21st Century Payphones

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 4/10/2012 | 29 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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tinym   21st Century Pay Phones   4/11/2012 12:43:25 AM
Re: If They
Only for the arcade, if I was lucky enough to go...
Rich Krajewski   21st Century Pay Phones   4/11/2012 12:37:29 AM
Re: If They
I would have held out for $5 before I left the house.
tinym   21st Century Pay Phones   4/11/2012 12:36:18 AM
Re: If They
I'm taking this as a compliment on my youthful appearance "Are you sure you ever even touched a pay phone before. I doubt it." I grew up in an era a tad later than when calls were a dime and I had to carry at least $2 in change whenever I left the house (on my bike, then later in my car when I could drive).

I maintain my position on the disappearance of pay phones because they've been around so long.
Rich Krajewski   21st Century Pay Phones   4/11/2012 12:10:54 AM
Re: If They
"They don't know what it's like to need to carry several dollars in change everywhere just in case you need to make some calls."


Calls were a dime. Kids didn't make that many calls from a pay phone. Later, as calls climbed up to a quarter, you'd still need maybe no more than 50 cents in your pocket to take care of the occasional call. If you were an adult and you made a lot of calls for business, then you got a phone card that let you charge your calls to your account.

Are you sure you ever even touched a pay phone before? I kind of doubt it.

Obsolete? No, just unpopular. That's why you can still find some of them around, especially in places you can't get a cell phone signal.

Old? Yes. Did they get thrown out every couple of years? No, they lasted decades. Very responsible and ecological, don't you think?

(I've linked those two words to their definitions, because young people tend not to have heard of them. That last word might be tricky, because the link is to the noun form of the word. The adjective form is buried deeply within the definition, which might be hard to find, but if there's an adult around, ask for help. I've also tried to keep all of these paragraphs short, so that they fit within Department of Education guidelines for high school readers.)
tinym   21st Century Pay Phones   4/10/2012 11:39:21 PM
Re: If They
I look on these old phone booths with a bit of nastalgia as well. As I see them slowly disappear, I think of kids today. They don't know what it's like to need to carry several dollars in change everywhere just in case you need to make some calls. Rather than tearing them all out, I do think something should be done to repurpose them. Not everything that's old should be tossed out just because it's old, outdated, and obsolete.

Get off my lawn!
Zaius   21st Century Pay Phones   4/10/2012 10:58:47 PM
Re: If They
The touch screen in London Drugs (Canada) checkouts are made by the same company that makes monitors and they are virtually unbreakable. Really localized info should draw foot traffic. Also what about ordering groceries for later pickup or delivery from a touch screen? And the screen size would be an attractive factor.
Rich Krajewski   21st Century Pay Phones   4/10/2012 6:08:10 PM
Re: If They
"Please turn off your iPad, Ultrabook, iPhone, Google Goggles, and big screen TV before pumping gas. Cigarettes, however, are available at lowest price allowed by law."

When TVs were new and still expensive, laundromats would put them in to attract customers (or so I've heard old-timers tell). They could put WiFi in, so your Internet-enabled washing machine can send you a text message to tell you that your wash, which is about three feet in front of you, is done!

But, seriously, you have hit on some of the marvelous utility of our new technologies, and the need to marry them with a place to sit down!

I am the type of person who looks with affection at those well crafted, mahogany phone booths of old, and with sadness to see them ripped out of establishments and replaced with security cameras.  I hope the idea to create "WiFi booths" works. It's nice to be able to sit down behind a folding door, away from the crowd for a moment.
David Wagner   21st Century Pay Phones   4/10/2012 5:50:24 PM
Re: If They
@rich- that's a great idea. Or at least, we can combine them with the robotic vending machines Birgit wrote about.

Serously, the thing that this reminded me of the most was the video advertising at gas stations. Excpet, obviously this is interactive. Maybe the gas stations out to think about adding an interactive component.
Rich Krajewski   21st Century Pay Phones   4/10/2012 3:10:36 PM
If They
If they served hamburgers, too, it would be a McDonald's!
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