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Hang on to those pay phones

Bell South announced recently that it is discontinuing all the pay phones it owns. They simply weren't bringing in enough money for the company. In this region, Qwest officials say they aren't ready to go that far, yet. But they are keeping their eyes on the bottom line.

The reason, of course, is the boom in cellular phone sales. As of 1998, 69 million people subscribed to cellular service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. By some estimates, that figure has now grown to more than 100 million, and it shows little sign of stopping as phones become cheaper and more versatile. With so many people carrying telephones in their pockets, the need to enter a booth and plunk a quarter or so into a phone just doesn't come up much any more.

Still, by some estimates, 5.5 million Americans have no phone service at all, and that is the number we hope telephone companies look at most closely. Maybe many of these people have such bad credit they can't qualify for traditional land-line service. Some may be too poor to afford the monthly costs. But any one of them may have an emergency need at any time that requires them to find a phone.

In that sense, the pay phone is more than just a profit-making venture. It has become a public service — one that may at times mean the difference between life and death.

Of course, we understand that argument isn't going to sway many executives. Telephone companies exist to make money. That is especially true in this age of deregulation and competition. But the private sector usually finds a way to take care of market needs, and this situation should be no different. Perhaps the problem isn't cellular phones at all. Perhaps it is the pay phones themselves. Maybe they need a bit of upgrading and modernizing to get with the times.

In several places back east, one phone company is setting up a pay phone that doubles as an Internet station. Users can use a credit card or coins to make calls or check e-mail on a screen. Other companies are contemplating whether to put laptop docking stations on their pay phones. Even people with cell phones in their pockets may find a reason to pay for a quick check of the Internet.

In the meantime, some companies are beginning to market disposable cell phones. Users will pay a small amount for a limited amount of calling time. When the time is up, the phone stops working and can be discarded. That isn't quite as convenient as the old-fashioned coin-operated phone, but it does offer an option.

In this age, people have gotten used to rapid changes in technology. Nobody knows for sure what telecommunications will like as this century progresses. But telecommunications companies can't afford to leave behind people who may need their service for emergencies.