It may be years since you’ve used one, but the humble payphone is far from obsolete – and it’s about to become more accessible for the Aussies who need it most.
Telstra has announced it is making its nationwide network of public payphones completely free to use for both standard national calls and SMS. Australians can now make free calls to all national landline and mobile numbers, alongside existing toll-free services such as Triple Zero and Lifeline.
Many existing Telstra phone booths already offer free Telstra Air WiFi hotspot access to Telstra customers. However, free payphone calls will be open to all users, regardless if they’re on a Telstra plan, with the only restrictions being a six-hour time limit.
Telstra: payphones ‘fabric of Australia’
The decision has been welcomed as a ‘game-changing’ move by the Salvation Army, as well as consumer group ACCAN. With more than 15,000 Telstra pay phones in operation, scrapping call charges can help break down the barriers to communication experienced by vulnerable Australians, including the homeless and those in remote communities.
Telstra CEO Andy Penn emphasised that public phones are still a vital part of Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure, particularly in emergencies or in the aftermath of disasters.
“I’ve seen myself how much payphones are part of the fabric of Australia and how important they are in good times, and bad. I’ve seen queues of people waiting in line, coins at the ready, to use a payphone to call home and tell their family and friends they’re safe after a bushfire, a cyclone or some other natural disaster has taken the mobile network down,” said Mr. Penn.
“I know payphones are also a lifeline for thousands of vulnerable Australians – the homeless, the isolated, those escaping domestic violence – and often provide their only link to critical support services and those that care about them.”
Despite the proliferation of mobile use, more than 11 million calls were made on Australian payphones in 2020, and more than 230,000 of those were to emergency and critical services. Payphones remain useful in areas where mobile device uptake is lower, such as in remote Indigenous communities, and are a essential resource for victims of crime or domestic violence.
Even in the age of the smartphone, payphones play a critical role – especially for those in need. We want to contribute to a more caring and more inclusive Australia, so we’re making calls from all our payphones free, all around the country. https://t.co/s0gZYwHMqs
— Telstra News (@Telstra_news) August 3, 2021
Building connected futures for all
The move also helps address the still-existent ‘digital divide’ that has left many financially and socially vulnerable Australians without ongoing or reliable access to mobile and internet. While mobile plans and phones are more affordable and accessible than ever, that doesn’t mean that some families and individuals aren’t being left behind: factors such as low income or hesitancy to adopt new technology are ongoing barriers to digital inclusion.
Recent Canstar Blue research shows that the average monthly cost of a plan and bundled phone is $81 in Australia, with $35 the average for SIM-only plans. While there are certainly cheaper BYO phone plans on the market – starting from under $10 for unlimited talk and text – the cost of the device itself can mean those on fixed incomes can feel priced out.
Opening up payphones as a free resource is a great step in combating the isolation experienced by many Australians, especially in times of crisis. It’s also a great back-up for existing mobile phone owners who may be low on credit or battery life, but need to make an urgent call when out and about.
“Telstra’s purpose is to build a connected future so everyone can thrive,” said Mr Penn.
“To deliver on this ambition we want to contribute to a better, more caring and more inclusive Australia, an Australia where people can reach out for help if and when they need to, or just connect if they feel like it.”
Telstra has confirmed that while national mobile and landline calls will be free on payphones going forward, calls to international, premium or satellite phone numbers will still incur a charge. The telco is also making its payphone network coinless from October 1, so customers planning to use public phone booths to make overseas or premium calls are advised to purchase a Telstra phone card.
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