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The UK's iconic phone boxes are under threat. This move could save thousands

Mobile phones have been reducing demand for phone boxes for years. But some will survive.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Smartphones and mobile networks might be near ubiquitous, but the UK government is keen to protect its heritage of iconic red public phone boxes. 

UK communications regulator Ofcom has announced plans to protect phone boxes in areas with bad mobile reception or high accident rates — the occasions when people need to contact emergency services. 

Public phone boxes in the UK aren't exactly popular for communications (or in many cases very pleasant), but there's still a need for them, according to Ofcom. 

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The move to protect public phones comes as the UK and incumbent operator BT rips out old copper and replaces it with fibre to deliver internet telephony or VoIP. The plans is to kill the UK's legacy telephone network by December 2025, meaning public telephones will need to be upgraded. 

Ofcom said in a statement that it was proposing to allow BT (and KCOM which runs Hull's white phone boxes) to remove public call boxes that are no longer needed, but to protect those boxes "on which people still rely". 

Ofcom is also proposing some changes to streamline the universal service obligation (USO) rules that require BT to support public phone boxes among other things.

The proposal also acknowledges that people in the UK don't use public phones much anymore, yet the infrastructure remains vital in areas where people have poor mobile reception. 

"A public call box can be the only option for making calls to friends and family, helplines and, crucially, emergency services. So we want to ensure boxes that are needed are protected from removal," Ofcom notes.

Ofcom wants to provide "clearer, stronger rules" to BT for its plan to decommission public phone boxes. These include that the area the box is located isn't covered by all four of the UK's mobile networks, or if it is in an accident hotspot. 

Ofcom reckons around 5,000 of the UK's 21,000 phone boxes will be saved by the new rules that will prevent BT and KCOM from removing the boxes without first consulting with local communities. It will also require the operators install batteries in some public phone boxes to avoid outages during a power blackout. 

"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," said Selina Chadha, Ofcom's director of connectivity.

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Ofcom estimates that there were 150,000 emergency services calls from phone boxes in the year to May 2020, as well as 25,000 calls to Childline and 20,000 to Samaritans in the period.

On the other hand, calls from public payphone plummeted from 800 million minutes in 2002 to seven million minutes in 2020. 

Ofcom has also proposed to allow BT and KCOM more choice in the services they can provide in their phone boxes, such as free Wi-Fii and mobile charging seen in the UK's 'street hubs'. 

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