Hong Kong’s public payphones are dying out but still hanging on

MTR stations are doing away with the machines but by law, the city still has to keep some of them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 1:05am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2016, 1:50am

Hong Kong’s love – some might say obsession – with the telephone is the stuff of legend .

At the latest count most of us own at least two smartphones, making Hongkongers among the most mobile-mad populations on the planet.

Throw in the fact that — with the odd exception – we have one of the fastest broadband speeds around and an off-the-scale appetite for the next big digital thing, and it’s hard to imagine a time when making a call didn’t just require a phone, but a handful of small change.

Last week the MTR called time on payphones in its stations and for those of a certain telecommunications vintage, memories flooded back of the reassuringly bright yellow phone boxes that used to festoon the city’s cramped urban sprawl.

But despite the rise of the smartphone , it appears the humble payphone is hanging on in there. While the numbers have dropped hugely from a peak in the 1980s and 1990s when more than 6,000 payphones dotted the streets, telecommunications regulators say the city is still home to 3,000 coin-operated phones.

Exact numbers are hard to pin down due to a complex public private operating regime but one thing is clear, they still be but their takings are slim.

Parkson Fan Wing-yiu, executive director at Shinetown Telecom, the long-time operator of MTR station payphones recalled the glory days of 15 years ago when the company when it operated more than 2,000 payphones, coining in HK$4000 per phone each month.

“Now, there are only around 100 left…we are happy if one can make several hundreds a month now,” he said.

Fan started his payphone business shortly after the government liberalised the fixed-line telecommunication market in the late 1990s, Fan said it had a few good years before the smartphone boom started. Payphone services now only account for less than 1 per cent of the company’s total revenue.

“Even domestic workers are no longer using them,” Fan lamented.

The latest statistics released by Trade Development Council shows, the mobile penetration rate reached 232 per cent in last April, which means every one in Hong Kong has at least two cell phones.

Fan said the company used to rent payphones to herb tea shops, newsstands and game centres, but none of the contracts remain, only a few schools and shopping malls still use them .

“Ordinary people couldn’t afford a fix-line phone alone at home,” said Clement So, a professor at Chinese University’s Journalism and Communication School, adding that as the charges for setting up such machines were extremely expensive at the time when Hong Kong Telecom, later acquired by PCCW, was the only player in the market.

Research by the Hong Kong Trade development Council shows the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots reached 33,000 last April, including 12,000 subsidised by the government without asking for passwords, while the number of public payphones only stood at 3300 according to Office of the Communications Authority.

With the widespread use of instant communication applications such as Skype and Google Talk now, it’s cheaper for people making calls at places where free Wi-Fi is available, he said.

Despite fewer people using the services, the city’s government still needs to maintain a “reasonable number” of public payphone required by the Telecommunications Ordinance, as public payphone considered a “basic service” under the universal service obligation, which “should be made available to all persons in Hong Kong”. The Ordinance doesn’t specify the minimum amounts.

PCCW-HK provide 95 per cent of government subsidised public payphones according to the authority. The authorities’ latest report shows that government granted HK$29.7 million in 2013 for “uneconomic payphones”.