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Should public phone boxes be removed?

Remote red phone box

For some of us, the memory of using a public phone box is a fairly distant one. With the rise of mobile phone usage over the past 20 years or so, there’s been a rapid decline in demand for phone boxes. But as our guest author explains, for some communities, phone boxes are a lifeline.

In its wisdom, BT has decided to accelerate the decommissioning of phone boxes in areas where it deems they aren’t making much profit and where over 90% less usage has occurred in the past decade.

Surely the most hard hit in this drive will be those living in remote rural areas; particularly in the Scottish Highlands, mid Wales and many English country areas, where there are black spots for mobile phone coverage?

Rural phone boxes

In many rural areas, phone boxes are a lifeline when out and about as many residents either can’t get a signal or some may not be able to afford to own a mobile phone.

It must also be taken into consideration that many of those outlying areas are in mountainous regions where emergency services aren’t always within easy reach. Ofcom rules require BT to provide an ‘adequate provision of public call boxes to meet the reasonable needs of end users’. If BT choose to remove a phone box they must gain permission from the local council first, unless there’s another within 400 metres.

However, what would the reaction be if there’s a fatality on a mountain and a lack of a phone box meant no one was able to telephone emergency services? Campaigners in Wales have been fighting to save a red phone box in the Cambrian Mountains, the phone hasn’t worked for 18 months but is currently used as a shelter for ramblers. According to campaigners, mobile phone signal in the area is poor. So with only a few houses in the area and not another phone box for seven miles, this phone box is considered a lifeline.

But, it isn’t just mountainous areas where this could be a problem – you also have to rely on a phone box in flat moorland parts of England as often there is next to no mobile phone signal.

Future of phone boxes

In recent years, the government has pushed for more mobile phone coverage by private companies in areas where there is little or no signal, but progress has been pretty slow.

This coincides with BT’s seemingly accelerated programme to reduce Britain’s reliance on public communications. For example, under BT’s plans, Scotland would be left with around 3,300 phone boxes. While that sounds like a lot, just bear in mind the area they would have to cover – those without mobile phones or coverage would have to travel miles just to use the public phone.

And because a good proportion of those boxes set for decommission are the iconic red K series designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott from 1924, some people are arguing that BT is stripping the UK of its heritage.

Of course, where this is happening, BT is offering communities the opportunity to adopt their red phone box for £1, and many now house coffee machines, defibrillators and even a book exchange.

Even so, BT’s drive to decommission phone boxes has rightly caused great upset in local communities all over the UK, with local councillors complaining vigorously about it and determined to fight it.

Do you live in a remote area where a phone box is about to be decommissioned? Will you miss using a public pay phone, or do you no longer see the need for them?

This is a guest contribution by a Which? Conversation Community Member, . All views expressed here are their own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.


Hi Duncan, good blog. I just saw the issue covered in the Scotsman today (http://www.scotsman.com/business/companies/tech/is-the-number-finally-up-for-hundreds-of-scotland-s-payphones-1-4249555), and I understand there is a campaign underway in Loch Rannoch in Perthshire to save their phone box. A part of the world I know well, so will be following their campaign with interest! Interestingly, it also states that the highest use of pay phones in Scotland was in Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres.

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Wenvonian says:
6 October 2016

There are two Grade 2 listed buildings in our village. The church and the red telephone box.

The fact that phone boxes are little-used is largely BT’s own fault. The minimum charge of 60p comprises a connection charge of 40p plus 20p for talk time. That 20p buys 30 minutes of talk time to a land line. This works out at 0.667p a minute which sounds quite reasonable. However, try making a call from a BT phone box to a mobile phone. Can you guess how much talk time you get then? It is only 19 seconds, so the cost is 95 times as much. I would expect to pay 2 or 3 times as much but 95 times is unjustified and unreasonable. I have complained to Ofcom and Trading Standards but both have sided with BT and refused to take any action. It is time for BT to move into the 21st century and recognise that a lot of the calls people want to make nowadays are to mobile phones so it should stop pricing people out of its phone boxes.

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No ! Public Payphones are an integral part of our society, don’t get complacent by thinking that mobiles and smartphone have overtaken everything else, that they are all the rage! There are still people that cannot afford mobile phones, there are still people who do not wish to have, operate or own mobile phones. Many elderly people don’t have any inclination to use a mobile phone. Payphones are a must for the sake of the people who need to know that they have a payphone at the end of the street if they have an emergency or they need to contact a relative quickly. Don’t be so selfish, keep the payphone!

