Telstra’s payphone calls now free

Once upon a time phone boxes — like this one being checked out by Dylan Bolton at Briagolong — were on most street corners, but a change in Telstra's strategy may result in a return in their popularity. Local residents say the payphone isn't used often, but is still important to have. Photo: Liz Bell

Liz Bell

WELLINGTON Shire residents and tourists will no longer have to carry change to make a phone call from one of the shire’s 37 public phone boxes.
Telstra announced last week that local and national calls to a fixed line or Australian mobile from a Telstra payphone would be free.
That includes the seven phone boxes around Sale, plus 30 others scattered at various towns across the shire.
According to Telstra, about 11 million calls were made from payphones last year, including 230,000 calls to critical services such as 000 and Lifeline.
Most of them are in areas that are seen as disadvantaged.
Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said the move to make every payphone free would cost the company around $5 million a year.
But it is clear that since its heydays of the 1980s, Telstra has been looking how diversifying its core business and reharnessing consumer sentiment can turn its image and fortunes around.
At one time, the recognisable red phone box was a ubiquitous sight in Wellington Shire and across the country, but in the decades of the mobile phone many have become redundant and removed.
In 2006, Telstra’s plan to rip out a thousand public phone boxes set it against an alliance of politicians and the public, especially in regional areas.
Telstra said at the time it was not obliged to keep all the public phone boxes that dotted the nation, and up to 5000 public phones were under threat.
In 2007 it removed hundreds of unprofitable phone boxes across the state, after a 50 per cent fall in calls since 2000.
The removal of pay phones has been extremely unpopular, but Mr Penn said the number of phones the company maintained was determined by the federal government.
In 2013 a historical agreement was reached between Telstra and the federal government about the way payphones are funded in Australia.
For the first time, the federal government agreed to pay Telstra directly to maintain its suite of payphones on a 20-year contract worth $40 million per year.
The universal service obligation legally requires Telstra to ensure standard phone services and payphones are “reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, wherever they work or live.”
Mr Penn said the removal of costs for some pay phone calls was part of the company’s new strategy to lead the Australian market by simplifying operations and product sets, and “improving customer experience and reducing our cost base”.
In a statement, Mr Penn said the strategy to provide free payphones “will fundamentally change the nature of telecommunication products and services in Australia by eliminating many pain points for customers”.
The phones have previously been made free to communities affected by natural disasters, or in remote indigenous communities.
The InfraCo Towers business is the largest mobile tower infrastructure provider in Australia with about 8200 towers.
Just last week, the telco announced a consortium comprising the Future Fund, Commonwealth Superannuation Corporation and Sunsuper would become a strategic partner in Telstra InfraCo Towers after agreeing to acquire a 49 per cent interest.
The transaction values Telstra InfraCo Towers — a telecommunications infrastructure business — at $5.9 billion.