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Pay phones have been disappearing as mobile phone use spreads.

People with cell phones, who now account for nearly 70 percent of the population, might not be concerned by their disappearance, but have-nots are.

“I have a hard time finding a roadside public phone out in the country when I drive to the golf course and need to contact my fellow golfers,” said Makoto Yoshitake, a 33-year-old company employee.

He said he also worries about emergencies, including a traffic accident or sudden illness.

“I feel angry about the deteriorating communications environment for people who do not have mobile phones.”

From March 1995 to last March, the number of public telephones fell by 298,000, or 37 percent, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry. Mobile phones began spreading rapidly in the mid-1990s.

The pay phone business of NTT East and NTT West has been in the red, with 23.3 billion yen in combined operating losses in fiscal 2003.

To make up for the deficit, the NTT group gradually raised the local call rate, beginning in 1994, to 10 yen per minute from 10 yen per 3 minutes. NTT has also been cutting operating and maintenance costs for public phones, said Yasutaka Tsuda, an official at NTT East’s public phone section.

In April 2002, the two NTT units mapped out plans to get rid of public phones that fail to rake in a monthly revenue of 4,000 yen or more.

For the current fiscal year, ending next March, they plan to remove 64,000 phones. Almost all public phones except for those in or near train stations are unprofitable, according to the carriers.

“We have carried out every possible measure to cut public phone operating costs. Now all we can do is remove the ones that are rarely used,” Tsuda said.

Does this mean public phones will totally disappear someday?

Not to worry. Under the Telecommunications Business Law, NTT — a former state monopoly — is obliged to have at least one public phone within every 500-sq.-meter area in cities and 1 sq. km in rural residential areas.

About 110,000 pay phones are currently protected under the law — a relief for mobile phone have-nots, but a headache for the NTT units.

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