Who Still Uses Pagers?
By Steven Melendez
Updated August 01, 2017
Pagers were the must-have communications accessory for much of the 1990s.
Slightly bigger than a matchbox, the devices let callers dial in and leave a callback number or brief text message that gets displayed on a calculator-style screen. Beepers, as they’re also known, introduced millions of people to ringtones and vibration notifications, and were commonly seen clipped to belts and purses in offices and high schools around the world.
Once cellphones became reasonably cheap and reliable, most people canceled their pager service and left the devices gathering dust in the back of the junk drawer. But for some people, pagers are still valuable even today, thanks to their reliability, compatibility with a wide variety of systems, and ability to work some places cellphone signals just don’t reach.
Pagers Just Work
For people in jobs where they absolutely have to be reachable – like some doctors, nurses and maintenance workers – pagers can still be a must-have.
“There’s a lot of different industries that have these types of things where if something is going wrong, the business is losing money while they equipment is down, and they need to get notified,” says Jack Uniglicht, manager of pager provider DirectPage.
If the devices are only called in case of a true emergency, they ensure important calls aren’t lost in the modern cellphone shuffle of text messages, social media notifications and other smartphone beeps and buzzes.
“It just makes something a priority and gets their attention,” says Uniglicht.
People can also easily clip pagers to their belts, ensuring they’ll feel the devices vibrate even if they’re in a noisy environment. And the relatively simple pager design means their batteries will stay charged for a long time, unlike cellphones that can send people scrambling to find a charger midway through the work day.
“A pager you can keep on 24 hours a day for about a month with just a AAA battery,” Uniglicht says.
And even today, the devices still get coverage in some places cellphone networks just don’t reliably reach. They can also be used in certain secure work environments, like government installations, where phones and other devices with cameras aren’t allowed, Uniglicht says.
Everyone (And Everything) Knows How To Page
Sending a message to a pager is extremely simple, with no need for read receipts or fears of messages getting lost on a congested network. In fact, plenty of machines from factory equipment to burglar alarms to car wash systems are configured to automatically send pager notifications if something goes wrong.
While it’s sometimes possible to have those machines call a cellphone or send a notification over the internet, it’s not always practical to retrofit older equipment simply to use newer communication technology. And alarms can call out to pagers even in places where there isn’t internet service available, or where it wouldn’t make sense to install internet service just to as long as a landline phone line is available, according to Uniglicht.
“It can be an alarm in an area that doesn’t have internet tied to it, or it wouldn’t be cost effective,” he says.
The devices work with some other long-running services as well: At least one service for birdwatchers relies on the devices to deliver news about bird sightings to remote places where interesting birds might be plentiful but cell service is not.
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology. He has an undergraduate degree in computer science and has written for a variety of publications and was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.