By Daniel Wheaton, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Relics of a not-so distant past remain hidden among us, and many of them still work just fine.
Pay phones, which to some might be familiar mostly as a 2012 Maroon 5 song, can still be found across the county.
They are quickly becoming a rare sight — statewide the number of pay phones has decreased by more than 70 percent since 2007. But there are still thousands left.
In California, there were nearly 100,000 pay phones in 2007. Now there are 27,000. In San Diego County, state data shows there were 6,983 pay phones countywide in 2007. Now there are 2,179, a decline that was slightly lower than the state average.
Victor Rollo, president of the San Diego Payphone Owners Association, said that the decision to keep a pay phone operational is based on profitability. He currently operates around 150 phones in San Diego.
In some cases, businesses may ask Rollo or another pay phone operator to keep it running as a public service.
“There are phones in areas where I know it is needed in the community,” Rollo said, “so I leave them in.”
Since 2007, pay phones remain in the same general areas, but overall have thinned.
Rollo said that Spanish speakers are some of his largest customers, but because of more affordable cellphone costs, that demographic is also using pay phones less.
Michael Zumbo, president of the telecommunication firm PTS, said that pay phones are a last defense when other forms of communication fail. A natural disaster or terrorist attack could take out cell towers, but pay phones would likely still work.
“In the old days they were a revenue source, now it’s like a necessity,” Zumbo said.
His firm operates roughly 5,000 phones in California.
The profits off pay phones aren’t very large. Operators can decide how much they want to charge, but the going rate tends to be around 50 cents for a local call. Additional costs are added when a call is made outside of an area code, but after a series of deregulations in the past 30 years, those decisions are also made by the operator.
Zumbo estimates that if three 50-cent calls are made per day, the phone is making enough money to be sustainable.
Pay phones are subject to inspection by the California Public Utilities Commission. The regulator targets pay phones in areas where they would be most needed: airports, hospitals and remote areas.
Last year, inspectors checked on 4,959 pay phones and 2,151 had some sort of damage. If a phone is found deficient, the owners have a period of time to fix the phone, and most comply.
©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.