Sunday, February 15, 2004

School on pay phones thrives

By Bill Wolfe
The Courier-Journal

As cell phones become more common, pay phones are a thing of the past for many consumers. Baby Bells are fleeing from the business, and phones are disappearing from street corners.

That means opportunity, says George Sowards, owner of the U.S. Payphone School and Premier Payphone Services in Bowling Green, Ky.

Unlike the big telecom companies, mom-and-pop operations can operate on a shoestring. And learning how to choose the best locations, deal with regulators and replace broken handsets or faulty circuit boards helps. That leads potential workers to the only pay-phone school in the country.

"If you are wanting to learn the pay-phone experience, it's an absolute must," said Tracey Timpanaro, publisher of Perspectives on Public Communication, the monthly trade publication of the American Public Communications Council. "It's an incredibly complex business, and you can make a lot of mistakes if you don't know what you are doing."

The number of pay phones is dropping, but they will remain popular with a large percentage of society that either can't afford cell phones or simply chooses not to own them, said Tom Richeson of Texas, who is attending the school. "I grossly underestimated the number of people who use pay phones," he said. "There is a whole segment of the population that is kind of on a cash basis day to day."

And while monthly coin receipts are dropping, so are costs. Phone lines rent for less than half what they did a few years ago, and the cost of a new pay phone has dropped from around $1,200 to around $400, Sowards said.

Pay-phone operators also are getting more money from phone-card companies, which must reimburse coin-phone owners 24 cents for every call made on one of the long-distance cards. Sowards and other coin-phone operators are also looking into selling advertising on phone booths.

The important thing, he tells students, is to operate efficiently and to squeeze as much profit as possible from every phone. "The reality is, you are making your money one quarter at a time," he said. "It's a very simple, straightforward business. It's not rocket science."

With his wife Bea, Sowards has operated his pay-phone business since 1990. About four years ago, they took over the school and moved it from upstate New York to Kentucky. Students from across the country pay $500 a day for one-, two- and three-day training sessions.

Until now, the school has drawn about 15 students a year, but Sowards said he has seen a bump in interest since the trade magazine featured it last year.

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