Payphones disappearing but still a necessity for many

All over the country, payphones are disappearing. According to the CRTC, there were 95,000 payphones in Canada in 2008. By the end of 2012, that number had dropped to 70,000.

'Other people can afford a cell phone — I can't. What about us?,' Hamilton resident says

The payphone is on a steep decline across Canada, the CRTC says. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The payphone is turning into an endangered species.

All over the country, they're disappearing. According to the CRTC, there were 95,000 payphones in Canada in 2008. By the end of 2012, that number had dropped to 70,000.

"Clearly a lot of people have not used a payphone in many years," said Chris Seidl, the executive director of telecommunications for the CRTC. "It correlates with cell phones."

Bell owns most of the payphones in Canada, and in Hamilton. But the telecommunications giant won't divulge just how many there are, or how much their numbers have declined in the last few years, citing "competitive reasons."

The CRTC doesn't have specific regional data on payphones, Seidl says, but it is a safe bet that their numbers are declining in Hamilton. "They are disappearing," he said.

Some say this isn't a big deal — they haven't touched a payphone in years, and don't need to. But others — the CRTC included — say they're still necessary in many situations. So what happens in a community when you can't find a payphone?

The rise of the cell phone

Ask people if they feel payphones are a necessity, and many of their responses are similar:

But that's not the case for everyone, says Nicholas Porter, 20, who lives in the Beasley neighboorhood in downtown Hamilton. There have been multiple times that he's needed a payphone in the last few months.

"There is definitely a need with so many people being low-income," he told CBC Hamilton. "Yeah, other people can afford a cell phone — I can't. What about us?"

"I know lots of people without cell phones."

Porter lives with his girlfriend and their small child. About a month and a half ago, he split his foot open in the middle of the night and needed to go to the hospital for stitches. His girlfriend was left home alone with their child, and asked him to call as soon as he could. Easier said than done.

"When I walked out of the emergency room I was expecting to see a payphone, but just couldn't find one," he said. It was a similar story earlier this month, when a massive thunderstorm hit Hamilton and left many without power for days. He needed a payphone then, too.

He also needed one when his family moved into their new apartment in early March, and spent about a week without phone or internet. The payphone around the corner from his home was used once a day at least, then.

"You're kind of screwed if you can't contact anyone."

The challenging case for change

Though they won't disclose official numbers about the payphone's decline, Bell Aliant Regional Communications and Télébec did put forward a proposal to raise the cost of a cash call and double the rate of credit card calls to $2. The companies argue the rate at which pay phones are being removed would decline if they could raise the cost of a local call.

The CRTC said no to that request earlier this month, saying that it had allowed the cost of a call to rise in 2007, but pay phones had still continued to disappear.

Still, the CRTC gets that it's hard to keep them running at a profit, Seide says. Between vandalism and general upkeep, they aren't usually moneymakers.

"The business case is challenging for payphones," Seidl said.

The regulator wants to find out just how much Canadians still rely on payphones so it has launched a consultation looking for comments about how payphones should be regulated. "We're quite happy with the amount of comments coming in," Seidl said. They run the gamut from people who haven't used one in years to people who rely on payphones day to day.

The consultation wraps up in early 2014. It's too early to say if there is a need for regulatory intervention to save the payphone, Seidl says. But their decline seems inevitable, he says.

"Going forward, I think you will continue to see them disappear."