Do Toronto's Payphones Have a Future?
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Do Toronto’s Payphones Have a Future?

With more payphones disappearing every year, the CRTC is holding a public consultation to decide if they're worth saving.

Picture this: a huge storm hits Toronto, the power’s out, and there’s no cell phone service. You need to make a vital call, but all the usual communications mediums are down. There’s nothing else to do but head for the nearest payphone. If you can find one.

This scenario isn’t all that outlandish. It actually occurred in New York City last year following Hurricane Sandy, when millions had to use the often-abandoned boxes to make vital calls.

Right now, Canada is taking the first steps in deciding the future of its payphones. The CRTC is holding a fact-finding consultation to collect information on the extent to which Canadians rely on public phones, and how changes to payphone service—like mass removals, or rate increases—would affect the country.

But the erosion of this once-crucial comms network is already happening.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, one of the biggest advocates for payphones, believes Bell is removing them at every opportunity.

“If there’s a bank of phones, Bell can just leave one and take out the rest,” said John Lawford, a lawyer for the PIAC. “They don’t repair them and are not interested in putting in new ones.”

Bell itself has said this, more or less. Last year, the company was seeking permission to raise the cash price of a local call from 50 cents to a dollar. In its CRTC filing, Bell warned that it would probably have to remove some of its most unprofitable pay telephones if its request wasn’t granted. Sure enough, the price hike was denied in July. The CRTC launched its public consultation on payphone use at the same time.

It’s estimated there are about 70,000 payphones remaining across Canada, but a spokesperson for Bell would not say how many of those are located in Toronto. (The PIAC estimates about 20,000.) A report published by the CRTC in 2010 found that 28,000 payphones across the country had disappeared over the previous four years.

Lawford says low income-people are the ones who will suffer if more payphones disappear.

“It’s the less well-off, like blind people—we’ve been told this, blind people know where [payphones] are, and know the keypad layout—and the elderly, who might only be able to afford one cell phone. These are the kinds of people who need them.” As do victims of domestic abuse, immigrants, and even people whose cell phone batteries are dead.

A number of groups who work with those living in poverty said the same thing: taking away payphones means hurting some of Canadian society’s most vulnerable members.

Holly Thompson of the Scott Mission said: “Like many shelters and drop-in programs, we have a phone available for clients to use for free. However, this important service will not be able to help in an emergency situation. Without payphones, anyone without a cell phone would have to rely on others to help contact EMS for them.”

“Payphones are already rare, especially in places where the homeless population spends the most amount of time.”

So, could the answer be to subsidize them? Lawford believes this may be something worth considering.

“This idea was floated before, but it might be resurrected,” he said. “It could be argued they are already being subsidized by what we pay phone companies for other services.”

It’s true that, for most of us, payphones are no longer important. But would you like to see them disappear? Are you willing to help pay for them? These are the questions the CRTC is asking the public to answer.

The CRTC’s consultation is open to feedback from the public until October 22. Comments are being accepted online.

CORRECTION: September 10, 2013, 3:30 PM This post originally referred to Holly Thompson and as Holly Bennett.