existing cellular infrastructure experiences 99% uptime utter malarkey.

          Anyway, I agree that 100% availability is a good goal to have, even if it's not possible to achieve - you might be able to get 100% uptime in non-em

        • In other words: Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.

          Uh no. Maybe you haven't noticed but payphones are going away because nobody is willing to spend an obscene amount of money maintaining them because nobody uses them.

          I also contend that the reason payphones are going away isn't because people don't use them (they do), but rather that telcos can't nickel and dime the user with unilateral contracts and outrageous data charges.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        In other words:

        Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.

        I'm sure the buggy whip makers said something similar in their day.

        • In other words:

          Don't bother keeping what works working, instead we should spend obscene amounts of money and manpower on some new, theoretical system that may or may not work.

          I'm sure the buggy whip makers said something similar in their day.

          buggy whips aren't a valid backup system to automobiles.

          POTS infrastructure is a valid backup to over-congested cellular systems.

          Analogy fail.

    • Physical pay phones handle the problem of lost or stolen cell phones. Pico-cells don't.
    • by dywolf (2673597) on Monday November 05, 2012 @02:39PM (#41884205)

      The higher the technology, the bigger the fall when it fails in a disaster.

      you cant overengineer everything, and the more complex/higher tech a thing is, the MORE likely it will fail in a disaster.

      keeping around low tech backups is never bad, and its cheaper too.

    • by Solandri (704621)
      How about just keeping an old-fashioned telephone (the kind that doesn't need to be plugged into a power outlet) in your closet? If the pay phones are working, that phone will work too when plugged into your house's phone jack. If you don't have landline phone service but still have a landline phone jack, you can usually still make 911 and toll free calls.
    • by dywolf (2673597) on Monday November 05, 2012 @03:03PM (#41884653)

      You are so horribly naive. You cannot failure proof a system. The more complex it is, the more you cannot do it.

      Yours is the exact same voices that say "we dont need guns, we have missles now". and then vietnam proved them wrong.
      Yours is the exact same voices that say "we dont need candles anymore, we have electricity". And then every major storm proves them wrong.
      Yours is the exact same voices that say "we dont need LORAN we have GPS!". and then when a glitch interupts GPS for a few hours everyone freezes cause there is no backup.
      Yours is the exact same voices that say "we dont need guns, we have the police to protect us", until one day the police are too slow.

      Somethings stick around simply because you can't beat a classic. Sure, something shinier comes along, the old reliable gets put back in teh corner, gathering dust. But then when shiny breaks, as it always must, you still got Ol Reliable back in teh corner just waiting.

      At somepoint we may get our cell system to where it is in the category of it simply just works, no maintenance needed, no matter what happens we'll just pop it out and bam it works (ya right). But technology is always advancing. By then there will likely be a new shiny. And once again someone will raise the cry "but its obsolete, get rid of it, we got teh neural net now, we dont need a backup. just engineer the nueral net to be failure proof".

      Having a low-tech, old fashioned, "obsolete" backup is smart. You cannot prepare for everything. The more complex a system, the more ways it can fail. The KISS principle is an axiom for a reason. Overengineering exponentially adds to costs while giving exponentially less benefit in return. 100$ to get 95% there. 1000$ to get 98% thee. 10000$ to get 99% there. 100000$ to get 99.5% there. Etc etc.

      Obsolete is not a bad word. Sure, payphones and landlines are "obsolete". but once your fancy high tech comm relays get taken out by SuperMegaStorm X, even after spending billions to overengineer it, you wont care how "obsolete" it is, unless it's to curse the morons who demanded it be removed.

      Technology is great. But the higher the tech, the worse it is when it goes down without a backup. Having around old seldom used backups is a leg up, a boost, when the s*** hits the fans. Like a cheat sheet, lets you get back in the game quicker, back to normal faster.

    • How about focusing on SMS instead? (except may be for the blind, the elderly, or 911). First mandate that all SMS are free and are part of the price of any phone plan you get, so everyone gets used to texting (still allow parents to optionally block texts for their kids, so that the parents' lobby doesn't intervene).

      Then focus on building an infrastructure that supports that kind of lighter-weight traffic. That would be a much easier intermediary goal I think. We have enough trouble keeping up with phone tr

  • Maybe portable cell towers (with recharging docks for the phones?) would be better. Or for that matter, a kiosk where a Red Cross worker lets people use a satellite phone for 3 minutes per turn. The problem with fixed emergency infrastructure like phone boxes is they may get wiped out, and they're sitting unused almost always.
    • Yes, although satellites are slow and expensive. Portable cells towers built into trucks with their own generators and a high speed mesh network would be better. They would expand out from the nearest working high speed internet connection and expand into the disaster zone.
    • by arth1 (260657)

      Maybe portable cell towers (with recharging docks for the phones?) would be better.

      With a couple of national security guards ensuring that people don't hog it or outright steal it?

      It's during emergencies you find out just how selfish and demanding your fellow man is.

