Are public call offices that used to cater to majority population’s telephone needs on the path of extinction? The decreasing revenue of most standalone PCOs only signals that many of them will wind up sooner or later.

“Every one has got a mobile phone now. Not many come to us to make calls. My profit which used to be around Rs. 100 a day is now only around Rs. 50 a day,” says C. Udhayasooriyan, who runs a PCO near Periyar Bus Stand for nearly two decades.

The 54-year-old visually challenged man is sticking to this business to feed his family of four. “I cannot learn a new vocation at this age,” he says. Many PCO operators, who made a decent living for years through this business, are in the same situation.

Poor profit

“I led a comfortable life in the 1980s. I used to make a profit of Rs. 80 to Rs. 100 a day. But it has dwindled to Rs. 20 to Rs. 30 now,” says another visually challenged person, V. Chellapandi, who has his PCO in front of the District Court Complex. He attributes the decline to the proliferation of PCOs when the V.P. Singh Government used it to make graduates self-employed.

Gone are the days when people used to queue up outside PCOs and patiently wait for their turn to make calls. “Some regular customers used to give us Rs. 2 to book LPG refills,” Mr. Chellapandi said.

Even those who had landline phones used PCOs to make STD and ISD calls. Technical advancements saw PCOs allowing conferencing facility that helped people make STDs sitting at their home using the PCO lines.

The advent of coin box phones saw more public phones at petty shops, grocery shops, tea stalls.

“Even industrialists who have invested crores of rupees in hotels have three to five coin box phones. Then, how can we survive?” he said.

Cheaper tariffs

However, it is the penetration of mobile phone and cheaper tariffs that made the real difference to the lives of PCO operators.

For additional revenue

V.K. Sanjeevi, General Manager of Madurai Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, which has 22,000 PCOs in the districts of Madurai, Theni and Dindigul district, said BSNL would market all its products through the PCO operators so that they could earn additional revenue.

“They can be either under our franchisees or directly under BSNL and sell SIM cards, pre-paid recharge coupons, landline and broadband connections.

We will waive the deposit amount of Rs. 5,000 to our PCO operators,” he said.

They could also collect telephone bills, in cheques and demand drafts, and make Rs. 4 per bill.

The BSNL gave 200 coin box phones free of cost to some of the deserving operators last year.

Mr. Sanjeevi suggested that those in rural areas, where tele-density was lower, could convert their PCOs into internet kiosks or common service centres.

They could also install photocopying machines, start desk top publishing or book couriers to earn a better living, he said.

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