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PAY PHONE BARGAINS
TO WOO CUSTOMERS BACK TO ITS PUBLIC PAY PHONES, VERIZON IS STARTING TO OFFER $1 INTERNATIONAL CALLS TO CANADA, CHINA, MEXICO CITY, AND MOST EUROPEAN COUNTRIES.

Verizon is starting to offer $1 international calls from its pay phones, in an attempt to woo customers back to the neglected public amenities.

A dollar -- the service only works with coins -- buys up to 10 minutes of international calling at special, yellow-handled phones.

The cost works out to 10 cents a minute to Canada, China, Mexico City, and most European countries. At the high end, it costs $1 a minute to call India, Pakistan, Yemen or American Samoa.

"As cell phones and calling cards have cut into the business, we've had to come up with different ways to market the service," Verizon spokesman Cliff Lee said.

Some phone companies have dropped out of the pay phone business entirely. Verizon says its remaining coin phones -- it has pulled about 20 percent statewide -- must be profitable to survive.

International calling presents an arena where coin phones can still compete. Most cellular plans exclude international calls, and pre-paid cards may have hidden fees that jack up the price. The average price of a one-minute international call is $2.50 using a card, according to Verizon.

But despite a growing volume of international calls, the business isn't a silver bullet for the beleaguered coin calling business, other telecommunications firms said.

"It's a stab in the dark to see if that will boost revenue," said Jay Alberti, president of Pay-Tel in Buffalo, which operates about 500 pay phones in the area.

His company has offered an international flat-rate for about six months, charging $1 for three minutes. The service has been moderately successful, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, he said.

But overseas calling cards available in corner stores and gas stations -- some targeted to a single country -- give the business a run for the money, he said.

"It remains to be seen if (international calling) . . . can bring the dinosaur back," he said.

This week Verizon started outfitting its 3,200 coin phones in the Buffalo area with international capability. The global-enabled phones have a yellow sticker on
the handle and a chart of international calling codes. They connect to 215 global destinations through a partnership with Miami-based carrier Phone1.

The international offer -- begun last fall in New York City and expanding now to cities upstate -- is one of a number of moves designed to boost the utility of public phones. In New York, Verizon has outfitted some public phones as wireless Internet access points. The company has no immediate plans to expand the wireless initiative upstate, but may do so eventually, Lee said.

Verizon doubled the price of a local call to 50 cents at most of its coin phones last year, hoping to boost their profitability. Long-distance calls within the U.S. cost $1 for four minutes.

International calling is growing at rates of 5 to 13 percent a year, said Dario Echeverry, president of Phone1 Globalwide in Miami, parent of Phone1. Calls to Mexico alone rack up 250 million minutes a month, followed by the Dominican Republic at 220 million and Columbia, 85 million.

Users of Phone1-connected phones direct dial the international number and pay only if a connection is established, he said. The rate is announced before the call begins.

"We have really changed the habits of the immigrants -- they would buy a phone card . . . (and) burn up the whole thing on one call," Echeverry said.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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