Canadians reluctant to hang up on pay phones

But pay phones attract mostly curious glances

By Lawrence Papoff

The trio of twelve-year-olds hovers round the pay phone in the lobby of the Barbara Frum Library. Fascinated, they poke at its keyboard.

Heeding the instructions on the flashing, neon-blue display, one of them lifts the receiver from its cradle, puts the receiver to her ear, listens intently to the dial tone as one might the call of a rare bird and passes it round to the other two.

Then one of them comes up with the necessary 50 cents and drops the coins into the slot, listens to what the voice in the phone has to say, hangs up and retrieves the coins from the slot. That, she does without prompting from the display.

Their curiosity satisfied, the threesome exits the library.

It’s likely that phone hasn’t received as much attention in eons. It’s not alone. Daily, thousands of TTC riders, cell phones at their ear, ignore phones stationed on TTC subway platforms.

(The TTC stations them there for use in the event of an emergency.)

A Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission study published in 2015 noted that only 32 per cent of Canadians said they had put a pay phone receiver to their ear and made a call in 2015.

Used as a last resort

“Pay phone service is generally used for reasons of affordability, access, and reasonable choice. It is sometimes used as a last resort in times of … emergency,” the CRTC found.

The CRTC vowed not to up pay phone rates for fear of taking them out of reach of their main users: “the economically or socially disadvantaged,” in other words, the poor.

And while the poor will always be with us, there’s no guarantee pay phones will.

Pay phones vanishing

The CRTC predicted pay phones would be disappearing at a rate of 15 per cent in 2016, up from six per cent in 2008 as call volumes continue to decline at 24 per cent.

Bell Canada and Bell Aliant told the regulator that in 2013 of the 55,000 then in use, they had 10,501 phones that were making revenue of less than 50 cents a day.

The reason for the downswing is obvious: the cell phone.

Cell phone users doubled from four million to 8.5 million between 1997 and 2000 and rose to 27.7 million in 2014. There are an estimated 30 million users in Canada this year.

1998 was high water mark of pay phone use

The pay phone has a long history. In 1881, Bell installed the first public telephone outside its offices in Lancefield’s Stationery Store in Hamilton, Ont. Other installations in Toronto and Montreal followed that year.

At first, customers paid the store owner to use the phone or attendants would place the call for the customer. Eventually, the three-slot, coin-operated model left the caller to themselves.

Bellmedia rep Nathan Gibson told Village Stories that Canadian pay phone use peaked in 1998 when there were 90,000 pay phones from coast to coast.

Gibson said Bell remains the largest provider with 45,000 waiting for someone to make a call, mostly in Ontario and Quebec.

He won’t say how many Bell removes each year, but he says Bell pledges that it will keep pay phone accessible in high-traffic locations in malls, airports, hospitals, etc. “for the foreseeable future.”

Bell wants rid of pay phone regs

Still, Bell wants the CRTC to loosen its regs when it comes to pay phones, calling the controls a “legacy of the 1990s” and not in keeping with 21st century reality.

“With the pay phone business as a whole on the decline, continued regulation makes no sense in the 21st Century,” Bell argues. But what Bell would do if the utility were left off the regulatory leash, Gibson won’t say.

Josh Nelson photographs the lonely life of the pay phone. They fascinate him.

“Growing up, my friends and I would say to each other ‘Let’s meet at the pay phone.’

“I just keep noticing them in the background everywhere.”

Nelson snaps them on subway platforms, opposite strip bars and on the beach. But rarely does he find one in use. His camera? Ironically, an iPhone.

Pay phone booths not for sale

 Pay phone enthusiasts can buy reconditioned phones online.

But citing safety and liability reasons, Bell refuses to sell off its surplus booths. So amateur Supermen, or Superwomen, will have to find one of the booths still standing when the urge to morph from a mild-mannered reporter comes over them.

They might try the one at Bathurst and Wilson, northwest corner.

However, the CRTC heard from those for whom the pay phone is not a nostalgic photo op or a place to act out fantasies.

Still indispensable to some

The Canadian Association of the Deaf agreed that the decline of pay phone use was inevitable but insisted that “pay phones equipped with TTY (hearing device) capabilities are especially important for deaf Canadians who cannot afford wireless service or Internet.”

And one consumer pleaded: “I am a disabled mother of five living on CPPD disability … As my husband is primary caregiver to me as I am mostly bedridden, he often needs to check in during the day to discuss things like groceries or banking, duties which he is out in the ‘real world’ doing.

“We live on an island, in rural Ontario, and days in town (i.e. for groceries and such) require significant time planning. Also, our teenage son, who hates not having a smartphone, needs to use the pay phone at the ferry to let us know when to come and pick him up.”