In the wake of recent disasters and earthquakes, emergency preparedness agencies advise individuals to include coins for pay phones in basic emergency kits. But the number of pay phones on city streets has dropped substantially over the past decade.
Telus spokesman Shawn Hall said there are about half as many pay phones now as there were 10 years ago. “We have probably 18,000 now in B.C. and Alberta,” he said. “You’ve seen a slow and steady decline over that time and that’s just Telus. There’s actually a half dozen pay phone operators here in B.C. and it’s no secret there are fewer people using pay phones than in the past.”
Hall said some pay phones — Telus charges cost 50 cents for a local call — are still profitable, but many are marginal because of increased cellphone use and expenses such as maintenance.
“But recognizing that they do fill an important function, we are always hesitant to remove the last phone in a neighbourhood,” he said.
Vandals sometimes target pay phones. Each one costs about $5,000 to install, so if it’s repeatedly vandalized, justifying the cost of repairing or replacing it is difficult.
“We do what we can if the phone is in an important area. We look at doing a lot of things like moving the phone to a different area that’s maybe better lit,” explained Hall.
Business or community groups occasionally complain to Telus that a pay phone is being used for illicit purposes such as drug dealing or prostitution and ask that it be taken away.
“We try to engage a community in a conversation because what we find is if we remove the phone, the problems still exist and simply move to the next available pay phone, so we haven’t solved anything,” Hall said.
Telus occasionally “curfews” phones so they act as a regular phone during the day, but at night, between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., they can only be used for 911.
Hall noted Telus also partnered with the provincial government to place suicide prevention phones at several Vancouver bridges.
The number of phones in a bank of pay phones in a mall, meanwhile, has likely dropped from five or six to one, but they remain popular in transportation hubs, according to Hall.
When people arrive from another country or another city, they may not have a local cellphone and want to make a call on a pay phone for a ride, he said.
“They’re also important in low-income neighbourhoods where many residents can’t afford a home phone or cellphone,” Hall added.
Although the recent earthquake in northern B.C. and disasters elsewhere such as hurricane Sandy underlined the need for pay phones, their future remains uncertain.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to see into the future,” Hall said. “It’s common sense that the number of people using pay phones is declining due to the increase in cellphone use and therefore pay phones have become more of a niche product. We certainly have no intention at this time of pulling them all out. What’s going to happen 30, 40, 50 years from now I don’t know, but as it stands now, they’ll continue to play an important role in some communities.”