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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Turnpike hanging up on pay phones

Jason Cato
| Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, 5:00 p.m.
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
Jason Cato / Tribune-Review
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
Jason Cato / Tribune-Review
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
Jason Cato / Tribune-Review
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
Jason Cato / Tribune-Review
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.
Jason Cato / Tribune-Review
A pay phone stands outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 in Westmoreland County. The Pennsylvania Turnpike removed 15 pay phones in the past year and is in the process of removing the last 28 that remain.

Finding a pay phone along the Pennsylvania Turnpike is no easy task, with fewer than three dozen spread over the 360-mile span, plus its extensions.

Soon, it will be impossible.

“Slowly, we have been eliminating the pay phones as construction work takes place at the interchanges,” said Renee Colborn, a turnpike spokeswoman. “Approximately 15 pay phones have been eliminated this year, which leaves a total of 28 pay phones at various locations.”The culprit behind the pay phone's demise along the turnpike is the same as elsewhere: the cellphone.

For that same reason, turnpike officials in September began removing more than 1,000 emergency roadside call boxes . When first installed in 1988, motorists placed 18,000 calls a year for help. Last year, they were used fewer than 800 times.

Nearly every American — 95 percent — owns a cellphone of some kind, the Pew Research Center reports.

Public pay phones in the United States peaked in the late 1990s, when more than 2.1 million were in operation. Fewer than 100,000 remain, according to the latest figures available from the Federal Communications Commission.

Pennsylvania has fewer than 7,000, down from about 35,000 a decade ago.

That the days are numbered for the last remaining pay phones along the turnpike isn't surprising to Debbie Maffett, one of the two remaining employees at the American Public Communications Council, a trade group in Alexandria, Va., that represents some of the 600 to 700 independent operators still in existence nationwide.

“I've seen the numbers drop dramatically over my 14 years here,” Maffett said. “If there is a situation where a cellphone isn't working, a pay phone is worth it.”But it often costs more than it is worth, she said.

Operators typically pay $24 to $40 per month for phone service. They get reimbursed 49 cents per call, which typically is paid for with a credit card or pre-paid calling card.

That means a phone must be used about 50 to 80 times a month to turn a profit, not counting servicing and maintenance costs.

“That's why they've been pulled more and more,” Maffett said.

The FCC deregulated the pay-phone industry in the late 1980s. By 2007, AT&T bailed from the market. Verizon, which once provided service along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and was the state's primary exchange company, pulled out in 2011.

The FCC in June proposed eliminating a federal regulatory requirement for phone companies to file annual audits tracking pay-phone transactions, noting that it costs some companies about five times more to count the number of calls made each year than pay-phone revenue collected.

A lone pay phone remains outside the Mainline Toll Plaza on Turnpike 66 near the West Newton/Greensburg exit. Sooty grime covers the coin-operated phone inside the doorless, full-length box standing along the roadway. Local calls cost 50 cents for 15 minutes, and two minutes of international service costs $1, signs announce.

Pacific Telemanagement Services, or PTS, operates the phone. Company president Michael R. Zumbo could not be reached for comment.

The San Ramon, Calif.-based telecommunications firm got into the public pay phone business in 1986 and began growing its national footprint in 1998, eventually taking over service of former AT&T and Verizon phones. According to its website , PTS is the country's largest public pay-phone provider, with more than 45,000 phones sprinkled across 48 states.

Maffett said PTS now has far fewer phones.

“They have about 20,000,” she said. “They are no longer a customer of ours, but I still see their numbers.”

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review assistant city editor. Reach him at 724-850-1289 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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