/ Technology

Are pay phones worth preserving?

Old-fashioned red phonebox

When was the last time you used a pay phone? When was the last time you saw one? With unprofitable phone boxes disappearing throughout the country, maybe it’s time to use them before they’re gone for good.

In some parts of the country it seems phone boxes are as rare as Dr Who’s Tardis. So where have all the pay phones gone?

Back in 2002 there were 92,000 payphones – today there are 53,000 and just 12,500 are the iconic red box. Why the sudden decline? It follows a deliberate culling exercise, in which little-used ‘unprofitable’ boxes were systematically removed.

The rules for this are complicated, but BT is required to provide public phones under a universal service obligation. BT has to go through a consultation process with the local authority if it wants to remove the last box from a ‘site’. They’ll have to consider the nature of the surrounding area, the phone’s proximity to an accident ‘blackspot’ and how well-used it is.

Fans of the phone box

But the humble phone box still has its fans. English Heritage has given 2,340 boxes listed status and others have been sponsored by the council, which pays BT an annual fee to keep them open. Another 500 boxes have had the phone removed but been ‘adopted’. This means the empty box has been purchased for a nominal sum and left in situ.

Now that most of us have mobile phones, the decline of the payphone is perhaps unsurprising. But in my mind they’re still useful in lots of situations. Railway stations, hospitals and areas with a poor mobile signal to name a few.

Why use a payphone?

BT reports that 200,000 calls are made from pay phones each day, but that usage has halved in the last two years, with 10% used only once a month and 58% being unprofitable.

Callbox charges went up recently, with the minimum cost jumping 50% to 60p. If you use a credit card to pay for your call, the minimum is £1.20. The new rates sound pretty expensive, particularly for a quick call to say your train’s running late. But BT’s pricing policy is worth considering more closely.

The first 40p pays for a ‘connection charge’, but after this you get 15 minutes of call time for each 10p. So, in effect, the minimum cash payment of 60p gives you a full 30 minutes to any UK landline. That works out at a rate of 2p per minute.

This is pretty competitive set against mobile rates and even compares favourably with BT’s standard tariff for householders. For a 15 minute call, the phonebox costs 60p – calling from home could cost up to 88p and using a pay as you go mobile £1.55.

Rather than grumbling about the hike from 40p, perhaps we ought to start using call boxes more often. As individuals we’d save money on our mobile and by boosting the takings of a favourite box we might push up its ‘profitability’ and save it from the chop.

Sophie Gilbert says:
1 October 2010

In case of emergency, if you were in the middle of nowhere, if your mobile phone were failing (flat battery or no signal), would you be grateful for the presence of a pay phone? If the answer is yes, pay phones are worth preserving.

Making profitability a priority does not preserve lives.

I completely agree with Sophie! Last year I had recourse to use a public telephone because my mobile had no signal – my car had broken down – in the middle of rural Essex – The post office telephone saved me a very long walk

Even at the height of phone box usage, finding one ‘in the middle of nowhere’ would’ve been pretty difficult, as most were placed where there was a good chance of them being used on a regular basis. So you’d still have had the same problem as now. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to put one in every remote spot just in case there’s an emergency and just in case someone’s battery is flat. Although, until the portable personal mobile phone mast’s invented, the issue of getting a signal in some of the remotest places will persist!

To get round the flat mobile battery problem I definitely recommending buying a spare battery. They are so inexpensive, I’m amazed more people don’t use them.

Sophie Gilbert says:
4 October 2010

There are remote phone boxes in the Highlands, in the middle of nowhere, where there is little or no mobile signal. I’m grateful for these phone boxes.

My experience of unused batteries (for mobiles phones and other implements) is that they can go flat by themselves. I would like to have to rely on them too much.

Fat Sam, Glos says:
4 October 2010

Fair point, Sophie, though if one’s in a car one should be able to charge it up. If your car battery’s flat or if you’re out walking or cycling I guess that experiencing an emergency situation in a remote area with no signal and no spare battery then that is just plain unfortunate – or risks to consider before setting off.

It would be interesting to see how those 200,000 calls compare to the total number of calls made each day from private mobile and landlines and to see how much this universal service obligation costs BT. Then again – I’m not sure I care. I’m not a BT customer!

Kitkat says:
5 November 2010

When my mobile has no signal it reverts to emergency calls only anyway so if there was a need it would be ok. Drug addicts regularly use the humble bt payphone to call thier dealer, much to the enjoyment of the police as it makes it easier for them to build a case and trace calls so that’s an advantage, But why do we have to pay a 40 pence connection fee followed by a further 20 pence for a half an hour call? It’s great if you are using an international calling card but to call a taxi or some other meaningless 40 second call it’s a rip off. They should open up the payphone sector to other providers, BT have had the monopoly on this for too long. Look at the state of the postal service by Royal Mail, this too should be opened up to other providers.

Nick says:
7 June 2014

There is competition, there are 2 other street payphone operators and 1 of the 2 have a similar pricing strategy as BT.

Remember 60p for a 40 second call is just the same as a pay as you go mobile. Mobile network operators have replaced minimum call charges with a rule of charging a minimum of 1 minute or rounding to the next whole pound.

Its not just payphones which have seen a decline in call usage, landline usage and even mobile phone(voice and video calling) is at an all time low. People just dont seem to talk anymore and apps such as Whatsapp,Skype,Viber and BBM have gained popularity not just for messaging but now for voice calls.

Text messaging launched in 1991 peaked between 2001 and 2007 but is steadily declining due to messaging apps. By 2020, I would expect Mobile Phone manufacturers to phase out Text Messaging.

Video calling has never been popular due to high call costs and some manufacturers do not even bother with it anymore.

BT’s public payphone kiosks especially due to the widespread locations should be turned into 4G and Wifi hubs and keep them maintained and payphone operational.

Arqiva formerly New World Payphones has rolled out Wifi at almost all of its kiosks.

BT has done the same with some kiosks but is not very widespread.

BT want to exit the payphone service and have chosen a closure by stealth approach.

BT also makes 49p per minute for every 0800 or 0808 call you make through BT payphones. This charge is called the payphone access charge and is billed to the owner of the freephone number. Such calls are not free from mobiles.

BT also makes around £80 per week per kiosk for allowing advertising on its kiosks.

They make a lot more money than you think and according to 2013 results, 65,000 chargeable calls per day are made through BT payphones.

With mobiles becoming handy in your pocket. These days it’s cheaper to use a mobile. But I personally think that Bt have increased their prices. With a view of permanently removing pay phones. And making sure that they are unprofitable. When you think that contract mobiles are way cheaper to use. Depending on your calling plan. But Bt are just increasing the price. In order to make the good old pay phone unprofitable. Also don’t forget that the older generation are not up for using the internet. There are a few that don’t have a fixed line in the house. Forgot about them being connected to the internet. And with some of the older generation. They either don’t have a mobile. Cant use a mobile. Some love mobiles and others don’t. Of the older generation. Here is why I say mobiles are like marmite. You either love marmite/mobile.Or you hate. Marmite/mobiles. Personally I hate marmite. So I don’t buy it. And the few of the older generation are not going to get a mobile. That’s contract or pay as you go.

I’d like to have the keys for all pay phones local to myself. Personally I think that is the only way we will ever see if public pay phones are profitable or not. But I doubt that Bt will ever agree to this. Or even give it a trial. I’d like everyone’s opinions on this. Maybe local individuals could adopt the pay phones. That’s those that have an interest in this option like myself.

[Sorry, your comment has been edited to align with our community guidelines https://conversation.which.co.uk/commenting-guidelines/. Thanks, mods.]