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Payphone of the East River, 11 Years Later

When I spotted this disembodied payphone component in the East River last week I immediately recognized it as the remains of a burned out, illegally discarded payphone I photographed at the same place 11 years ago in August, 2003.

Payphone SS Upper Armor

Payphone SS Upper Armor

This object appears to be the SS Upper Armor, a style of stainless steel body guard which stands at the front line of vandalism repellent for most coin-operated public telephones.

In 2003 I spotted this SS Upper Armor still affixed to a more-or-less intact payphone, complete save for its seemingly bloodied and screaming open mouth where the coin receptacle used to be.

Illegally Dumped Payphone Carcass, East River

Illegally Dumped Payphone Carcass, East River

In 2003 I remember being puzzled by this bit of illegal dumping. Why would someone go to that much trouble to discard a payphone?

Looking at that picture today the answer seems obvious: It is evidence of a crime. The phone had been forcibly opened and possibly burned, igniting my speculation that someone attacked it with a blowtorch, melting away the exterior to get at the bounty of coins within.

The phone, almost certainly stolen, was chucked into the river by someone unaware of the coming and going of the tides, someone who probably thought the phone would lie there forever in watery oblivion.

At the time a payphone warehouse existed across the street. I do not remember that payphone company’s name but I doubt they had anything to do with trashing this phone. It is more likely this phone was stolen from them. Someone with skills in opening payphones would have no need to resort to torching it just to get at coins inside.

I can find no trace of the payphone today as it appeared in 2003. While the armor component is stainless steel (that should never rust) a large part of a payphone’s innards are made of plastic and soluble materials that either disconnected from the armor or disintegrated altogether into the sloshing dirt of East River filth.

Payphone theft might seem like a waste of effort these days but it’s been pretty common over the years, as these links illustrate:

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The Payphones Of Futures Past

A slightly shorter version of this story appeared earlier at Ask A New Yorker, where I expect to contribute stories about payphones and other matters on an ongoing basis. Find my Ask A New Yorker stories here.

The so-called “payphone of the future” has come and gone a number of times since the mid-1990s. The AT&T Public Phone 2000 could be found at most major airports, along with garishly ugly contraptions such as the Atcom/Info Cyberbooth and TouchNet Internet Business Centers.

Telco companies large and small produced a wide range of these now forgotten thingumabobs which offered pay-as-you-go Internet, telephone and fax services.

While those products targeted business travelers it was TCC Teleplex’s Internet Kiosk (better known as the “Internet payphone”) that brought such devices to New York’s streets. The Internet payphone in New York premiered in 2002, inhabiting our sidewalks in dozens of locations for about 8 years.

In 2010 TCC Teleplex announced it would replace its Internet payphones with solar-powered “green” models. That never happened, and the underappreciated innovation of the Internet payphone disappeared.

Fast forward to 2014 and the payphone of the future is back. On November 14th New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to replace the city’s stable of outdoor public telephones with “Links” — multipurpose public kiosks which would offer free Wi-Fi, touchscreen information services, cell phone charging stations, and (surprisingly) the ability to make phone calls.

Payphones would not entirely disappear from New York under this plan, which targets thousands of outdoor payphones lining the city’s sidewalks and curbs. Phones located in subway stations, airports, bus terminals, theaters, and other venues are not in the crosshairs of this potential payphone bloodbath, though market factors would presumably force them out of business anyway. How can pay-as-you-go telephones survive when thousands of devices offering exactly the same service for free abound? This anticompetitive move should interest the city’s regulatory committees as they review the proposal.

For better or worse I am happy to see that the Payphone Project’s call for payphones to be free phones has inched one step closer to reality. If LinkNYC lives up to its promise New Yorkers could make free calls (of as yet unspecified length) anywhere in the U.S.

It is not clear if Links would allow international calls in a manner akin to prepaid calling cards, which remain popular among immigrants and tourists.

The LinkNYC plan — which requires approval by New York’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) — is put forward by CityBridge, a consortium of companies headed by Titan, the display advertising company that presently owns a majority of the city’s outdoor payphones.

This plan to essentially erase traditional coin-fed phones from city streets has New York’s payphone community (what’s left of it, that is) asking a lot of questions, chief among them simply “Why choose Titan?” It is a reasonable query given that company’s somewhat checkered past with city and state agencies.

Four years ago the MTA terminated its contract with Titan after the company defaulted on about $20,000,000 it owed the agency. Titan claimed to be blindsided by the MTA’s move.

