Pay phones a public service? Don't tell that to Bell, which has been shortchanging us for years by pulling booths off our sidewalks and leaving it up to private operators to pick up the slack. When low-income groups came calling to keep pay phones on the hook, Bell sniffed. Now, instead of returning these amenities to the people, the communications giant is planning to plaster ads on them.
The way-old standard
It's embarrassing to think that booths like this beat-up circa-55 model at the southeast corner of King and Spadina, among the first outdoor phones installed in the country, are still being pushed on the public. At least if the doors were intact we could huddle from the cold.
Bell's dwindling stock of outdoor pay phones has become so depleted that the company has resorted to mixing and matching its equipment to maintain a semblance of public service. The phone in this booth at University and College, a Centurion model from the early 70s -- which means no volume-control for the hearing impaired or slot for a telephone card -- is actually in an early-80s-era booth.
Booth? What booth?
Bell likes to say it got more stylish by replacing full-length booths with kiosk versions that "respect neighbourhood settings." Earlier versions of kiosk models like this one at Church and Shuter come with a small canopy, so those under a certain height are afforded some protection from the elements. Still, don't expect to be making any happy rainy day or midwinter calls from one of these.
Some take coins, some don't
In 1998, the CRTC deregulated the pay phone industry and a flood of independent operators, many taking over neglected Bell phones, came calling with higher prices and even spottier service. Some of their phones take coins, some don't. Some take only calling cards, some only do international calls. Most, like this one at Beverley and Dundas, only offer a few minutes of calling time per quarter. Don't expect to be reimbursed if your coin gets stuck.
The shape of things to come
Bell says it has no plans to replace its Millennium pay phones - "the most advanced pay phones in the world." As for its booths, the corporation is considering turning what's supposed to be a public amenity into a vehicle for street-level advertising, like these Bell Mobility-wrapped booths at Church and Bloor whose giant stick-on ads were recently removed just as the Toronto Public Space Committee raised questions (see sidebar). The burning question: should Bell be allowed to advertise on booths on city- owned space? We think not.
The future is free - sort of
Some independents are taking phone-related advertising to a whole new level with Freefone, a free local calling service - free if you're willing to withstand the lineups and the barrage of ads coming at you from a 15-inch monitor. Models like this one inside the Ryerson student centre are great for starving students, but we're a little leery of these mini-billboards creeping onto our sidewalks and adding more visual pollution to our public spaces.