Australian telco makes 15,000 payphones free for domestic calls

Services have previously been free temporarily during emergencies such as bushfires

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn

 

Making local or national calls to an Australian fixed line or mobile phone number from a payphone will no longer require fumbling in pockets for coins.

Australia’s leading telecommunications company, Telstra, has made its 15,000 payphones free to use across the country.

“This means any Australian can now use all of our 15,000 payphones on street corners and in the tiny towns, truck stops and airports in every corner of the country to make calls for free,” Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said.

It’s part of a wider change in the use of payphones globally, including in Ireland.

Eir operates 182 payphones across the State and is replacing some of these with “digital kiosks”. So far, in Dublin city, the company has installed 22 digital kiosks.

“We are in the process of upgrading Eir’s phone boxes, as we’re always looking at ways in which our infrastructure can better serve the community,” a spokeswoman said. “Eir is working with county councils to agree on the best use of legacy infrastructure.

“The new digital kiosks are designed to play a role that is more suitable to city life today, not only as a point of connectivity but as an information system for the local authorities’ services, including mapping systems for visitors and residents when life returns to normal.

“The new digital kiosks will be placed where the old public phone boxes were positioned. They have a smaller footprint, taking up less space on the pavement.”

Charging points

Eir said it was also rolling out another infrastructure upgrade programme, replacing payphone kiosks with “rapid electrical vehicle charging points”.

It said these would be delivered at no cost to local authorities, with 180 telephone kiosks initially being targeted nationwide.

Payphones have been used in Australia since the 1880s and, until mobile phones became something most people use, there were more than 30,000 payphones on the country’s streets.

The phones had previously been made free to some areas affected by natural disasters, or in remote Aboriginal communities. Telstra has also offered free Christmas and new year calls from its payphones for the past five years.

Mr Penn said the move would cost the company about $5 million Australian dollars (€3.12 million) a year.

“Just watching over the last 18 months how they’ve played a role in emergency situations through the bushfires in keeping people connected and particularly those that are vulnerable and disadvantaged,” he said. “I just thought we’ve got to a point where we can make this free.”

“It’s not a big deal for Telstra. It just means people don’t have to worry about having a pocketful of coins if they need to make a phone call in an emergency.”

Last year there were 11 million calls made from Telstra payphones, and Mr Penn said they were a vital cog in society even at a time when mobile phone use is far more common.

“I’ve seen myself how much payphones are part of the fabric of Australia and how important they are, in good times and bad. 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,” he said.

“Since mobiles became nearly universal, a lot of Australians might not give them much thought. Until there’s a natural disaster. Until you’re in vulnerable circumstances, homeless or fleeing domestic violence.”

Social isolation

The Salvation Army charity said making payphones free was a “game changer” for people who could not afford a mobile phone, or who had to leave dangerous domestic situations.

“Many vulnerable Australians don’t have access to a mobile phone so it’s really important for them to break down that sense of social poverty, social isolation to connect with a friend, or to connect with a service,” said Brendan Nottle, the head of its Melbourne division. “During Covid we’ve seen the spotlight shone on isolation, and the reality is there is a proportion of Australians that suffer from social isolation every day of their lives.”

Telstra is currently negotiating to buy the Denis O’Brien-owned Digicel Pacific for a reported $2 billion (€1.25 billion).