Telstra has announced it will make all Telstra payphone calls free for everyone to anywhere within Australia.
The initiative will include any standard national calls and SMS from Telstra payphones to a standard fixed line or Australian mobile. International and calls to premium and satellite numbers will still incur a cost, while Telstra Air will remain free to eligible Telstra customers.
Public payphones in Australia have come a long way since they were first introduced in the late 1880s. Long before the introduction of mobile phones, it was the way to communicate when out and about.
In 2001, there were some 36,000 payphones in Australia, Telstra said. However, 20 years later that number has dwindled by more than half to roughly 15,000 payphones across the country.
Despite the decline in the number of payphones, Telstra boss Andy Penn says they remain the lifeline for many of the country's most vulnerable people and communities, especially those in regional and remote areas.
"You may be wondering who uses them in today's society where everyone's got a smartphone. We in fact still get more than 11 million calls a year through our payphones, and importantly, more than 200,000 of those are to emergency types of sites such as '000' because one of the things I have personally observed is that in times of crisis, in a bushfire, in other natural crisis, for victims of domestic violence, often the payphone is the only lifeline people have, and they play a critical role during the bushfires early last year," he said on Twitter.
"I remember seeing queues of people when we made payphones free, so people could access their loved ones and let them know that they were safe. I know first hand that victims of domestic violence have found a payphone on their local street corner is the only lifeline they have to the outside world and to get help. With that in mind, I have made a decision that for now, we're going to make our payphones free because I know the important role they play, so no more standing in a queue fumbling for coins. Payphones will be free so they can continue to provide the vital service that they do today."
This initiative builds on other free payphone programs that Telstra has previously introduced. From January to March 2020, bushfire victims were given access to a free call initiative, which Telstra touted generated close to 3.5 million calls and over 8 million minutes of conversations.
The company also introduced free calls to 600 payphones in remote Indigenous communities last year.
At the same time, as part of a five-year program, Telstra has been working with the Salvation Army to provide free national calls on its payphones during the Christmas and New Year period.
Telstra added payphones will become coinless from 1 October and recommends that Telstra Phonecards be used for dialling international and premium numbers.
Off the back of the announcement, Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher said the federal government will monitor the initiative "closely", noting that Telstra receives AU$40 million per annum in funding from the telecommunications industry and the federal government to provide payphones under the Australian government's Universal Service Obligation.
Telstra, however, has committed it will not seek any increase in the USO funding it receives for payphones as a result of this decision, the Fletcher confirmed.
"While this is an operational decision made by Telstra, the government will closely monitor its impact," he said.
"Payphones remain an important communications option, particularly for vulnerable members of our community ... if this decision further improves accessibility to communications it will be a positive step."
In November 2018, Urbis Pty Ltd, as Telstra's agent, made applications to build 81 payphone cabinets in Melbourne, as well as applications to allow for promotional signage on these cabinets. These applications were refused by Melbourne City Council due to its belief that the cabinets were not "low-impact facilities".
Due to this claim, the council raised an action against Telstra arguing that the telco requires council permission to build its new payphone cabinets. The payphone cabinets in question are updated cabinets that provide mobile phone charging, Wi-Fi access, and information and advertising display.
However, the court ruled that payphone cabinets are considered as a fundamental need for the public, meaning telcos can build them without council approval so long as they are defined as "low-impact facilities".
Updated 3 August 2021, 1.42pm AEST: Minister of Communications Paul Fletcher comments added.