February 17, 2020
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: ‘Why try to save the pay-phone when half the country doesn’t even know what a pay-phone is’

A STRANGE dispute has broken out between Eir and ComReg, the outfit that governs the telecom industry.

Under a regulation dating from its Telecom Éireann days, Eir is obliged to maintain the country’s last few public pay phones and ComReg insists it should keep the service running.

Eir says the ruling is “absolute folly” and unfair, since it doesn’t apply to other telecom companies.

My heart is with ComReg on this but my head tells me Eir is talking sense. Preserving public pay phones is as pointless as a campaign to save quill pens or to bring back the stagecoach from Dublin to Kilkenny.

Half the country no longer knows what a pay phone is, never mind how to use one.

The point was brought home to me by a recent incident involving two other relics of auld decency that may not be with us much longer; three if you count myself.

The others are pubs and newspapers. I was sitting in one, my local, and reading the other, the Irish Independent, when, as in all the best stories, a man walked into the bar.

No, it’s not a joke, although what followed was sort of funny.  A man walked into the pub and asked: “Is there a phone here?” Everyone started looking around them, under the stools and on the floor. Someone asked if he had left it on the bar.

“No,” he said. “I mean, is there a phone I can use?”  People started patting down jackets, searching in pockets, looking for mobiles. They’re a helpful lot in my local.

“No, no,” said your man. “I mean a public telephone.”

We were all baffled. Even the barman, who, suspecting unruly behaviour, had abandoned his conversation at the other end of the room to join us, looked puzzled. We all shrugged. Your man shrugged back, turned and left.

And it was only when he had gone that some of the older customers realised what he was looking for – a public telephone of the sort that used to hang near the entrance to most pubs, where you put in your money and made your call. Customers under the age of 40 had no idea what the rest of us were talking about.

Even when it had been explained, one young woman couldn’t quite grasp the concept.  She knew what a public telephone was, although I don’t think she had ever actually used one. “But,’’ she wondered, “why would there be one in a pub?”

Why? Because how else were you to let your spouse know you had been called to an important business meeting and wouldn’t be home for another two hours? How else could you break the shocking news to your employer that you had been stricken by 24-hour bubonic plague and wouldn’t be back for the afternoon shift? What other way would you contact the bookie – not to place a bet, they didn’t do business over the phone, but to find out the winner of the 3.30?

Ah yes, the good old days. Do I miss pay-phones in pubs? Of course not. Will anybody miss pay-phones if they vanish altogether. I very much doubt it.

ComReg claims a few homeless people use them. If so, they would be better served by free landlines in safe locations such as hostels.

Nobody else uses public pay phones and, like the phones themselves, this conversation on their future has become redundant. Time to hang up.

 

 

 

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