JC Decaux and the City of Melbourne in fight over Telstra payphone advertising

The City of Melbourne is in a fight with JC Decaux and Telstra after the council claimed the companies’ large format payphone ad displays could cost the city up to $2.1bn in lost productivity.

In dispute is whether the large format advertising units are ‘low impact’ under federal telecommunications laws which exempt minor telco installations from local planning requirements. The city claims the size of the units and their economic impact makes them subject to the council’s rules.

The City of Melbourne’s Facebook announcement

While 40 sites have already been approved with 33 installed, the council has refused a further 81 planning permits for locations across central Melbourne.

The units, fitted with 75-inch LCD screens, are 2.7 metres high and 1.2 metres wide – 600mm taller and 400mm wider than the older phone booths.

Supporting its objections, the council claims these would interfere with foot traffic in the inner city and hurt Melbourne’s economy, citing a report by SGS Economics and Planning estimating a 10% reduction in pedestrian flow would cost the city $2.1bn in lost productivity.

JC Decaux and Telstra unveiled their Adbooth partnership in late 2017 to “bring the phone box into the 21st Century” with 1,860 payphones nationally being upgraded to include mobile phone charging ports, digital advertising screens, public transport information, interactive digital art along as multilingual and disability support services.

As part of Telstra’s Universal Service Obligation, the telco is required by law to provide payphones that are reasonably accessible to all people in Australia. Telstra claims 13 million calls were made through payphone last year, 200,000 of which were emergency calls to triple-zero.

In Sydney, the JC Decaux and Telstra joint venture pulled out of the city’s street furniture tender in January with some sources claiming concerns about the large format payphone units were partly responsible for the scuttled bid for Australia’s largest out-of-home contract.

Chair of the City of Melbourne’s planning portfolio, councillor Nicholas Reece, said the units are not low impact, would negatively impact heritage places, conflict with the council’s urban design objectives and would result in streetscape and amenity issues.

“As custodians of the city, we have a responsibility to maintain the quality of the streets and public realm. We don’t want people to be bombarded with oversized and intrusive commercial advertising on public infrastructure,” Reece said.

An example of JC Decaux’s payphone ad units in Perth’s Hay Street mall

The council will be applying to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for a ruling that the units are not ‘low impact’ and are therefore covered by local government planning rules.

JC Decaux declined to comment when approached by Mumbrella, but a Telstra spokesperson said: “We’re disappointed with this decision as we believe the new payphones are able to be installed in accordance with the Telecommunications (Low Impact Facilities) Determination. We understand from its media release that the City is planning to seek an order at VCAT so it will then be for the tribunal to decide.

“The size of the new payphones is partly driven by the increased space required for fibre connections and other telecommunications equipment to help ensure the technology offered to all users in the City of Melbourne is comparable to other major cities such as New York City and Tokyo.

“It is envisaged that over time the new payphones will provide a number of additional services for pedestrians and the community, including device charging, free wi-fi, community and emergency messages and for information for everything from public transport information and maps, weather, tourist information and nearby cultural attractions.

“In most cases a new payphone will be installed in non-pedestrian thoroughfares and other existing street furniture like seats, trees and bins so as to reduce pedestrian impact.

“We are committed to working constructively with the City of Melbourne regarding its decision today.”


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