Hong Kong regulator reviews USO fees for public payphones

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Hong Kong’s independent telecoms regulator has announced plans to look at reducing the number of Hong Kong’s surviving public payphones covered under its universal service obligation (USO) rules.

The Communications Authority (CA) said on Thursday it aims to reducing the number of public payphones eligible for universal service contribution (“USC”) “to a reasonable level”, which would in turn reduce the level of USC borne by the telecoms industry, the cost of which is typically covered by adding service charges to the bills of fixed and mobile customers.

The CA said there were around 3,400 public phones covered by the USO as of the end of 2016, of which 44% were in-building type (“IB”) payphones located in public facilities and government offices, while 46% were kiosk type payphones located on public streets, and the remaining 10% were emergency helplines mainly located in country parks.

Public phones under the USO are funded by fixed and mobile service providers under the USC scheme set up pursuant to section 35B of the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) (TO).  The telecoms industry contributed HK$21.6 million for the cost of providing public payphones in 2014.

With mobile phone penetration as high as 238% in Hong Kong as of March 2017, the general public relies almost entirely on mobile phones for making calls or sending instant messages, and the demand for public payphones has dropped to the point that funding them under the USO has become unprofitable. Data from 2014 and 2015 indicates that about 56% of public payphones had an average revenue of not more than HK$1 per day.

The review will focus on those payphones, said a CA spokesperson, adding that emergency helplines won’t be considered in the review, and will be kept intact for use by the general public in remote areas for emergency purposes.

The spokesperson added that CA receives periodic requests from the public on the removal of certain public payphones due to a variety of reasons, such as causing sightline obstruction to pedestrians and drivers, or taking up space in already narrow pedestrian pathways.

“By keeping only those public payphones that are still in need by the public, it will help free up space on the streets and alleviate potential obstruction problems,” the spokesperson said.

The CA will consult the relevant stakeholders closely in conducting the review, which it expects to complete by the end of 2019.

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