Public payphones can still have an important role to play in telecom infrastructure mix. Consider the recent hurricane Sandy that devastated New York and New Jersey. Cell towers went dark and people scrambled for any way to communicate. How about VoIP? No. Broadband was down too. Surprise! The long ignored pay phone still had dial tone. All you had to do is pick up the handset, drop in your coins and make your call.
Why did old school technology work when the latest and hottest technologies went dead at a critical time? The answer is in the simplicity and ruggedness of the design. The original phone system designed by Bell and refined by Ma Bell (AT&T) was intended to be a lifeline, not just a way to chat among family members. The phones themselves never connected to the public power grid. Yes, the very early ones installed at farmsteads had batteries for voice transmission and crank generators to creating the ringing signal. Very shortly after that, all phones got their power over the phone line itself.
Amazingly, if all you want to do is talk you need very little power on the line. Those small diameter phone wires that go for miles work perfectly well with milliamps of current at 45 volts. All of those heavy black phone sets that you rented from the local phone company were passive devices. There was no electronics at all inside until touch tone dials became common. So, why do the phones you buy now plug into the AC? It’s because of the heavy electronics content, mostly for cord free operation. In the old days, if the lights went out you could still make a phone call. Now, when the power goes out everything goes out.
Payphones are a leftover from those earlier days when the line powered the phone and it worked in emergencies. The line power comes from batteries at the phone company backed up by diesel generators to keep them charged when the AC drops out. This isn’t something we want to lose because when disaster strikes, a working phone is the most valuable piece of technology around.
Still, payphones continue to be removed and scrapped because in normal times people just aren’t using them. Is there something that can be done to bring the traditional payphone up to date so that it is in demand again? Could you be the one to invent what amounts to payphone 2.0?
Here’s your chance. Mayor Bloomberg has launched a competition to re-imagine and reinvent the 11,412 payphones that are left in New York City. The current vendor agreements expire in 2014, leaving only a short time to come up with better ideas. The design challenge started on December 4 and runs until March 5, 2013. You register on the challenge website and submit digital files presenting your prototype by February 18. Up to 15 prototypes will be selected as semi-finalists and invited to demonstrate to a panel of judges. The top 3 winners will be then be featured on the City of New York’s Facebook page for a public vote.
Just what will the judges be looking for? Connectivity is really important as you might imagine. You’ll need the ability to connect New Yorkers and enable communication, including for safety and emergency purposes. Creativity will be judged on originality, innovation, and quality of idea. Visual design includes visual appeal and user experience. Functionality will be based on flexibility, versatility, scalability, accessibility and sustainability. Finally, community impact will be evaluated based on support of local residents, businesses and cultural institutions.
Have you got an idea for a better payphone or are simply a budding inventor who likes a challenge? Maybe you’d like to integrate a WiFi hotspot or cell phone charger or connection to the payphone’s wireline. Maybe you just want to get your tweets or email by stopping at a payphone for a few minutes. Whatever cool ideas you have can be that little something extra that makes your entry stand out from the crowd.
Are you up for the challenge to reinvent payphone for New York City? If so, get the official rules and other information at the Official Reinvent Payphones site and register as a participant. Good luck!