21st Century Payphones

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 4/10/2012 | 25 comments

David Wagner
A couple of years ago, I was at a conference about re-designing the economy for a new century. The conference was in a federal trade building in DC, and one of the things I noticed during one of the breaks was that there was a bank of about 25 payphones along one wall. No one was using the phones, but people had taken their smartphones and were lined up in the phone stalls like they would have been a decade or so before, using them as desks, places to lean, and a meeting place out of the flow of foot traffic.

I was amused by the irony, but also found it sad that the government had yet to convert those payphones into something more valuable than desks next to a restroom. Apparently, someone more entrepreneurial than me had a similar experience, because the company City 24/7 has a use for those old payphones.

In New York City, the company is starting a pilot program where they are going to convert 250 obsolete payphone booths into interactive kiosks. Part digital sign, part giant tablet, the new “phones” will feature neighborhood specific information including weather, information about nearby restaurants and shops, companies hiring in the vicinity, public service announcements, and anything else you can imagine serving up.

In the future, they could also be WiFi hotspots, Skype phones, and allow people to register complaints directly to the city. Here’s a video showing the proposed kiosks to give you an idea of what they might offer:

This is definitely a great idea for the city of New York. It will cost them nothing to convert the phones. If the program is successful, they’ll get a cut of the ad revenue and possibly have a solution for getting rid of over 12,000 eye sores around the city. Let’s face it, at this point those booths are just targets for graffiti, and anything that can aid the local economy more than an old phone booth is great.

You’ve also got to like City 24/7’s business plan. They’re essentially using the business plan railroads used in the 19th century. For the cost of building new infrastructure, they’re being given some of the most prime advertising real estate in New York City. One has to wonder why the various telephone companies running these booths in the past allowed such valuable real estate to fester to the point that they’ve lost it.

City 24/7 very cleverly found a way to carve a free space into New York’s crowded and expensive advertising landscape. Retail and marketing CIOs across the country should take note, because cities looking to rebuild crumbling infrastructure would likely be willing to give access to similar high traffic areas, including public restrooms and public transportation stops.

But there are some interesting concerns. For one, with the ubiquity of mobile devices, this is an idea that may be just a step behind. It is possible people will walk right by the kiosks with the restaurant information on them because they’re too busy checking OpenTable on their smartphones. Can the kiosks make enough revenue off of people without smartphones?

Another issue is protecting the kiosks from vandalism. No one can walk in a major city for more than a few minutes without seeing a vandalized payphone. The initial cost of the transition is probably pretty reasonable, but constantly replacing and protecting the screens may become a problem.

Still, governments partnering with retailers and marketers to rebuild the technology infrastructure is a winning concept. The technology is relatively simple, and from the point of view of the CIO, easily maintained (if the physical location is safe). The reach is significant, and better than digital signage and other similar options, because it provides a service for the viewer rather than simply demanding they look. I suspect it won’t be long until we see these in high traffic areas all around the US. What do you think?

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Syerita Turner   21st Century Pay Phones   4/30/2012 9:35:38 PM
Re: If They
WOW! I am thinking shouldn't they have thought about this a long time ago when people stopped using the phone booths? I think this is a great idea. I also think that they should think about doing this in schools as well. There are no more payphones for students to contact parents and using the desk phone in the office is out of the question so I think that this would benefit the community as a whole.
The_Phil   21st Century Pay Phones   4/22/2012 11:16:36 AM
Re: 21st Century Pay Phones
As far as pricing, I think the costs have to be ridicoulous since they are kept in service and ar underutilized. So for the few that actually use them, it is a budget killer. It is sort of the same hit we are seeing with the stamp price increases.
PamR   21st Century Pay Phones   4/18/2012 12:48:42 AM
Re: 21st Century Pay Phones
Well, to be contrarian, I'd like to point out that if a. cellphone batteries lasted longer, we'd never need a pay phone and b. the few pay phones still in existence are usually so overpriced and so under-quality, that the sooner they convert to something else, the better off we'd be. (just got ripped off by a pay phone at a courthouse where no one was allowed to bring in cellphones for alleged security issues.)

There's a kind of design genius to the old banks of payphones, isn't there? I mean, the people in their 20s or so, using the pay phone space aren't doing it because they miss their pay phones. The space, as David points out, is perfect--out of the way of traffic, lending a small sense of privacy, etc.

 
The_Phil   21st Century Pay Phones   4/15/2012 5:34:47 PM
Re: 21st Century Pay Phones
angelfuego,

If that's the goal. they should just follow in the footsteps of some other metro areas like D.C. I'm sure those engineers that developed those systems would be interesting in a large-scale taks like NYC!
angelfuego   21st Century Pay Phones   4/12/2012 11:00:00 PM
21st Century Pay Phones
@vnewman

I am also one of those people that immediately turns off the talking screen in taxis. It is nice to have the option to press mute. I think it is the constant, repetition of information and news that gets annoying. The taxi drivers must be really sick of it as well.
angelfuego   21st Century Pay Phones   4/12/2012 10:56:21 PM
21st Century Pay Phones
I think it is a great idea! At no cost, the city can covert the obsolete pay phone booths into a conducive use of space once again. I look forward to seeing this cutting edge idea.  It kind of reminds me a about how the city would like to replace the train maps posted in the subway with tablets that will serve multiple purposes, in addition to subway maps.
vnewman   21st Century Pay Phones   4/12/2012 4:37:32 PM
Re: If They
"You're right that if it is just an eye-level billboard it won't work. People will ignore it."

You're right - much like the "info" screen that runs currently in NYC cabs - the first thing I do when I get in the taxi is turn it off.  It's more an annoyance than any use to me - now maybe if it were interactive, that might be a different story, but only if my smartphone were dead or I was talking to someone on it.  
David Wagner   21st Century Pay Phones   4/12/2012 2:57:20 PM
Re: If They
@SaneIT- I think they're envisioning something more interactive. Something you could walk up to and learn about the business in your area, make reservations, interact with local government, public transportation, etc. But 'm sure what will happen is that they'll try losts of different content and functionality until they find something that works.

You're right that if it is just an eye-level billboard it won't work. People will ignore it.
SaneIT   21st Century Pay Phones   4/12/2012 7:16:39 AM
Re: If They
Pablo has done a couple blogs about kiosks in countries outside the US and how they are used for everything from buying tickets for shows to paying bills.  That type of kiosk would make more sense to me than what I'm envisioning from the article.  The article makes it sound like static content sitting on a tablet sized screen.  I'm seeing things like the weather, a 30 second ad, a 30 second ad disguised as a TV show clip and back to the weather.  I've seen this on gas pumps around here.  At first I thought, cool some info while I pump gas then I realized I was just standing there watching ads.
WaqasAltaf   21st Century Pay Phones   4/11/2012 3:57:25 PM
Re: Smartphone-less
Interesting stats David. However, I am not surprised by the growth % of American smartphone users. Its pretty much consistent with the trend line of people living in other parts of the world that are switching to smartphones.

 
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