Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Who needs a fancy payphone, anyway?

Even in an age where the dial telephone has joined eight-track tapes and black-and-white TV in the museum of outmoded technologies, Northern Telecom's Millennium payphone strikes a futuristic pose. Finished in flashy blue and silver and equipped with a bright blue-green fluorescent display, the Millennium practically oozes modernity. For those of us not rich enough to own a cellphone, is the Millennium just what we need to keep up with digital telephone technology when we’re away from home? Or are the Millennium’s snazzy new features an example of design overkill?

Initial design work on what would become the Millennium payphone began six years ago, according to Doug Matatall, director of Millennium marketing at Northern Telecom. Consumers asked that the buttons on the dialing pad not be hidden under the handset as they are on the older Centurion model, so the Millennium’s handset was placed next to the buttons. People with tremors, cerebral palsy, and other motor impairments had difficulty inserting coins and dialing numbers, so the Millennium’s buttons are farther apart and the coin slot is surrounded by a tapered bezel to guide a coin in.

Digital technology not only allowed the Millennium to be equipped with an alphanumeric display, it permitted each Millennium to be linked to a central computer which constantly monitors every payphone for vandalism, full coin boxes, jammed coin slots, and the like.

Matatall estimates that Canada is home to some 167,000 payphones, “and naturally my objective would be to have total market share.” Bell Canada is intent on replacing every Centurion with a Millennium throughout Ontario and Quebec. [1999 literature from Bell states that 60,000 payphones in Canada have been millennified; Nortel Networks, né Nortel né Northern Telecom, claims 150,000 Millennium phones are in use in North America.] Most other provincial telephone companies have bought the Millennium (Alberta and British Columbia are the only holdouts), and deals are being courted with phone companies in the U.S., Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere. The Millennium is thus likely to become an omnipresent staple of the public landscape.

While that might be admirable from a purely technical standpoint – the Millennium is clearly more sophisticated than the Centurion and thus represents Progress in a concrete way – the new phone is apt to upset the apple cart simply by calling too much attention to itself. Old-style payphones, finished in brown or black, could recede unobtrusively into the backdrop of a restaurant, shopping mall, or other public place. By contrast, there’s no mistaking a Millennium, even in an outdoor phone booth: Its blue-and-silver colour and bright fluorescent display shout “Notice me!”

“The satin silver was chosen to assist the visual impaired [sic],” Matatall explains, as was the fluorescent display (which, unlike a more subdued black-on-silver liquid-crystal display, can function in extreme cold). The blue bezel is standard on phones that let you use not only coins but phone-company or credit cards. If you still use real money, the Millennium is a mixed blessing. Drop in a dollar coin and you can make four 25-cent calls, but if you end up making fewer than that, don’t expect to get change. You need a good push to actually get the coin into the phone, since the Millennium has a little horizontal ledge just inside the coin slot on which the coin tends to rest.

The Millennium doesn’t merely display information, it also talks to you in a synthesized voice. Though this redundancy should make the phone accessible to people with vision or hearing impairments, what you hear doesn’t always match what is displayed. Place a long-distance call via a credit card, for example, and the display will read “Card verification in progress” while the synthesized voice simply says “Please wait.” These features draw electrical power – 8.6 watts a month, in fact, at a cost which Matatall estimates at 30 cents. (The Centurion draws no separate electrical power.) Converting all 167,000 payphones in Canada to Millenia will incur a power bill of over $50,000 a month; presumably telephone utilities will try to recoup this overhead through higher rates.

Bell Canada is slowly replacing all its old-style phone booths – the ones with a single hinged door and blue or red signs reading TELEPHONE or PHONE – with swing-door models labelled simply BELL. You’re expected to know that BELL = TELEPHONE, and once inside the booth you’re now confronted with the Millennium, another implement simply labeled BELL. There used to be a time when a phone looked like a phone and a phone booth advertised itself, not its owner. The Millennium is another step toward a Blade Runner–esque future in which the public telephone is transformed from an innocuous staple of the city streetscape to a corporate billboard.

Originally published 1993 ¶ Updated here 1999.06.28, 2007.03.19

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