Telstra announced today that all Australians can now make calls right across the
country for free on Telstra’s network of more than 15,000 payphones.
If you’re struggling to think of where a single payphone might be located, or when the last time you used one was (at least 15 years ago, surely?), you’re probably not in the demographic who this is likely to benefit.
In the past year, about 11 million calls were made across Australia from Telstra payphones. This included more than 230,000 calls to critical services like ‘000’ and Lifeline.
Far from a retro throwback, payphones still provide a crucial service for some of the country’s most vulnerable people and communities, especially those in regional and remote areas. Removing the need for payment means Telstra is now providing a valuable public service, free of charge.
At their peak, Australia had a total of 36,000 payphones across the country. That number has since declined, with just over 15,000 now operating. 534 of those phones are in remote areas without mobile coverage and 1.4 million calls are made from payphones in remote locations.
Telstra CEO, Andrew Penn said this decision meant everyone could now use payphones to make a free local or national call to a standard fixed line or a call to an Australian mobile when they needed.
“They are an iconic and critical part of our community, and for many Australians, the availability of a payphone is a vital lifeline, especially for those who are vulnerable including the homeless, people who are isolated or someone escaping an unsafe situation,” Penn said.
Telstra has previously made all of its payphones free during Christmas and New Year periods and in areas suffering from natural disasters like bushfires and landslides when mobile networks have gone down.
“I have been moved seeing firsthand queues of people waiting in line, to use a payphone to tell their family and friends they’re safe after a bushfire, a cyclone or some other natural disaster has taken the mobile network down. I can only imagine the relief their families feel knowing their loved one is safe”.
During Telstra’s 2020 Christmas free call initiative, 464,000 calls were made for a total of 1.1 million minutes. During the 2020 bushfire free call initiative, 3.4 million calls were made, totalling 8.1 million minutes of conversation.
Penn also speaks on the importance of payphones for those escaping domestic violence situations and the heightened need for this change now.
“During COVID-related lockdowns, we’ve seen domestic and family violence agencies report a 60% rise in new clients seeking help for the first time, and an increase in abusive behaviours overall.
“It’s not always easy for people in these situations to use a home phone or their mobile to get help so I hope that making payphone calls free might play a small part in helping them get the assistance they need”.
Telstra also made domestic calls free across nearly 600 payphones in remote Indigenous communities in 2020 to ensure that those areas remained connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telstra’s free call initiative during Christmas and New Year periods have been undertaken with the work of the Salvation Army.
Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvos welcomed today’s news, saying, “This is an absolute game-changer for many of the people we work with across the nation”.
“The reality is this piece of infrastructure is absolutely critical because a lot of Australians either don’t have a mobile phone, lose it or the phone’s charger, or simply run out of credit.
“Connection is absolutely vital for every human being, but particularly for those who are vulnerable. It’s really important for them to break down that sense of social poverty, social isolation, and to connect with a friend or with support services.”
Standard national calls and SMS from Telstra payphones will be free from today. International and calls to premium and satellite numbers will still incur a cost, while Telstra Air remains free to eligible Telstra customers.
Payphones will also become coinless from October 1, 2021, with Telstra Phonecards
recommended for dialling international and premium numbers.
The changes will no doubt have a significant impact on the people who need payphones but Telstra will probably need to come up with a different name for them.