A man uses a pay phone in downtown Los Angeles. Because of the ubiquity of… (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles…)
In today's wireless world, it's hard to imagine that anyone would ever need to use a pay phone or call somebody collect. Just try asking someone younger than 20 what a collect call is.
Unless you're behind bars, where cellphones are typically a no-no, it probably doesn't happen all that often. But it does happen, and it could happen to you, especially in an emergency.
And you should know this: That call could cost a small fortune.
Toluca Lake resident Pat Devine, 84, figured her collect-call days were behind her. Like most of us, she carries a cellphone for her on-the-go communications.
But when she was running late for a recent salon appointment, Devine found that her cellphone battery had died. She didn't want to be rude and leave her hairstylist waiting. So she looked around for a pay phone.
"Do you know how difficult it is to find a pay phone these days?" Devine said.
Very difficult, it turns out. Because of the ubiquity of cellphones, most of the big phone companies have gotten out of the pay phone business.
AT&T Inc. announced in 2007 that it was dropping its pay phone service. Verizon Communications Inc. still operates thousands of pay phones, but mostly in the Northeast.
There are now about 700,000 pay phones in operation nationwide, according to industry figures, compared with nearly 277 million wireless subscribers. Most pay phones are owned by local businesses, such as gas stations.
"I finally saw a ghastly, filthy pay phone outside a market," Devine recalled. "So I put in a few quarters, not knowing how much a call would cost. It didn't work. I couldn't get a dial tone."
Worse, the pay phone ate her quarters. So now, sans cellphone and sans coins, Devine pressed zero and was immediately connected to an operator. She said she'd like to make a collect call to her salon and provided the number.
Barbara James, 49, runs the Fandango Salon in Silver Lake. She said that when Devine's collect call arrived, a salon employee didn't hesitate to accept the charges.
"He knew she was our client," James said. "And there was no indication from the operator that this would be an incredibly expensive call."
Why should it be? Devine was calling from only about a mile away and the call lasted roughly three minutes.
Then James' AT&T bill arrived this month. It included a charge for $45.09 from something called NCIC.
That would be Network Communications International Corp., a Texas company that says it's the largest privately held provider of collect-call services for pay phones, prisons, hospitals and hotels.
According to James' phone bill, NCIC charged her $37.40 for the brief, in-the-neighborhood collect call, $4.74 in regulatory fees and taxes, and an extra $2.95 just for the hell of it (the bill calls this NCIC's "billing cost recovery fee").
James said that when she saw the $45 charge, she practically blew a gasket.
"It's insane," she said. "I was appalled that it could be so high."
Insane? You bet. Appalling? That goes without saying. But is it legal?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
"Pay phones are largely unregulated," said Rosemary Kimball, a spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission. "They were deregulated in 1996."
Bill Pope, president of NCIC, told me it's a simple matter of supply and demand. If there are hardly any pay phones left, and hardly anyone uses them, then the cost per call goes up.
"That's why collect calls aren't cheap," he said.
Well, they are pretty cheap for providers, considering that all the infrastructure is already in place, the calling process is largely automated and the role of the operator is simply to ask whether one party will accept the other party's call.
To give some idea how much a call like this actually costs, AT&T says it might charge 2 cents per minute for a local call made from about a mile away, albeit without a helping hand from an operator.
An NCIC customer-service supervisor told me Devine's call consisted of a nearly $25 "connection charge" and a rate of about $2.50 per minute.
I have no doubt there are costs related to maintaining a pay phone and getting an operator on the line, but it's still hard to see how a relatively quick local call can approach anywhere near $45.
What I suspect that Pope was really saying is that if you're desperate enough to need to make a collect call from a pay phone, then you're probably desperate enough to pay whatever exorbitant fee the pay phone operator wants to charge.
He said NCIC provides collect-call services on behalf of whoever owns a particular pay phone and typically kicks back more than half the proceeds to the owner. It's thus in both NCIC's and the phone owner's interest for the charge to be as high as possible.
It's worth noting that after James got her phone bill, she called the number provided for NCIC. She said that when she complained about being charged $45 for a local call, the service representative immediately dropped about $20 from the total.
"It's like they were expecting me to complain," James said.