  • Yes, because we are all descended from telephone sanitation engineers.
  • Phone companies used to be able to afford not making much on pay phones until their lucrative long distance business was cannibalized by Sprint, etc.

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:54PM (#41883397)

    Okay, your cell phone phone is dead. Zombies have taken out the cell towers. It's an urban apocalypse. You're surrounded by evil, and low on gas. And there are no pay phones. How do you get in touch with the mad scientist 500 miles away to get the cure?

    It's easy guys: Walk into a commercial building with power and ask to use the phone. In fact, many without power will still have a few POTS lines powered (read: Not digital); but you may have to hunt for them, so if you're trapped in an apparently "dead" building with zombies and cthulu beasts outside, patience and a flashlight will save the day. Just avoid the restrooms.

    I know I'm being sarcastic here, but seriously guys -- if you're ever in a true emergency situation, stop and think. House flooded? No fresh water? Think about where fresh water might be -- stop panic'ing and really think. Ding! Toilet reservoir. People get all manner of stupid in a crisis because something they used to depend on suddenly isn't there. Guys, you've got millions of years of evolution that has taught you to be adaptable.. but not a lick of those years is going to do you any good until you calm down.

    We don't need pay phones. We need to teach people to be self-reliant, instead of hiding under their desks. The government and emergency services may not always be there for you. Neither will any of your modern conveniences. But there is nothing you need to survive that can't be found within a few miles of wherever you are in an urban environment. Food. Shelter. Water. Medical supplies. And if someone's injured, know first aid! It's not rocket science; Take a course today. And keep a small bug-out bag in your car. Less than $100 and some planning ahead of time and you can not only survive just about any catastrophe but also help the people around you.

    Everyone should be doing this. Don't rely on your fucking cell phone, or having access to any phone at all. Don't rely on the government. Rely on you. In an emergency, that's the only person you can rely on.

    • A specific advantage of pay phones is that the phone company knows the public will use them and gives them priority in service restoration.

      Don't count on being able to put out a fire by yourself unless it's a really small one.

      Your main point is well taken, of course: self-sufficiency is the first thing to aim for.

    • by bjdevil66 (583941)

      Your points are good ones. "Don't Panic." Use your brain. And before emergencies strike, follow the scout motto: Be Prepared. Don't count on anyone from "the government" showing up to bail you out in the short-term.

      The real question, though, is whether pay phones are something that should be a public service (vs. a market-supported service). Should we pay for pay phones as a "just in case" backup plan for those who may need it because they weren't prepared or couldn't help but panic?

      I couldn't say for sure,

  • Already too late. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Monday November 05, 2012 @01:55PM (#41883427)

    I couldn't tell you where ANY pay phones around here are. Heck, where you do see a pay phone, it's usually in a neighborhood where you're likely to get mugged or shot if you tried to use it anyway.

    • I'm pretty sure the payphones in my neighborhood were stolen and sold for their metal long ago.

    • by Mashiki (184564)

      I know where there are 3 pay phones are within a block of me. Then again I live in Canada, and they're still common in smallish communities still.

  • C'mon people, get rid of the regulated payphones now, and during the next disaster, Free Market PayPhones (tm) will just pop up everywhere like daisies. (Of course it'll be $100 per minute call, but hey, that's what the Free Market is for)

    Seriously, the National Guard should have a bunch of communications trucks that can form a mesh network after an event like this. They should be able to connect to regular cell phones, prioritizing 911 calls, then allowing some WiFi traffic to move out of a disaster z
  • I'm re-posting from the older thread linked above about NY's plans to use payphones as WiFi hotspots:

    On a related note, have you ever wondered what that Police Public Call Box thing is that The Doctor uses to travel through space and time? I used to wonder too. It wasn't until I went to Edinburgh that I saw them and other objects that looked like them. I remember jumping out of my seat and saying "There's a Tardis!"

    Well apparently they had a phone accessible from the outside that the public could use to call the cops in an emergency. Cops would have access to the inside where they could go in and hang their hat, hold a prisoner while help came, and effectively use it as a mini police station. Some of them remain and have been re-purposed for other uses like coffee shops or news stands. There were a lot of designs and didn't seem to standardize like the classic red phone box did.

    Cities like Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool have updated the concept with "help points", little computerized kiosks that are under CCTV surveillance and have a direct line to the police. It'd be cool if they could introduce the modern functionality but contain it in the form of the old 1929 Mackenzie Trench design that was popularized by Doctor Who.

    The moral of the story is that once infrastructure is taken out it's very hard to put back in. If you leave it in place, even when it stops being immediately useful, it can find a use later when some new trend (coffee shops) or new technology makes it useful again. When the old Police Boxes were going out of service, the WWW was a long way off and nobody could have foreseen their reincarnation as help point

    • by Picass0 (147474)

      >> "When the old Police Boxes were going out of service, the WWW was a long way off and nobody could have foreseen their reincarnation as help points."

