Ofcom Updates Law To Protect Last Remaining Phone Boxes

Remaining public telephone boxes belonging to BT and KCOM are now subject to new protections, as BT says it will ‘review’ the latest rule change

The UK communications regulator Ofcom has introduced stronger protections for thousands of essential telephone boxes from the likes of BT and KCOM.

First touted last November, the lifeline for public telephone boxes in the UK has now solidified into new rules safeguarding phone boxes “against removal if they are still needed by a local community.”

Payphones in areas with poor mobile phone signals and high accident rates are covered under Ofcom’s updated Telephony Universal Service Obligation (TUSO) rules.

Telephone box protections

Ofcom has also updated rules to support on-street hubs that offer free calls, Wi-Fi and charging on the go.

Ofcom said that while there has been a steep decline in calls made from phone boxes, from around 800 million minutes in 2002 to just 4 million minutes in 2021/22, “they continue to provide an essential service in some areas, such as locations without full mobile signal.”

The regulator cites the fact that almost 150,000 calls were made to emergency services from phone boxes in the year to May 2020.

Some 25,000 calls were made to Childline, and 20,000 to Samaritans.

There are four criteria that will protect payphones and phones boxes under Ofcom’s new rules, which are:

  • they are in a place without coverage from all four mobile network providers; or
  • they are located in an area with a high frequency of accidents or suicides; or
  • 52 or more calls have been made from them over the past 12 months; or
  • there is other evidence that a phone box is reasonably needed at a site – for example, where it is being used to make calls to helplines such as Childline.

The rules replace the previous process for removing payphones, which risked removal in locations where they were still required.

Ofcom said that it had previously estimated that around 5,000 phone boxes would be covered by these protections.

But given the ongoing decline in call volumes and improvements to mobile coverage, Ofcom now expects some of these may no longer require protection, although its more recent mobile coverage data indicates that at least 1,400 boxes still do not have good mobile coverage.

It said that BT (and KCOM, the operator in Hull) must also still consult with local authorities on the removal of boxes that are the last remaining in an area.

Legacy tech?

Safeguarding such legacy communication technology may surprise some, considering that 96 percent of UK adults now own a mobile phone, and mobile coverage is improving in rural areas.

Indeed, BT has been closing down thousands of these public payphone boxes for a while now, after they reached a height of 92,000 kiosks in previous decades.

BT has launched an ‘adopt a kiosk’ scheme, so local communities can adopt their local public kiosk and turn it into something else, such as a mini library or even holding defibrillator units. Under the scheme, local bodies can purchase a red kiosk for £1 and use it for something else.

Over 6,000 kiosks have been adopted since BT launched its Adopt a Kiosk scheme.

“You may think of a phone box as a local landmark, or as a landmark symbol of British nostalgia,” noted Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity.

“But they can still serve as a vital lifeline – perhaps to call a helpline or the emergency services – when no other options are available,” said Chadha.

“Our new rules will ensure that many thousands of phone boxes will be protected for as long as they are needed, as well as supporting the rollout of new street hubs, with free Wi-Fi and charging for people on the go,” said Chadha.

Ofcom reckons there are still currently around 20,000 telephone boxes across the country, and 2.3 million calls were made from them last year. But calls have decreased from 800m minutes in 2002 to 4m in 2021/22.

Of these, 150000 were emergencies, 2,5000 were to Childline and 20,000 to samaritans in 2020.

BT reaction

Ofcom’s decision directly impacts BT and to a lesser extend KCOM.

BT used to be the UK’s nationwide telecom incumbent, except for Hull, where KCOM was the local provider famous for its white telephone boxes.

“We note Ofcom’s statement following the consultation,” a BT spokesperson told Silicon UK. “We will now review the specific changes and any impact this will have on the payphone service we offer.

“BT takes its regulatory obligations seriously in providing a public payphone service and will adhere to Ofcom’s new guidelines around the removal of any phone boxes,” the spokesperson told Silicon UK.

“We also welcome Ofcom’s proposals around the greater flexibility on payphone removals as we look to replace a proportion of our traditional payphone network in urban areas with our next generation Street Hub units,” the spokesperson added. “These are bringing wide ranging benefits to communities, including free ultrafast WiFi and landline calls, access to 999 and charity help lines, advertising for local businesses and air quality monitoring.”

“We also know how vital connectivity is to rural communities, which is why our ongoing investments in fixed and mobile connections has resulted in vast improvements for many in recent years,” the spokesperson concluded.