Wi-Fi payphones?

THE old public payphone may soon regain its lost lustre if Telkom decides to turn the relic of the recent past into Wi-Fi hotspots.

The move could see Telkom revive its public payphone from its technologically induced ‘coma’ brought about by the popularity of the cellphone.

The coin operated payphone was first installed in 1889 at the Hartford Bank in Hartford, Connecticut by the Southern New England Telephone Co.  The coin mechanism was invented by William Gray. He subsequently founded the Telephone Pay Station Co. in 1891. The “pre-pay” phone debuted in Chicago in 1898.

After being in service for more than 125 years – as the best communication tool nogal – payphones had in recent years become redundant, albeit as a result of new mobile technology. 

However, as things stand the payphone may just get another lease of life – a direct benefit of the convergence of technologies.

This is because Telkom is contemplating turning its thousands of public payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots.

Such a move would bring these payphones into the internet age – transforming the relics of the 20th century communication into next-generation broadband hubs.

Telkom boss Sipho Maseko says: “We are looking at a number of options. One of them is to change the public payphones into Wi-Fi hotspots.”

In 2003, Telkom had 179 000 payphones located in municipalities, prisons, petrol stations, shopping malls, taxi stands, airports, bus stops and train stations. 

In recent years the number of Telkom public payphones has been reduced to 79 000.

If the plan is implemented these payphones could help Telkom create Africa’s biggest Wi-Fi network, if not the biggest in the world.

Admittedly, such a development would not be the first in the world.

In 2013, City of New York asked designers to re-imagine the city’s decrepit payphones as internet-flinging, ad-spitting future machines, according to Gizmodo.

“For years, the question was, ‘What to do with payphones?’ and now we have an answer,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

“By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric, we can significantly enhance public availability of increasingly-vital broadband access, invite new and innovative digital services, and increase revenue to the city – all at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.”

“The digital age holds great potential to better deliver services, and by re-imagining 20th century payphones as 21st century connection points, we’re making broadband access more equitable and accessible to every New Yorker,” said counsel to the mayor Maya Wiley.

“A network of 7 000 free Wi-Fi hotspots at payphone locations around town will significantly improve the tech quality of life for New Yorkers and visitors alike, while maintaining the option for voice calls when needed, including 911,” Wiley correctly surmised at the time.

Telkom 79 000 public payphones scattered around the country could create an instant massive network, which could help provide broadband access to millions of South Africans.

Twitter users were excited by the news that Telkom may turn public payphones into Wi-Fi hotspot when it broke on Friday.  Here are some of the tweets:

* “WTF are they waiting for,” commented @IG: TumzaFlyingSpur.
*  Tharman Naidoo, said: “Now shall we go to a call box and BBM for free.”
* @PuleOfficial added “AWESOME! I like! Best idea of all time!”
* @Peliwe_M said: “How Public Pay Phones Got Their Groove Back…haven’t seen/noticed one in years.”

Considering these positive reactions on social media, Telkom’s Maseko is best advised to quickly formalise the option and invite bidders for the design to transform these relics of 20th century into Wi-Fi hotspots.

This could also be an opportunity for small businesses to operate the Wi-Fi hotspots on behalf of Telkom – that is if the company is not interested in running them. It also provides an opportunity for new jobs.

And of course Telkom could generate much needed revenue from the phone cubicles, while providing more broadband access all over the country.

By Gugu Lourie – Fin24

*Gugu Lourie is a former correspondent for Thomson Reuters, Business Report, Finweek magazine and Fin24 (writing a blog titled ‘Googled’). He is the editor of techfinancials.co.za. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on #twitter @LourieGugu


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