Telstra Wins Legal Battle Against Councils Over Payphone Billboards

Telstra Wins Legal Battle Against Councils Over Payphone Billboards

Telstra has won its Federal Court battle against Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane councils, which attempted to stop the telco from rolling out new payphones with digital advertising billboards.

The Federal Court ruled on Tuesday the booths were “low-impact facilities” that did not necessitate council approval to install.

However, under the ruling, Telstra cannot run ads from third parties without a planning permit. This means the new billboards can be installed without council approval, but at this stage can only advertise Telstra’s “standard telephone service”.

Across the three major cities, Telstra planned to install 1800 of the new payphones.

In May 2019, Telstra took Melbourne City Council to court after it rejected its application to run commercial ads across 81 new payphones.

Off the back of that, the City of Sydney joined Melbourne in the fight against Telstra to stop the telco brand from installing new payphones with advertising display panels around the city.

A spokesperson from the City of Sydney said in a statement at the time: “Our view is that the new or upgraded payphones are not intended to be designed solely for use as a content and carriage service.”

The City of Sydney also said it has “serious concerns” over the billboards, claiming it will reduce its “control of footpaths and public spaces” and its “ability to ensure that the design and location of these enlarged payphones doesn’t negatively impact pedestrians or businesses.”

While the telco said the new payphones would be used to run commercial ads, the presiding judge of the case said it will depend on planning approval.

The three city councils opposed the installation of the new facilities altogether.

Old payphones

New payphones

Melbourne city council said in its submission to the court that “it is not the purpose of a public payphone cabinet to act as an electronic billboard”.

It said, rather, the purpose of a ‘public payphone cabinet’ is to provide a structure in a public place that citizens can make phone calls. 

The council also said Telstra and OOH player JCDecaux were “seeking to take advantage of […] structures that act as electronic billboards for third-party commercial advertising, in ideal revenue-generating locations throughout Australia’s capital cities.”

The council argued by doing so, Telstra avoids the need to comply with state town planning laws, or obtain landowner consent.

Under the law, Telstra is allowed to install “low-impact facilities” such as public payphone cabinets or booths without a permit, as long as other conditions are met.

Conditions include not using facilities to “display commercial advertising” other than advertising related to the supply of standard telephone services,

The telco argued that the facilities are low-impact because at the time of installation would not be used to display commercial advertising.

However, the three councils argued the payphone billboards were not “public payphone cabinets”, meaning Telstra required planning approval. 

It was ruled the facilities were low-impact

Justice O’Callaghan disagreed and said the payphone billboards were low-impact in their current state, and therefore did not require planning approval.


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