While it is true that the current elderly generation are, overall, disinclined to own or use mobile phones I see that this is changing quite rapidly, especially in the 65-80 bracket. And presumably that cohort will as they advance further in years still wish to keep in touch and carry out more sophisticated activities using smart phones. But, as SB says, that should not be used as an excuse to abandon the public payphone service, both as a lifeline for isolated places and for emergency use when nothing else is available.

Isn’t there something macabrely ironical about a village that replaces the public payphone with a defibrillator in the kiosk? Surely better for the parish council to pay for the continuation of the payphone facility. Have a defibrillator as well by all means but if you can’t call an ambulance there is a limit to what first aid can do.

Brilliant idea replacing a payphone with a defibrillator. Everyone knows exactly how to use them, and there is absolutely no chance of the person dying before the thing is used. The mind boggles at the thought.

Alfa – You might like this piece of news: An article in today’s Eastern Daily Press [the journal that keeps Norfolk separate from the rest of society] reports that community responders are appealing for the return of a community-access defibrilator that was attached to the wall of the police station at Wells-next-the-Sea and which has gone missing, presumed stolen. The coordinator of the local voluntary group that looks after these things said “They are available to all without exception. They require no training to use and are proven life savers“.

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The NHS is short of cash……………………

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I stand corrected as not having seen one close up, I didn’t think I would know how to use a defibrillator.

The modern defibrillators intended for use by the general public have simple instructions displayed on their screen. I did a first aid course where the use was demonstrated and one of the charities I work for has had a defibrillator for years.

To avoid vandalism or interference, defibrillators in public places require a code number. I believe that you have to call 999 or 112 and quote the number on the box and the operator will give the relevant code. It must be handy being in a phone box with a defibrillator but unable to use it because no phone is available. 🙁

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Some further information about the missing defibrillator in Wells-next-the -Sea. has come to light. Apparently there was incident in a nearby village where the unit was required so an off-duty nurse took the defibrillator to the scene and used it until the paramedics turned up in the ambulance. The nurse had not managed to return the unit to its location by the time its absence was reported. So not stolen, then – just missing awaiting return.

Agree phone boxes should be kept for the foreseeable future especially in poor mobile signal areas. Mobile signals need to be foolproof before the boxes are removed!

Dennis L. says:
22 October 2016

In areas where the mobile phone signal is weak, say in isolated mountainous villages, the phone boxes should be retained and upgraded to become wi-fi hotspots. This should be relatively easy and cheap as the infrastructure is already there. Lack of a mobile signal would then be less disruptive.

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Yes, but it’s not in London that we need them. Why won’t BT do it in areas of poor mobile phone reception?

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That’s right Duncan. BT does not put them where they are needed.

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I presume this follows the announcement of the AT+T / Time Warner merger. “CEO says merger won’t raise prices, puts forth $35 DirecTV offer as proof.” Assuming Rupert doesn’t have any fingers in this pie it might be for his group to watch out, rather than little ‘ol BT? I don’t like large media groups that get a stranglehold on the lives of the unsuspecting.

However, we seem to have departed from the fate of red telephone boxes.. I wonder of public phones could not be provided on the walls of public buildings (including public houses), housed in a recess with a transparent door. There would be electricity (for a light) and phone connections in the building. Although you might need an umbrella it would save all the expense of maintaining phone boxes (except in very remote places).

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AT+T provides the service, Time Warner the content. Seems an appropriate link up for them.

According to Wiki “The telephone company BT is steadily removing public telephone kiosks from the streets of the UK. It is permitted to remove a kiosk without consultation provided that there is another kiosk within 400 metres walking distance. In other cases, it is supposed to comply with Ofcom rules on consultation with the local authority.[10]”

Ofcom has a document https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0035/47879/removing_callboxes.pdf

Sorry if this has been posted before.

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saowanit says:
13 December 2016

line to public phone boxes quite capable of carrying reasonable broadband connection put timed routers in the booth pre paid and auto generated password

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It’s high time somebody challenged BT’s condition of (non) use. I asked Ofcom to refer BT to the Competition and Markets Authority (for possible breach of competition law) but Ofcom refused. What is the point of a regulator that does not regulate?

ms l.j. says:
2 January 2020

I can’t believe these vital public services are being withdrawn. In impoverished communities, people cannot afford ‘phones. In an emergency, a public telephone is a lifeline. It’s time they were taken over by the Government.