New rules could protect 4,000 phone boxes

Phone Box
(Image credit: Ofcom)

As many as 4,000 phone boxes could be saved from decommissioning thanks to new safeguards proposed by Ofcom.

Public phone booths have been a fixture on British streets for decades, however the advent of the mobile phone has led to a dramatic decrease in use. It is estimated that 96% of UK adults own a mobile phone while payphone call volumes have fallen from 800 million minutes in 2002 to just seven million last year.

The once ubiquitous phone box has become a maintenance burden, with many kiosks falling into disrepair and becoming eyesores. Amid declining revenues and increased costs, BT and others have been keen to remove the boxes or replace them with new ‘smart kiosks’.

BT Street Hub 2.0

As recently as 2017 there were 46,000 public phone boxes in the UK, but Ofcom says that figure is now 21,000.

However, some people are still reliant on the trusty payphone, which can also prove invaluable for those who need to access helpline services or need to dial 999. Ofcom says almost 150,000 calls were made to emergency services in the 12 months leading up to May 2020.

The regulator fears BT’s decommissioning process risks removing payphones in communities that need them most.

The new rules mean a phone box cannot be withdrawn if it is in a location that is not covered by all four major mobile networks, is located at an accident or suicide hotspot, has been used for more than 52 calls over the previous 12 months. The same applies if there are “exceptional circumstances” such as coastal locations that have poor mobile coverage or where a particular helpline is used often.

BT and KCOM, which operates phone boxes in Hull, can propose to remove any phone box that fall into these criteria but must formally consult with local communities before taking action. Meanwhile, both companies must install batteries in some locations so payphones can be used even if there is a power cut.

“Some of the call boxes we plan to protect are used to make relatively low numbers of calls. But if one of those calls is from a distressed child, an accident victim or someone contemplating suicide, that public phone line can be a lifeline at a time of great need,” said Selina Chadha, Ofcom director of connectivity.

“We also want to make sure that people without mobile coverage, often in rural areas, can still make calls. At the same time, we’re planning to support the rollout of new phone boxes with free Wi-Fi and charging.”

Should a phone box be earmarked for removal, local authorities can ‘adopt’ the kiosk for community use. The classic ‘K6’ red phone box is viewed as a British design icon and was provided to every town and village with a post office in 1936. By 1968 there were nearly 70,000 on the streets. Some have been converted into art galleries, libraries and even coffee shops under the scheme.

In recent years BT has replaced some phone boxes with street kiosks that offer free charging and Wi-Fi facilities, as well as advertising services for businesses and local authorities.  

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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.