Telstra payphones get court approval

By David Schout

The City of Melbourne has lost its long-running battle with Telstra over the right to install CBD phone booths on busy city footpaths.

The Federal Court decision means the telco giant can proceed with rolling out new payphones in the city, a service the council argued was obsolete and, as they contain a 75-inch billboard, Trojan horses for advertising.

Telstra will, however, require a planning permit for third-party advertising.

In 2018, Telstra installed 39 new payphones in the Hoddle Grid without fanfare, but a plan to roll out a further 81 cabinets raised the ire of Town Hall, revealed at the time by CBD News.

While complaints from the public and retailers rose, the council were hamstrung by a loophole in last century’s Telecommunications Act (1997) which allowed Telstra to place payphones where they pleased as they were deemed “low impact”.

“These structures are advertising billboards masquerading as payphones,” planning chair Nicholas Reece said in September 2018.

“Complaints from the community tell us that they are impeding pedestrians, disrupting footpath traffic flow and negatively impacting a number of local retailers and businesses.”

In early 2019 the council rejected Telstra’s application to install the new booths on the basis they were not “low impact”, a move that saw Telstra file Federal Court proceedings.

The City of Melbourne wasn’t alone in the ensuing court battle, joined by The City of Sydney and Brisbane City Council in opposing the rollout of 1800 payphones/billboards nationally.

But Justice David O’Callaghan ruled that the units were authorised by the Telecommunications Act (1997), and upheld their “low impact” status provided they were used only to promote Telstra’s standard telephone service.

Cr Reece said while it accepted the ruling, the telco’s real intentions were clear.

“We believe the number and location of these booths are currently being decided on the basis of advertising exposure rather than customer need.”

He said the decision would impact the city’s ability to free up space for pedestrians, a core tenet of the council’s 10-year transport strategy.

“We defended this case in the Federal Court to protect our footpaths. We will continue to do everything we can to make our city as pedestrian friendly as possible and stop unnecessary clutter and congestion on our pavements.”

In response to the ruling, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the Federal Telecommunications Act (1997) was “outdated” and called on the federal communications minister to remove them.

“While Telstra removes payphones from other areas across the country, citing a lack of use, here in the city it wants to roll out more. Why? Because the new payphones house 75-inch advertising screens – billboard space that it wants to on-sell for profit,” she Tweeted.

“We didn’t think that was fair – that precious inner-city footpath space could be hijacked for corporate advertising – so along with Melbourne and Brisbane we took Telstra to court. Today, we lost that case. Thankfully, the court’s decision does not give Telstra freedom to install commercial advertising panels at will.”

Cr Reece said the council was “reviewing the decision and its impact” and would consider future applications for third-party billboard advertising on a “case-by-case” basis •

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