Telstra has been installing LCD billboards “masquerading as pay phones” across Melbourne, a City of Melbourne councillor says.
The council is considering legal action to block another 81 of the pay phones from obstructing footpaths, planning chair Nicholas Reece said.
Telstra has already installed 39 new pay phones that are almost 50 per cent bigger than the old phones, at 2.645 metres tall and 1.09 metres wide.
LCD screens on the structures play 15 and 30-second advertisements, and are 60 per cent bigger than previous signage.
Telstra is hoping to have 120 of them in the Hoddle Grid.
“These structures are advertising billboards masquerading as payphones,” Cr Reece said.
We are not going to sit idly by and allow the plundering of the public realm for private profit.
“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.”
Advertising industry sources estimated each of the billboards were worth about $8000 in weekly revenue, he said.
“For 120 in prime locations throughout the city centre, that’s millions of dollars per year going to Telstra with no rental costs or compensation for the imposition on our public spaces.”
Planning approval is not required for telecommunications infrastructure under the federal telecommunications act if it is a ‘low-impact facility’.
A planning permit is required for the display of third-party commercial advertising. City of Melbourne planners approved permits for the electronic advertisements on the 39 new structures in late 2016.
Telstra’s legal submissions stated the new structures met the criteria of a ‘low-impact facility’.
“Twelve of these new super-sized advertising structures are being installed in Bourke Street, two of which are less than five metres apart,” Cr Reece said.
One of them is in the middle of the footpath at Bourke Street Mall.
City of Melbourne is now looking at its options to block the 81 more that are planned.
Telstra has not yet submitted applications for those billboards.
But the telecommunications giant could effectively build the structures without approval, making it more complex for council to then block advertisements played on them.
Cr Reece doubted there was a genuine need for the pay phones.
“We need to urgently review the current advertising signs policy in the Melbourne Planning Scheme, which has not kept pace with the proliferation of electronic signage,” he said.
“Currently, it appears as though Telstra is utilising federal legislation to effectively sidestep any genuine consultation process.”
He said the council preferred to resolve the issues through discussion.
“Our officers have held high-level discussions with Telstra executives and we have also conveyed City of Melbourne’s concerns regarding the imposition of these new advertising structures to the federal government.
“Legal action is a last resort, but we must protect our valuable and scarce public space from being co-opted for profit without proper consideration of the community impact.”
Telstra said the legal threat was “disappointing”.
“We have been liaising with the City of Melbourne over a number of years, including as recently as last month, on this issue. We will meet with the City of Melbourne to continue discussing their concerns.”
Telstra reiterated the 39 billboards already under way were approved by council.
“We are respectful of the planning process and the phones in the City of Melbourne are installed with relevant legislation.
The spokesperson did not respond to questions on how much revenue Telstra made from advertising revenue compared to the pay phones.
Telstra said it was upgrading about 1800 pay phones across all Australian capital cities.
“We are working closely with all local and city councils to identify and agree suitable locations where the upgraded pay phones will deliver the greatest benefits to the communities they serve,” the spokesperson said.
Maribyrnong, Stonnington and Yarra councils have all advised City of Melbourne they were equally concerned about the new Telstra phones disrupting footpath traffic.
City of Melbourne is seeking public feedback on the impact of the billboards on footpaths.