Public Insight Network

Pay phones: A thing of the past, or still serving a public purpose?

They stand like sentries on the sidewalks of Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard, along Flagler and Eighth streets, about 100 of them — yet they are barely noticed and rarely used.

The question: What to do with the archaic, bland pay phones that once served an extraordinary public service but, at a time when just about everyone has a cell phone, seem little more than space-eating advertising sites cluttering Miami sidewalks?

“I suppose you can justify one without an ad every 12 blocks or so,” said Peter Ehrlich, a Scenic Miami member whose group considers outdoor advertising to be visual pollution. “They’re not really pay phones anymore, it’s visual clutter, an eyesore.”

Though most everyone agrees pay phones are so rarely used they don’t pay for themselves and would disappear without the advertising, they still serve an important function, advocates argue.

“Miami has a large number of tourists, especially foreign tourists whose cell phones won’t work,” said Bruce Renard, executive director of the Florida Public Telephone Association. “And it still serves a major public purpose. When the towers went down in New York the pay phones were the only phones that worked for weeks.”

Stroll down most of Miami’s main streets and every few blocks you’ll see a 5-foot tall, three-sided structure with a couple of sides of advertising, usually for bottled water or a clothing line. The old metallic phones inside the small booths have stickers showing a call is now 50 cents.

The public’s view on what to do with pay phones? Keep them, at least according to a very unofficial poll of The Miami Herald’s Public Insight Network.

Romy Casablancas, a local attorney, said they’re not hurting anybody.

“You would not believe how many times I’ve had to use them, and I have a cell phone,” she said. “They are necessary. In Europe they are everywhere. I don’t see why we should not have them here. They come in handy many times.”

Homestead’s Gwendolyn Ross, who still thinks pay phones cost 25 cents a call, said “most emphatically yes” to keeping them around. “A pay phone is one of those things that people don’t think they need until they need one. Ask the survivors of recent disasters.”

The slight opposition came from Miami Beach’s Charles Urstadt, who thought a phone call cost 75 cents.

“The less visual clutter and physical obstacles pedestrians have to contend with, the better Miami-Dade will be,” he said.

Countywide, advertising on pay phones isn't a hot-button issue, at least for now. Deputy Miami-Dade mayor Chip Iglesias said the county has contracts for the airport and its jails — the only pay phones in town he believes pay for themselves.

In Miami, the pay phone issue first surfaced in Miami about a year ago, when a group of people from the city’s Upper Eastside complained to Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff that new pay phones were being erected on street corners. It turned out they weren’t new, they were just getting a face-lift with cleaner advertising panels.

Sarnoff had his staff do an audit, and the results didn’t surprise him: In 2012, each of the 96 pay phones on city right-of-ways in Miami averaged 200 calls a year — about one every other day. Free calls to 911 averaged less than one a week from each phone. To put up a phone on a city right-of-way you must obtain a permit from the city. The same goes for placing an ad on a phone booth.

Most of the phones in Miami with ads are there because of a 2001 pilot program in which the city allowed advertising on the pay phones for the first time. But there was no next step, and the city’s phones have for the most part languished ever since. The city collects $9,300 a year total from the company that owns most of the pay phones on city streets, plus another $185 per phone — not exactly the multi-million dollar windfall that billboards have brought.

Sarnoff placed an item on the city agenda a few weeks to do away with all the pay phones on public property, but pulled it after seeing he didn’t have enough votes from fellow commissioners.

“I’m not sure you need’’ pay phones, Sarnoff said. “But if we do they shouldn’t be ugly little kiosks just for advertising. Let’s make Miami a really cool city and do what New York did.”

Aha. New York. Where the lights are brighter and the pay phones are — sexier?

They certainly are this year, especially since New York launched its “Reinvent Payphones” contest in December. The winner: The “NYFI”, a 10-foot tall double-sided touchscreen outdoor phone with large advertising panels on the sides. The booth comes with free wi-fi and other smart phone features.

Other contestants include “The Beacon,” a 12-foot tall voice- and gesture-controlled kiosk that looks like a colorful canoe paddle standing on end. There was also the “NYC IO,” a three-sided tube-like structure that offers real time data.

Michael Kohner is director of operations for First American Telecom, which owns 325 pay phones throughout Miami, most of them on private property or Florida Department of Transportation land. He admits the phones aren’t self-sustaining, and require advertising to keep them around. He said he’s aware of the New York competition, and has a couple of ideas of his own, like combination ATM/pay phone kiosks.

He said his company would be more than willing to take a look at other ways to supplement pay phone revenue, whether it’s working in combination with ATMs or setting up at Internet hot spots.

“Pay phones are a declining business,” said Kohner. “You’ve got find some sort of return. The question is what other revenues can be earned in the utility. I just don’t know.”

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