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The government has decided to ease regulations on the installation of public pay phones as the widespread use of mobile phones has sharply reduced the need for the once-ubiquitous item.

The number of pay phones in Japan peaked at 935,000 in fiscal 1984, just before the establishment of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. through the privatization of its government-owned predecessor. The number has since continued to decrease, standing at 707,000 in fiscal 2000 and 151,000 in fiscal 2019. In less than 20 years, the number plunged about 80%.

The use of pay phones has decreased more sharply. Conversations via pay phone plummeted 98% from 42 million hours in fiscal 2000 to 900,000 hours in fiscal 2019.

Pay phones are designated as a “universal service,” which means that they should be readily available to all citizens. Through its subsidiaries NTT East Corp. and NTT West Corp., NTT is legally required to have a pay phone installed every 500 square meters in urban areas and every square kilometer in other locations.

Under the existing regulations, there are some 109,000 pay phones that cannot be removed even if they are not used at all.

The maintenance of pay phones installed in boxes outdoors comes with a considerable cost, as they not only deteriorate naturally but also are subject to graffiti or vandalism. In fiscal 2019, NTT incurred a loss of ¥3.3 billion in operating pay phones that must be maintained. The loss is covered by universal service fees collected from users of fixed and mobile phones.

Against this background, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications decided to ease the criteria for the installation locations to every square kilometer in urban areas and every 2 square kilometers in other places. The required number of pay phones, therefore, has dropped to 27,000. Including those installed in places outside the criteria, the total number of pay phones could drop by more than half.

Nevertheless, pay phones are drawing renewed attention because they can be used even in times of disaster and other emergencies. On March 11, 2011, when a devastating earthquake and tsunami occurred in the northeastern region of Japan, the use of pay phones in the whole of eastern Japan soared 10 times from the previous day.

“The role of pay phones is shifting to use in disasters” due to the frequent occurrence of large-scale natural disasters in recent years, an official of NTT East said.

NTT East and NTT West have changed the main purpose of pay phones to use in disasters and started installing them in places designated as evacuation shelters for free use in times of disaster.

More than 80,000 pay phones for the new purpose have been installed across Japan, up from fewer than 10,000 in fiscal 2011. As they are not used in normal times, the cost of maintenance is lower than for conventional pay phones. Public phones for emergency use are expected to outnumber conventional ones in due course.

Pay phones will likely survive as “phones that are usually unused but necessary,” an analyst said.

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