No customers, no calls: the slow death of PCOs

The yellow and black ISD, STD, PCO booths and bunk shops were once so commonplace in the city, they barely merited attention.

But with the onslaught of mobile phones and penetration of technology, today, these innocuous public utilities have gradually faded into the background, making way for mobile recharge shops which most often double up as photocopying shops, and offer other miscellaneous services as well.

Now found far apart in a few neighbourhoods, these booths have almost become a novelty, their meagre presence usually indicated by worn-out paint and a telephone hidden amidst glass bottles filled with biscuits and stacks of newspapers.

The minute you ask V.P. Kamaraj, who runs Nehru News Mart on the bustling Luz Corner, if the PCO facility is working, he cautions you to tender exact change. And he has not one, but two coin-vending PCOs run by a private operator.

“This shop is almost 70 years old, and we have had a public telephone for the past 10 years. Though, the facility is only an add-on, we get anywhere between 80 to 100 people everyday,” he says, adding that they discontinued the STD and ISD services because they became redundant after mobile phones and the internet took over.

“Local calls on the other hand, are made by people who are on the move, and do not always have enough balance to make a call or by the elderly, who do not use mobile phones,” he says.

Business, however, is not as brisk for A. Mahadevan, who has a metered STD and PCO facility on East Tank Square Street. He says that most of the few customers he gets, come to make STD calls.

“I also have other services like computerised horoscopes, print-outs and photocopying,” he says. Next to the bunk shop at the edge of Pondy Bazaar, where P. Raj works, is a defunct PCO booth. The tea-shop which has one phone to make local calls, barely gets ten customers a day, he says.

G. Vijaya, a spokesperson for BSNL in the city, says that the number of PCOs in the urban area limits has gone down from around 19,000 in 2011 to around 17,000 in 2012. However, the focus is now on replacing conventional PCOs with Smart PCOs, which will have re-charge cards, the facility to make local, STD and ISD calls, and will also accept coins of any denomination.

According to her, there are around 1,000 such PCOs in the city already.

“It is the coin-operated machines run by both individual operators and the department which are on the decline, because maintenance of these is not easy,” she says, adding that since recharges of small denominations are available now, many choose to recharge their phones, instead of using a public telephone.

BSNL officials say they are replacing conventional PCOs with smart devices, which will offer recharge cards too

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