Telstra announced earlier this month that charges no longer apply to local or national calls to a fixed line or Australian mobile number from payphones. This means that anyone can now use one of the 15,000 payphones still remaining across Australia for free.
Telstra CEO, Andrew Penn, said that a lot of Australians might not give payphones much thought. Until there’s a natural disaster. Or until they are in vulnerable circumstances, homeless or fleeing domestic violence. SSMA pointed out in 2017, in our response to the Telecommunications Universal Service Obligation Inquiry, the folly of relying on wireless infrastructure for voice communications. This is echoed by Mr Penn, who states, “I’ve seen queues of people waiting in line, coins at the ready, to use a payphone to call home and tell their family and friends they’re safe after a bushfire, a cyclone or some other natural disaster has taken the mobile network down”.
Removing charges at payphones also provides a lifeline to vulnerable Australians. Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle is quoted as saying that making payphones free is a “game changer” for people who can’t afford a mobile phone, or have had to leave dangerous domestic situations.
Payphones are provided by Telstra as part of its contract under the Universal Service Obligation (USO). The USO legislation is aimed at providing all Australians with reasonable access to payphones and standard telephone services on an equitable basis. Telstra is paid $40 million per annum for maintaining the payphone network and $230 million per annum to maintain its copper network outside of the NBN fixed line footprint.
The USO runs through until 2032 but, in 2016, was made subject to a 12-month inquiry to reassess its value. The Productivity Commission was tasked with examining the relevance of the USO, given the rollout of the National Broadband Network and the public’s uptake of competing technology. Not surprisingly, other telecommunications companies, who are obliged to help fund the scheme, were keen to see its demise.
The Productivity Commission’s final report echoed these sentiments, describing basic telephone and payphone services as “anachronistic and costly” and in need of being wound up by 2020. Thankfully, this blinkered verdict from the Productivity Commission was not accepted by the government’s 2018 Regional Telecommunications Review committee, which noted that, “For many living in rural, and particularly remote Australia, Telstra’s fixed voice service is the only connection to the outside world if their internet service is not working”. Unlike the Productivity Commission, this committee was prepared to take on board concerns raised by people and therefore recommended a measured and cautious approach to any changes to the USO arrangements. In consequence, the government backtracked on its intention to scrap existing USO provisions by 2020.
SSMA applauds Telstra on its initiative to make payphones free. Dropping payphone charges also looks like a win-win for Telstra, which will now be freed from the costs associated with coin collection.
The importance of wired connections is finally being recognised; however, it is unfortunate that some of Telstra’s payphones host WiFi connectivity, which may render such phones unsuitable for use by people with EHS.
It remains to be seen whether the recent death spiral that payphones have found themselves in will be reversed, now that payphones are free phones. Given the inherent vulnerability of wireless communications, along with its contribution to electrosmog and carbon emissions, SSMA hopes that the introduction of free public phones will spur a revival in their usage!