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Ofcom Moves to Protect 5,000 UK Payphone Boxes from Closure UPDATE

Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 (8:07 am) - Score 1,872

The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has today announced that they intend to protect around 5,000 “vital phone boxes” from closure by BT and KCOM, but only those that are truly still needed by local communities. Without such protection, some of those phone boxes considered “vital” would still have been set for removal.

At their height the United Kingdom was home to around 92,000 of BT’s public payphones and that’s before we consider other operators, such as those from KCOM in Hull. But for the past few years’ BT has been busy decommissioning payphones, many of which are no longer used, which is largely due to the significant improvements in mobile phone coverage and affordability.

Some of those destined for the scrap heap have been replaced by BT’s new smart WiFi Street Hub kiosks (mostly only in busy urban areas), while around 6,000 others have been adopted by local authorities for other purposes (e.g. turning them into WiFi hotspots, storage for life-saving public defibrillators, miniature community libraries etc.).

As it stands today, there are currently around 21,000 payphone boxes still in operation from BT and KCOM across the UK. Last year these supported a total of 5 million calls, with 150,000 being for emergencies, 25,000 reflecting calls to child line and 20,000 for the Samaritans. But calls have decreased, falling from 800 million minutes in 2002 to just 7 million in 2020.

However, Ofcom warns that BT’s current decommissioning process will result in some payphones, specifically those that are still deemed to be “needed by local communities“, being at risk of withdrawal. As a result, they’ve proposed new rules to safeguard phone boxes against removal, provided any of their four criteria applies.

The Four Criteria for Payphone Protection

➤ 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 (e.g. it’s in a coastal location where mobile reception is less resilient or it’s still being used for helpline calls).

BT and KCOM can propose to remove phone boxes that do not fall within the aforementioned criteria, but they would need to formally consult with local communities before any action is taken. Overall, a total of around 5,000 payphone boxes could now be saved by these changes.

Furthermore, the migration of the UK’s telephone network to Internet Protocol (IP) based services, which is due to complete by December 2025, will also require such payphones to be upgraded. All of that means extra costs for BT and KCOM.

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.”

In addition to all this, Ofcom will also require BT and KCOM to install batteries in some payphones, so they can still be used during a power cut. However, the regulator said they would 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,” but it remains to be seen what kind of impact that may have.

Finally, and in a slightly comical footnote, Ofcom said they are also “consulting on removing the requirement to provide a fax service” – this forms part of the existing Universal Service Obligation (USO).

We look forward to seeing old payphones continuing to be used as public lavatories, for drug taking and as makeshift sleeping accommodation for the homeless. Not to mention some being plastered with unattractive advertising material.

Ofcom’s Full Consultation Proposals

Strengthened rules to ensure that public call boxes that are still needed are protected from removal.
Currently, local authorities may veto proposed removals of the last public call box in an area, but we are concerned that this is applied inconsistently across the UK. We propose to replace the veto with a clear, consistent set of criteria to protect those boxes that are most needed from removal (such as those in areas without full mobile coverage), while allowing boxes that are no longer needed to be removed. BT and KCOM would still have to consult with local authorities on proposed removals of such boxes, using our criteria.

Providing more flexibility in the services provided by public call boxes.
BT offers a range of other on-street devices that provide services such as free calls, phone charging and free wi-fi – but these devices do not currently count as public call boxes. To support BT and KCOM in offering improved services to users, we are proposing to amend our rules to allow them greater flexibility in the services offered from public call boxes, such as allowing free calls and removing requirements to provide access to premium rate and international numbers.

Ensuring that public call boxes continue to work in the event of a power cut.
Currently, public call boxes can still be used to make calls when there is a power cut in the area. To ensure this continues after networks are migrated to IP, public call boxes will need new battery equipment installed. We are proposing to require BT and KCOM to make sure public call boxes that are likely to be needed in the event of a power cut have batteries installed so they can still be used to make emergency calls.

Removing the requirement for fax services to be provided under the USO.
It will no longer be feasible for BT and KCOM to provide fax services after networks are migrated to IP. Very few businesses continue to use fax and there are many alternative services available. We are therefore seeking views on removing fax from the USO requirements.

Ofcom intend to consult on all this until 11th January 2022 and will then publish their final decision during the latter part of Spring 2022, although we don’t expect any major changes.

UPDATE 12:40pm

BT has issued the following comment.

A BT Spokesperson said:

“BT welcomes Ofcom’s consultation on the public call box Universal Service Obligation (USO).

BT takes its regulatory obligations seriously in providing a public phone box service. 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.

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

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
4 Responses
  1. Optimist says:

    I don’t see why telcos should be expected to provide public call boxes for free. They should be paid for out of local council tax just as public toilets are – the water companies don’t pay!

    1. Ixel says:

      I agree, but on the other hand council tax is already pretty costly. Certainly is where I am at least, so I’m not sure if that’s a great alternative either.

    2. Reply says:

      They’re not free it costs 60p per call to use them.

  2. Spurple says:

    I would say: protect them simply for cultural and symbolic reasons, since these kiosks are a memorable icon of the UK perhaps globally. However, no need for them to have functioning phones where everyone has access to alternatives.

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