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Save the pay phone - a suddenly endangered species

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Long gone are the phone booth's golden days when Superman metamorphosed inside and anonymous informers called in tips from the street corner.

But even as the plastic cracks, the cords are snipped, and wads of old chewing gum jam the coin returns, a modest movement to preserve the phone booth is rippling through state legislatures. To the phone booth's defenders, it is more than a matter of simple nostalgia: It cuts to the roots of social equality, public safety, and common sense.

That's why state Rep. Herbert Adams (D) of Portland has sponsored legislation to preserve or create "public interest payphones" (PIPs) in designated areas where a lack of phone access poses a risk to residents' safety, health, or welfare. His bill follows similar actions from Alaska to Indiana to save the venerated pay phone when it is deemed in the public's best interest to do so.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the number of pay phones in the US dropped to 1.5 million in 2003, down from 2.1 million five years earlier - as the number of cellphone users surged. In Maine during that same period, the number of pay phones declined by almost half, says Mr. Adams.

Yet not all Americans, especially older Americans, have cellphones or live in places where coverage is available or adequate. Not to mention the human factor: inadvertently leaving a phone at home or forgetting to recharge the battery.

For many, though, the fight boils down to a battle for equal access.

Even in this age of BlackBerries and camera phones, of blinking and beeping pocket accessories of every stripe and sound, 6.5 percent of American households have no telephone. Many use pay phones as their primary means of communication. And supporters say that resisting the demise of the pay phone - even as cellphone coverage continues to expand and costs go down - is an attempt to close the gap between the technological "haves" and "have nots."

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