How and when payphones disappeared in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS -- On a nondescript street corner of Indianapolis’ east side sits a time capsule.

It’s not a crate buried years ago or a waterproof jar ready to be opened by the next generation, but a statue, a monument of sorts, showing not only what life used to be like, but how communication technology used to operate.

It’s a payphone.

Scattered around the city but no longer working, payphones were abandoned when their descendents -- cell phones -- came along. This east side relic is at the corner of Audubon Road and Bonna Avenue, a block south of Washington Street.

Many around the city are ignored.

The payphone sits in front of Tyner Pond Market, a grocery store that opened in October 2016.

“I just noticed [the payphone] about two months ago,” Tyner Pond Market manager Mark Monaghan said.

Tyner Pond Market has large windows at the front of the store. From inside, you can see most of the entire street, including the payphone. Monaghan said he hasn’t seen anybody try to use it, let alone approach it.

If anybody did try to use it, they would be disappointed. Put the phone to your ear, you’ll hear no dial tone. Try to call the support number listed on the phone, you get redirected to a DirectTV survey for people aged 50+.

The phone itself is no longer smooth with black paint, but is now is very faded from years under the elements. There are thin chunks missing from the stickers on the phone, where people absentmindedly rapped their coins across the console.

There are more personal stickers on the side of it -- one advertisement for a recording studio just a half-block away, another with a symbol far too faded to recognize.

Like many other parts of the payphone, the back of it is falling apart from rust.

In case there are people who need a public phone option, the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor established the Public Interest Payphone Program. It’s difficult to get a payphone in any part of town; the state simply doesn’t allocate money for it.

Instead, somebody who wants one somewhere must fill out a requesting form. The application must be sponsored by a government agency. Then, a representative will try to find a provider willing to pay for a phone in the area. There are no visible differences between a public interest payphone, and an old-style one like this.

The program is designed to “protect public health, safety or welfare” in places like low-income residential areas, campgrounds or rest stops where an emergency could happen.

The OUCC doesn't regulate payphones. The property owner can simply have them removed, or ask the provider to remove it.

So if you see one, take a photo. You'll never know when it will disappear. 

It’s no surprise what happened to the payphones, but it is surprising how fast they disappeared.

In 2002, 62 percent of Americans owned a cell phone. That number has increased to 95 percent in 2016, according to a Pew study.

As the number of cell phones increased, the number of working payphones decreased.

In 2001 Indiana had 38,000 payphones. By 2009, that number was down to fewer than 9,000, according to the Indiana OUCC.

Instead of trying the payphone in front of his business, Monaghan said young people come into his store and ask to use his phone.

“I’m 35, but kids that are younger than me might not even know what a payphone is,” Monaghan said. 

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