Someday There May Be an App for That Pay Phone

Jennifer Falk from the Union Square Partnership & JK Choi from LG Electronics use the new touch screens at phone booth in Union Square, New York Courtesy PRNews Foto/LG Electronics USA

Pity the Paleolithic pay phone. Vandals have yanked the handset cord out of its rectangular body and committed unspeakable acts in the booth. Most people don’t even know the coin-fed devices still exist. Once 2.2 million pay phones dotted the nation; now fewer than 500,000 survive, done in by the ubiquity of the cell phone.

New York City isn’t ready to relegate the pay phone to an historical footnote. The city has 11,400 pay phones (down from a peak of 35,000) that generate $17.4 million a year from advertising and phone call fees. So Gotham has issued this challenge: In the smartphone era, how would you bring the pay phone into the digital age?

The Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, announced by Michael R. Bloomberg on Dec. 4, is an open call for ideas to bring the pay phone into the 21st century—and maybe beyond. (The mayor is the founder of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek.)

The city hopes its native designers, techies, urban planners, hackers, and students will rise to the challenge and come up with innovative ideas to make the pay phone “spiffy and useful,” says Rahul N. Merchant, the city’s Chief Innovation and Information Officer.

What will the pay phone of the future look like? City officials can envision pay phones that are solar charging stations or places to do limited commerce—purchase tickets, say, for the theater or mass transportation. Think Internet café on the corner where anyone can look up local attractions—or the closest green market—and get directions for walking or taking public transportation. Local businesses could offer discount coupons via CR codes scanned with a cell phone, of course. It could even be the digital town hall, where citizens voice their thoughts on city matters.

If those all sound a lot like the things you already do on a smartphone, others have more radical suggestions. Pando Daily blogger Hamish McKenzie offered Mayor Bloomberg his ideas—voice and gesture recognition and opening the device to app developers. Martin Cooper, considered the father of the cellular phone, suggests it should feature “a flat panel embedded in the wall of a building or on the surface of a monolith,” among other ruminations.

The city has been experimenting with turning 13 pay phone locations into Wi-Fi hotspots that blanket a 100- to 200-foot radius with wireless connectivity. Another 10 locations are getting experimental touch-screen pay phones offering map and emergency service information. They look like giant iPads.

Pay phones are still a necessary part of the urban landscape. According to a Pew Research study, 15 percent of American adults don’t own a cell phone. More to the point, when the city loses power or cell towers, as happened during Hurricane Sandy, pay phones have a better chance of surviving powerful storms, thanks to underground communications cables and power lines. During superstorm Sandy, pay phone usage tripled, according to the city’s chief digital officer, Rachel Haot.

City officials don’t know what innovations the public will come up with—and that’s the point. “All the connectivity the world wants is already there,” Merchant says of the city’s pay phone infrastructure. “What we have lacked is imagination and creativity.”

Give municipal officials credit for the crowd-source approach and not settling for the obvious digital upgrades—Wi-Fi and touch screens, although both technologies are being testing on city streets. “This is not about building a better pay phone,” says Haot. “The value in the challenge is to approach the problem from a new vantage point.”

NYC doesn’t own its pay phones. If you think most of the city’s money comes from the coins dropped in to make calls, you’re living in the past. Nearly all—$16 million of its annual take—comes from advertising on the sides of phone kiosks. (There are no more booths, as every superhero knows.)

For the city, there is a public service and a financial incentive to upgrade the pay phone. Both are connected in Merchant’s view. If 8.2 million New Yorkers like the new pay phones, they’ll search and click—or do whatever—exactly what you want in a digital ad-supported business model. “The byproduct will be more revenue,” he says.

It’s unclear what form the remained pay phone will take beyond New York—if the idea catches on at all. New York is unique because it has made the capital investment to bury power and broadband cables, says Peter Izzo, senior operations executive at Van Wagner Kiosk Advertising, a pay phone provider with experimental Wi-Fi and touch-screen models already on the street. “That [investment] doesn’t exist outside New York City,” he says.

The challenge is open to all comers. Prototypes are due by Feb. 13, and the semifinalists will show off their innovations on March 5.