New York City rips out last city-owned public payphones

Y'know, those large cellphones fixed in place that you share with everyone and have to put coins in. Y'know, those metal disks representing...

New York City this week ripped out its last municipally-owned payphones from Times Square to make room for Wi-Fi kiosks from city infrastructure project LinkNYC.

"NYC's last free-standing payphones were removed today; they'll be replaced with a Link, boosting accessibility and connectivity across the city," LinkNYC said via Twitter.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine said, "Truly the end of an era but also, hopefully, the start of a new one with more equity in technology access!"

This isn't quite the extinction of payphones in New York City – according to the New York Post, private payphones on public property still exist, and four enclosed phone booths have been preserved on West End Avenue on the Upper West Side.

But it does represent the culmination of an initiative [PDF] to rethink the management of some 10,000 public payphone installations consisting of 13,000 individual sites. That effort took shape following the 2014 expiration of public payphone franchise contracts overseen by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

The payphone was patented in 1889 by inventor William Gray, thirteen years after the invention of the telephone. It allowed callers to deposit coins in exchange for time-limited voice calls, often within enclosed booths or fixed cabinets. The first payphone, developed by George Long, was installed that same year in a bank, the Hartford Connecticut Trust Company. And by 1891, Gray had formed the Gray Telephone Pay Station Company to install payphones around the US.

According to the FCC, payphone usage peaked in 1999 when there were over 2.1 million of them installed across the US. By 2013, thanks to the rapid adoption of mobile phones, that number had fallen by more than 90 percent. At the end of 2016, there were less than 100,000 payphones in service in the US. A spokesperson for the FCC said that's the most recent data the agency has made available.

Those too young to recall shoveling spare change into payphones may know them from popular media. In UK sci-fi TV show Doctor Who (1963-present), the iconic time-traveling Tardis took the form of a police box, a public telephone kiosk for contacting authorities. In Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), a telephone booth sheltered actress Tippi Hedren from rabid seagulls. And in The Matrix (1999), payphones provided the way in and out of the sort of simulated world Meta is keen to recreate and monetize.

Many more such scenes are commemorated through The Payphone Project website.

The history of payphones is inseparable from the IT industry. Early hackers used payphones for "phreaking" – manipulating phone networks to make free telephone calls. A 1971 Esquire profile of John Draper, a programmer, hacker, and phreaker known as Captain Crunch, led future Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs to start their first business selling a phone phreaking tool called "blue box."

In a video interview, Jobs said, "If it hadn’t been for the 'blue boxes,' there would have been no Apple."

But efforts to disseminate that knowledge also met with legal challenges – TEL (Telephone Electronics Line), a newsletter focused on phreaking and hacking, published its first issue in November, 1974, and was shut down a year later by a lawsuit from Pacific Telephone & Telegraph.

One of New York's last city-owned payphones, newly removed, is headed to The Museum of the City of New York, where it will appear in an exhibition that opened earlier this month, "Analog City: NYC B.C. (Before Computers)."

Lilly Tuttle, curator at MCNY and the organizer of the Analog City exhibition, told The Register in a phone interview, "The idea here is that these are like really icons of the streetscape of New York City. And they certainly represent a bygone method of technology and communication that was at one time completely essential to the City and to New Yorkers and business."

Tuttle said it's a reminder that we all didn't walk around with smartphones in our pockets or hands all day long.

"That's what the exhibition is really about is how the city grew and thrived and hummed," she said. "People made money and made deals, and we did so without smartphones and texting and social media and all the rest of it."

Tuttle said payphones have played a prominent role in popular culture. "​​There's definitely a cinematic aspect," she said, pointing to Superman's phone-booth costume changes and Cary Grant in North By Northwest.

"Another aspect of this is just the fact that pay phones were so ubiquitous across the city, and people just used them all the time," she said. "They were really a necessary tool in a city like New York. We're a pedestrian city, a city of walkers. This idea that you could be walking down the street and you saw a payphone and you could make a call – they had to kind of be everywhere."

"I think that's really key," she said. "It's an important reminder of how the city, before we had personal smartphones and cell phones, was really built, really wired for people to be in touch and communicate. We did have the tools that we needed. It was just different." ®

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