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Monday, February 28, 2005

Who you gonna call...?

It seems that the days of the common or garden red telephone box are numbered. British Telecom have announced that they are going to lobby OFCOM to abandon the social obligation imposed on the telecommunications company to keep open 70,000 loss-making phone boxes.

I suspect that this has something to do with BT's abortive attempt to close thousands of rural phone boxes last year. In many instances they were foiled because Community and County Councils lodged statutory objections which, under their social obligations, BT were obliged to conform with. Roger Williams MP and Kirsty Williams AM certainly managed to save nearly 1100 phone boxes in Brecon and Radnorshire in this way.

BT's problem is that it costs them about £2,000 a year to keep each of the 70,000 phone boxes open. At the same time the growth of mobile phones and the fact that most people have a landline in their own homes has led to a massively reduced use of these phone boxes. However, as Roger Williams points out:

"Whilst mobile phones might have replaced call boxes in urban areas, payphones still represent a vital lifeline in regions with poor or no reception. Brecon and Radnorshire is such a huge and often isolated area that it is essential for people to have access to call boxes in the case of an emergency or for general day-to-day use (especially when it takes the BT engineer twice as long as it should to repair a faulty landline!)."

The fact is that there are large tracts of rural Wales where it is impossible to get a mobile phone signal and some of these areas boast the most beautiful and most treacherous landscapes in the UK. Whatever happens OFCOM must not give into this pressure. Local Councils should retain a veto on the scrapping of a phone box on social and economic grounds.
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