Pay phone gives Internet access to man on street


NEW YORK - At Fifth Avenue and West 46th Street, you can let your fingers do the walking - all over the World Wide Web.

The nation's first outdoor Internet pay phone has made its debut, meaning anyone with a bit of change can check e-mail or surf the Net for a quarter a minute.

And you can make phone calls to anywhere in the world for 25 cents a minute, too.

If the phone proves popular, owner TCC Teleplex says it would roll out 100 more units in New York this year, with plans to expand to other major cities soon after.

"We believe this is the wave of the future, and I'm confident that people in big cities throughout the country will be seeing this shortly," said Dennis Novick, president of TCC Teleplex, which owns 1,500 conventional pay phones around Manhattan.

The idea already has caught on overseas. British Telecom recently announced plans to install 3,000 Internet pay phones beginning in April at busy sites in and around London.

Novick said the Internet pay phone in midtown Manhattan allows access to all Web sites except pornographic ones. E-mails require a return address so that the phones aren't used to send anonymous threats or spam messages.

To protect against vandalism, a major problem with traditional pay phones, the Internet phone's 12-inch screen has been placed behind heavy, shatter-resistant plastic. The keyboard is of military quality, meaning it can handle rain - or spilled coffee. And the whole setup is housed in a metal casing, just like a traditional pay phone.

The Internet pay phone, which accepts credit cards, even boasts a built-in camera so that users can shoot photos of themselves and attach them to e-mail. And there's a red button that provides an immediate connection to the city's emergency dispatch center.

"People are going to find it incredibly convenient to be able to walk down the street and stop quickly at the Internet pay phone to see if they have any e-mails," Novick said.

He said he plans to make prepaid Internet phone cards available soon at retail outlets, and that eventually corporations might be persuaded to advertise on the phone's screen.

Although Novick's phone is the first open-air Internet pay phone, such units have been installed at airports, convention centers and other indoor locations.

ICOA Inc. of Warwick, R.I., has a network of 176 Internet pay phone kiosks in 19 states, with plans to expand to larger airports.

"The number of users has been quite satisfactory so far," said George Strouthopoulos, ICOA's chief executive officer.

Vince Sandusky, president of the American Public Communications Council, a pay phone trade association in Washington, said outdoor Internet pay phones should give a much-needed boost to industry, which has suffered as the use of cell phones has soared.

"I could see many tourists using these phones to get directions or check out nearby attractions," Sandusky said. "I hate carrying around my laptop, so I'd pay whatever would be needed to get access to my e-mail."

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