중앙데일리

Empty queues at nation’s pay phones

July 29,2003
Like the pastel-color houses that leaped from the screen in the movie “Edward Scissorhands,” the orange bulk of public telephones used to stand out in the monotones of Seoul in the 1970s and 80s.
If the neatly-arranged houses in the movie symbolized the U.S. middle-class, public pay phones mirrored social status in Korea in those days. If you were middle-class, you had a phone at home; if not, line up.
Nearly four decades later, the industrial grey of the city has turned into a steel and chrome veneer. Long, frustrating lines at pay phones have disappeared. Everyone still needs a pay phone at times, but they’re harder to find.
In 1990, it cost only 20 won (less than 3 cents at the time). Now the price is 70 won, and there are three different kinds of pay phones available if you look a bit. Some are steel and purple-colored; others are just steel ― and the orange relics still survive. Those latter phones demand cash; the newer ones can take calling and credit cards as well.
Public phones made their appearance here in 1953. In 1990, there were 237,000 such phones nationwide, or about 5 per thousand persons. In 2001, the ratio was over 10 per thousand persons, according to the Ministry of Information and Communication. But they are becoming unprofitable to maintain with the cell phone onslaught.
“Since 1998, revenue has been declining by 10 percent a year,” said Hong Jong-wook, a manager at KTLinkus, the KT subsidiary that operates the service. The firm’s predecessor had 700 billion won in revenue in 1998, but raked in only 340 billion won last year. The number of pay phones in business establishments has dropped, from 355,000 in 1997 to 270,000 last May. But the law requires that the company stay in the business, and there is still a need for the phones in public places.
So KTLinkus has “repositioned” many of its units to places where demand for them is high. That, in turn, has angered lower-income people who find it less convenient to find one of the units. But one happy result is the lack of news stories about fights or even homicides triggered by an impatient person waiting in a pay-phone line. And paranoids will always like pay phones ― calls cannot be traced as easily as they can from cell phones.


by Kim Ji-soo


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