How Does a Payphone Make Money for Its Owner?

Channel Partners

June 1, 1998

8 Min Read
How Does a Payphone Make Money for Its Owner?

Posted: 06/1998

How Does a Payphone Make Money for Its Owner?

By Bob Lane

When I decided to enter the payphone business a number of years ago, I didn’t have a
clue where to start. Like many other aspiring independent payphone providers (IPPs), I
stumbled blindly into some of the less scrupulous payphone business offerings that lurk
around the edges of the payphone industry. Fortunately, I managed to avoid becoming one of
the many hapless victims of payphone scams.

I realized quickly that I needed to get my thinking straightened out about the right
way to begin building a payphone route, concluding that the reliable, digestible, useful
information I needed to help me become an IPP was hard to come by. After all, there
weren’t any payphone consultants listed in my local phone book.

The payphone industry may be rife with scams, but there is money to be made once you
know some basic facts. Specifically, it’s helpful to know how different types of calls are
classified and the rates your local exchange carrier (LEC) and interexchange carrier (IXC)
charge you, the payphone owner, for each call.

Payphone revenues consist of coin, operator service commissions and dial-around
compensation. Examples of the different types of calls follow.

Coin Calls

The first–and largest–category of calls are coin-paid calls, also called sent-paid
calls because the call is "sent" once it is paid for. The payphone collects the
coin and the IPP receives local and long distance phone bills from the LEC and the IXC
that has been chosen by the IPP. Subcategories of local coin-paid calls are:

Local calls: These are calls made to the area immediately surrounding the
payphone. The pricing of these calls recently was deregulated and is now the decision of
the IPP. These calls are carried by the LEC.

Local directory assistance calls: Also known as "information" calls.
The pricing of these calls also has been deregulated recently and is now the decision of
the IPP. These calls are carried by the LEC.

IntraLATA calls: These are calls placed to and from phone numbers within the
same local access and transport area (LATA). They may be carried by the LEC or by an IXC
depending upon state regulations and the preference of the IPP.

InterLATA calls: Calls from one LATA to another. These calls are carried by an

Interstate calls: Calls made from a phone in one state to a phone in another
state. These calls are carried by an IXC.

Long distance directory assistance calls: The long distance version of
"information" calls. These calls are carried by an IXC.

International calls: A call to another country. If the IPP allows these calls to
be placed from the payphone, be aware that there is a significant potential for
"clip-on" fraud and the IPP easily could be stuck with a phone bill amounting to
thousands of dollars. Here’s how it might happen: The perpetrator gains access to the
phone wires (usually at the network interface box). Using a telephone lineman’s
"butt-set" (handset), the crook "clips" onto the wires and starts
placing calls to far-away lands, possibly even selling calls to his friends and neighbors
who want to call friends or relatives overseas. Ouch! The IPP has the option of asking the
LEC and IXC to block these calls.

Operator Service Calls

Operator service calls are calls that do not require any exchange of money at the time
the call is placed. They often are referred to as zero plus or zero minus calls. A zero
plus call would be a call wherein the phone number is prefaced by the number
"0." Zero minus refers to a call wherein only the "0" key is pressed
by the customer at the payphone. The payphone does not collect coin and the IPP does
not receive a local or long distance phone bill. Instead, the operator service
provider (OSP) the IPP uses gets the customer’s billing information such as credit card
number, the phone number the call is billed to and the customer’s name for a collect call;
validates the billing information; completes the call for the payphone customer; bills and
collects the charges; and pays a commission to the IPP.

The chances are good that an OSP will offer a number of different "billing
groups." The higher the billing group, the more the customer is charged for the call
and the higher the IPP’s commission percentage is. Additionally, the OSP will add a
premise-imposed fee (PIF) to the call if the IPP arranges for it. PIFs can range from zero
to $3 or more per call. Typically, OSPs pay 100 percent of the PIF and a percentage of the
remaining call charges to the IPP (after deducting a predetermined percentage for bad
debt). In the past, IPPs and OSPs have come under fire for excessively high charges for
these kinds of calls.

