Many public payphones are set to disappear from Irish towns and villages after the telecom regulator signalled it will no longer require Eir to operate and maintain them from 2021 onwards.
ComReg has recommended that the designation of a telecom firm to provide public payphones under a “universal service obligation” (USO) is no longer necessary or appropriate given their low usage level and widespread use of mobile phones.
The regulator acknowledged that the number of payphones as well as their usage had declined considerably since 2018.
There are currently just 456 public payphones in the Republic, of which 365 are located at multi-unit sites such as train stations or airports.
The figure has fallen from around 1,300 in 2014, while Eir had removed almost 2,000 out of 3,500 payphones from service as part of a rationalisation programme in 2009.
Just over 40% of all payphones are located in Dublin (188), while Cork has the second-highest number with 65.
Some counties such as Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal, Mayo, Westmeath, and Meath no longer have any single public payphones.
ComReg said an analysis of calls from payphones over the past two years showed they were predominantly used for contacting emergency services or accessing freephone services.
Nevertheless, it pointed out that the number of emergency calls from payphones had declined by 49% in the past two years and by 65% for helplines.
Following a review of the use of public payphones, ComReg claims that the reasonable needs of the public can be met in the future by “alternative means” including commercially provided payphones.
The move is certain to be favoured by Eir which has repeatedly called in recent years for ComReg to end the USO requirement as the operation of public payphones had become uneconomical.
The current USO on Eir to provide public payphones ends on December 31.
Eir pointed out it has a contract with Clear Channel to install digital kiosks containing interactive digital screens, wayfinding, and mapping systems and payphones nationwide which, subject to the approval of local authorities, can replace existing payphones.
“In suitable locations, the council can request recovery of the Eir structure and USO payphone and have it replaced with Clear Channel’s newer digital kiosk and their payphone,” said Eir.
The company said it will liaise with local authorities around the country about payphone needs in their areas and remove existing phone boxes and kiosks where they were no longer needed.
It is understood 13% of payphones will be directly replaced with a digital kiosk.
ComReg said another 80% of payphones would be located within a reasonable distance of a digital kiosk.
Launching a consultation process on its proposal to end the requirement on Eir to operate public payphones, ComReg acknowledged the USO had provided “a safety net that ensures certain basic fixed-line services are available at an affordable and uniform price to all citizens and consumers throughout the State.” ComReg said the USO had been particularly important for rural or sparsely populated areas where the market might not deliver such services.
The current USO required Eir to maintain the existing number of public payphones unless usage fell below a specified threshold level.
ComReg said such a “dynamic approach” had ensured that end-users who used public payphones could still access them, while allowing Eir the commercial freedom to remove those phones for which there was no longer a reasonable public demand.
Under the terms of the USO, Eir was allowed to remove a payphone where its usage in the previous six months averaged less than one minute per day.
It was also allowed to remove payphones where there was evidence of anti-social behaviour or their removal was requested by the local council.
Figures show the number of payphones meeting the threshold level decreased by 42% between January 2018 and December 2019.
The number of such payphones and their usage levels fell by a further 40% during the first quarter of 2020.
ComReg said it would monitor the provision of commercial payphones, in particular in relation to their charges, to ensure they remained affordable and would intervene in the market if necessary.