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Pay phones across Canada still generate revenue and remain an important public communications service in a tech-savvy world.
Pay phones across the country racked up $22.2 million in 2016, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) 2017 communications monitoring report. Five years ago, total pay phone revenue was $64 million.
Average revenue earned per pay phone was $385, a decline from $413 in 2015.
The number of pay phones also continued the downward trend of the past few years. In 2016, there were 57,542 pay phones remaining in Canada, a decrease from 66,997 in 2015.
Even with 86.1 per cent of Canadians having access to a mobile phone, pay phones remain a valuable resource to those without a wireless device, including newcomers.
When founder and president of the Newcomer Students’ Association of Ryerson, Sara Asalya, immigrated to Toronto with her family from Gaza about six years ago, pay phones quickly became a critical way of communication.
“Cellphones were very rare and it was very expensive to afford,” Asalya said.
Asalya, her husband, and two children rented out a room at a student residence at Seneca College when they first arrived in the city. While they had access to a landline, Asalya said she felt lost without a cellphone during the first week of life in Canada.
When Asalya would go out to run errands, she would often use the pay phone to let her husband know when she had arrived safely and if she was on her way home.
“I think (pay phones) are crucial and very important in particular for newcomers, low-income families and homeless people,” she said.
Asalya said since she did not have access to a GPS, a phone call to family and friends through a pay phone helped her navigate the city.
As a newcomer to Canada, Asalya said you may not have the luxury to afford a cellphone.
“Sometimes it takes even longer for some people than others because of the language barriers, cultural barriers,” Asalya said. “They’re not really engaged in the community. They don’t have family or friends to advise them based on their experience what is the best option or choice. So, they definitely go for the pay phone to do their everyday communication with each other.”
Currently, there are 80 pay phones available to use on Ryerson’s campus.
Asalya said it would be helpful if the university posted more signage directing students to where they would be able to find pay phones on campus.
“Lots of students are not aware about resources in general available to them at Ryerson,” she said. “It’s not only about pay phones. But it’s more about how the university is reaching out to students and how they’re promoting the services they offer.”
Asalya said she still turns to use the coin-operated phone service when her cellphone runs out of battery.
According to the quantitative study Payphone Use in Canada: 2013, which surveyed 1,001 adults aged 18 and over, 32 per cent said that had used a pay phone at least once over the past year.
Robert Hudyma, an associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Information Technology Management, said the decreasing number of pay phones is simply a result of lack of demand.
“Pay phones still serve a service, but less so than before because the large number of our population have smartphones and cellphones,” Hudyma said
“It’s [cellphones that are] considered a priority,” Hudyma said.
However, he said pay phones remain affordable and accessible to low-income individuals.
The CRTC notes, “…that while payphone service is not relied upon to the same extent as it was in prior years, it continues to fulfill a specific role that has social benefits and that serves the public interest.”
In 2013, the CRTC rejected a request from Bell Aliant Regional Communications and Télébec to raise the cost of a pay phone call to $1 from 50 cents, and to double the rate of using a credit or debit card to make a call to $2.
The Ryersonian‘s news editor, Nikhil Sharma, spoke over the phone with Dr. Usha George, director of Ryerson’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement, on the whether pay phones matter to newcomers. Take a listen.