Does Canada Still Need Payphones?

Does Canada still need payphones?

It’s a question that most will answer instantly and definitively “yes!” or “no!” to. Which is why the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has struggled with the issue since 2004, when the rising tide of cellphones started taking its toll on traditional payphones.

Credit the CRTC for foreseeing the “death” of the payphone: nearly a decade ago it created a series of rules to prepare residents for payphones being terminated in their communities. But now it’s a matter of whether the payphone can actually be killed—completely, from all communities—or whether it can seem dead but still exist for the select few who still use or even rely on them.

“The CRTC will undertake research to assess the need for a revised regulatory framework for payphones, including its policy with respect to the removal of the last pay telephone in a community,” the CRTC said in a three-year plan released this week.

Payphone usage is, to no one’s surprise, declining. Revenue per payphone dropped more than 10% a year from 2008 to 2011. The average annual revenue from a payphone is now less than $700—hardly a profitable endeavour, even with calls now costing up to $1.

Canadians have been hungry adopters of wireless devices, especially smartphones, with some of the world’s highest penetration rates. There are more than 27 million active devices in Canada, a country with a population of only 34 million.

If someone has a cellphone, a payphone is useless. Even if a user lost his device, or their battery died, a friend or nearby stranger would be nearly guaranteed to have a working cellphone on hand. Still, a lack of payphones in some ways forces people to own cellphones, which shouldn’t be a rule: people who don’t care about apps or texting and just need to make a couple of calls per month could use a local payphone for a fraction of the cost of a fully fledged wireless bill.

How many people have you met this year who didn’t own a mobile device, or at least software capable of making calls, such as Skype? And how many times have you used a payphone in the past year?