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Creative makeovers: reinventing the telephone booth. (Perspective).

European and Asian wireless penetration levels for years have been well ahead of those in the United States. Mobile wireless technology has won over customers worldwide by providing a new level of communications freedom and convenience that is dramatically changing the way modern people live and work.

But the early success of wireless in foreign markets means telecom providers abroad also have been the first to see the technology slowly start to displace wireline services. Among this phenomenon's victims is the public payphone.

Wireless displacement of wireline services is slowly making its way across the sea, and U.S. carriers are beginning to feel the payphone pinch. It seems logical that at a time when more and more people are carrying personal communications devices, the demand for payphones would be on the decline.

Once a major source of income, U.S. payphones are becoming less lucrative, prompting many service providers to make drastic cuts. Verizon, for instance, has reduced its nationwide telephone booth fleet to 425,000, down 25,000 in the last two years. Going even further, BellSouth has announced that it will exit the business entirely phasing out its 143,000 payphones by the end of this year.

The growing obsolescence of the public telephone booth has led to some creative alternatives for this dying breed. TIME magazine asked some artists to redesign phone booths to give them a new function/purpose once the telephone was removed. One artist made a rain shelter, and another a "privacy booth" ideal for improving the quality of a sidewalk-wireless phone conversation. In states with strict smoking bans in public places, some have suggested that the booths become the exclusive domain of smokers. Witty ideas, but service providers are looking for money-generating upgrades.

The British may have found a solution. Their traditional bright red telephone booth, ironically a national symbol, is slowly going the way of the Edsel. With the help of telecom equipment-maker Marconi Communications, British Telecom (BT) has replaced many of its time-honored indoor and outdoor telephone booths with what it calls BT Internet kiosks. With a simple cash or credit card payment, patrons can use these souped-up phone booths to access the Internet via a high-speed broadband connection, send and receive e-mail, send text messages to mobile phones, make phone calls and play games.

The BT Internet kiosks also are points of sale for wireless products and services, such as logos and ring tones for cellular phones. Somewhat less high-tech, Internet-enabled payphones are slowly emerging in the United States in high-traffic areas, such as airports. So are these new kiosks the answer?

It is doubtful that such phone booth upgrades will occur on a grand scale in the United States, especially in rural areas where many small telecom operators either already have pulled out of the phone booth business, or simply keep the unprofitable phones up and running as a public service to their communities.

Still, with the increasing number of wireless subscribers, those rural phone booth operators that also offer wireless services may find that enhancing existing booths in high-traffic areas to sell wireless add-on services, as BT has done, could be a way to incorporate a dying service into their migration strategies for the next generation of telecommunications.

Athena Platis is wireless industry analyst for NTCA. She can be reached at
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Author:Platis, Athena
Publication:Rural Telecommunications
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:May 1, 2003
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