Already a quaint relic in many parts of Canada, the old-fashioned payphone could become even harder to find after the country's telecommunications regulator rejected Bell Canada's request to double the cost of a call to $1.
The phone company asked for the price hike because it's getting harder to make a profit from payphones as more consumers carry cellphones in their pockets and communicate via texts and instant messages. An average payphone took in $1,000 only five years ago; that number is closer to $700 a year now.
That's because more than three-quarters of Canadians own mobile phones, a total of 27.4 million subscribers at the end of 2011.
Nonetheless, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has received numerous complaints since Bell first mentioned raising prices for payphones.
But the CRTC rejected Bell's request for higher prices, worrying that any increase could put the phones out of reach for the people who need them the most. Public advocacy groups warned that marginalized groups often rely on the phones as an inexpensive link to friends and family.
"The commission notes there is no information indicating the extent to which the widespread availability of advanced technology has affected the demand for payphone service, particularly among lower-income earners, and persons living in rural and remote communities," it said in its ruling.
That's why the regulator went one step further as it denied the price hike, launching a public consultation to help it understand who is using payphones and whether they still serve a valuable function. The review could lead to new rules governing payphones.
Bell Canada, owned by BCE Inc., has warned that without a price increase it would consider removing up to a quarter of its thousands of payphones. The company will await the outcome of the CRTC review before making any major moves.
Bell Canada spokesman Paolo Pasquini said the company hopes the review acknowledges the changing nature of communications – people just aren't lining up to call their friends any more.
"The CRTC has recognized that Canada's payphone business faces serious challenges," he said. "It's important that its fact-finding exercise address the realities of a business that has fundamentally changed with the move to wireless."
Still, some people say payphones can come in handy. Construction worker Lucien Conrad used a payphone in Toronto's Union Station Tuesday to call his boss and confirm his work schedule.
"Everybody loves their cellphone," he said. "A cellphone is more convenient, but what if you're stuck somewhere and your cellphone runs out of juice and you can't recharge? It's nice to have a payphone around."
In a statement, the CRTC said it is "inviting Canadians to share their views on the role of payphones in the Canadian communication system." It said it "is also seeking comments on whether it would be appropriate to prohibit telephone companies from removing the last payphone in a community until the conclusion of this fact-finding process and, if required, any related follow-up process."
The CRTC estimates there were 70,000 payphones in Canada last year, down sharply from almost 95,000 five years ago. Telephone companies are free to rip out their phones at will, but must give 60 days' notice before dismantling the last phone in a community to give residents time to adjust their habits.
The CRTC will receive feedback through the rest of the year and present a report early next year. It is particularly interested in learning the extent to which Canadians rely on payphones, why they use them, the demographic profile of users, how removals affect Canadians and how past rate increases have affected usage.
Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said the consultation would give the regulator "a clearer picture of how payphones are being used and by whom … it will also help us assess how possible rate increases and the removal of payphones may affect Canadians, and whether any regulatory action is necessary."