WENATCHEE — Aren Magnussen entered his phone company’s dark cellar and flicked on the light. The dead stared back.
Hundreds of old payphones, unwired and unwanted, stood in silent rows on the concrete floor and ceiling-high shelves in the basement of Interwest Communications, the leading pay
phone vendor in north-central Washington.
Some were scarred and battered, some had internal damage, some leaned with mangled appendages such as bashed handsets or twisted levers.
“This is the graveyard,” said Magnussen, the company’s operations manager. “This is where our payphones come to die.”
Across Washington and the nation, the once-ubiquitous payphone now faces the rudest of hang-ups as phone users abandon a century-old technology that’s now often viewed as unreliable, immobile and downright inconvenient.
Yep, most folks have switched to cell phones. It’s a fundamental shift that, in the last decade, has nearly sent payphones to the 21st century’s heap of obsolete — that growing pile that includes film cameras, bookstores, video rental outlets, stamped mail, fax machines, electronic pagers and more.
According to the American Public Communications Council, a trade association for the payphone industry, the number of payphones in the U.S. has shrunk from about 2 million in the late 1990s to fewer than 500,000 today.
In central Washington, phone company executives have estimated a 65 percent drop in the number of payphones since 2001. Interwest has just under 200 payphones in service, down from a high of 600 in the late 1990s.
Magnussen also estimates that his company’s pace of payphone disconnects has held steady since 2007. This year, up to 20 percent of Interwest’s lesser-used phones could be “uninstalled,” he said, and destined for his company’s basement.
Frontier, another of NCW’s primary payphone providers, has 93 payphones in Chelan and Douglas counties, according to a company spokeswoman. That’s down from hundreds a decade ago when Verizon competed head to head with Interwest, GTE and others for payphone customers. Last year, Verizon sold its land-line phone operations to Frontier.
“Payphones had their heyday, and now they’re slowly, sadly going away,” said Frontier’s manager of payphones Vicki Leonard, who’s worked with payphones for over 16 years from her Illinois-based service headquarters.
“The numbers are dwindling everywhere,” she said. “Well, except in mountainous regions — those areas where hills and valleys play havoc with cell phone reception.”
At Interwest, Magnussen agreed. “The end of the payphone era is right around the corner,” he said. “Some people see it as sad, but I see it as an inevitable result of a progressing technology. I mean, who wants to carry around a pocketful of quarters to make a phone call?”
The 28-year-old Magnussen, a co-owner of Interwest, grew up in the family-owned business amid some of the telephone industry’s most turbulent times. Those included deregulation, the resulting upheaval in long-distance pricing, phone company mergers, and the rise of cell technology, texting, video streaming and mobile access to the Internet.
A decade ago, in high school and college, he spent summers on the company’s payphone service route, traveling hundreds of miles through NCW to service and collect money from 50 to 75 phones per day. His service van was loaded with extra parts and even, he said, extra phones to replace ones severely vandalized or beyond simple curbside repairs.
“In those days, it seemed like there was a payphone on every corner,” he said. “It was big business. There was money to be made.”
It all comes down to coins in the slots, said Magnussen, and whether an individual phone can earn enough to pay its operating expenses — an estimated $150 per month — and make a tidy profit for the phone’s owner.
That’s why, he said, many grocery, drug and convenience stores have yanked out their row of payphones — which often included four phones or more — and replaced them with ATMs, DVD rental machines and other devices (mostly vending machines that accept credit cards) that can better pay for the required phone line.
It’s also the reason many isolated, seldom-used phones are pulled out of service, even though a small number of people have come to rely on each one of them, said Magnussen. “Usually the phone isn’t earning its keep.”
Still, some payphones have constant use and will serve the public for years to come, said Steve Sandman, general manager for Frontier in Wenatchee. “Top locations for a successful payphone? Convenience stores, gas stations and transit areas — anywhere there’s a flow of people who need to talk to other people.”
Hospitals, correction centers and performance venues are other locations for payphones that — even in the digital era — earn their keep, he said.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Interwest began in 1996 to move away from payphones to offer other communication services — primarily sales and installation of phone systems and networks. Today, payphones are a small fraction of Interwest’s overall business, Magnussen said.
“It doesn’t really sadden me all that much to see payphones on their way out,” said Magnussen. “My passion is working with the electronics side of the business — the more technical side. Payphones are mostly mechanical, an earlier technology serving an earlier generation.”
He smiled. “I know payphones were an important part of many people’s lives — in happy times and emergencies. They (payphones) have had a long and profitable life, but now they’re on their way out.”