CRTC sets stage for humble coin-operated phone’s orderly end

A hard-wired, coin-operated outdoor telephone might seem archaic in a world of smartphones, text messaging and Skype, but Canada’s telecom regulator says payphones still fill a need.

OTTAWA — A hard-wired, coin-operated outdoor telephone might seem archaic in a world of smartphones, text messaging and Skype, but Canada’s telecom regulator says payphones still fill a need.

That’s why the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is proposing to tighten the rules companies must follow when they decide to cut the cord on the last public phone in a community.

The commission is proposing that companies be obligated to notify communities affected, including municipalities and First Nations, before removing the last public phone. They would also have to notify communities before removing a phone where wireless service is not available.

People living in rural and urban communities would also be allowed to express their opinions to local authorities regarding the removal of certain payphones.

Payphone use has plummeted in recent years. A survey done for the commission found that only 32 per cent of Canadians used a payphone even once in the last year, compared to 50 per cent who reported occasional use in 2004.

Some payphones are especially lonely. Phone companies told the CRTC that 636 of their payphones weren’t used even once in the last 13 months and that about 10,000 phones were taking in less than 50 cents a day.

But there is still a need for public phones, CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in an interview.

“It’s certainly true that the reduction of payphone use is considerable, but I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that everybody is not using it … because there are people, more vulnerable Canadians, that still see value in it,” Blais said Thursday.

“We’re talking here about Canadians that are more vulnerable, low-income Canadians, the homeless, maybe perhaps victims of abuse that don’t have the financial means to even have landlines or wireless phones that need to contact the government for social and medical services.”

For these people, payphones offer affordability, access and privacy.

Although payphones offer free 911 calls, Blais said most emergency calls these days come from mobile phones.

The CRTC report said the number of payphones is expected to be down to 55,000 or so by next year, compared with about 118,000 in 2008. Call volume is forecast to slip to 33.5 million next year from 198 million in 2008.

“We’re expecting the call volume on payphones to be going down by 24 per cent over the next few years and phones to be removed at a rate of about 15 per cent per year in the coming years,” Blais said.

Still, the regulator wants to make sure that people have a say when they are about to lose their last payphone.

“This is a fundamental change driven by technology and we get it,” Blais said.

“What we’re doing is refining the notifications to remove the last phones.”

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