Around 5,000 public telephone booths across the UK will be protected from shutdown in areas with high accident rates or weak mobile signals, under plans developed by Ofcom, the regulator.
The communications watchdog said it would ban BT from scrapping payphones in areas where they were still needed, namely places with poor mobile coverage, high accident or suicide rates. , or above average usage. There are approximately 21,000 telephone booths across the country.
For several years, BT has been decommissioning public telephones deemed unnecessary. Use of the phone booth has fallen as 96% of UK adults own a cell phone. However, local organizations can buy a red phone booth for £ 1 and use it for something else. Over 6,000 have been converted to other uses, such as community libraries, or to house public defibrillators.
Ofcom said it received a call on Tuesday from a mountain rescue team in the Lake District who wanted its local phone booth, which BT is scheduled to close, be saved.
Selina Chadha, Ofcom Director of Connectivity, said: “Some of the call boxes that we plan to protect are used to make a relatively low number of calls. But if any of those calls are from a child in distress, an accident victim, or someone considering suicide, this public hotline can be a lifeline in times 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 plan to support the deployment of new telephone booths with free wifi and recharging.
About 5 million calls were made from telephone booths up to May 2020, of which nearly 150,000 were made to emergency services, while 25,000 were made to ChildLine and 20,000 to Samaritans. However, call volumes from public telephones have increased from around 800 million minutes in 2002 to 7 million in 2020.
According to plans, BT and Kcom, which operate Hull’s unique cream phone booths, are to install batteries in some pay phones so they can be used during a power outage.
A BT spokesperson said: « BT takes its regulatory obligations seriously by providing public telephone booth service. Any withdrawal of a telephone booth is carried out in strict compliance with Ofcom guidelines and, where applicable, with the agreement of the local authorities.
“We also know that many communities love their red kiosks and, to date, over 6,500 have been adopted across the UK through our ongoing Adopt a Kiosk program – turning them into life-saving defibrillator units, mini libraries and many other new uses. BT looks forward to working constructively with Ofcom throughout the consultation process to ensure that the Universal Service Obligation meets the needs of the public today. “
Under Ofcom’s stricter rules, a telephone booth will be protected against removal if one of the four criteria applies: its location is not covered by the four major mobile networks; it is located at an accident or suicide hot spot; more than 52 calls were made there in the last 12 months; or exceptional circumstances require a public telephone booth.
Ofcom said BT and Kcom could offer to remove phone booths that do not meet these criteria, but should formally consult with local communities before any action.