Disconnecting from the once-popular payphone

Several Alberta communities are hanging up their payphones for good

By Leanne Murray | June 9, 2022 |5:00 am

The last remaining payphone in Airdrie — at the Esso Hi-Ho Gas & Grocery — is set to be removed on June 22. There are only 23 payphones left in Calgary.

Photo: Leanne Murray

Sung about in hit tunes by Maroon 5 and Arkells, and central to the plot of movies like Superman, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Phone Booth — something that once littered city streets is now slowly becoming a thing of the past.

The payphone.

New York City saw its last one removed just a couple of weeks ago. At the height of the payphone’s popularity, the Big Apple reportedly had about 6,000 of them.

Closer to home, some Alberta communities have also had the last remaining payphones removed in recent months, including Okotoks.

The town south of Calgary — with a population of approximately 30,000 people — was scheduled to have its last two payphones removed in April.

Fall from grace

According to Telus general manager Brian Bettis, just 17 calls were made on those phones since 2019, including only two this year.

That’s a far cry from over a million payphone calls per year across Western Canada at the peak, says Bettis.

On June 22, the lone payphone in Airdrie is also due to be removed. In Calgary, Telus still has 23 payphones.

“The original payphones in Calgary were actually deployed in the 1950s,” Bettis says, adding Telus has maintained and supported them across Alberta and BC since 2000 but started removing some about six years ago.

Maintenance an issue

Bettis says they would love to keep them running, but it’s become increasingly difficult to do so.

“As their popularity has waned, it’s become less capable for companies to produce parts,” he says.

“The skill of repairing and keeping payphones maintained is also kind of a legacy at this point. It’s become incredibly difficult to keep the payphones functional, with no parts to even buy from vendors because they’ve all shut down casting operations.”

Bettis points to the fact that 98 per cent of Canadians now carry a cell phone and Telus’ continued investment in pure fibre technology and 5G networks as reasons for the decline in the necessity for payphones.

“We’ve made connectivity so much more ubiquitous,” he says, compared to 50 years ago when payphones were one of the primary ways to communicate.

The payphone’s heyday 

Back then, it would have only cost a nickel to make a call on a payphone. These days — if you can find one — it will cost 50 cents.

Bettis believes the nostalgia is so heavy with payphones because everybody seems to have a story.

Albertan Robb Price has many and he remembers the good old days fondly.

“I actually grew up in the States and my dad would carry a bag of quarters around with him. We always had money for payphones because that’s all we had,” Price recalls.

Those memories prompted Price to start searching for an antique payphone and he recently purchased one from a collector near Didsbury.

Owning a piece of history

“I’d love to buy one and maybe install it almost as a piece of art in our house that the family could use,” he says, adding he’s a father of three, and his two younger kids aged 11 and 14 have never used a payphone before.

“The thought of pulling over your vehicle, getting out, putting a quarter in something, and making a phone call just doesn’t even compute,” he laughs.

Only now, his kids will get to experience the nostalgia as he’s installed his new purchase in the garage.

“The phone is fully functional. So you can set it up [and] you can still use quarters and dimes and toss them in there and make a call.”

Retire and honour

There are still several hundred operational payphones across Alberta and Telus has no immediate plans to remove them from Indigenous communities or from rural areas with less or spotty connectivity.

“Rural areas where natural and geographical and topographical impediments make it more difficult to service from a cellular and connectivity standpoint. Those are areas that we’re keeping for now, as long as we possibly can,” Bettis explains.

However, Telus will look to “retire and honour” payphones in areas where there are robust connectivity options for residents — like Okotoks and Airdrie, for instance.

“We’re honouring the legacy of payphones. And we acknowledge they played such an important role in the communities where we live, work, and serve in defining economic progress and keeping people connected to the things they care about the most, over the last number of years,” Bettis says. 

“For every community where we remove a payphone, we’re making a donation to our Friendly Future Foundation… in the name of the community where they’re at so we can locally identify and target opportunities in those areas.”

Any special interest groups, museums, or organizations interested in keeping and displaying one of the payphones Telus plans to retire can email telustickets@wimactel.com.

 

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Leanne Murray

Leanne is a Calgary Citizen reporter.

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