Do pay-phones have a future?

A recent ad-hoc on-line survey turned out that 88% of the people stopped using pay-phones completely, while 32% couldn’t even remember the last time they saw it. The result is hardly surprising, given the number of mobile phones and the availability of broadband internet connection. Yet, pay-phones are still part of our landscape, rarely used, often abused, and they mostly present a mere expense for their owners that are often bound by law to maintain them for cases of emergency.

Whereas in Britain and Germany phone booths were dismantled and put to sale, there have been many attempts to give them a new life through redesign. The New York City authorities started a few pilot projects looking for new purposes and turned pay-phones into wi-fi hot-spots. In São Paolo public phones became art installations and in Osaka some phone booths now serve as fish tanks.

While these solutions can indirectly contribute to local economies, including tourism, we believe that there can be a more direct way for pay-phones to create value by integrating vital tourist services.

 

Telecoms in the age of smartification

Around the world, carriers are facing a sharp decline in income from telephone-based services as users switch to IP-based services provided by likes of Viber, Skype, What’s App and social media. These companies are skimming the bulk of what till recently was a solid source of revenues for telecoms who now must come up with new business models to address new needs and behaviours of their customers. 

The good news is that telecoms are perfectly positioned to do so and become platforms for all other industries in the connected world. A good example is T-Mobile, which used the concept “Uncarrier” to reposition itself as a smart services provider instead of a typical utility provider.

The emerging paradigm of Internet of Everything can serve telecoms really well and enable them to enter territories traditionally held by other disciplines, such as finance. Tourism too, is one of the spheres with a great potential for growth because it depends on connectedness and integration of multiple elements that create the travelling experience. We think redesigned pay-phones could still be a part of that picture.

Junk or something else?

The first step is changing the perspective. Where many see phone booths as white elephants, we see commercial premises at premium locations. If we turn them into say, digital kiosks, instead of creating loss, pay-phones could start to bring millions in profit. We are accustomed to call iPhone a “phone” not a “bank” or “camera” despite the fact that the phone is just one of many applications. The same could be valid for pay-phones, too - the phone should be just one of its many applications. 

 

Sub-local Connectedness

Complex systems, and tourism is a complex system of services, run better when parts can function autonomously. That’s why we see the phone booth as a nexus of a sub-local market of services at the level of just one or a few streets. In this way, the responsibility for the functioning of the system is left to those with the most to gain (or loose). Another benefit is the higher ability for agile development and adaptation to new circumstances at the lower levels of organisation.

The idea is to apply the systemic approach and turn the phone booth into a different medium and a platform that would link various tourist services into a value chain as wide as possible. Therefore, the new value could be added to the entire tourist industry, bringing higher profits to the community and including a greater number of providers into the final product.

 

Phone booths VS mobiles and wearables

We have also asked ourselves, what chances a fixed phone booth, a relic of stationary telephone, stands against the trend of ever smarter mobile devices and wearables. However, it is exactly the pay-phone’s fixedness in the sub-local context what gives it the comparative edge over the fragmented channels, internet browsers, insufficiently personalised or localised web tools and apps with low penetration. In other words, the smart phone booth is worth developing because it can be a medium that provides a more detailed information than others.

An ecosystem as wide as possible

Tourism ecosystem is mostly based on different forms of private-public partnerships and the redesign of the smart phone booth fits into this model, bringing together stakeholders from state administration, public institutions, large corporations and private entrepreneurs. It is crucial to link the major players and start the initiative that would attract smaller participants, so that as many of them could find their own economic niche, at all levels, from national to sub-local. 

A case for service design

During this year’s Weekend Media Festival in Croatia, we held a workshop on service design at which we explored the possibilities for a redesigned pay-phone. As expected, we found a great interest for the idea, especially among tourist entrepreneurs who are constantly looking to increase the availability and visibility of their services through greater connectedness. Using the method of user journey mapping we identified multiple services that could be successfully incorporated into the business model from on-spot accommodation booking to issuing fishing licences to buying fresh fish and groceries delivery.

 

Next steps

The ideas presented in this article can be applied in various contexts and we are planning to invite telecoms in tourist destinations to consider the possibilities outlined above. But telecoms are just one side of the story. The other is all those stakeholders, users, businesses and organisations that could benefit from building such a system. It is possible that you are one of them. We are opening a potentially huge conversation, so let us know what you think.