BellSouth bowing out of pay phone biz

By Billy Corriher

Jonesboro resident Kim Farley has always relied on public pay phones to communicate with her family while she's out shopping or running errands. These days, she said it's getting harder and harder to find pay phones.

"They used to have pay phones everywhere. Now, it seems like every gas station I stop at doesn't have a phone or the phone's broken."

Farley, 30, said she worries that, without a cellular phone, she might not be able to reach her family if she has an emergency.

Many pay phones around the country have been shut down because, with the emergence of cellular phones and email, pay phones are not profitable anymore, said Joe Chandler, BellSouth director of communications.

"It's undeniable that it's a declining business," he said.

Beginning in January, Atlanta-based BellSouth will completely get out of that aspect of the business and remove the last of its pay phones, BellSouth spokesman Al Schweitzer said.

Many of the company's phones have been transferred to other pay phone service providers, Schweitzer said.

"There are a lot of providers out there, and pay phones are not going to go away," he said. "Just because there's new technologies, doesn't mean the old technology is going to go away."

Schweitzer said that the new pay phone service providers may be able to make a profit in the business by specializing in pay phones.

Joe Yahres owns Atlanta-based Telephone Operating Systems and says that having a small, family-owned company makes his pay phone business profitable.

Yahres said the labor costs involved with pay phones are too high for a big company like BellSouth. His four employees, all family members, can do most of the work.

But Yahres said his company, which has been in business for 15 years, has still seen a decline in pay phone calls and is having to diversify its company to survive.

There is still a smaller market for pay phones at convenience stores, he said.

"Convenience stores know that pay phones bring people into their stores," he said. "So, they're still going to have pay phones."

Yahres said that until cell phones become inexpensive enough to be universal, there will always be a market for pay phones.

Hampton resident Bill Winters, 80, used to have a cell phone, and now he's noticed the declining numbers of pay phones.

"Cell phones are too expensive for me," he said.

Even pay phone prices have gone up considerably in the last few years as demand has gone down, Winters said.

Farley said that, even though demand may have gone down, there is still a real public interest in having pay phones.

"They need to realize that not everybody can afford a cell phone."