Survival of Canadian payphones in danger, but Sandy shows their worth in crises

TORONTO – The events of superstorm Sandy are raising questions about the importance of payphones in emergencies, even as two of Canada’s largest telecom companies say they will tear out some public telephones unless they are allowed to sharply raise prices.

New Yorkers were forced to turn to their neighbourhood’s coin-operated phones last week as flood waters knocked out power and cellphone reception in areas ravaged by Sandy, the massive storm that swept across the Eastern Seaboard.

But a push from Bell Canada (TSX:BCE) and Bell Aliant Inc. (TSX:BA) could make it harder to find those payphones in Canada during emergencies.

Earlier this year, both companies made applications to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for rate hikes that could double the price of a payphone call.

Under the submission, they are asked for the ability to boost the price of a local call to as much as $1 each, compared to the current price of 50 cents.

Then in September the two telecom companies added extra pressure to their request by saying that without a rate increase, they would be forced to get rid of their least profitable payphones.

That could mean that up to 25 per cent of their payphones in Ontario and Quebec would disappear if the CRTC doesn’t allow them to raise prices.

“Bell needs the flexibility to adjust prices from the current 50 cents per cash call up to $1 to enable us to make the payphones business sustainable in the long term,” said Bell spokesman Mark Langton in an email.

The matter is open to public comments until Dec. 14, while the telecom companies will respond by a mid-January deadline.

Payphones have been dying a slow death for years. Malls across the country have torn the majority of them out to make way for more public seating. At bars, a payphone is more likely to be a spot for place promotional stickers or graffiti than actually used for calls.

But while it might be considered an archaic technology by many Canadians who replaced them with mobile devices long ago, the hurricane served as a reminder that they still serve a purpose in emergency situations.

Toronto Emergency Medical Services superintendent Kim McKinnon said that while the number of calls from payphones have “declined significantly” in recent years to “a few a day,” some local residents still turn to the payphone in dire situations.

In New York, lineups formed at some payphones as people called their relatives to assure them they were safe from Sandy’s destruction. The situation was similar on 9/11 when the aftermath of the terrorist attacks left cellphone networks struggling to manage the number of calls being made.

When a severe storm hits and the power is knocked out, suddenly a cell phone is only as good as its battery life and reception level.

Several community groups have raised concerns about the impact on Canadians if phones were to further disappear.

“We’re asking for a larger reassessment of the role of payphones in the communications system by the Commission,” said John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, who made a submission to the CRTC earlier this year.

“We do think they have a role, and not enough serious attention is being paid to the issue. It’s being allowed to drift because there was an assumption there would be local payphone competition that didn’t materialize.”

Community organizations have also raised concerns that low-income Canadians would lose a crucial form of communication.

“Gathering together 35 cents is possible, but higher rates means more panhandling or scraping together change to try to make those phone calls,” said Christina Maes of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

“Cell phones have become the norm for a lot of people, but there are still many people that can’t afford them, especially people that don’t have access to credit.”