Calgary

The number you have dialed is no longer in service: Okotoks loses last payphones

Over the past year, the last two payphones in Okotoks were used for a total of 10 calls.

Over the past year, the last 2 phones were used for 10 calls total

One of the payphones left in Okotoks hasn't been working reliably, according to nearby businesses. (Helen Pike/CBC)

It's the last call for payphones in Okotoks.

The town's two remaining phones, one downtown and another one in the Riverbend Campsite, will soon be out of service. 

Telus has been decommissioning payphones in communities because they are hard to fix and were made obsolete by cellphones. 

People used the two payphones for a combined total of 10 calls in the past year — that's a grand total of $5 earned in quarters. 

Beth Crews has a great view of the payphone from the window of Better Than Home Coin Laundry. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Several nearby businesses say the phone that's near the Okotoks Post office on Elizabeth Street hasn't had a dial tone for years. 

Beth Crews has a great view from the window of Better Than Home Coin Laundry. 

 "It's just funny to watch people look at it and pick it up to see if it works and that," Crews said. "The younger kids pick it up and see if it works and then laugh at how big and bulky and how out of date it looks on the building. It's really cute."

Inside Wheel Life Cyclery, manager Hudson Holst was sad to hear about the payphone being decommissioned. But not because he's looking to dial numbers.

Wheel Life Cyclery manager Hudson Holst likes to take pictures for Instagram by the payphone and is interested in keeping the relic in the community. (Helen Pike/ CBC)

"That's where I take all my bike photos for the shop," Holst said, "It's kind of a piece of history of the building and history in general. You don't see payphones a lot anymore. Everybody's got a cellphone and they're just a retro thing that's nice to see."

Holst used a payphone recently in downtown Calgary when he'd lost his phone and was stranded. The only number he knows by heart? His mom's. 

"I had just enough change in my pocket," he said, adding he was surprised the thing worked at all. 

Payphones are fuel for nostalgia. They've been outdated for years. But ask anyone: When was the last time you used a payphone? And they will talk your ear off. 

"I'd have a dime in my shoe or my coat pocket or whatever because that was how I checked in or phoned to get a ride," said Okotoks Mayor Tanya Thorn, recalling her younger days. "Not that my parents came and picked me up very often."

She jokes that nowadays, most carry their payphones in a back pocket. 

"I think there's a value in keeping that history and showing that transition because there are kids today that have no idea what a payphone is," Thorn said. "They would look at you and go, 'What are you talking about? Like, how do I use that?'"

Tucked away just off of Elizabeth Street, one of the last payphones in Okotoks sees a lot of foot traffic but little use. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Anyone feeling particularly nostalgic about the payphones in Okotoks can email Telus. The company is open to working with groups to keep the decommissioned phone in the community as a display piece for a nominal donation.

"We found that we need to build a process to allow people to display and honour the payphone in the same way that we care about it," said Brian Bettis, a regional general manager for Telus. "So absolutely, the payphones are available for groups or residents."

Search for parts

The company will also make a $5,000 donation in the town's name to the Telus Friendly Future Foundation to provide charitable grants to the community. 

Telus sent Okotoks a letter in March, notifying officials that the last two phones would be taken out on April 25. 

This is something the company has been exploring in other Alberta communities, too. 

"It is so hard to find parts for them, and even the skill set to operate and maintain these devices," Bettis said. "They are prone to … acts of vandalism that cause these types of issues and keep it, you know, a constant battle to maintain and provide services for residents."

There are still more than 6,800 payphones in operation across Alberta.

Telus isn't planning to scale back payphone availability in national and provincial parks, or in First Nations communities, where cellphone service is often spotty.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Helen Pike

Reporter

Helen Pike joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.

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