The untapped power and potential of payphones

Finding a payphone today isn't always easy. They're disappearing fast, as most people use cell phones. But they still serve a public need and could be used for much more.

You may never use payphones anymore, but there could be other ways to make them serve a greater public service

Rashid Dia (left) and Hannah Malinski (right) next to a payphone in Toronto. Malinski has never used a payphone before and believes the devices don’t serve any purpose. (Jason Osler/CBC)

When was the last time you used a payphone? For many of us, it's difficult to recall. With personal phones and digital devices in no short supply, payphones have become almost redundant.

Just six years ago, there were close to double the number of payphones there are now. Still, the remaining 57,000 units pulled in a little over $22 million in 2016, according to the CRTC's 2017 Communications Monitoring Report.

Bell Aliant recently doubled the cost of a payphone call to 50 cents for the Maritimes—the first price hike in over 20 years—bringing the cost in line with the rest of the country.

Hannah Malinski has never used a payphone before and believes the devices don't serve any purpose.

"I think they're kind of extinct. This is the first payphone I've seen in a long time actually," said Malinski. "Even if you don't have a cell phone, you can just ask someone to borrow their cell phone."

Malinski's friend Rashid Dia agreed.

"Well everyone has cell phones. So I honestly think they should take them off."

Payphones essential for 'socially vulnerable groups'

This view isn't shared by everyone, according to John Lawford, executive director and general counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

Lawford says many vulnerable people in Canada still need payphones, with one of the great advantages being there is no time limit. If someone needs to call a social service or government agency and remains on hold for an hour, they don't have to worry about burning cell phone minutes.

"If you're paying off your cell phone and you're low income, it can be a problem," said Lawford. "There's also public safety. When there was a small earthquake in Ottawa, everybody freaked out and started calling on their cell phone and the whole network went down. But payphones still worked."

The CRTC recently clarified the need for payphones in a ruling around wholesale rates of payphone lines. The commission stated that payphones "play an important role for individuals who are facing economic hardships or part of socially vulnerable groups." It also restated that they require notification if there's a request to have the final one in a community removed.

According to John Lawford, executive director and general counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, many vulnerable people in Canada still need payphones. (CBC)

'What is a payphone now in this modern age?'

According to Lawford, payphones are valuable public spaces and we need to start thinking ahead about how we can utilize these spaces to their full potential.

"The fundamental questions of 'What is a payphone now in this modern age? What would it look like?' hasn't been asked," said Lawford.

He believes they should be reimagined for the twenty-first century and there are plenty of different ways to use these spaces.

"You could upgrade these things and make them little Wi-Fi hotspots, or tourist information kiosks, or whatever, as well as phones and I think it would be much better public service."


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.


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