What's become of our phone booths? Deemed relics, they're being retired. Those that remain are meeting an even less dignified fate - as giant billboards.
It may be time, say public space advocates, for the city to do what the CRTC won't - take over Bell booths in the interests of tourism, public safety and low-income families. Phone booths, after all, are supposed to provide a public service, not act as a vehicle for promo.
Says Dave Meslin, coordinator of the Toronto Public Space Committee, "If we provide fire hydrants and trees as a public service, then maybe we should add pay phones."
Bell won't reveal the number of booths it has yanked from Toronto streets. No doubt it has become a source of embarrassment. But nationwide some 4,000 booths have been put out of service every year since 1998.
A journey around the downtown core suggests that there are just as many independently owned and operated pay phones as Bell phones.
According to Bell spokesperson Daniel Boutet, it's a simple matter of supply and demand. "If a pay phone isn't being used, why leave it there?"
But The Consumer Groups, a Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC)-led coalition of the Consumers Association of Canada, National Anti-Poverty Association and L'Union des Consommateurs, says plenty of people still rely heavily on pay phones.
Their research shows that 22 per cent of low-income Canadians use pay phones on a daily basis. When you have enough trouble buying food and finding shelter, a home phone line - let alone a cell - becomes a luxury. Indeed, as much as a quarter of low-income people have no phone at all. The neediest segments of our communities have a pronounced need for access to phone services.
Try telling that to the CRTC. It's part of the federal regulator's mandate to maintain public phone service for the needy, but it seems in no hurry to address all of PIAC's concerns. Instead, a spokesperson refers NOW to a recent report on the issue that says public "demand was being met in spite of pay telephone removals."
The CRTC report goes on to say that "the majority of Canadians continue to use pay telephone service primarily for convenience."
Hello. Is there anybody out there?
"It's an awkward situation," says PIAC consumer protection lawyer John Lawford. "We're saying it's a life-line public service, and Bell is saying play by competition rules and don't distort the market."
The Consumer Groups tried getting the CRTC to force Bell to maintain Public Interest Payphones (PIPs) as a public service in places where they may not be completely financially sustainable.
"Bell Canada and Telus have 95 per cent of the market, and [PIPs are] a public service that they have to carry at their expense. It might be a slight burden, but it's not the end of the world," figures Lawford.
The CRTC decided it was too painful. Their report said "a PIP could impose a heavy administrative and monetary burden on the industry." They concluded that as long as the big telco providers handed in reports on their pay phone removal, they would have plenty of "warning of any impeding concerns."
If pay phones are going to stay around as an emergency service without a mandate from the CRTC, they're going to have to literally sell out. A dirty little friend called advertising is becoming the unavoidable strategic partner for public telephones.
Bell outfitted some of its booths with green, blue, pink and orange-coloured coverings pumping Bell Mobility cellphones over the summer - perhaps a warning that you'd better have one the next time you need to make a call?
No, says Boutet. But he does see more companies advertising with Bell in the future.
"Using our pay phones for advertising with our partners is something that has great value to them. If it's in good taste and it makes sense, we'll try and provide them that service."
Bell has already worked with businesses in past advertising deals where custom booths were installed, like at McDonald's. But those phone booths were usually found on the advertiser's property.
Meslin says there's a lot wrong with Bell's ad plans.
"The sidewalks are ours. They belong to the citizens. If we're giving [pay phone companies] some space to run a business, that's fine, but they can't just turn into another business," says Meslin, who's been questioning the legality of the ad campaign Bell tried over the summer.
Meslin's concern is that Bell pay phones and Bell cellphones are two separate companies, and as such Bell was allowing third-party advertising without the city's permission. But he's been unable to see the contract, so it's unclear whether Bell was blurring the advertising line.
"We've asked for the contract repeatedly from city staff and the mayor's office and we haven't had any of our emails or phone calls returned," he says.
All city spokesperson Barrie Chavel would say is that the advertising is considered "first-party advertising, and it only lasted a month."
Other independents like Globalive are taking an altogether different approach: Freefone, a courtesy phone attached to a 15-inch monitor that plays ads at you while you talk. It's finding a home on university campuses. Every Staples in the city now has them, as does Sears and Sick Kids Hospital.
Says company CFO Brice Scheschuk, "We've got advertising everywhere, so what's wrong with advertising on a pay phone?"