In the near future, the payphone customer will be able to determine the cost of the
call. If it’s too costly, the customer may choose to use a competitor’s payphone. Recent
regulation from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says the OSP must provide the
payphone customer with the price of the call being placed (an oversimplification of a
less-simple regulation, but you get the idea).

So how are calls priced? The following is a quick overview of what calls are regulated
and what calls are priced by the IPP:

0+ local calls: The pricing of these calls may be regulated in some areas. Check
with the OSP or the state’s regulatory commission, such as the public service commission,
public utility commission or state corporation commission.

0+ interLATA calls: The pricing of these calls may be regulated in some areas.
Check with the OSP or the state’s regulatory commission.

0+ intraLATA calls: The pricing of these calls may be regulated in some areas.
Check with the OSP or the state’s regulatory commission.

0+ interstate calls: These calls are not regulated.

0+ international calls: If the IPP arranges for the OSP to carry these calls,
the IPP may have to agree to share the fraud liability with the OSP.

Other Types of Calls

While coin and 0+ or 0- are the most prevalent calls made from payphones, the IPP
should be aware of the other calls that may be less typical but are no less important.

Dial-around compensation: These calls can best be summed up as toll-free or
equal access calls. They include 800 numbers, 888 numbers, 10XXX, 10XXXXX and 950-XXXX (X
can be any digit). The IPP must allow this special category of calls to be made by the
customer without depositing a coin in the payphone. FCC rules mandate the IXCs that
provide these numbers must compensate the IPP for these calls at the rate of 28.4 cents
per call (to be paid quarterly). There are several organizations that will apply for
dial-around information on the IPP’s behalf and send along the proceeds (minus a modest
fee for this service).

Toll-free "platform" calls: These calls normally arise from
advertisement stickers placed on or around the payphone. The following is an example of a
typical situation: A payphone customer notices a sticker on the payphone advertising long
distance calls that could be placed by first calling a toll-free number. The payphone
customer dials the toll-free number, which is answered by an operator service system. The
operator service system gets the destination number and billing information from the
customer and completes the call. The IPP that owns the payphone gets a commission from the
carrier that completed the call because of a pre-existing agreement that says the IPP will
receive commissions for these calls in exchange for actively promoting the carrier’s
services (hence the advertising sticker that the customer responded to in the first

211 (repair/refund) calls: These calls don’t actually make money for the IPP,
but they do help keep repair costs down. A payphone that is out of repair for a lengthy
period can sustain a lot of damage from frustrated customers. If the IPP is responsive to
repair/refund calls, the payphone customers are happier and so is the location owner who
might otherwise be fending off customer complaints about lost coins at the payphone.

911 (emergency) calls: The IPP has a legal, moral and civic duty to permit these
calls to be made at no cost to the payphone customer. Clear emergency-call dialing
instructions should be posted on the payphone, as well.

Speed-dial advertising calls: Some payphones can be programmed to speed-dial a
preset number or numbers. A typical speed-dial call might work as follows: A customer at
the payphone sees an ad posted on the payphone equipment. The ad says, "Joe’s Taxi
Service – FREE CALL – Dial *21." The payphone customer, who just happens to need a
cab, dials *21. The payphone is programmed to dial the phone number for Joe’s Taxi
Service. The cab company gets a fare that might otherwise have gone to a different cab
company and, because of a prearranged deal between the IPP and Joe’s Taxi Service, Joe
pays the IPP a commission. This principle works well with tow truck companies, also.

Putting It Together

An important part of being a profitable IPP is the successful micromanagement of the
many different streams detailed here. And although regulations have made the payphone
business a sometimes confusing business, it can reap great rewards for the IPP.

Bob Lane is the owner of Payphones-USA (
  ) and Telefone. com (
).  He also is the owner of Lane Communications Co., a payphone company operating in
Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., and is vice president of the Atlantic Payphone
Association. Additionally, he is CEO of Payphone Consultants. He can be reached at (800)

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