Australians will be able to make free calls from public payphones across the country under a new Telstra initiative.
Standard national calls and SMS from Telstra’s network of more than 15,000 payphones will be made free from Tuesday, while payphones will become completely coinless from October 1.
But consumers will still have to pay for overseas calls.
Calling for help or just phoning a friend from one of Australia’s 15,076 public payphones will be free from Tuesday in a bold move by Telstra expected to cost more than $5 million in lost revenue.
Both local and national phone calls with be fee-free as part of the telco’s payphone overhaul, as well as calls to Australian mobile phone numbers, with no restrictions other than a six-hour limit on phone calls.
About 11 million calls were made across Telstra payphones in the past year, including 230,000 calls to critical services such as triple zero.
Telstra chief executive Andy Penn, who will announce the change at an event on Tuesday morning, said more than 11 million phone calls were made using public telephones in Australia last year despite their reputation as historical artefacts.
Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn said payphones were a vital lifeline, particularly for the homeless and people escaping an unsafe situation.
“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,” he said in a statement.
“I can only imagine the relief their families feel knowing their loved one is safe.”
Telstra has previously made national calls on its payphones free over the Christmas and New Year period, making it easier for the homeless to contact others.
Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army labelled the decision a “game-changer” that could lift vulnerable Australians out of social poverty and isolation.
“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,” he said.
The Salvation Army called the move a “game-changer” that could help lift vulnerable Australians out of “social isolation,” while the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network also welcomed the move as a vital lifeline from cities to regional areas.
“It’s interesting because now people look at payphones and just assume that they are a thing of the past and nobody uses them anymore,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle, who serves as the charity’s commanding officer in Melbourne, said making payphone calls free was a “game-changer” that would not only encourage more people to contact services for help but could help break the cycle of loneliness.
“With a lot of people who we see, often the underlying problem is social isolation. It’s an invisible epidemic and it’s one of those issues that affects so many people. To be able, at no cost, to ring a family member or friend is invaluable.”
ACCAN chief executive Teresa Corbin said, while often undervalued, Australia’s payphone network remained useful for students, homeless people and in emergencies in urban areas, and was arguably more important in regional and remote communities where “not everyone has a device”.
“They can be very important in Indigenous communities,” she said.
Telstra has previously removed fees on payphones during emergency situations, including the 2019 bushfires which saw 3.5 million phone calls placed, and in remote Indigenous communities after the outbreak of Covid-19.
While last year’s tally of 11 million phone calls, at 50c each, would have brought in $5.5 million, Mr Penn declined to disclose how much free public calls would cost Telstra, other than to say it wasn’t “an enormous amount” to bring new life to an “iconic” asset.