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Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 11:47 GMT
A lifeline for the old payphone

New internet callboxes mean it's easier than ever to get online while you're on the move, or so BT says. But how well do they work, asks Jonathan Duffy?

Ever since the mobile phone shed its associations with yuppie stockbrokers and moved into the mainstream, the diagnosis has not been good for its more rooted cousin, the payphone.

Now BT has said it is calling a halt to the expansion of its payphone network, after usage fell 37% in two years.

Traditional callbox
The classic old callbox
But before obituary notices are drafted, this is far from the end of the line for the great British callbox.

BT is banking on a new range of internet payphones - dubbed the Multi.phone - to revive the fortunes of its extensive network.

More than 600 Multi.phones, which allow users to hook up to e-mail and the web, have been installed in urban centres around the UK.

The touch screen terminals display a range of "hot buttons relevant to the needs of the modern traveller and consumer". One leads to BBC News Online.

Free trial

Earlier in January, BT announced a six-month promotion during which the phones would be totally free for internet use.

Multi.phone
Screen break: Blanked out
The words "free internet access" and "BT" do not sit easily together in the minds of people who are fed up with online call charges. So has the communications giant really delivered something that surfers want?

In short, is the Multi.phone any good?

To find out, I set myself the objective of completing five simple tasks (see text box below) on a BT Multi.phone and headed off to try my luck.

Unfortunately, it seems the new-style payphones may be as prone to breaking down as their once notoriously unreliable predecessors.

At Paddington railway station, the only Multi.phone seems to be in the throes of a terminal system failure as its screen flickers with stroboscopic fury.

Just buy a paper?

Two stops down the undergound line, at Baker Street, it's just as hopeless. The one Multi.phone in the station's ticket hall is again out of order.

My 5 Multi.phone tasks
Send an e-mail
Check local cinema times
Call up latest FT100 index
Check up-to-the-minute rail information
Send a text message
Given the simplicity of my tasks, it would have been quicker and easier to make a couple of phone calls and buy the evening paper.

But I persist, and, at Bond Street, am paid back in spades. As well as BT's presence, there are two rival internet terminals. If you believe the telecoms hype, soon every station will be like this. At the moment, though, no one seems to be using them.

The first one I try belongs to FastCom, which has a handful of kiosks around the country. One pound buys you eight minutes of access to the web.

The machine has a basic push button keyboard and trackerball mouse. It's reasonably fast and I manage to despatch an e-mail from my Talk21 web e-mail account in less than five minutes.

Unsound proposition

Downstairs there's an even more enticing option - an interactive tourist information booth that allows you to send e-mails of up to 500 words for free.

Fastcom kiosk
Fastcom's alternative costs 1 for eight minutes
The directions are simple, the machine is fast and, surprisingly, the touch screen keyboard is easy to handle. It does, however, come with unnecessary sound effects that are guaranteed to attract the attention of passers by.

Still, I fire off a couple of e-mails in the time it took to write the last one.

Two BT Multi.phones are tucked away along a quiet subway exit. After an hour of searching, I get to try my hand. My hand, however, is something of a problem.

The Multi.phones rely on a touch-screen keyboard and mouse cursor that seem to have been designed with the delicate digits of an Edwardian lady in mind. My digits are not delicate.

Slow down

The cursor seems to dance under my shivering index finger and typing at speed is impossible. The sluggishness is compounded by the painfully slow download time for web pages.

Multiphone user
The touch-screen keyboard can be fiddly
It takes eight minutes to write an e-mail and, just as I am about to click "send", I'm automatically logged off. "Closing your session. Please wait for a few minutes," I'm told.

After another 10 minutes, the same fate befalls my attempt to find out programme times for my planned cinema trip.

The frustrations continue when I get to the Railtrack site to catch up on the latest travel information. The onscreen keyboard has disappeared, so I can't use the search engine.

I do manage to bash out a text message without much hassle, but having spent more than half-an-hour at the booth I've no appetite for going through the rigmarole of finding out the stock prices.

It all makes me nostalgic for the old callbox pips. Sometimes, as BT once put it so perfectly, "it's good to TALK".

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28 Jan 01 | Business
BT turns cool on phone boxes
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