Ofcom sticks up for neglected phone boxes

UK comms regulator Ofcom has said certain public phone boxes will be safeguarded against removal if they are still needed by a local community.

As must be blatantly obvious to all, the need for public phone boxes declined in line with the ubiquity of mobile phone ownership. Ofcom reckons usage has dropped from around 800 million minutes in 2002 to 4 million 2021/22, but says that there is still need for them in some areas, such as places where there isn’t any mobile signal.

There are still 20,000 of the things dotted around the UK apparently, and last year 2.3 million calls were made from them (note that’s calls not minutes, as per the previous stat). They do still apparently provide an important service for some – in the year to May 2020 Ofcom says 150,000 calls were made to emergency services, 25,000 to Childline, and 20,000 to Samaritans.

There are some new, very specific, rules from Ofcom which will protect certain phone boxes from removal. Boxes will stay in place where:

  • they are in a place without coverage from all four mobile network providers; or
  • they are located in an area with a high frequency of accidents or suicides; or
  • 52 or more calls have been made from them over the past 12 months; or
  • there is other evidence that a phone box is reasonably needed at a site – for example, where it is being used to make calls to helplines such as Childline

Ofcom phone boxes

Ofcom previously estimated 5,000 phone boxes would be covered, however they now think that might be less ‘given the ongoing decline in call volumes and improvements to mobile coverage’. What the actual number is isn’t clear, but it does at least 1,400 boxes are still in areas with poor mobile coverage.

“You may think of a phone box as a local landmark, or as a landmark symbol of British nostalgia,” said Selina Chadha Ofcom’s Director of Connectivity. “But they can still serve as a vital lifeline – perhaps to call a helpline or the emergency services – when no other options are available. Our new rules will ensure that many thousands of phone boxes will be protected for as long as they are needed, as well as supporting the rollout of new street hubs, with free Wi-Fi and charging for people on the go.”

Now, if someone could also protect Britain’s phone boxes from becoming bill boards for vice or used as public urinals, that would also be welcomed by anyone who finds themselves needing to use one.


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