Penetration of mobile phones cited as primary reason

Remember those booths painted in red and yellow having that one, vital dial telephone? Public Call Offices (PCOs), which were once considered an important facility that enabled easy communication, seem to be battling declining patronage.

After a reasonable struggle trying to run a PCO, many self-employed persons either choose to add to the services they provide or simply close it down and look for other more lucrative options.

Penetration of mobile phones and the attractive rates offered by mobile phone service providers are cited as primary reasons for declining patronage by those in the business.

The decline in the popularity of the PCOs is not a recent phenomenon. According to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the decline has been more evident since 2006, with about 2.6 lakh PCO booths in the country being shut during September-December 2008 alone.

T.A. Muthu, who has been running a PCO in Nungambakkam for nearly a decade, says these are rather tough times for people like him. “I was forced to purchase a photocopying machine a year ago, as the earnings from the PCO went down significantly,” he says.

After taking up a connection from a service provider and finding a space for the facility, persons who run a PCO get a monthly commission from the service provider, depending on the bill they generate at their units.

P. Simmachandran, who was allotted a PCO in the quota reserved for persons with disability, handed over his PCO to a friend. “I used to run it until a few years ago. After the business became dull, I added a popcorn machine and photocopying unit to our facility. Even then, it was a struggle.”

According to Mr. Simmachandran, who is the Secretary of the Federation of Tamil Nadu Physically Handicapped Association, the government had earlier said with regard to PCOs run by persons with disability that for every rupee earned, 80 paise would go to the service provider and 20 paise, to the person running it.

The Federation wrote to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology several times, to consider modifying the sharing arrangement to 50-50. But, there has been no change.

Mr. Muthu says on a very good day, the maximum someone running a PCO with STD and ISD facilities can earn is Rs.2,000-Rs.3,000. “But that is very, very rare,” he quickly adds. Even the number of persons coming to make ISD calls has come down, thanks to facilities such as the internet.

According to A. Subramanian, Chief General Manager, BSNL Chennai Telephones, the rate at which PCOs are being closed down is not particularly alarming. “Yes, the trend of closure is there, possibly due to the tele-density now. But many continue to exist with add-on facilities.”

Of the nearly one lakh booths of BSNL, only about 2,000 were closed in the last couple of years.

“In fact, we want to push our e-PCO concept further to help the business. The e-PCO concept is a PCO with other facilities such as internet browsing using broadband facility and issue of railway or bus tickets,” he adds.

BSNL Chennai Telephones is also partnering with a private firm for the “elegant coin box system” now installed at the airport, railway stations and bus terminuses.

Mr. Subramanian says: “As of now we have about 1,000 coin box systems installed at various points in the city. We want to increase the number.”

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Meera SrinivasanJune 28, 2012

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