With the prevalence of cell phones, is there no role for payphones?

Payphones are disappearing from the Caribbean telecoms landscape. Are the obsolete in today’s society?


You may not have noticed it, but payphones are not as prevalent in the Caribbean as they used to be. Before, there would have been the odd telephone booth in towns and city centres, and near post offices, and hospitals, and even at the offices of the payphone service provider. Now, the only place you might consistently find a phone is at the airport, which hopefully is in good working condition.

In a recent article published in Barbados’ Nation News, the proliferation of mobile/cellular phones was stated as the impetus for the removal of payphones in Barbados. However, with the high mobile/cellular subscription density that also exists in the wider Caribbean region, in countries such as Trinidad and Tobago (around 158 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, at the end of 2015), Anguilla (around 172 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants), and Suriname (over 180 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants), the decrease in payphones may be attributed to the same reason.

The writer of the Nation News article stressed the importance of payphones in fostering entrepreneurship:

There’s the awareness of email communications, but telephone communication is more instant, urgent, less expensive and needed in the entrepreneurship drive at a time when many are cash-strapped. This dire economic era calls for less expensive communication in employment search and other necessary tasks.

Email, fax and text communications are more expensive, for one must have access to cellular phone, computer, Internet and fax machine.

However, what might be even more worrying are possible assumptions that might be used to justify reduced availability of payphones, for example:

  1. Most citizens (or residents) own a mobile/cellular device that can be used as or when needed.
  2. Mobile/cellular networks within a country are providing sufficient coverage to provide  connectivity.

First, although most citizens may possess mobile/cellular device, all citizens do not. The elderly and young children are likely to not to have a phone. Further, although a country may have a mobile/cellular subscription density over 100%, which suggests that virtually every inhabitant has a subscription, device ownership among those two cohorts would still be considerably lower than the rest of the population.

Second although the largest and best mobile/cellular communications providers are likely to cover most of a country’s major population centers generally, within those areas some spotty coverage can still exist, where mobile/cellular phones will not work. The situation becomes more acute in more rural areas, where it would be desirable to have another means of communication, if one cannot make a mobile/cellular call.

It is also worth highlighting that mobile/cellular consumers do not benefit from the the overlapping coverage of the various network operators in their country. They benefit -and suffer the consequences of – the network to which they are subscribed. Hence, if a consumer is subscribed to Network A, and Network B has better coverage in a particular area, the consumer is limited by the quality Network A provides.

On the side of the service providers, it must be emphasised that the maintenance cost for payphones is high. Besides normal wear and tear in a public space, exposure to some of he elements, especially if they are outdoors, payphones can also be subject to vandalism, and so frequently, may not be working. Hence, it could be considered a prudent commercial decision to reduce the number of payphones in operation.

However, it could be argued that eliminating, or even reducing the number of, payphones is contrary to the imperatives and challenges experienced by developing countries, such as those in the Caribbean. Under such circumstances, some policy and/or regulatory intervention may be necessary to foster the continued availability of payphones, by among other things, emphasizing the importance of payphones in the society, and being prepared to discuss ways in which their operation could be better funded and managed.


Image credit:  MikeDixson (flickr)


1 Comment

  • Rather it is the function of the payphone that needs to evolve ( like everything else around it ). The payphone is enjoys wide location across many regions.

    For a few cents, therefore it can be used as:

    1. Text sending point ( in addition to its age-old traditional functionality )
    2. As an information source/centre ( public information, roads, locations, tourist centres, nearest fuel station etc )
    3. Wi-Fi hot spot

    If our Telcos were to be a little bit more innovative enough, the list above can be expanded enormously.

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