The Internet call box without a busy tone

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The Independent Online

If you're looking for a quiet spot on the heaving concourse of Waterloo station in London, try the square yard in front of BT's new Internet-capable Multiphone. It's a little haven of calm - and possibly the most expensive and underused space on the whole station.

If you're looking for a quiet spot on the heaving concourse of Waterloo station in London, try the square yard in front of BT's new Internet-capable Multiphone. It's a little haven of calm - and possibly the most expensive and underused space on the whole station.

Launched in July amidst a blaze of hype that included the model Caprice and would-be London mayor Ken Livingstone, the bright red phone now stands forlornly and largely unused while the station's other 20 or so payphones are comaparatively busy. In fact the Multiphone has all the makings of a spectacular flop, just like BT's previous efforts at a multimedia "kiosk", and could mark another setback for BT in its attempt to "bring the Internet to the masses".

At its launch Malcolm Newing, director of BT's Payphones division, said the Multiphone would mean that "all those people with no access to computers today can get access to email ... for members of society with speech or hearing difficulties will be able to connect when they are out and about".

Unfortunately, no one seems to have asked consumers what they wanted: it transpires that they don't really like the blank grey screen which only comes on when the handset is picked up; nor can they be bothered to work out how to surf the Net or pick up email with it. They'd rather just make a phone call.

Peter Sreeman, who runs a jewellery stall near the phone on the Eurostar concourse which hundreds of people pass every day, said: "People pick up the handset and put it down again. Nobody uses it. I don't think anybody can be bothered to use it, whereas they'll queue for the coin phones alongside.

Dean Bubley, chief technology analyst at research firm Data Monitor, said: "I'm sceptical about Internet kiosks - they're usually not comfortable or easy to type on."

The Multiphone's "keyboard" is the vertical screen which is difficult to type on compared to a conventional keyboard. Price may also be a factor: making a phone call with a Multiphone costs a miniumum of 10p, giving 67 seconds talking time, but Net surfers must pay at least £1, allowing them 10 minutes online.

BT insisted yesterday that the phone was being "reasonably well used" and that 70 per cent of user spending was for Internet viewing. Its plans to have 1,000 installed by next March are also looking shaky.

A BT spokesman said that one with an Internet capability has been installed in Croydon High Street, south London, and that more will follow in "travel, retail and leisure" locations. But those fall far short of 1,000 promised locations.

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