Mobile phones push public call-boxes to the brink of oblivion

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The Independent Online

The public phone box, one of the best-loved symbols of 20th-century Britain, is on the brink of extinction in the wake of the relentless march of the mobile phone. In a last ditch effort to save what is left of the network, BT Group announced yesterday that it is to impose a 50 per cent increase in the minimum call charge while axing 10,000 phone boxes from public service over the next 18 months.

The public phone box, one of the best-loved symbols of 20th-century Britain, is on the brink of extinction in the wake of the relentless march of the mobile phone. In a last ditch effort to save what is left of the network, BT Group announced yesterday that it is to impose a 50 per cent increase in the minimum call charge while axing 10,000 phone boxes from public service over the next 18 months.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott created the first public phone box more than eight decades ago - a bright red triumph of form and function. Preservation orders have been slapped on 2,500 of the originals, which are now treated as Grade II listed buildings.

But the successors to Scott's design and those originals still in service are increasingly prone to damage by vandals or plastered with calling cards from the sex industry.

And now nearly 80 per cent of the population have mobile phones. BT's new tariffs are part of a strategy to stem the heavy losses arising from phone boxes.

Paul Hendron, director of BT Payphones, said: "People don't appreciate how quickly the mobile boom hit us. You only have to look at the number of people with mobile phones stuck to their ears. Five years ago a lot of them would have used a phone box."

The new tariffs are designed to make shorter calls more expensive but longer ones cheaper. The minimum charge for a local or national call from a phone box will rise from 20p for 1 minute 50 seconds to 30p from May 5. The company has capped the charges for longer calls at the new minimum rate.

A five-minute local or national call costs 60p at present but after May 5 will cost half that. A 15-minute call costs £1.70 under the existing tariff regime but in future will also cost just 30p.

The average length of a call from a phone box coincides with the minimum charge period of 1 minute 50 seconds after which the pips chime in and most people hang up.

This suggests that BT could enjoy a windfall from increasing the minimum charge. However, callers will not now hear the pips until they have been talking for 15 minutes. This, said BT yesterday, will encourage people to talk for longer and enjoy the cheaper rates.

Mr Hendron said problems with phone boxes began with the introduction of pre-paid mobile phone cards, which increased the take up of mobile phones. This has resulted in a 40 per cent slump in revenues from phone boxes in the past three years while the number of calls made from them has fallen by half.

Of the country's 75,000 call boxes, only 29,000 cover their costs, according to BT. The telephone company said that many call boxes would be preserved but that 10,000 would be scrapped.

Mr Hendron said BT was not aiming to make large profits from call boxes but wanted them to cover their costs. The company is also updating some phone boxes and has turned 1,500 of them into internet kiosks, while a new format is being tested that combines a telephone with a cash machine.

Mobile phone companies dismissed BT's new charging structure yesterday. A spokesman for O2 said: "Most mobile calls are already short, two minutes or less, so it is still as cheap if not cheaper to use a mobile. As 80 per cent of the UK population has a mobile these days it is clearly the preferred choice."

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