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PCO boom in the time of mobiles

Remember the last time you used a pay phone? Was it five years ago or 10? Or rewind to the Bollywood movies of the 1980s where a breathless police informer inserted a 50-paisa coin into such a phone just as the goons got him, reports Manoj Gairola.

business Updated: Jul 20, 2009 01:06 IST
Manoj Gairola

Remember the last time you used a pay phone? Was it five years ago or 10? Or rewind to the Bollywood movies of the 1980s where a breathless police informer inserted a 50-paisa coin into such a phone just as the goons got him.

Some of us in big cities may have forgotten public phones after the mobile revolution. But the number of public call office (PCO) users across the country has not gone down at all. On the contrary, it is growing.

India had 62 lakh PCOs in March this year, according to industry regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Two lakh new PCOs were added in January-March alone.

In the United States and Europe, PCOs started declining when cellphones became popular. In the US, there are less than nine lakh pay phones left, down from 20 lakh in 2000.

But in India, a boom in mobile phones — about 1 crore connections are added every month — has made no difference to the popularity of PCOs. This is because a chunk of the population still doesn’t own a mobile.

Of the 1 billion people in India, 62 crore still don’t use cellphones. Even those who do, have not abandoned the payphone.

“Many of those who have mobile phones still rely on the ubiquitous street-corner payphone to make national and international calls,” said Bharti Airtel deputy CEO Sanjay Kapoor.

“I call my sister who lives in UP from here,” said Vijay Kumar, 32, a Mayur Vihar-based fruitseller, at Goyal Telecom in Mayur Vihar. “Cellphone calls are still costlier.”

The proprietor Anil Goyal said he earned around Rs 200 a day from his payphone. “Most of my customers are students aged between 18 and 25,” he said

The PCO boom in India began in the 1980s when telecom commission chairman Sam Pitroda opened up the segment to private players. Earlier, only the department of telecommunications could install and operate them.

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