More recently Titan caused a minor kerfuffle when Bluetooth beacons were revealed to have been placed on its public telephones. The beacons, capable of sending and receiving information from smartphones and other bluetooth devices, raised hackles from privacy activists claiming the devices’ placement — and the fact that they were installed with no public announcement or input — evidenced some sort of guerilla advertising-aware surveillance initiative.

The beacons were installed with the approval of the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT).

Informed observers recognized the ludicrousness of those privacy concerns, but facts seldom prevent such a story from going viral.

The beacons were removed.

Despite its lack of substance the beacon “scandal” — along with the company’s sometimes rocky relationship with the city — made Titan a surprising recipient of such a major telecommunications contract.

I would welcome the possibility of free domestic phone calls being available to all, assuming that service is actually reliable, especially in emergencies such as power outages. LinkNYC claims that each device would have a one hour battery backup for such scenarios. An hour is not an impressively long period of time. It’s also not clear how the calls will be connected. Assuming the copper landline which provides dial tone to most of today’s payphones is not in play then either a wireless cell phone signal would be used, or else VOIP. VOIP is the choice then a lot of new and potentially expensive infrastructure will need to be put in place. If wireless cell phone towers would be used to connect free calls then they might not work at all during a blackout or natural disaster scenario.

It would be unfortunate if one characteristic passed on from payphones of today to LinkNYC is that the devices almost never work. Advertising comes first in the payphone business, and with virtually all of its expected income coming from ad revenues there is little reason to assume the same would not hold true for LinkNYC.

Payphones today commonly remain out of service for months as service companies wait for Verizon to restore dial tone to their phones. With that copper landline wiring presumably not in the picture the phone service offered by LinkNYC could actually be more reliable than today’s public telephones on a day to day basis, but the guaranteed ability to make calls in the wake up superstorms, earthquakes, and power outages is something that the FCRC should mandate.

CityBridge implies that its Links would be better taken care of than payphones of today, as hundreds of new jobs would be created for the purpose of servicing them. That promise hinges entirely on the success of the advertising business model, which could take years to establish itself.

The monopolistic nature of CityBridge’s ownership of these kiosks should concern the FCRC, which will conduct a public hearing about the matter on December 8th. With no legitimate competition and no financial incentive to keep the Links’ “free” features functional it is easy to imagine thousands of these devices languishing in disrepair, save for their ability to display advertisments — just like payphones of today.

CityBridge claims LinkNYC will earn the city half a billion dollars over 12 years, or an average of about $42 million a year in the long term. With a goal of installing as many as 10,000 of these kiosks it would take some time to reach that promise, as thousands of these units could not simply rise up overnight. Indeed, I have to ask why there has not been any kind of public beta testing of this product to evaluate its worksmanship, not to mention its value to everyday New Yorkers.

The possibility of raking in $42 million a year puts LinkNYC’s potential value to New York quite a bit higher than kiosks of today. About $17 million from payphone kiosk advertising revenues enriched city coffers in 2013.

The city might need that extra money to fend off contentious and expensive litigation. Telebeam and other payphone providers warned throughout the RFP process of lawsuits targeting what they describe as a municipally sanctioned monopoly. Telecommunications lawyers, already chomping at the bit in anticipation of litigation, see the lawsuits as inevitable.

All in all I just have to ask “Why?” The value of this program has not been proven to such a point that awarding a lengthy 12-year contract to implement it makes sense.

LinkNYC, should it be approved, has a lot of promises — maybe too many — to live up to. And while prototypes of the blandly named Links devices look reasonably modern and sleek the pace at which technology evolves could, in just a few years, have them looking like those homely payphones of the future from decades ago.

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Serial Podcast: The Mysterious Best Buy Payphone

This post from Nov. 7 was updated Nov. 23, 2014, for clarity, and to make a handful of new observations.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to back up the folks producing Serial, a multipart podcast from the creators of This American Life, in their research into whether or not a payphone once existed in 1999 at a specific location in Baltimore, Maryland.

You might be surprised how often I get contacted by individuals seeking to verify if a payphone once existed at a certain spot. I have not fielded many such calls lately, but I think this is the first time I’ve been asked to help determine if a payphone did not exist.

