The caller was puzzled and annoyed. He had called home from a touch-tone pay phone. But though he had, as usual, punched a code number to get his answering machine, he was unable to pick up his messages.
Had he stumbled upon a defective phone? Possibly. More probably, he unknowingly was dialing from a privately owned pay phone. At least 20,000 of these are in operation statewide, the San Diego-based California Payphone Assn. reports.
It’s hard to identify them by appearance, as, not by accident, most of these pay phones look identical to those owned and operated by Pacific Bell or General Telephone.
“We’ve found it real important to mimic the existing, standard look,” explained a spokeswoman for the pay phone industry. “People have a resistance to something that looks different.”
One way to tell right off is that most privately owned coin phones charge a quarter for a local call, a nickel more than GTE and Pac Bell. The Public Utilities Commission requires that callers receive at least 15 minutes (the phone companies put no time limit on local calls) but individual owners may permit more. Private phones also may charge 10 cents more on a toll call within California.
From a private pay phone, callers may, or may not, be able to make long-distance calls on their chosen service (such as Sprint, MCI, AT&T;) or use a credit card of their choice.
A private vendor explained there are not yet adequate screening mechanisms to prevent fraud on international calls and “in theory, aperson could make these phone calls and walk away.” Phone companies have a system to alert an international operator that a call comes from a phone booth.
Pacific Bell and GTE will hook a caller up to any long-distance provider serving a calling area.
By PUC mandate, private vendors must provide free access to directory assistance, to phone repair services and to 911 emergency calls, as do the phone companies.
But why might a private pay phone gobble a quarter, then deny a caller “voice mail” or message pickup functions? It has to do with the sophistication of phone equipment. And with six or more major manufacturers plus smaller ones making phones for 200 or more private companies statewide, sophistication varies widely.
Richard Whitman--president of Ram Telephone and Communications Inc. of Los Angeles, whose phones outside 7-Eleven stores statewide handle 3 million-plus calls monthly--explains: “The private pay phone is really a telephone case with a computer inside. Look at it as a PC hanging on a wall.
“Different phone manufacturers have different capabilities. I’d say that 99.9% of all answering machines and formats of answering machines are accessible from our phones.”
But it seems there are touch-tone phones and touch-tone phones. On some private pay phones, once a call is completed the touch tone pads are deactivated. then it is impossible to use the touch tone mechanism to access an answering machine or “voice mail,” explained Mary Lou Kohlenhoefer, a Pacific Bell sales manager. The buttons push, but no tones are emitted.
Whitman, acknowledging that the inconsistency in phone “computer architecture” is a headache to consumers, called it “part of the frustration in any new high-tech industry.”
And the private pay phone industry is new. Pay phones were deregulated in California in February 1986, in compliance with a 1984 Federal Communications Commission ruling that the local phone company monopolies were to be opened to competition and the companies were to provide lines for competitors for a fee.
Almost immediately, “the American entrepreneurial spirit struck,” as Whitman put it. But the mom-and-pop phone trade did not prove an across-the board bonanza. Inexperienced entrepreneurs found themselves dealing with consumers who balked both at higher prices and at equipment breakdowns.
Lots of Vandalism
And many owners were unprepared for the vandalism endemic to public phones. Whitman calls phone booths “billboards for graffiti” and notes the calling public’s propensity for eating while dialing and leaving behind leftovers.
Sometimes, said Karyn St. Lorraine, executive director of the California Payphone Assn., “People get bad news and they rip the handset out of the phone, as if it’s the phone’s fault.”
The association does not have exact figures on the number of private pay phones statewide. Whitman’s company owns or manages 1,850 phones at 7-Elevenstores alone, including 400 stores in Los Angeles County. A phone is an investment, costing $1,500 to $2,500 installed with its enclosure.
Where are private pay phones? In small businesses, schools, institutions, at construction sites and independently owned restaurants and motels. Others go into what the industry calls “0 locations,” where local companies never had phones.
When callers drop a coin into a Pac Bell or GTE phone, this ties them into a main computer that figures rates and tells callers the cost. Private pay phones do not have that network. A chip inside the phone figures the cost; that makes it a “smart phone.” (While local phone companies also refer to these as “smart phones,” they do not, as private entrepreneurs do, call their own “dumb phones.”)
Many Phones Branded
Pac Bell owns about 50,000 pay phones in the 213, 818 and 805 areas. And, Kohlenhoefer said, the company is “branding” its phones to set them apart from private coin phones. Pac Bell phones are also being clearly identified as such in “warm red” lettering just below the receiver.
Private owners offer commissions higher than those paid by phone companies to restaurateurs, store owners and others to install telephones. “About 15% of the coin in the box” is typical, St. Lorraine said.
Pat Doherty, GTE’s public telephone manager, likens private phones to soft drink or candy machines, which also hand over a percentage to the proprietor. “We pay what we consider to be a fair commission,” he said, but “the competitors have come along and upped the ante. We can’t pay that much. . . . So the next thing we know, we get a call saying, ‘Take yours out.’ ”
Recognizing the need to continue to provide incentives to lure customers from phone companies, private entrepreneurs are investing in “smart phones” that will do things Ma Bell doesn’t.
In six months, Whitman said, there will be a “smart phone” that will automatically re-dial for a caller who must leave a booth before completing a call: A message left in the pay phone will go to a computer center, where it will be recorded on an automatic dialer, which will re-try a number every 15 minutes for two or more hours. The process will not be interrupted if other users call from the pay phone.
St. Lorraine explained: “You manage to get off the freeway and to find a phone but the line is busy or there’s no answer. So you can leave a message, get back on the freeway and the phone will continue to dial that number.”
Pac Bell has its own high technology: the universal pay phone, some of which are at LAX, Burbank Airport and in hotel lobbies. These use a card reader and will accept all long-distance credit cards and most major credit cards, with no need to feed in a card number or code. Voice dialing instructions are offered in five languages.
GTE, says Doherty, has “in excess of 40,000" public coin phones in operation in California, about 33,000 in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. With the proliferation of private pay phones, it, too, is making a concerted effort to make its phones easily identifiable.
“We’re updating,” said Doherty, replacing signs that just say PHONE with signs that say GTE PHONE.
Which Is Better
Is one better than the other? Private owners claim their phones are more meticulously serviced and kept cleaner. GTE, for example, counters its are more reliable, cost less and are better maintained. Said Doherty: “We get the complaints, hundreds of complaints about being ripped off at a (private pay) phone.”
Some of the complaints focus on surcharges imposed on interstate long-distance calls. Whitman acknowledged that private owners may charge “whatever they want” on interstate calls, and that, initially, there was some gouging. But, he said, most have now come close to--or matched--AT&T; rates.
If some of the private pay phones are so smart, why don’t Pacific Bell and GTE switch?
A GTE spokesman said that these phones are harder to maintain, more apt to be vandalized and technologically imperfect. “You stick a smart phone out in the desert at 140 degrees, it has a tendency to cook,” Doherty said. Near the beach, a smart phone will “rust and die.”
Meanwhile, with pay phones having gone the way of airlines, “The public appears to be a little confused right now,” he said.