'Vital service'

Thousands of phone boxes to be saved from closure

Some phone boxes have been converted to other uses (pic: Terry Murden)

Thousands of phone boxes around the UK will be protected from a sweeping closure programme announced by BT.

Telecoms watchdog Ofcom acknowledges that with 96% of UK adults now owning a mobile phone, and mobile signal improving significantly in recent years, the way people make calls is changing.

However, it says many phone boxes still provide a vital public service and must be saved.

As part of the move to digital phone lines, which will require investment to upgrade phone boxes, BT is currently assessing which ones are no longer needed and can be decommissioned.

But under the current process for removing payphones, some that are needed by local communities risk being withdrawn, says telecoms watchdog Ofcom. 

It is proposing clearer, stronger rules to safeguard a phone box against removal, if any of four criteria applies: 

  • its location is not already covered by all four mobile networks; or 
  • it is located at an accident or suicide hotspot; or 
  • more than 52 calls have been made from it over the past 12 months; or  
  • exceptional circumstances mean there is a need for a public call box.[1] 

Ofcom estimates that the new rules would protect about 5,000 phone boxes. BT and KCOM – which operates Hull’s unique white boxes – can propose removal of any that do not fall within this strict criteria, but would need to formally consult with local communities before any action is taken. 

Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity, said: “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.  

“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.” 

Under our plans, BT and KCOM must also install batteries in some payphones, so they can still be used during a power cut. 

Many phone boxes have been vandalised and neglected and have become eyesores (pic: Terry Murden)

Who still uses payphones?

There are currently around 21,000 call boxes across the country. For people without a mobile, or for those in areas with poor mobile coverage, these can be a lifeline for making calls to friends and family, helpline services and accessing emergency services. 

Almost 150,000 calls were made to emergency services from phone boxes in the year to May 2020, while 25,000 calls were made to Childline and 20,000 to Samaritans.  

At the same time, the services people need from public call boxes are changing. Call volumes from payphones have fallen from around 800m minutes in 2002 to just seven million in 2020. A new generation of street hubs being rolled out by BT offer services such as free Wi-Fi and free charging. 

Ofcom is also proposing to allow BT and KCOM greater flexibility in the range of services they can provide in their phone boxes, to keep pace with people’s needs.

For several years, BT has been decommissioning payphones that it has assessed are no longer needed.

However, local authorities who want to retain the iconic red kiosk can use BT’s ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme.

Under the scheme, local bodies can purchase a red kiosk for £1 and use it for something else.

Since BT launched the scheme, more than 6,000 kiosks have been converted to a range of different uses, such as community libraries, or to house life-saving public defibrillators. 

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