I had not heard of “Serial” until the show’s producer contacted me, and to be honest from our conversation I did not get much of a sense about what it was. I have not had time to listen to the entire series — the programs vary in length from about a half hour to almost an hour — but I was happy to offer whatever I could to back up research already done and to offer other advice. My tips:

  • In 1999 Bell Atlantic was the largest payphone service provider in Maryland. Odds are that if a payphone actually existed at the Best Buy it was owned by them. Bell Atlantic is now Verizon. Contacting that company’s payphone department is certainly worth a try, but I would be amazed if that company had records of this type going back 15 years.
  • Going to the Best Buy itself and inspecting the sidewalk outside the building for indications that a payphone had been removed should also be done, though there seems to be some debate as to whether the payphone was alleged to have been inside the building or outside. Click here for a photo gallery showing the many different ways a payphone leaves its mark behind after removal.
  • Contacting the American Public Communications Council would probably be a long shot as far as getting any precise information, but they might have insights into who else was in the payphone business back then, and who might still be around.
  • Contacting long-time locally run payphone service providers might open some window into the history of payphones in Baltimore (I suggested Robin Technologies).

At about the 8:15 point of episode 5 Sarah Koenig says:

“I just want to pause here and talk about this phone booth for a minute. Weirdly, we have not been able to confirm its existence. The Best Buy employees I talked to did not remember a payphone back then. We spoke to the landlord at the time and to the property manager, they had no record of a payphone. They dug up a photo of the store, from 2001, no phone booth or payphone, though lots of public phones did come down between ‘99 and 2001. They looked up the blueprints for the store when it was built in 1995, nothing. The manager also said there is no record of a service agreement between Best Buy and any payphone company at that store. We checked with the Maryland public service commission. We checked with Verizon. Neither could track down records from that far back.”

The above transcript is borrowed from this Reddit thread, which cites the Payphone Project a number of times.

After episode 5 was published I received a surprising quantity of e-mails from “Serial” listeners inquiring about the accuracy and provenance of the Payphone Project’s information.

The quality of the historical payphone information varies from place to place, but it turns out the data for payphone locations that used to exist in Baltimore is actually pretty good. Most of the phones are gone today but members of the “Serial” staff verified that a few still exist, and further concluded that most of the payphone locations listed on the Baltimore payphones page were pretty plausible.

The Best Buy in question is located at 1701 Belmont Avenue in Baltimore. The Payphone Project has a listing for a payphone located at that address, but the location is described as a “RAMADA HOTEL”, not a Best Buy.

As Reddit sleuths revealed, that Ramada Inn was torn down and replaced by the Best Buy in 1995. It seems unlikely that a payphone would survive the demolition unless it was situated outside the building and far enough away that the wrecking ball couldn’t swing.

There is no need to prove that a payphone actually existed at the Ramada Inn, though memories from anyone who worked there as to what became of it (and who owned it) might be revealing. Did the owner of the payphone approach Best Buy to ask if they were interested in continuing to offer payphone service at that address, and if so was that payphone owner rebuffed?

The producer I spoke with made a comment that I didn’t think to disagree with until later. She suggested that payphones were already in decline in 1999, and that wholesale routing of public pay telephones had already begun.

In fact 1999 was something of a “last gasp” for the payphone industry, which statistics show saw a nationwide increase of about 35,000 phones between 1997 and 1999.

Statistic: Total number of payphones in the United States from 1997 to 2009 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

If this offers any support for the Best Buy payphone’s existence then it may be subsequently offset by other factors — particularly the stigma many businesses have long associated with payphones located directly outside their property. It’s quite likely that Best Buy’s management may simply have not wanted to host an instrument commonly associated with crime and drugs.

Lack of documentation absolutely proving the Best Buy payphone’s existence does not necessarily mean anything. But evidence weighs pretty heavily toward the payphone’s disappearance when the Ramada Inn was razed, and a new one was probably never installed when the Best Buy opened.

Having not found time to listen to the series I do not have an appreciation for how crucial this bit of information is. The folks at Reddit seem to think it’s pretty relevant:

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Subway Buskers, Heard Through a Nearby Payphone

Listen in as a drummer and electric violinist (or possibly violist) perform a cover of Led Zepplin’s “Kashmir”, with an interlude of what sounds like a rhapsody on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. This was recorded through a nearby payphone underground at the Grand Central Terminal subway station.

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Radio Interference, Payphone Style

Even if you actually wanted to make a call from this payphone it would be very difficult to communicate with another human. Audio coming through the earpiece of this landline payphone (718-424-2798) at 82nd Place & 63rd Avenue in Queens was completely subsumed by the sound of Radio Disney. These unintended analogue overlaps, reminiscent of the difficulties sometimes encountered when trying to pinpoint a particular shortwave or AM radio station, are not so common in the digital age. The gray, monochrome sound of the landline places an extra layer of ruggedness over the already tinny sound of Radio Disney’s AM radio signal. I find a certain enchantment in the experience of sound transformed by its transmission through the raspy, low-quality medium of landline public telephones.

Other “Heard Through A Payphone” Links

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