Telstra is making national calls from its 15,000 public payphones free of charge.
CEO Andy Penn said the free phone calls will make phones more accessible to people who don’t have access to a smart phone or are in crisis.
“We in fact still get more than 11 million calls a year through our payphones,” he said in a video on Twitter.
“And importantly more than 200,000 of those are to emergency types of sites such as triple zero.”
Penn said payphones are often “the only lifeline” for people in difficult circumstances, such as victims of domestic violence or natural disasters like bushfires.
“We’re going to make payphones free because I know the important role they play,” Penn said.
“So no more standing in a queue fumbling for coins – our payphones will be free so they can continue to provide that vital service.”
Theresa Corbin, CEO of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) told ABC radio Telstra’s decision will have a positive impact.
“These are phones people forget about because you’ve got a mobile phone, but if you don’t have a mobile phone they become really important,” she said.
“For the people that rely on [payphones], they’re actually really essential.”
Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle is quoted as saying free payphone use will be a “game changer” for people suffering social isolation in the community.
Payphones are an iconic part of our community. To make them accessible to everyone, we’re making them free for calls across Australia pic.twitter.com/gbPNNYr1dS— Andrew Penn (@andy_penn) August 2, 2021
Telstra provides the vital, if not increasingly-outdated, piece of infrastructure as part of its ‘universal service obligation’ which requires that phone services are reasonably accessible to all Australians.
For its trouble, the government pays Telstra around $44 million a year to keep the payphone network running in a contract that is set to expire in 2032 – although in 2017 the Productivity Commission called for the contract to be wound up sooner.
Alongside its government contract, Telstra also uses its payphones as a source of advertising revenue and has been butting heads with local governments around the country over its plans to upgrade payphones to include larger digital advertising screens.
In April this year, Telstra lost its High Court challenge to a Federal Court decision that stopped the installation of its new payphones in Melbourne and Brisbane.
Councils argued that Telstra’s “billboards masquerading as payphones”, as one Lord Mayor called them, could not be installed without planning approval.