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Image: Daragh Brophy/TheJournal.ie

Removing public payphones would 'cause chaos' for Ireland's most vulnerable people

A number of groups have warned the removal of public payphones could significantly impact on people who use them to call freephone numbers.
Aug 8th 2016, 7:00 AM 17,191 37

A NUMBER OF groups have warned that removing public payphones could significantly impact on some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

The telecommunications regulator Comreg, recently rejected calls by service provider Eir, to remove its service obligations in relation to the provision of public payphones. Currently, the company can only remove a payphone if it falls below the usage threshold of one minute a day over a six month period or if it is the focus of anti-social behaviour.

A number of submissions to Comreg referenced examples of this kind of behaviour like people urinating in phone boxes as well as smoking and taking drugs.

However the regulator pointed out in its decision that the phones are used by “the most vulnerable people in society”.

‘Chaos’

Between July 2014 and December 2015, more than half of the calls from payphones were tofreephone numbers.

Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless, told The Journal.ie that a large proportion of Dublin’s homeless population use the payphones to make calls arranging a bed for the night in a hostel.

“If the payphone system is gone, how are they going to be able to access the freephone system. We know from the outreach services that the payphone is the point of contact for people. Even if they have a mobile phone, it could be gone dead or been stolen.”

“It would be chaos in regard to people being able to access the freephone system and there’d be a surge in people sleeping on the streets because of it,” he explained, adding that he has heard of clients “on the phone four to six hours a day trying to access a bed”.

Almost one third of the freephone calls were to helplines and domestic violence charity Women’s Aid made a submission to the regulator to emphasise the importance of public payphones for its service users.

‘Their freedom is restricted’

Director Margaret Martin said there are a number of reasons why a domestic abuse victim may use a payphone. Some cannot afford to have their own mobile phone, like homeless women or those asylum seekers living in direct provision.

“Most of us who have a mobile phone see it as a sort of necessity, but for an awful lot of people, it’s a luxury and it’s out of reach,” she told TheJournal.ie. “Some of the women calling would be low on credit and refuges often want to speak to a woman directly, but we sometimes have to make the call for her because she won’t have the credit.”

Because isolation is a big factor in domestic abuse, some victims may have had their mobile phones taken from them by their abusers and their access to money restricted.

Their freedom is very restricted too. We know on the helpline women don’t always get to finish the call. Sometimes it’ll end abruptly, she’ll say: ‘I hear the key in the door’ and the call ends.

A public payphone can be a safe place for a woman to make the call.

In a public submission to Comreg, a Darren Hennessy pointed out that “too many people can’t afford mobile/regular contracts” and this could cause a problem in cases of emergencies.

He also raised concerns about the ability of victims or witnesses of crimes and tourists to use public payphones – particularly if their mobile phones have been stolen.

Comreg has decided there will be no change to the current regime for usage thresholds for the removal of payphones but Eir can continue to remove them if they fall below the set usage levels.

The Women’s Aid helpline number is 1800 341 900. It is free and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Read: Should public payphones be hung up, permanently?>

Read: Calls for Eircom to remove phone boxes being used by drug users and damaging nearby businesses>

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Michelle Hennessy

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