Canada's Condominium Magazine

CRTC wants to save few remaining payphones in Canada

There was a time, back in the twentieth century, when you could find a payphone on just about every street corner in every city, and in most any public place—bus and train stations, hotel lobbies, supermarkets. Today, it seems everybody has a smartphone. Does anybody use the few payphones still in service? As it happens, yes, they do. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has been looking into the question, and today it released its findings.

Just under one-third (32 per cent) of Canadians say that they have used a payphone at least once in the last year. In 2004, half of us said so. That’s a steep decline. The CRTC doesn’t say how many payphones remain, but if US numbers are any indication, there must be very few left. The number of payphones in the US fell from 2.1 million in 1999 to 142,716 in 2014, a drop of more than 93 per cent.

A typical outcome was that of the last payphone in a certain California public library. The telephone company wanted to charge the small county library $60 a month to keep the phone because it didn’t generate enough income to make it worth maintaining otherwise. The library declined to pay, and the last payphone in the Springfield-Greene County Library District was removed. The end of an era. The big telecom companies like Verizon have largely sold their payphones.

Does this same fate await the remaining payphones in Canada? Not if the CRTC can stop that from happening. It says that even though we use them less than before, they are still important to “the public interest.”

While studying the question of payphone use, the CRTC received submissions from various consumer advocacy groups, all of which acknowledged that use has declined. But that does not mean no one uses them, and in some cases, those using payphones really depend on them. One gets a sense of how urgently some need them in the words quoted below, identified only as “Intervention 27, Ontario.”

I really need payphones. I am on a low pension and have MS. I need to use a payphone to call a friend to pick me up from doctors’ appointments. I am unable to afford a cellphone. If I could get one, I could put ten dollars on it and use it whenever I need, it would be great but you have to keep adding money to it every month and there is the cost of buying the phone. I am finding it hard to even find a payphone anymore. I have to go to the hospital and it is a long walk to the only one they have and walking is a problem for me. Not everyone makes thousands of dollars and I only get $16,000 a year and with rent of $915.00 a month. Every dollar left is for food.

Intervention 27

There were plenty of similar submissions. So the CRTC is proposing that if telephone companies want to remove “the last public telephone” from any community, they must first notify the public in the affected communities, and it specifically mentions First Nations, before they do so. People would have the opportunity, the CRTC says, to give their opinions. The chair of the CRTC said in a statement that when citizens “share their concerns” with local authorities, those authorities “will be empowered to respond to the needs of their communities.”

One area in which payphones still play an important role is in emergency communications. When natural disasters like hurricanes wipe out cell phone infrastructure, as happened with Hurricane Sandy in New York, people relied on old-fashioned payphones. Besides providing a crucial public service in situations like those, the benefits include providing reliable location data and resiliency in disaster situations. In addition, payphones provide caller anonymity in sensitive cases such as domestic abuse. And payphones provide an access point in vulnerable communities where the cost of acquiring alternatives is beyond economic means.

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