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Payphones becoming a rarity

MOORHEAD -- On the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus, Jenenne Guffey was quite the rarity. She didn't carry a cell phone.

That forced her to seek out another rarity: a working public payphone.

"It poses a problem. They're pretty much obsolete," said Guffey a 43-year-old grandma who graduated earlier this year.

What Guffey noticed at MSUM has played out all across the country in the past decade. Like drive-in theaters, full-service gas stations and cassette tapes, payphones are retreating toward extinction.

"I don't look for them anymore. I better make my plans before I leave work or home," Guffey said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of payphones in North Dakota has been on an especially sharp decline. From 2001 to 2007, the count here fell from 2,303 to 761 - a two-thirds drop in six years.

For comparison's sake, the drop in Minnesota over the same time period was 54 percent, from 20,621 to 9,499. Nationally, it was a 55 percent drop.

In Fargo and West Fargo, about 94 payphones are run by FSH Communications, the company that bought Qwest's pay lines in 2004, said Dana Alixander, director of sales and service.

Alixander said that the state's remoteness explains why payphones seem to be reeling hard in North Dakota. It had the least payphones of any state every year the FCC has released the payphone figures.

"It's uneconomical. Basically, it comes down to economics and usage," she said.

Cell phones are the obvious culprit for payphones' nationwide downturn, said Alixander. But that's not the entire story. Portable phones hit a critical mass just as companies got strident about removing underperforming payphones.

"I think it's the perfect storm," she said.

The focus on profitability isn't news to David Shih, co-owner of Snap Dragon Asian Buffet in Moorhead.

There are two payphones that have long been out-of-order in the restaurant. Shih said he tried to call to get them fixed, to no avail. Now they've blended into the background.

"It's been so long I don't even notice them any more," he said.

Neither does his customers. Shih said no more than a couple of people have asked about the phones in the buffet's five years in business.

While it's an uphill fight, Alixander said she thinks the payphone industry can still be profitable. Ranks of have shrunk fast, but even in North Dakota, FSH maintains 246 terminals.

Where are all these payphones? Those who rely on them still, like Guffey, can attest that if Clark Kent had as much trouble finding a phone booth, Lex Luthor would be running things by now.

"First of all they don't have them, and you get to them and they cost 50 cents," Guffey said.

They're still popular in places where travelers are, like bus and train stations as well as airports. Large retail stores, such as Wal-Mart, also do well, she said.

Alixander said payphone users do on average skew lower-income, part of why they have a stronger presence in the South.

"I always tell my customers, 'Remember when you were coming up in the world,'" she said. "Decision makers might not think of it."

Payphone firms retain at least one market unlikely to degrade. A payphone is the sole legitimate way for most jail and prison inmates to talk on the phone.

In Cass County's jail, for example, inmates can buy cards with minutes at 50 cents apiece to use on the payphone installed inside housing pods, said Capt. Carlos Perez, the county's jail administrator.

The phones are popular, though there's not usually a line, Perez said. With that much time to kill, less urgent means of communication are more palatable.

"People write letters when they're here," Perez said.