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Hawaii – land of rainbows, world-class surf breaks and … pay phones?
While the pay phone industry has been cratering on the mainland, the once-ubiquitous fixtures have held on in Hawaii.
The result is a slightly retro streetscape where a quaint expression like “dropping a dime” on someone has not entirely lost its meaning – though with inflation, snitching to the police by pay phone now costs more like 50 cents.
Hawaii leads the nation in the number of pay phones per capita by a wide margin, according to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission.
The most recent numbers, from 2014, may not be comprehensive. Yet it’s clear to anyone who’s walked down a Honolulu street that the number of pay phones here far surpasses what one would see in most mainland cities, where they can be as rare as video stores, pinball arcades and newsstands.
Another unusual aspect of Hawaii’s pay phone landscape is that most are operated by the local exchange carrier, Hawaiian Telcom. On the mainland, many of the remaining pay phones are owned by independent operators.
So what’s going on? Nothing unusual, according to Hawaiian Telcom.
The same force that led to a decline in pay phones on the mainland is just as much at play here, according to Hawaiian Telcom spokeswoman Su Shin.
That can be summed up in one word: cellphones.
Pay phones “don’t make sense, which is why we’re seeing the decline across the country,” Shin said. “It’s not some unique thing to Hawaii. People have alternatives.”
It could just be that some trends take longer to take hold in Hawaii.
“Maybe the pace is slower here,” she said.
Others in the industry, though they have no direct knowledge of the Hawaii market, speculate that other factors may contribute.
“Walk through airports, college dorms, hotel lobbies and street corners and you can see where the pay phones used to be.” — Keith Chalk, National Payphone Clearinghouse.
Tourist destinations tend to have a higher concentration of pay phones, said Keith Chalk of the National Payphone Clearinghouse in Cincinnati.
He’s seen the same phenomenon in Cancun, Mexico.
Tourists may calculate that it’s cheaper to use a calling card, or even coins, than to pay for an international cellphone plan, he said.
And there may be an explanation for the dominance of the local exchange carrier, Hawaiian Telcom.
On the mainland, large independent operators take advantage of economies of scale by operating across many states, said Ron McPherson, chief executive officer of G-Five in Redding, California, a company that negotiates rates with big telecom companies on behalf of independent pay phone operators. Crews travel across state lines to service pay phones.
For obvious reasons, that’s not an option in Hawaii. And it wouldn’t be cost-effective to maintain a crew just for the islands. That may have left the field open to Hawaiian Telcom.
Whatever the causes, the numbers show that Hawaii leads the pay phone pack by a wide margin. According to FCC figures, there is one pay phone for every 338 Hawaii residents. The state with the next highest number of pay phones, New York, has one for every 705 residents.
In 2006, Hawaiian Telcom told a Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter that it operated 5,300 pay phones statewide. As of the end of 2015, the total was 3,800 – a significant drop in nine years, to be sure, but nothing like what’s happened in the rest of the U.S.
According to the FCC, there were more than 1 million pay phones operating nationwide in 2006, but only 153,000 in 2015 – an 85 percent decrease.
Industry insiders say at the zenith in the 1990s, as many as 2.4 million pay phones stood ready to trade a coin for a dial tone.
“Walk through airports, college dorms, hotel lobbies and street corners and you can see where the pay phones used to be,” Chalk said.
They also permeated the cultural imagination. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “The Brady Bunch,” the dad gets fed up with high phone bills and installs a pay phone in the living room to teach the kids a lesson.
Clark Kent, of course, used a phone booth to change into his Superman costume, though booths went out of style even before the pay phones they housed.
Now pay phones have become objects of nostalgia, with a website dedicated to photos of of them, including many in Hawaii, and artists collecting them for projects.
McPherson said when he ran his own pay phone company, he used to get calls from restaurants and homeowners who wanted to install them.
The image of pay phones also took on a seedy side when they came to be known as a magnet for drug dealers and other nefarious characters. Pay phone owners responded to complaints from businesses by cutting off service for a week or two until the miscreants moved on or disabling incoming or nighttime calls.
In their heyday, pay phones were so ubiquitous that chain restaurant blueprints always included two in the lobby, Chalk said.
Those days are long gone. Some pay phone owners have a hard time finding replacement parts. Even a decade ago, Chalk said, an entrepreneur held a camp to teach mom-and-pop owners how to fix their own phones.
Slim profit margins mean that some owners cut costs on maintenance and cleaning, and that can lead to a downward spiral.
“People don’t want to go up to a phone that looks dirty and contaminated,” McPherson said. “It doesn’t look like something you want to touch.”
For Hawaiian Telcom, by contrast, maintaining the phones is a natural extension of its landline business. And the company seems to have the wherewithal to keep them looking spiffy. On a recent morning, crews cleaned and serviced the pay phones that ring Queen Kapiolani Regional Park in Honolulu.
Advocates hope that there’s a future for pay phones as emergency back-ups, perhaps subsidized by governments that want to maintain that capability when cellphones go on the fritz.
“In floods or bad storms, you’ll see people lined up at a pay phone,” McPherson said.
Recently, “smart” pay phones have incorporated technology that allows them to be monitored remotely. They can be programmed to charge different rates depending on the time of day or demand.
“I think there will always be some,” McPherson said, but added ruefully, “I don’t know if we’ve bottomed out yet.”
Shin, the Hawaiian Telcom spokeswoman, may have heard the death knell from the mouth of her own daughter, who upon seeing a pay phone recently, asked: “Why would you need THAT thing?”