Pick up the payphone: Retro public phones still handy

Public phones might be a rare sight in Singapore, but they are handy for tourists and those who do not own a mobile phone

At Heap Seng Leong coffee shop in 10 North Bridge Road, there is an orange payphone so retro that you need to feed it old 10-cent coins.

Specifically, it accepts only coins issued before 2013, according to the coffee shop owner's son, Mr Shi Ting Chow, 53. He should know, because the coffee shop has a ready supply of these coins to exchange with customers if they need to use the phone.

The phone, said to have been in use since the 1980s, is kept there for customers who need to use it in an emergency, Mr Shi says.

"It is used at least once a day. Our customers are generally older and some don't own mobile phones."

Payphones, together with alarm clocks and paper diaries, seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur in an age of multitasking smartphones.

Figures from data.gov.sg, Singapore's open data portal, show that Singapore's mobile penetration rate is about 150 per cent - meaning every second Singaporean has two mobile phones - which makes the sight of someone fumbling for a coin to slot into a payphone a relatively rare one.

What users say
 

My mother tried to call me on my mobile phone just now. Before I could answer, the battery went flat. So, I'm using a payphone to call her back.

HOUSEWIFE YOGARANI NAIDU, 32, who used a payphone at Tekka Centre last Wednesday. She uses payphones about two or three times a month.

I called my mother. I don't own a mobile phone, so I usually use payphones.

STUDENT NUR AMIRAH, 10, who used a payphone outside Chinatown MRT station last Friday

I lost my mobile phone recently and have not got a new one. I think payphones are still important because they are convenient in an emergency. You don't need many of them, just one or two in each location.

RETIREE KAREN HO, 60, who used a payphone outside Chinatown MRT station last Friday

But the eagle-eyed nostalgia hunter may still spot the odd payphone at old kopitiams and provision shops or at hospitals, libraries and the airport.

There are no consolidated figures on how many payphones there are in Singapore, but what is known is that there are 16 operators licensed to provide public payphone services.

Singtel operates about 1,500 units. StarHub also operates payphones in the heartland, although its spokesman declined to say how many.

Another telco, Firstcomm, operates about 1,000 payphones.

These constitute 5 per cent of its business, which also includes services such as installing and maintaining CCTV systems and IT-based servers, installing cables such as fibre optics as well as designing mobile-phone apps.

Firstcomm's director Christina Chua, in her 40s, says: "If we are diligent in placing the payphones in the right locations and maintaining them well, profits are still possible."

So, where are the payphones? Usually in public areas. For example, the National University Hospital has 12 payphones located outside its wards and other areas such as the emergency medicine department.

Its spokesman says these payphones cater to patients and visitors who do not have mobile phones and there are no plans to remove the payphones unless these are initiated by the operating telco.

Singapore's public libraries have two sets of payphones - one at the National Library Building in Victoria Street and another at the Jurong Regional Library. Again, there are no plans to increase or decrease this figure. They are used about five times a day, says a National Library Board spokesman.

Those who use them do not have mobile phones and this group includes the elderly, the young, people from low-income families and tourists, Firstcomm's Ms Chua says.

The Sunday Times hung out near some payphones in Chinatown and Tekka Centre and found a wide spectrum of people who are still making calls on them, including a 10-year-old student and a housewife whose mobile-phone battery went flat.


The Sunday Times hung out near some payphones in Chinatown and Tekka Centre and found a wide spectrum of people who are still making calls on them, including a 10-year-old student and a housewife whose mobile-phone battery went flat. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI 

Besides licensed operators, anyone can install coin payphone units at their premises. For example, outside the Long Hwee Store stationery shop at Block 162 Mei Ling Street is an old pink payphone. It is owned by the shopkeeper, Madam Ker Mei Lian, 70, who says it has been in use since the 1970s.

She says: "I don't keep track of whether or not it makes money. I just maintain it in case someone wants to use it. But I hope they are careful with my phone because it is so old."

There may come a day when payphones are eventually phased out, says Ms Chua from Firstcomm.

"But as long as operating them does not incur a loss to our company, we want to continue doing so."

This is good news for housewife Yogarani Naidu, 32, who used a payphone at Tekka Centre after her mobile-phone battery went flat.

She says: "Although we use payphones less nowadays, I hope they will continue to be around because you never know when you might need them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Pick up the payphone'. Print Edition | Subscribe