Pay phones still have role to play during disasters despite changing times

Pay phones have for years supported people’s daily life as an important part of the communications infrastructure. To meet the changing times, while maintaining their minimum functions in normal situations, it is desirable to strengthen their role such as for use during disasters.

An advisory panel of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has compiled a draft report urging the ministry to relax the criteria that NTT East Corp. and NTT West Corp. are required to follow for installing pay phones. The move reflects a sharp drop in pay phone use due to the rapid proliferation of mobile phones and the declining population.

The two companies are required to install a pay phone in every space of about 500 meters square in urban areas and of about 1 kilometer square in other areas. The companies have maintained these category 1 phones at a level of 110,000 units, but this causes ongoing deficits, making increased efficiency an urgent task.

The panel has proposed having only one such phone installed in every space of about 1 kilometer square in urban areas and about 2 kilometers square in other areas. This would reduce the number of such pay phones to about a quarter of those currently in place, or about 27,000, the panel said.

Pay phones set up by NTT East and NTT West at their own discretion at places such as train stations or public facilities constitute category 2. At the end of fiscal 2002, there were nearly 500,000 units in this category, but the number has been reduced to about 40,000 amid reduced demand.

According to a poll conducted by the ministry, more than 70% of respondents said they had not used a pay phone in the past year.

While it is understandable to relax the installation criteria, it is necessary to thoroughly inform the public of the location of pay phones so that their convenience is not impaired.

NTT East and NTT West display the locations of pay phones on their websites. They should also consider having such information included on smartphone map apps, as well as local maps and disaster maps distributed by municipalities.

People should also check in advance where pay phones are located in the range of their daily activities, such as around their home and workplace.

The importance of pay phones as a means of communication in the event of a disaster remains unchanged.

It often becomes difficult to connect to landlines and mobile phones during a disaster. There is also a constant worry that mobile phones might become lost or the battery will run out. In times of disaster, priority is given to connecting callers from pay phones, which can also have the advantage of being usable during power outages.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, the number of pay phone calls across eastern Japan reportedly increased about 10 times, reaching 15 times in the Tokyo metropolitan area, from the previous day.

NTT East and NTT West have been setting up emergency-use phones at places such as evacuation sites designated by local governments with more than 80,000 installed in fiscal 2019. The panel has proposed making it mandatory for the government to set up a certain number of such phones. Considering the current circumstances in which disasters frequently occur, this is an appropriate decision.

Cooperation is necessary among the central government, NTT East, NTT West and local governments to proceed with the installation of such phones. They should also strive to make sure that young people who are unfamiliar with pay phones know how to use them.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 10, 2021.