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Want Free Wi-Fi In New York? Get Near A Pay Phone

Jul 24, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 1:26 pm

Mark Thomas is using a pay phone, but he isn't paying. And physically, he's not even that close to the phone.

He's sitting on a bench on the street in Astoria, Queens, checking email on his netbook. It's grabbing an Internet signal from a military-grade antenna on top of a pay phone down the block.

"It's not the speediest but you can't complain about free, right?" Thomas says.

Thomas has tracked pay phones since 1995 at his website, The Payphone Project. This payphone is part of a pilot project converting New York City's pay phones into Wi-Fi hot spots, launched by the city and pay phone operators, in this case an advertising company called Van Wagner. When Thomas logs on, a new entry appears on the computer of Van Wagner executive Pete Izzo.

"I can actually click on and look at the actual calls — I call them calls, they're not really calls — the logins as they actually happen," Izzo says.

On a recent afternoon, only two people have logged on at Thomas' phone. But Izzo says these numbers could grow into something that could stop pay phones' long death spiral: They've gone from about 2 million across the country in 2000 to less than a quarter of that today.

"We see gems in other people's junk," Izzo says.

He sees in pay phones a kind of buried treasure — literally. "Basically the conduits under the street — bandwidth and electric — bring magic to the street corner," Izzo says.

Magic that could go beyond just Wi-Fi. "Security devices, snifters for the air, cameras ... Could they be banking centers someday?" Izzo says. "Sure they could."

The city is taking suggestions and encouraging experimentation to make pay phones more useful, but this isn't the first time. The first Wi-Fi hot spots at pay phones in New York City were launched in 2003.

"People have tried it over the years, but so far I'm not aware of any that have been turned out to be financially successful," says Randy Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council, a trade association for pay phone operators.

Nichols thinks the main challenge for these would-be pay phones of the future is actually paying for them.

Tom Keane, the chief executive officer of Jaroth-PTS, one of the nation's largest pay phone owners, says the solution could be advertising. That's already the case in New York City.

"That hasn't been a pay phone business for a very long time. That's been a media display ad business hidden in a phone booth," Keane says.

A pay phone in New York typically grosses less than $100 a month from actual calls. They can generate nearly 10 times that much just from the poster-sized ads on the booths' sides.

If Wi-Fi hot spots or Internet touch screens catch on, Keane thinks they could become advertiser-funded, too. And that could make more than just Internet access free, according to Izzo.

"The cost of actually providing a phone call is so low we hope to be able to give that away also someday soon," he says.

The pay phone of the future might not be a pay phone at all.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The golden age of payphones may have passed, at least payphones as we know them, but in New York City, some companies are trying something new. Reporter Stan Alcorn takes us into the streets.

STAN ALCORN, BYLINE: Mark Thomas is using a payphone, but he isn't paying and, physically, he's not even that close to the phone.

MARK THOMAS: I'd say about 30 feet. I'm bad with distances, though.

ALCORN: He's sitting on a bench on the street in Astoria, Queens, checking email on his NetBook. It's grabbing an internet signal from a military grade antenna on top of a payphone down the block.

THOMAS: It's not the speediest, but you can't complain about free, right?

ALCORN: Part of a pilot project converting New York's payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots launched by the city and payphone operators, in this case, a company called Van Wagner. When Thomas logs on, a new entry appears on the computer of Van Wagner executive Pete Izzo.

PETE IZZO: I can actually click on and look at the actual calls. Well, I call them calls. They're not really calls. The log-ins.

ALCORN: This afternoon, only two people have logged on at Thomas' phone, but Izzo thinks that these numbers could grow into something that could stop payphones' long death spiral. They've gone from approximately two million across the country in the year 2000 to less than a quarter of that today.

IZZO: We see gems in other people's junk.

ALCORN: Izzo sees in payphones a kind of buried treasure, literally.

IZZO: Basically, the conduits under the street, bandwidth and electric, bring magic to the street corner.

ALCORN: Magic that could go beyond just Wi-Fi.

IZZO: Security devices, snifters for the air, cameras. Could they be banking centers some day? Sure, they could.

ALCORN: The city is taking suggestions and encouraging experimentation to make payphones more useful, but this isn't the first time. The first Wi-Fi hotspots at payphones in New York City were launched back in 2003.

Randy Nichols is the president of the APCC, a trade association for payphone operators.

RANDY NICHOLS: People have tried it over the years, but so far, I'm not aware of any that have turned out to be financially successful.

ALCORN: Nichols thinks the main challenge for these would-be payphones of the future is actually paying for them. Tom Keane is the CEO of Jaroth PTS, one of the nation's largest payphone owners. He thinks the solution could be advertising. That's already the case in New York City.

TOM KEANE: That hasn't been a payphone business for a very long time. That's been a media display ad business hidden in a phone booth.

ALCORN: A payphone in New York City typically grosses less than $100 a month from the actual phone calls, but they can make nearly 10 times that much just from the poster-sized ads on the booths' sides. If Wi-Fi hotspots or internet touch screens catch on, Keane thinks they could become advertiser-funded, too, and that could make more than just internet access free, according to payphone operator Pete Izzo.

IZZO: The cost of actually providing a phone call is so low, we hope to be able to give that away, also, some day soon.

ALCORN: The payphone of the future might not be a pay phone at all. For NPR News, I'm Stan Alcorn in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.