Superman & The Case of the Disappearing Public Telephone

Action Comics #355 (October 1967) pictured in The Silver Age of Superman: The Greatest Covers of Action Comics From the ’50s to the ’70s (1995).
Action Comics #355 (October 1967) pictured in The Silver Age of Superman: The Greatest Covers of Action Comics From the ’50s to the ’70s, text by Mark Waid (New York: Artabras, 1995), p. 140.

What strikes more terror in Superman’s heart than his enemy’s using a telephone booth to switch into a secret identity? It’s the demise of public telephones altogether. Even though the booths in which Superman made his own quick switches have already disappeared from most urban locations, public telephone service itself did not seem in danger until recently. No doubt Clark Kent already carries a mobile telephone to contact his editors at the Daily Planet. But what if Lois Lane can’t make a distress call because she can’t find a public telephone? However Superman assesses these tradeoffs, the passion for—one might say technological enthusiasm for—mobile phones has threatened the end of the public telephone as both a communication tool and a cultural icon. Whatever will those of us still without “mobiles” do?

Despite its current predicament, the payphone introduced many Americans to the wonders of the telephone. By most accounts first installed in 1889 in Connecticut by William Gray, an inventor who also designed the baseball chest protector, for decades the payphone was often the only telephone in some rural areas and city neighborhoods. Boys clustered around neighborhood and corner store phones to take calls, then ran to inform the calls’ intended recipient for tips. In 1902, 81,000 payphones constituted 3.5% of all U.S. telephones. Forty years later, an AT&T promotional film boasted that it collected more than $100,000 daily in New York City alone because people used them “day and night,” from “everywhere about everything,” ranging from business transactions to personal emergencies.

Of course, after World War II most homes had their own “private” phones, with or without party lines, and “public” phones began to play less essential roles. Nonetheless, payphones continued to thrive, and by 1960, more than one million served the nation. Today almost six million people in the United States still do not own phones, and they join all those without mobile phones in needing public phones for emergencies and convenience.

Even so, about fifteen percent of U.S. payphones in use in 1998 have since disappeared, reducing the numbers to about two million. In April, Bell South announced that it is abandoning the payphone business by the end of 2002, either selling or removing its 143,000 phones now in service. With labor costs high, servicing the phones remains the greatest expense, including cleaning, removing graffiti and stickers, and repairing. Consequently, many companies have decided to take out additional tens of thousands this year and next. Later in 2001, the Denver-based telephone system, Qwest, will raise its payphone rates to fifty cents to save its revenue stream.

Cell phones make up part of the assault on payphones, since 1998 reducing payphone calls by 23%. Even greater problems, though, have been the long-distance resellers (go-betweens often beginning with 10-10), who often did not reimburse pay-phone operators. Hence the April 5, 2001, Federal Communications Commission decision allowing payphone owners to charge thirty to fifty cents per call for making what used to be free coinless calls, such as those to 800 numbers. The charges began immediately, and this “payphone usage fee” already may have appeared on your bill.

The American Public Communications Council, the national trade group representing independent payphone service providers, met earlier in May with the Canadian Payphone Association and the Mexican Association of Public Telephone Operators to discuss, among other things, expanding services at payphones to include data and video options. So new technological developments could open options.

Perhaps this stage in telephone access merely reflects a penchant for increasingly privatized access to communication systems, aiming for televisions, computers, and telephones in every room and earphones on every head. Certainly the more people who are wired into a system, the greater the revenues for those owning the wires, even if the wires are only virtual.

Yet we miss the point if we reduce to a mere capitalist plot this process of accelerating point-to-point, individual-to-individual, and mass-medium-to-individual communication. Why does providing ever more individualized access always reward developers and marketers? On another track: remains there any responsibility within the polity to provide access to those who—for whatever reason—do not acquire it themselves? Perhaps it is the public in the “public telephone” label on Superman’s changing room that deserves our attention now.

Pamela W. Laird

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