Payphones: A dying fad in Kelowna

When did you last use a payphone?

Superman would be hard-pressed to find a phone booth to change into his outfit these days.

There is little demand for payphones in this time of Wi-Fi, smartphones and texting, but there are a few still available for use in Kelowna that have yet to be taken away.

According to a Canadian Press article from 2015, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) proposed to tighten up the rules companies must follow when they choose to disconnect the last municipal payphone.

Currently, there are two street-side payphones in the downtown Kelowna area: one outside the Kelowna Law Courts on Water Street and another just a block away outside Kelowna Memorial Arena on Doyle Avenue—neither are in a booth and both are still connected.

Staff at the Tourism Kelowna waterfront kiosk often get international tourists asking to use the Wi-Fi or the landline to make calls, and only rarely direct people to the downtown payphones.

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A CRTC survey found that only 32 per cent of Canadians used a payphone even once in 2014—and that was five years ago.

A payphone directory website that lists known payphone numbers for major cities in B.C. sites zero numbers in Kelowna, while significantly smaller municipalities’ Keremeos and Penticton both have two numbers each listed.

Meanwhile, in the small Village of Coalmont, the town’s only payphone has been greatly missed since a freak incident destroyed the booth.

“The phone booth was great and it was used often,” said Diane Stern, owner of the Mozey-On-Inn Motel in the heart of Coalmont.

The booth hasn’t been replaced since the incident in 2015. Instead, Telus installed what Stern referred to as a “jail-phone,” which is the only public phone in the town which has little-to-no cell service

“The ‘jail-phone’ is really only good for calling 9-1-1,” Stern said. “That’s if people can even find it.”

People looking for tows, taxis or almost anything else come to Stern’s motel to make calls; it’s not a problem for them, but it could be when the motel closes their doors in 2021.

“When we close, they will need to put something better in because the current phone doesn’t cut it. I really hope that it gets replaced,” said Stern.

READ MORE: Man found guilty in bizarre assault banished from Coalmont for a year

Apart from the two street-side payphones downtown, there are only a few known local spots where payphones could be easily accessed. There are two at the 7-11 in Lake Country and signage for an old phone booth along side Highway 33 in Rutland just outside Olympia Tavern Greek Restaurant.

There have been old-style Telus payphones also spotted at Manteo Waterfront Resort, Jim Lind Arena in West Kelowna, Encore West Kelowna movie theatre, KGH and the Kelowna airport.

Telus’ Liz Sauvé said that the use of payphones has been steadily declining for almost 20 years.

“Telus currently has about 8,000 payphones across Canada, primarily in B.C., Alberta, and Quebec. Many payphones go days at a time between use,” Sauvé said.

“At this point, if we do remove a payphone, it’s generally because the landlord doesn’t want it anymore because it’s not being used, it’s being vandalized or because they’d prefer to put something else in that space.”

READ MORE: District, residents, RCMP and ICBC weigh-in on how to use a Lake Country roundabout

Payphones offer affordable, easily accessible and private options for people who may be from low-income families or homeless, but can also be an easy targets for vandals.

Telus also offers a support program for young adults transitioning from foster care with free phones and plans due to the hardships some face due to the lack of affordable communication options and declining availability of payphones. Currently, more than 10,000 British Columbians use Telus’ Mobility for Good program.

These payphones can be completely useless in some communities or be an essential lifeline in others.

Either way, with phone booths all but extinct and payphones seemingly close behind, new options will soon be needed for low-income users and costume-changing superheroes.

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