Photo: flickr/creative commons

The headlines on stories about the release of findings by the telecom regulator, the CRTC, on the role of payphones in Canada were all over the place.

While The Globe and Mail declared, “Canadians are’’t ready to cut cords with payphones just yet,” the radio station NewsTalk1010 asked, “Who uses payphones anymore?”; and the Winnipeg Free Press said, “In wireless era, CRTC sets stage for humble coin-operated phone’s orderly end.”

The National Post summed up: “Pay phones obsolete for most Canadians but still critical for remote communities and low-income people.” And the Medicine Hat News headline read, inexplicably: “When the caribou stop dropping: CRTC wants rules for payphone’s orderly demise.”

Caribou references aside, the news reports were quite clear. Payphones usage is dwindling. Whereas 50 per cent of Canadians stated they used payphones in 2004, today, that number is down to just over one third, according to CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission).

During a fact-finding process, last year, (in which the DiversityCanada Foundation and the National Pensioners Federation filed a joint submission), the telephone companies told the regulator that they can’t afford to operate low-revenue-generating payphones.

The CRTC’s announcement showed it heard them loud and clear.

As part of the fact-finding exercise, the CRTC had banned telephone companies from removing the last payphone in any community. Now, the regulator says it will lift that ban in the near future.

First, however, it wants to modify its rules so that the telcos will have to give notice to municipalities and First Nations reserves before tearing out the last payphone in their community.

This leaves the impression of an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is certainly a good thing to ensure that the phone company cannot sneakily rip out the last payphone by making it mandatory that the telco inform the local authority and residents of its intentions. But what happens when the community does not want to lose its last payphone?

The CRTC’s announcement was silent on whose responsibility it would or should be to pay for maintaining the last payphone in communities across Canada.

The implication, however, is that the burden will be shifted onto the communities themselves.

This would mean that billion-dollar corporations will be able to cherry-pick sites where payphones would contribute to their profits, while leaving low-revenue-generating communities (particularly those that are small, rural and remote) in a lurch.

Talk about a clear case of privilege without responsibility.

DiversityCanada and the National Pensioners Federation were among consumer interest groups that called on the CRTC to take a different tack. The approach we recommended would see Canada operate under a regime that:

1. acknowledges that every person has a right to have access to telecommunications services, and,

2. recognizes that payphones are the best means of ensuring universal access to at least the most basic form of telecommunications services.

Consumer interest groups argued, and a report commissioned by the CRTC corroborated, that payphones are still required to serve the telecommunications needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, as well as those of all Canadians (regardless of socio-economic status) in times of distress or emergency.

Fortunately, statements by chairman Jean Pierre Blais indicate that the CRTC also heard consumer interest groups loud and clear.

“It’s certainly true that the reduction of payphone use is considerable, but I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that everybody is not using it … because there are people, more vulnerable Canadians, that still see value in it,” Blais was quoted as saying. “We’re talking here about Canadians that are more vulnerable, low-income Canadians, the homeless, maybe perhaps victims of abuse that don’t have the financial means to even have landlines or wireless phones that need to contact the government for social and medical services.”

So while CRTC’s release was silent on how it will be possible for communities to keep their last payphone if it is scheduled for decommissioning, there is still a chance for Canadians to tell the regulator how to get this right

According to its three-year plan, the CRTC is soon to hold a public hearing on what constitutes basic telecommunications services in Canada, and how it should be paid for.

Canada’s problems with dwindling payphone usage and disappearing devices are not unique. Other jurisdictions have dealt with the situation by mandating that telecommunications companies contribute to a fund which communities can apply to in order to pay for the maintenance of payphone service in their community.

This solution seems to strike the right balance. No telephone company would be forced to maintain service where it does not want to operate. At the same time, the highly profitable telecommunications sector as a whole would be contributing to ensuring that all communities that require payphone service have it. And the communities would be empowered to, themselves, maintain the level of telecommunications services they consider necessary.

We think it’s a win-win solution, and we’ll make sure the CRTC takes it into consideration when deciding what the words “basic telecommunications services” should mean in Canada.

Celia Sankar is the Executive Director of the DiversityCanada Foundation.