Imagining a meaningful future for payphones

According to the FCC, in the last ten years the number of payphones in the US has declined from more then 2 million to around 700,000. So far this disappearance has occurred almost without capturing any of my attention. Only recently, in traveling across the US, have I started to run across decommisioned pay phones where some or all of the payphone and its enclosure is left to degrade in place (as in this photo from the Midwest).

It seems that we might think of and test better uses for this equipment. After all, altogether they offer a built, distributed network of weather-resistant housings with the voltage needed to power any number of electronic sensors and the technology to cheaply deliver that data in real time to remote servers.

It’s possible to envision decommissioned phone booths gaining any number of new purposes. For example, they might be retrofitted with environmental sensors, to collect and report vast amounts of environmental data about air quality, light and noise pollution, or weather and climate. Our monitoring networks for these are not yet as widely or thoroughly installed as we need. With some engineering, old pay phones might even count or speciate animals as they travel by, complementing the annual backyard bird count. I’m sure you can imagine other roles for these things.

Now for logistical questions: If the phone company decommissions a phone, whose permission is needed? How easy is it to reestablish phone service to the payphone?

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