Phone companies could be forced to maintain thousands more phone boxes under new plans by Ofcom.
The regulator has proposed stronger rules to safeguard the iconic red boxes and estimates a further 5,000 could be saved from being removed or decommissioned.
If Ofcom’s new criteria are adopted, it would mean BT – and in Hull, KCOM, which operates the city’s own phone boxes – would not be allowed to tear down phone boxes which are still offering a useful service to the public.
The criteria include payphones in areas not covered by the four main mobile networks, those close to a suicide or accident hotspot, and those which have had at least 52 calls made from them in the past year.
Other criteria which could block a box’s removal would be if it was in a coastal area with poor reception or if someone had dialled certain helplines from it before.
Ofcom said there are around 21,000 boxes across the country, and that almost 150,000 calls were made to emergency services from phone boxes in the year to May 2020, while 25,000 calls were made to Childline and 20,000 to Samaritans.
Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity, said some pay phones can be a “lifeline” for people in need.
She 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 wifi and charging.”
BT and KCOM will also be made to install batteries in some payphones to ensure they will still work during a power cut, Ofcom also said.
If a phone box does not meet any of the new criteria, the two firms can apply to decommission it, but there must first be a consultation with the local community.
While some phone boxes are simply taken away when their removal is approved, others are left behind with the payphone removed but the famous red structure remaining.
Some 6,500 of these have been bought by local bodies for just £1 from BT under their Adopt a Kiosk scheme, with many converted into defibrillators or miniature community libraries.
A BT spokesperson said they welcomed Ofcom’s consultation on public phone boxes and stressed any phone box removals were only carried out in “strict adherence to Ofcom guidelines and, where appropriate, with the consent of local authorities”.
“BT looks forward to working constructively with Ofcom throughout the consultation process to ensure the Universal Service Obligation meets the needs of the public today.”