Ofcom announces plan to protect endangered species – the Great British phone box

BT is getting axe-happy but regulator's scheme could save 5,000 kiosks

Grotty, soaked in urine, and plastered with escort ads if the windows haven't already been kicked in – the public phone box is a British institution on its last legs. And yet comms regulator Ofcom has a plan in place to protect the endangered species.

BT has been tolling the bell for copper phone lines for some time now, but upgrading payphones to digital too would require significant investment. So the telco is choosing which should stay and which should go.

Ofcom has noted that in the year to May 2020, 150,000 calls were made to emergency services from phone boxes, 25,000 to kids' counselling service Childline, and 20,000 to the Samaritans support line for those in emotional distress, so it's clear payphones still fulfil a need.

On the other hand, call volumes from the 21,000 kiosks across the UK fell from 800 million minutes in 2002 to 7 million in 2020. And the regulator says that 96 per cent of UK adults own a mobile and few of us will have stepped foot inside a phone box for many years.

To safeguard call boxes where they might do some good, Ofcom has said they shouldn't be removed if any of four criteria apply:

  • 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
  • Exceptional circumstances mean there is a need for a public call box

The regulator says this would prevent about 5,000 phone boxes from removal, and that "exceptional circumstances" could mean "geographic location of the phone box (for instance, a coastal location where mobile reception is less resilient); as well as the types of calls made from the phone, such as to helpline numbers."

It added: "BT and KCOM [the company responsible for communications infrastructure around Hull] can propose to remove phone boxes that do not fall within this strict criteria, but would need to formally consult with local communities before any action is taken."

Ofcom would also make the telcos install batteries in some boxes so that they would still work in the event of a power cut.

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."

On the latter point, BT has begun installing what it calls "Street Hubs" in 300 locations across the country where it can get the go-ahead from local planners. These 21st-century call boxes provide "free Gigabit Wi-Fi, rapid mobile phone charging, and free calls," as we reported earlier this year.

BT Street Hub 2.0

BT Street Hub 2.0

As for the fate of the iconic red phone box, which ceased production in 1985, local authorities can purchase one for a quid under BT's "Adopt a Kiosk" scheme and use it for another purpose – like a community library or housing for a public defibrillator.

Still, 21,000 to 5,000 functional phone boxes is a sizeable cut, and The Register wonders what you'd do if you're mugged, lose your phone and are lost, if you're running from a serial killer and need to warn their next victim, or if you're a superhero who needs to make a quick change into your costume. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon's lava tubes
    How? Founder tells The Register 'Robots… lots of robots'

    Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

    Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world's data.

    "It's inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we're setting off bombs and burning things," Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. "We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe."

    Continue reading
  • Conti: Russian-backed rulers of Costa Rican hacktocracy?
    Also, Chinese IT admin jailed for deleting database, and the NSA promises no more backdoors

    In brief The notorious Russian-aligned Conti ransomware gang has upped the ante in its attack against Costa Rica, threatening to overthrow the government if it doesn't pay a $20 million ransom. 

    Costa Rican president Rodrigo Chaves said that the country is effectively at war with the gang, who in April infiltrated the government's computer systems, gaining a foothold in 27 agencies at various government levels. The US State Department has offered a $15 million reward leading to the capture of Conti's leaders, who it said have made more than $150 million from 1,000+ victims.

    Conti claimed this week that it has insiders in the Costa Rican government, the AP reported, warning that "We are determined to overthrow the government by means of a cyber attack, we have already shown you all the strength and power, you have introduced an emergency." 

    Continue reading
  • China-linked Twisted Panda caught spying on Russian defense R&D
    Because Beijing isn't above covert ops to accomplish its five-year goals

    Chinese cyberspies targeted two Russian defense institutes and possibly another research facility in Belarus, according to Check Point Research.

    The new campaign, dubbed Twisted Panda, is part of a larger, state-sponsored espionage operation that has been ongoing for several months, if not nearly a year, according to the security shop.

    In a technical analysis, the researchers detail the various malicious stages and payloads of the campaign that used sanctions-related phishing emails to attack Russian entities, which are part of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec Corporation.

    Continue reading
  • FTC signals crackdown on ed-tech harvesting kid's data
    Trade watchdog, and President, reminds that COPPA can ban ya

    The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said it intends to take action against educational technology companies that unlawfully collect data from children using online educational services.

    In a policy statement, the agency said, "Children should not have to needlessly hand over their data and forfeit their privacy in order to do their schoolwork or participate in remote learning, especially given the wide and increasing adoption of ed tech tools."

    The agency says it will scrutinize educational service providers to ensure that they are meeting their legal obligations under COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

    Continue reading
  • Mysterious firm seeks to buy majority stake in Arm China
    Chinese joint venture's ousted CEO tries to hang on - who will get control?

    The saga surrounding Arm's joint venture in China just took another intriguing turn: a mysterious firm named Lotcap Group claims it has signed a letter of intent to buy a 51 percent stake in Arm China from existing investors in the country.

    In a Chinese-language press release posted Wednesday, Lotcap said it has formed a subsidiary, Lotcap Fund, to buy a majority stake in the joint venture. However, reporting by one newspaper suggested that the investment firm still needs the approval of one significant investor to gain 51 percent control of Arm China.

    The development comes a couple of weeks after Arm China said that its former CEO, Allen Wu, was refusing once again to step down from his position, despite the company's board voting in late April to replace Wu with two co-chief executives. SoftBank Group, which owns 49 percent of the Chinese venture, has been trying to unentangle Arm China from Wu as the Japanese tech investment giant plans for an initial public offering of the British parent company.

    Continue reading
  • SmartNICs power the cloud, are enterprise datacenters next?
    High pricing, lack of software make smartNICs a tough sell, despite offload potential

    SmartNICs have the potential to accelerate enterprise workloads, but don't expect to see them bring hyperscale-class efficiency to most datacenters anytime soon, ZK Research's Zeus Kerravala told The Register.

    SmartNICs are widely deployed in cloud and hyperscale datacenters as a means to offload input/output (I/O) intensive network, security, and storage operations from the CPU, freeing it up to run revenue generating tenant workloads. Some more advanced chips even offload the hypervisor to further separate the infrastructure management layer from the rest of the server.

    Despite relative success in the cloud and a flurry of innovation from the still-limited vendor SmartNIC ecosystem, including Mellanox (Nvidia), Intel, Marvell, and Xilinx (AMD), Kerravala argues that the use cases for enterprise datacenters are unlikely to resemble those of the major hyperscalers, at least in the near term.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022