When was the last time you used a pay phone? Given that just about every American old enough to say “hello” now has a cellphone, you’d be forgiven for thinking these once-vital telecom totems had gone the way of the telegraph. But there are still hundreds of thousands of pay phones out there, waiting to be used by people without any other options available.
That’s not to say pay phones are easy to find — they no longer cover the walls at train stations, airports, and bus terminals, and they aren’t generally found in booths at hotels or restaurants — but don’t be mistaken, they are still connecting people.
In fact, the Los Angeles Times reports that while those relics of yesteryear may be declining in numbers — replaced with super-fast public WiFi hubs in the case of New York City — those left on the streets (or in office buildings) are still operational, and maybe even making money for their owners.
Here are five things we learned from the L.A. Times’ report on pay phones.
1.) They still exist – This might go without saying, but pay phones are still in operation all around the United States. While their numbers may be a fraction of what they were in their heyday, they continue to offer to connect one caller to another via a landline.
Still, the phones are becoming a rare sight. For example, the statewide number of pay phones in California has declined more than 70% since 2007 to just 27,000.
In other parts of the country, it’s even rarer to spot a pay phone in the wild. Last year, the Springfield News-Leader reported that the number of pay phones in Missouri had decreased 97% in the past 15 years, from 56,645 in 1999 to just 1,345 in 2015.
According to the American Public Communications Council, there are fewer than 500,000 pay phones in the entire United States, and about 1.7 billion calls are placed annually.
2.) Pay phones can actually be profitable – Companies that operate pay phones say they keep the booths and steel boxes running because they’re bring in money — just not a lot.
Michael Zumbo, president of the telecommunication firm PTS, tells the L.A. Times that if three $0.50-calls are made per day — or about 1,095 calls each year — the phone is making enough money to be sustainable.
Despite profitability, many companies are getting out of the pay phone game. AT&T sold off its last pay phones in 2008, while Verizon — which once operated around half a million pay phones nationwide — sold its last 50,000 to Pacific Telemanagement Service in 2011.
3.) Operators set the price – While there was once a time when you knew that using just about any pay phone would cost you $.25 for a few minutes of a local phone call, the actual rate for using the device is not set by any regulation, but by the owner of the pay phone. The going rate is currently about $0.50 for a local call, but additional costs are applied for calls to outside of area codes.
The APCC notes that all operators are required to have cost information either posted at every pay phone or available via toll-free numbers.
4.) They are regulated — Just like other outlets in the communications industry, pay phones are regulated by public utilities commissions.
For example, the California Public Utilities Commission is tasked with checking out pay phones to ensure they are in working order. If a phone is deficient, the operator has a certain amount of time to bring it into compliance.
5.) Pay phones are still good in an emergency — We take cellphones for granted; even if we’re caught in an emergency without one, surely someone around will lend you theirs for a moment.
But when you’re truly stranded, or in an area without a reliable wireless signal, it doesn’t hurt that there are still these reminders of a pre-cellphone era — and that we can still use them.
All 911 calls are free from pay phones which makes them valuable asset when an emergency occurs and you’re without other phone options.
Pay phones are relics, but there’s still demand for them [The Los Angeles Times]
Dialing out: The decline of Springfield’s pay phones [Springfield News-Leader]
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.