      You've made a common mistake. There was only one Police Box, it just somehow managed to appear in numerous places at the same time.

    • by jittles (1613415)
      Anyone who has been to London knows that those boxes, as well as the red phone booths, are perfect for putting up ads with half naked women (escorts perhaps?). What better reason to keep them around?
    • by Richy_T (111409)

      The nice thing about the old booths was that they were totally enclosed so you were out of the wind and rain for a bit. Unfortunately, this made them ideal places to doss for the homeless and drunk.

  • my mom spent the hurricane and flood in an ocean facing condo with a dumb phone. she's now going to get an iphone or Galaxy S3

    the voice service was crap but the texting and data mostly stayed up even in the worst hit areas. texting i'm OK is good enough and there are lots of other features she will get

    and payphones would have been useless as well since the water was high enough to destroy them

  • Cell phones are great, but having a payphone option definitely comes in handy. I was at a large public event (a St Patrick's Day thing) a while back and had had a bit too much to drink and got separated from the group I was with. Had no idea where I was at and for some reason (I'm guessing just tower overload) my cell phone wasn't working. I kept trying to dial out for another hour or so but the battery eventually died. It was around 3am in the morning and virtually everything was closed.

    Long story shor

    • by Jeng (926980)

      In that type of situation I would recommend also sending a text to your friends since the text will send during the second or two that you actually get a signal.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Just add an easement to your city's antenna tower permits that will allow people to put in ham radio repeaters with autopatches.

    Individuals will pay for their own transceivers for free (as they have for about a century) and hams will move traffic that can be done simplex to other frequencies.

    There are a dozen repeaters in reach of my commute to work. There are naturally in places that don't flood and hams generally have great battery backups connected to them. Further, they don't require the phone systems

  • The payphone thing is part of a much larger problem. Forty years ago, the entire U.S,. phone system (except for a few independent pockets) was owned by a single company. That company did a pretty good job of maintaining a robust, disaster-resistant communication infrastructure. But it also stifled competition and innovation.

    In the deregulation-happy 80s, we got rid of that official monopoly. This has had many positive results (hard to imagine the modern Internet being built in such a restrictive environment

  • by Richy_T (111409)

    If you had a working cellphone, you could instead have a microcell and emergency powerable charging ports. No need to for infrastructure to support collecting cash and able to be used by more than one person at a time and easy to armor against casual vandalism.

    • by Richy_T (111409)

      Should have checked the other replies first. Great minds think alike.

    • by afidel (530433)

      For emergency charging of your cellphone something like this [ebay.com] is useful. I normally use it for camping but I took it out last weekend and made sure the battery was powered up so we would have lights and cellphone charging in case of a power outage. The best part is even during the storm on Tuesday it was still able to charge the battery, amorphous panels don't need that much light to keep a cellphone charged.

      • by afidel (530433)

        I hate to reply to myself but I was able to find the kit [greenlivingforu.com] on their non-ebay page which won't just go away like the ebay listing will.

  • A vending machine selling disposable paper cell phones for $1 would be an adequate replacement.
    • by Magorak (85788) *

      And with the power out, how exactly are you going to use the vending machine? And who's to say if you smashed the glass and got it open that the phone in the machine would even be charged

    • Problems are:
      As we've seen with Sandy, the result is Cellphone coverage can get borked. Downed towers, cut communications, etc. AT&T was having mad problems in the aftermath, and I heard Verizon was having some too.

      To ensure that a cellphone sitting in the vending machine for months or 1+years will still have a charge when you finally get it. If there's no power, then a dead cellphone is a waste.

      Cellphones need to be activated before you can use them, even if it is just over another phone. Mass acti

  • New York decided long long ago to bury all utility lines, and this is why the pay phones continued to work. Most areas in this country have overhead utilities, so in the case of a hurricane the phone lines would fail.

  • I can recite exactly two phone numbers from memory: mine, and my Dad's. The latter is because he still has the same phone number I grew up with. So if I didn't have my cell phone, and power was out everywhere, I wouldn't know whom to call anyway.

    • 411, they have all the numbers. (If that still works)

      Alternately, 1-(area code) 555-1212 used to connect you to information in that area code. I haven't actually used either of those in years, so they might also have gone the way of the pay phone.
  • So New York is flooded, power is out, and you can drop quarter into a payphone to call someone that cares?

    I think this speaks more of the fact we need better power and wireless systems. How can landline service survive when everything else is knocked out? How about getting the people that invented landline phone service to invest a little time and effort making power lines and wireless services a little more resilient.

    Also, I think its time that people invent a cell phone that can last more than a day on

  • by cyn1c77 (928549) on Monday November 05, 2012 @04:25PM (#41885759)

    Get rid of the old payphones and install satellite phones...

    OR

    Make the electrical grid and cell phone towers more robust to disasters and conduct system stress tests.

No amount of careful planning will ever replace dumb luck.

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