What use is a pay phone? You’d be surprised

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What use is a pay phone? You’d be surprised

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Soldiers on leave use pay phones in front of Seoul Station. While most people have their own mobile phones nowadays, conscripted men aren’t allowed to carry cell phones for security reasons. By Byun Sun-goo

Long gone are the days when people waited in line at a phone booth to make a call. In fact, the pay phone has become an endangered species thanks to the ubiquity of cell phones.

But at the Western Annex of Seoul Station, soldiers queue up in front of five pay phones. Conscripted men aren’t allowed to carry cell phones for security reasons.

“I’m returning to the base,” Jang Ik-jin, 20, tells his girlfriend. “I’ll call you when I arrive.”

Jang was going back to 25th Army division after a five-day break. Pay phones may seem like archeological urban artifacts to most people, but for Jang they are a precious lifeline to his girlfriend. Without them, the relationship might have ended, he says. And now, the sky-colored booths immediately remind him of his partner.

Next in line at the booth was Kim Jin-young, whose phone ran out of power on the train. He ran straight to the pay phone as soon as the train arrived.

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“In an unexpected situation when I don’t have my cell phone, I need a pay phone,” says Kim as he calls his mother. “It‘s so inconvenient that these phones are disappearing. We arranged to meet at Wangsimni [Station], but I want to tell her exactly where to meet.”

Korean-American Peter Lee, who was in line behind Kim, urgently needed the phone too.

“I flew in from Seattle because my friend had a car accident, and I don’t want to pay the roaming charges on my account,” he said.

At Seoul Station, there were once 30 pay phones. Now, only four remain. The station removed phones that pulled in less than 1,000 won ($0.93) per month.

The phones that are used frequently are largely located next to ATM machines. The majority of their users are soldiers. At Seoul Station’s Western Annex, the phones pull in around 820,000 won per month. But Seoul Station is an exception, and pay phones in less busy locations can get no callers for days at a time.

“Drunken people use phone booths as toilets, which blights the environment,” said Choi Young-cheol, a manager at KT Linkus, which manages the pay phones for KT. “These days, restoring damaged booths is our main job.”

Sometimes phones are using space that people want for another purpose. Inje University Sanggye Paik Hospital in Nowon District, northern Seoul, recently got rid of a phone booth near its emergency room to increase parking space.

About half of the phone booths in front of the hospital’s main gate were removed to give way to a valet parking office. Only three pay phones remain.

“There were no public phones in the emergency room, so I had to run to the main gate,” said Kim Suk-ja whose mother has been patient in the hospital for four years.

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As the demand for pay phones has spiralled, some pay phone booths are doubling as unmanned libraries, like the one left in Wangsimni Square, or as shelters for tourist maps, right, in Hangang Park, Seoul. By Seo Gye-ho

Earlier this year, a phone booth in Seokgye Station was on the verge of being removed. The Nowon District Office wanted to get rid of it because it was barely used.

“I tried to keep the phone booth going by moving it to an area that commuters walk past,” said Han Jong-chan of KT Linkus.

Public phones are the only means of communication for people who can’t afford mobile phones. According to Han, a 15-year-old pay phone was a lifeline for an elderly couple in a nursing home on Mount Surak.

According to KT, the number of pay phones has decreased every year and 74,000 remain compared to 94,300 in 2009. Seoul has the biggest number with 15,407. Major metropolitan cities such as Busan, Daegu, Incheon, Gwangju have more than 3,000 each.

“Not everyone has ready access to high-tech digital gadgets like smartphones, and for those without cell phones, pay phones are still an important means of communication,” said a representative of KT. “This is why we want to keep the business. But, in an effort to keep pace with changing trends, we’d like to renovate phone booths a bit by putting new features in them.”

In fact, pay phones have already evolved. Some include ATMs. A phone booth near COEX in Gangnam District was reconstructed and given a glass ceiling. One of the booths in Itaewon is covered with faux graffiti, reflecting the edgy atmosphere of the area.

BY LEE JI-EUN [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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