Busy signal: The disappearing pay phone

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Photo: Garth Mullins

An extinction-level event is underway. 

Lumbering Cretaceous–Paleogene pay phones that once roamed the planet are experiencing a massive die-off, their vandalized corpses fossilized … or stripped for scrap metal.

There is virtually nowhere to call for help in the poorest neighbourhood in the country. I could locate but one twelve buttoned, quarter-eating, graffiti covered, hard plastic sentinel standing near the corner of Main and Hastings -- perhaps the last of its kind in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The two largest telecom companies in Canada are demanding that local pay phone call rates be doubled to $1, or they will start tearing out the few pay phones that remain. Bell Canada and Bell Aliant are petitioning the CRTC to raise the rates, apparently because pay phones have become unprofitable in the wireless age. According to Telus, payphones are regularly subject to vandalism and repairs can cost up to $5000.

Many people in Canada have cell phones. But sizable minorities do not and many have no landline either. This leaves pay phones as the only way to make a call. For the most marginalized, it is the only way to make a call for help.

Big Telecom: Phoning it in

 The poor and smart-phone-less do not seem like a desirable, profitable market for telecom companies. However, the many other aspects of the business -- mobile phone, data, Internet and cable -- have never been so profitable. As a matter of public safety, the CRTC should require phone companies to maintain a healthy population of pay phones in every neighborhood, subsidized from the more profitable aspects of communication. Installing outdoor phones for public health and safety is an accepted practice. There is a phone at either end of the Lions Gate Bridge, for suicide prevention.

As I have argued previously regarding the demise of Canada's international shortwave public radio, we should not rush to decommission older communications infrastructures under the misguided presumption that we are all digitally connected in this wireless world. This amounts to a disconnection for some.   

Telephone communications are considered so crucial to society and public safety that they have been heavily regulated in Canada for over a century. Phone companies have been required to build extra capacity into their landline networks, to handle increased call volumes in times of national emergency or natural disaster. Not so with cell phone networks. During the 20th century, many provincial governments have subsidized the hooking up of small, remote communities where the infrastructure costs would prove unprofitable for corporations. Telecom companies are now quietly leaving the phone off the hook on their responsibility as primary conveyors of our conversations.

Given that nearly a quarter of all Canadians do not own a cell phone, public pay phones are still needed. Many of the poorest and most marginalized have no stable access to any phone.

911 is a Joke in this Town

 This pay phone decline is most dangerous for sex trade workers. In cities across North America, the sex trade has been pushed to the urban margins. In the 1990s, the "Shame the Johns" campaign displaced Vancouver sex workers from more populated retail and semi-residential neighbourhoods into industrial areas that are deserted after dark.  

The Missing Women's Inquiry conducted a study that heard from dozens of sex trade workers, advocates and support workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES). While many community groups did not participate in the study, the Commission heard a unanimous message that barriers to phone access exacerbate what is already dangerous work:

"Few pay phones exist in the Downtown Eastside … there need to be more phones available, including pay phones … there need to be more phones on the street and they just aren't there anymore."

My friend "S" told me that the removal of the phones has made the DTES, where she has lived for years, a more dangerous place. After dark it is almost impossible to call for help, "You need to flag someone down [to call 911]."

"S" described some horrible assaults, where access to 911 and urgent assistance could have made a difference. She wants to speak out, but fear of retribution makes her reticent to use her full name. She said that access to pay phones is crucial for "working girls." A few may have cell phones. Some sex trade worker support organizations have distributed 911 enabled mobile phones (dubbed "sex cells"). However, a bad date may steal or break a cell phone to prevent a call for help.

The same pattern of banishment to industrial wastelands and accompanying increase in violence against and murder of sex trade workers has been seen in many other cities, including Ottawa, where Sex Trade Outreach Mobile (STORM) workers have been distributing 911 enabled phones to sex trade workers over the summer. Local residents were asked to donate their old cell phones to the effort.

Touch tone marginalia: Tourists and merchants

 Telus operates one of the last pay phones in the Downtown Eastside. I have spoken to friends, neighbours and colleagues, as well as conducted my own rather unscientific census. In the DTES, pay phones are now not unlike "Highlander" -- 'there can be only one.' As recently as December of 2010, the Thunderbird counted 19 pay phones in the DTES. While that count may have used a different search area than my rather less rigorous efforts (a blind guy looking for a phone booth) there is still a negative trend.

According to Telus, shop owners have requested the removal of phones near or within businesses due to vandalism and "use by drug dealers and sex trade workers." Travelers even complain on-line about the renowned lack of phones in the neighbourhood.

People's phone booth

 A couple of years ago and after significant public pressure, Telus installed "curfew phones" which would only call 911 after 9pm. Noticing that even those phones were disappearing, some community activists decided they were not just willing to hang up.

Tenuously clinging to a piece of plywood outside of Spartacus Books at 685 East Hastings Street, one will find a weathered, white, plastic phone, available for anyone to make local calls. Free. The volunteer-run bookshop's collective provides radical books, free Internet access, a washroom and last year created the People's Phone Booth. Collective member Peter Gill said Spartacus maintains an efficient, cost-effective method for dealing with vandalism (mostly arising from the bar across the street). "In the back of the book store, there is a box of cheap phones." When the one out front gets broken, they just reach in the box and hook another one up.

A friend and revolutionary, Guillaume, struck upon the idea with some other collective members as a small response to the dislocation following the 2010 Olympics. He originally used Voice-over-Internet-Protocol and smashed his hand while building the booth. The phone is now on a regular landline, Guillaume is on the front lines in another town and his hand is fine.

Spartacus will happily sell you a variety of political literature, and will accept your old, donated, functional phones for a new life serving the people.

I'm sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed

Phones are part of the architecture of cities. As pay phones disappear, so to do we further disappear to the little bubble of small screen and white ear buds. Remaining pay phones become the exclusive domain of the poor, lost, desperate or injured. The massive, continent-sized octopus of copper wire and switching networks, snaking across ocean floors, will now only carry signals of those who can afford to buy their own transmission devices.

The telephone came into being in Canada, and it is here where pay phones are being slowly ground to bits on the anvil of wireless profits. 

In Brantford, Ontario, Alexander Graham Bell inaugurated telephone communication by placing a call to an adjoining room in his parents' house. In 1876, he famously, if less than politely, demanded the presence of one of his workers. "Watson, come here! I need to speak to you." Now the Canadian companies named for him are jacking up the rates and yanking out public phones in cities and neighbourhoods across the country, especially the poor and marginalized ones that are most in need of them.

Please, stay on the line.


Garth Mullins is a writer, long time social justice activist and three-chord propagandist living in East Vancouver. You can follow him @garthmullins on Twitter.

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