Slow start for BT's Internet payphone

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The Independent Online
THE TWO men patrolling the blue-roped area were insistent. "You can't come in," one said, more like a nightclub bouncer than someone standing on the concourse of London's Waterloo station, as he was. He glanced at the twin payphones with big liquid-crystal screens that he was guarding beyond the rope. "They do work, but you can't use them."

While this made a change from the average payphone of old, which didn't work, it wasn't quite the "Internet access for all" British Telecom's director of payphones, Malcolm Newing, promised yesterday as he launched the new multimedia payphones.

The "multiphones" will let you surf the Web, send and receive e-mail, and in the future work as videophones. If consequently a commercial success, they will also have in-built printers producing maps of the local area.

Mr Newing said those without computer access could then have an e-mail address.

The burly minders at Waterloo were insistent - nobody was to touch the phones. The first 1,000 "multiphones" will be located at railway stations, shopping centres, airports, motorway service stations and supermarkets, but not council estates. "Strong though it is - and you can whack the screen with the handset and it won't break - it probably wouldn't stand up in those areas," Mr Newing said.

Potentially more galling for some is that pornographic sites on the Web will be blocked automatically. "It's not a moral thing, we're obliged by our licence," said Mr Newing.

The minimum cost of a call will be pounds 1, earning 10 minutes use, payable by a credit or phone card. Mr Newing said the investment BT is making in the phones justifies the high price of using them. "We have to recover some of the cost. But there will be a lot of free information with the system."

The Independent's effort to use a demonstration "multiphone" suggests 10 minutes may barely be enough to do anything useful. Crouching was essential and uncomfortable, and typing in The Independent's Web address, (, involved multiple mis-typings and corrections, taking three minutes.

Once the paper's electronic front page arrived, the connection simply gave up. Typing an e-mail of any length would be an exercise for the masochist, and probably ensure that you missed your train. Unless, of course, your e-mail read "AT STATION - TRAIN LATE AGAIN".