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Citizens Union

Phone Frustrations

New York is filled with a lot more solitary voices muttering their way down the streets this year than last. Some are using their cellular phones. Some are muttering expletives, because the corner pay telephone was broken -- or, just the opposite, because the corner pay phone was new and improved.

This requires some explanation.

Half of all New Yorkers have wireless phones, according to New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) commissioner Allan H. Dobrin. This is above average in the United States as a whole, where cellular phone use has quadrupled in the last five years to a whopping 107 million subscribers.

Yet, New York also has some 32,500 pay phones, and more on the way.

There are several reasons for this. New York is a city where 20 percent of residents in poor neighborhoods do not have regular phone service in their homes; many rely on the corner pay phone. Pay phones are often used by tourists, and also by pedestrians in need of emergency assistance. The city has "an obligation to protect people's life and safety by providing [pay] phones in the street," as Dobrin has said. One million 911 calls were made from pay phones in the city last year. And pay phones are also necessary in the subways, since cellular phones simply cannot work underground.

That makes all the more compelling a November study by the Straphangers Campaign, a subway rider advocacy group, which concluded that 18 percent of pay phones found in 25 of the city's busiest subway stations did not work. This is a marginal improvement over the August survey that found that 25 percent of pay phones were out of service. Customers often complain of vandalism, no dial tones and coin rejection.

So, does this mean New Yorkers are clamoring for new and improved public telephones?

Not necessarily.

Many Upper East Side residents have opposed the installation of 1,000 large new booths in their neighborhood, part of a plan to add 2, 262 city-wide. These new phone booths hold two public pay phones each and as much as 147 square feet of advertising. The 95 independent companies that have approval to operate pay phones claim that they need the advertising income in order to pay the $15,000 per unit that it costs to install the phones. The city also benefits, receiving over $21.5 million from public pay-phone advertising in the 2000 fiscal year.

But City Council member Eva Moskowitz has received over 50 complaints from residents of the East Side about these phone kiosks . Some were concerned that they were too big and block or slowed pedestrian traffic. Others found the advertising an aesthetic affront.

The half of New Yorkers who do not own cellular phones may suspect this griping is just a snooty response from the half of New Yorkers comfortably settled on the other side of the digital divide. But the truth is, the other side is not so comfortable. Cellular phones inspire as many complaints as pay phones, if not more. Unexpected roaming and long-distance charges, complicated billing plans and contracts, lack of service from one block to the next, proprietary equipment and poor voice quality all contribute to the irritation.

The problems reflect an industry that is still young and growing. Industry officials and government leaders alike agree that service is still not perfect, but they are optimistic about the future of wireless communications.

That future includes the deployment of third generation wireless networks, commonly called "3G." Analysts predict that 3G will be widely adopted in the United States by the year 2005 which will make it possible to download more data at higher speeds to increasingly smaller mobile devices. For example, you could download a movie to your laptop or Palm Pilot wirelessly for a long overseas flight, or transfer files to your desktop computer from your cellular phone. But will increased mobility and new communications capabilities transport us to a technological paradise, or will the world be filled with new technological poltergeists?

There is a lot of rhetoric about the potential for earth-shattering political, economic and social change as a result of the proliferation of new communications technology. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly computer literate, mobile and information-based. It is only natural to expect that these factors will have an important impact on the way we live our lives. But whether they will produce positive or negative change is difficult to gauge.

Our "smart" wireless phones and personal digital assistants (PDA's) will now be our traveling homes and offices, news and entertainment systems, banks and wallets, and computers. Our "smart homes" will be brimming with wireless signals to allow your refrigerators to order the groceries automatically online. (Your butter substitutes might not be talking but your refrigerators will). Your computer will program your security and energy systems. And your cell phone will be orchestrating the whole fiasco.

Just the thought of living in a home that is almost alive, buzzing with the whir of electronic devices, is a bit frightening. When you wake up abruptly in the middle of the night, how will you know if you hear a mouse, a ghost, or your home network?

Or will it be someone loudly cursing the pay phone down the street?

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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