Public Payphone Protections Revealed By Ofcom

Public payphones (remember them?) in the UK have potentially been thrown a lifeline, after new plans were announced by the British communication regulator Ofcom.

Ofcom announced its consultation plan to protect payphones in areas with poor mobile signal or high accident rates. Communities will also been given the opportunity to reuse landmark red kiosks if a payphone is no longer needed.

Alongside these plans, were the news that Ofcom has also updated rules to support on-street devices with free calls, Wi-Fi and charging.

Ofcom consultation

The thorny issue of what to do with public payphones and telephone kiosks has been ongoing for a while now.

With 96 percent of UK adults now owning a mobile phone, and mobile signal improving significantly in recent years, their usage has declined dramatically in the past 20 years.

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.

However, BT has also 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.

“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,” said Ofcom. “But under the current process for removing payphones, some that are needed by local communities risk being withdrawn.”

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

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

The UK communication regulator estimates that around 5,000 phone boxes around the UK would be protected from removal by the new rules.

“BT and KCOM can propose to remove phone boxes that do not fall within this strict criteria, but would need to formally consult with local communities before any action is taken,” said Ofcom.

“Some of the call boxes we plan to protect are used to make relatively low numbers of calls,” said Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity. “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,” said Chadha. “At the same time, we’re planning to support the rollout of new phone boxes with free Wi-Fi and charging.”

BT is mostly associated with the famous K2 and K6 red phone boxes introduced in the 1920s and 1930s, whilst KCOM is known for the unique white phone boxes in Hull.

Both of these carriers must also install batteries in some payphones, so they can still be used during a power cut.

Still used?

Ofcom reckons there are still currently around 21,000 call boxes across the country. It says that these payphones are a lifeline for those without a mobile phone, or for those in areas with poor mobile coverage.

It cited data that shows 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.

With call volumes from payphones falling from around 800 million minutes in 2002 to just 7m in 2020, BT has been seeking to reinvent the humble kiosk and make it more relevant for modern times.

BT is rolling out a new generation of street hubs that offer services such as free Wi-Fi and free charging.

Therefore Ofcom are 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.

BT reaction

BT has given a cautious welcome to Ofcom’s proposals, but no doubt it is mindful of the ongoing costs associated with its Universal Service Obligation (USO) for public payphone kiosks.

“BT welcomes Ofcom’s consultation on the public call box Universal Service Obligation (USO),” a BT spokesperson told Silicon UK via email.

“BT takes its regulatory obligations seriously in providing a public phone box service,” said the spokesperson. “Any phone box removals are carried out in strict adherence to Ofcom guidelines and, where appropriate, with the consent of local authorities.”

“We also know many communities love their red kiosks and, to date, more than 6,500 have been adopted across the UK via our continuing Adopt a Kiosk scheme – turning them into lifesaving defibrillator units, mini libraries, and many other new uses,” the spokesperson added.

“BT looks forward to working constructively with Ofcom throughout the consultation process to ensure the USO meets the needs of the public today,” the spokesperson concluded.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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