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InLink Limited limited: Firm that puts up UK's ad-supported phone booths enters administration

Once a hit with drug entrepreneurs, though its algos had been weeding them out

Updated When Intersection first announced it was bringing LinkNYC's smart billboard technology to the UK in 2016, it promised to drag the humble telephone booth into the 21st century.

Now a fairly common sight on London's streets, InLink booths include free phone calls, USB charging, and fast Wi-Fi access. This is supported by dynamic, video-based advertising.

Three years later, the firm created to deploy and administer the booths, InLink Limited, has entered administration, according to a filing on UK business registrar Companies House.

Manchester-based Duff and Phelps has been appointed as administrators, with Sarah Helen Bell and Steven Muncaster the named practitioners.

InLink Limited was launched as a joint venture between Intersection and outdoor advertising firm Primesight, with BT sorting out the connectivity front. However, it quickly encountered opposition from privacy activists, local authorities, and law enforcement alike. It was this pushback – and not The Reg's article including our explicit snaps of the long-obsolete Ubuntu Vivid Vervet flailing about on a big screen just our outside our London HQ – that ultimately became its undoing.

Phonebooth or advertising?

The humble telephone booth feels anachronistic in 2019, particularly given the ubiquity of mobile phones. Despite that, BT is compelled to maintain a certain number of them, as part of its Universal Service Obligation (USO). This presents a problem for BT, as over half the existing telephone boxes lose money. This leaves BT with a £6m hole in its finances every year.

Intersection's phone booth tech, which was pioneered in New York, was the answer to BT's prayers. It'd be able to offer its mandatory phone service in an appealing, contemporary package, while simultaneously making money from advertising and data analytics.

Despite those altruistic trappings, InLink Limited presented a problem for local councils, who were rapidly besieged by requests to deploy phone booths.

In 2018, Westminster Council said it had received 300 applications for new phone booths in two years. These came from from a variety of companies, including BT, Maximus Ltd, New World Payphone, and Euro Payphone Ltd.

So great were the number of applications, had they all been approved, there would be a phone booth every 15 metres along Edgware Road.

In many cases, they amounted to mere advertising billboards, with a phone attached as an afterthought. According to an article posted on London's Westminster Council's website, some of the booths came with a minimum charge of £1 — or £2 via card. This made them utterly unsuitable to the low-income customers they would purportedly serve.

Phone booths do not require the same level of planning permission as any other structures. This is a hangover from legacy planning legislation, which regards them as "permitted development". This reduces the avenues for councils to refuse permission for new booths, thereby forcing them into protracted legal battles, which are financially costly and consume many hours of civil servants' time.

Privacy activist Adrian Short aggregated all planning applications for InLink booths across the UK and published them on his website. The results paint a picture of an organisation aggressively trying to expand by throwing as many applications as possible against a wall, and seeing how many stick. Not many did.

Despite that, the firm didn't quite manage to deploy the 750 booths it initially promised. Ironically, it was this aggressive roll-out that deterred local councils from approving its nationwide expansion. Liverpool, Coventry, and Kingston-upon-Thames councils all rejected applications over concerns about clutter.

Crime doesn't pay (for its phone calls)

Phonebooth sprawl wasn't the only problem. Many local authorities refused permission for the InLink booths due to their association with criminality — specifically the drug trade.

InLink kiosks allowed users to place phone calls to UK landline and mobile numbers. Because they did not require any prior registration, they were ideally suited for those wishing to make drug deals, for example.

According to a Metropolitan Police report from 2018, five InLink kiosks facilitated 20,000 drug-related calls over a 15-week period. This forced BT to disable calls on certain kiosks, including those located in deprived areas of London's Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, and Commercial Road.

Across the sprawling borough of Tower Hamlets, which has a population of over 300,000 (PDF), InLink briefly suspended calls to mobile numbers, while allowing calls to landlines.

Separately, InLinkUK started work earlier this year rolling out on an algorithm that would identify and block drug-related calls (PDF). This used a combination of police intelligence, alongside a consideration of the frequency of attempted and connected calls, as well as their length.

Despite these efforts, InLink Kiosks developed a bad name. This reputation stymied the rollout of InLink kiosks around the UK. In Bristol, the local authority blocked an application for 20 kiosks after the police objected, citing the issues encountered in Tower Hamlets.

What happens next?

It's not clear what next for InLink Limited in the UK, or indeed, if the existing booths will continue to be supported. In a statement emailed to The Reg, Intersection said it hopes to find a long-term future for the booths.

"InLinkUK was launched as a 50/50 joint venture between Intersection London and Primesight, now owned by Global, to operate the InLink product in the UK. Intersection provides technology and Global provides ad sales. InLinkUK is a separate entity from Intersection and the administration of InLinkUK does not impact Intersection's other businesses.

"Every week, InLinkUK provides free ultra-fast Wi-Fi and other valuable services to nearly half a million people across the UK. Intersection looks forward to working with our partners during this period to ensure the InLinkUK program is sustainable for the long-term."

The Register has also asked administrators Duff and Phelps for comment. At the time of publishing, we had yet to hear back. ®

Updated at 1403 UTC on 18 December to add

BT told The Reg: "We are very disappointed that our partner, InLink Limited, has entered into administration. We are working hard with the administrator to agree a way forward to ensure the continuity of the InLink service so that the public can continue to enjoy the wide range of free services provided."

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