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Thousands of payphones to be saved from closure

Written by: Emma Lunn
Ofcom says it will stop BT from scrapping 5,000 phone boxes in areas with poor mobile signals or high accident rates, if they are still needed by local communities.

BT has been decommissioning unused phone boxes over the past few years due to 96% of UK adults now owning a mobile phone and mobile signals improving around the UK.

BT is assessing which phone boxes are needed as part of the move to digital phone lines which will require investment to upgrade phone boxes. But under the current process for removing payphones, some that are needed by local communities risk being withdrawn.

As a result, the telecoms regulator has proposed stronger rules to safeguard a phone box against removal, if certain criteria applies.

A phone box will be saved if its location is not already covered by all four mobile networks, it is located at an accident or suicide hotspot, 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 phone box.

Ofcom estimates that about 5,000 phone boxes around the UK will be protected from removal by the new rules. BT can propose to remove phone boxes that don’t fall within this strict criteria, but would need to formally consult with local communities before any action is taken.

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.”

Under Ofcom’s plans, BT and KCOM – which operates Hull’s unique white phone boxes – must also install batteries in some payphones, so they can still be used during a power cut.

Who still uses payphones?

There are currently about 21,000 phone boxes across the country. For people without a mobile, or for those in areas with poor mobile coverage, these can be a lifeline for making calls to friends and family, helpline services, and accessing emergency services.

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.

At the same time, the services people need from public call boxes are changing. Call volumes from payphones have fallen from around 800 million minutes in 2002 to just 7 million in 2020. A new generation of street hubs being rolled out by BT offer services such as free Wi-Fi and free charging.

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