Goodbye Payphones, Hello Progress

Kish Rajan
Chief evangelist at CALinnovates, a nonpartisan coalition focused on advancing a more modern economy by leveraging technology, and former director of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

If Clark Kent wanted to turn into Superman in California today, he’d struggle to find a phone booth. Across the entire state there are only 27,000 payphones left, down 70% from 2007.

It’s no big surprise that the payphone is going the way of the dodo bird. According to the Pew Research Center 92% of American adults own cellphones. If you’re desperate to make a call and find yourself with a dead battery, chances are good you’re going to ask a friendly stranger to borrow their cell phone before you’re going to search out a payphone.

Late last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that acknowledges the demise of the payphone. SB 1055 puts an end to the Payphone Services Committee and the Payphone Service Providers Committee Fund which was being used to, among other things, “fund programs to … educate consumers on matters related to payphones.”

Let that sink in for a second. As a state, until a few weeks ago, we were still spending money to educate people about payphones — something the vast majority of citizens don’t want or need.

That’s pretty emblematic of how the legislature works when it comes to telecom. There are lots of outdated laws and committees and funds on the books but change comes incredibly slowly.

That’s why the death of the payphone committee is a small but symbolic step.

California should turn its attention to fixing other policies that keep outdated technology tethered to our streets and our homes even when we as a population have moved on.

Take our landline telephone networks, for example. Like payphones, landlines are dinosaurs on their way to extinction. More and more people are opting to just use their cellphones when they make calls from home or are using things like Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), which operates over broadband.

But the state insists that phone companies have to continue to maintain (and even extend) these copper networks despite their dwindling use. The resources those companies are expending on antiquated networks could be going to upgrade broadband around the state to ensure that everyone has access to the internet and all it has to offer. The more broadband reaches more households, the less need there will be for old-school telephone networks.

Internet-enabled networks can also be better during emergencies than traditional landlines. These next-generation networks are becoming the standard for delivery of emergency communications for first responders as well as those fleeing disaster.

According to El Dorado Hills Fire Chief David Roberts, whose firefighters were deployed to fight the Butte fire last year, landline telephones “couldn’t be used widely to notify residents,” whereas broadband networks allow first responders to “route calls faster, handle spikes in volume, and improve reliability during emergencies.”  As the fire spread, “any fleeing resident dependent on an “analog” landline was immediately out of touch.” He makes a great point about connectivity and mobility. First, broadband networks can be used to notify a wide swath of people about impending danger. Second, if anyone attempting to flee an emergency situation most likely has no interest in staying tethered to their home.

Despite their original intent, policies that keep prioritizing antiquated networks are perpetuating the digital divide in California. Although only 1% of the state doesn’t have access to the internet, there are many more who don’t access it. According to a Pew poll34% of those people don’t go online because they think it’s not relevant. Another 32% say they find the internet too difficult to use.

This is the real problem that we should be tackling. Instead of bending over backwards to keep outdated technology going, let’s encourage companies to innovate and spread modern technology across our state. Let’s educate the population about how to use the internet not only for phone calls, but also for everything from job applications to healthcare. Expanding the power of technology to all must be a critical element in a renewed effort to grow prosperity and lift people out of poverty.

The elimination of the payphone committee was a good first step. Hopefully our legislature will take courage from this bill and start to push regulations into the modern age. There’s no question that we need to bring the internet to everyone in our state, whether through smartphones or computers. But holding onto dying technology isn’t going to get us there.

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