Payphone use has halved in three years, says BT, mainly due to mobile phones. So who still uses them?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine, Oxford
Few features of British life are so loved, yet so neglected, as the phone box.
A red "K6" - the 1930s design that inspires such national affection - lies empty on St Giles Street in Oxford, despite the lunchtime bustle around it.
Behind the iconic red door, a Pepsi cup and a discarded four-day-old receipt are the only evidence of conversations past.
Like the 16th Century St John's College just yards away, this monument to British design is part of the nation's history. But does it also still have a social function?
On the evidence of an unscientific, 30-minute survey on this particular day, it would appear not. And BT has its doubts too.
There are now more mobile phones in use in the UK - 70 million, says watchdog Ofcom - than there are individuals, although poor network coverage prevents some people in remote areas from having one.
BT has removed more than 30,000 under-used kiosks since 2002 but two-thirds of the 61,700 payphones remaining are unprofitable, it says. So who still uses them?
The answer can be found a five-minute walk away on Cornmarket Street, one of Oxford's main shopping areas, where eight BT payphones - one boasting e-mail and text facilities - get a trickle of customers in the afternoon.
These are not the traditional kiosks so loved, but the maligned boxes introduced in the 1980s, with no door and no privacy. But at least they have demand.
Acle Canakci, 19, has been trying to call her mother in Turkey to tell her about her new life as a language student in Oxford. She has a mobile but uses the public phone about once a week to ring home because it's cheaper and she lives with a family and can't use their landline.
BIRTH OF A BRITISH ICON
Sir Giles Gilbert Scott wins a Post Office commission in 1926 for new telephone kiosks
His K2 is loved for its domed roof and rectangular panes
This design is adapted for the K6, mass-produced in 1935
John Timpson, former Today presenter, writes Requiem for a Red Box in 1989
Banksy puts an axe through one to parody their decline
There are about 2,779 Scott-inspired red boxes still listed
She didn't get through this time because, she suspects, her mother's telephone battery is low. Usually the call lasts about 30 minutes and a £5 phonecard can keep her going for a few weeks.
"These phones are still important because it's not only the English that live here," she says. "A lot of people in the world come here, travelling or to study, and they need public telephone boxes.
"Of course, I need them too. I know they're not very private but nobody can understand what I'm talking about in my language anyway."
Although the eight boxes in Cornmarket St have periods as long as 20 minutes without any custom at all, most of the callers that do use them are foreign visitors or workers.
Jorge Sanchez, 17, is learning how to call his sister in Argentina, Frenchman Lionel Chan Hu Theng is talking to his sister in Nottingham, while Pedro Alves is engaged in the very British tradition of phone rage.
"Before I put in £2 but only spent 60 pence and it didn't give me any change," says Mr Alves, 31, who works in a restaurant and is showing his mother how to ring Portugal.
Is this the future for the old boxes?
"I tried to complain and they go to an answer machine so there's no person to speak to. It's very frustrating."
But there is "native" custom too. Sam Richardson, a teenage gardener, uses a payphone for social calls when the credit on his pay-as-you-go mobile runs out.
Sales rep David Antony, 60, is what one may describe as a heavy user. But he says foreign coins jam up as many as half the payphones.
"It takes about three days for BT to fix them but this isn't the only tourist town in the country, BT should be onto this.
"I use them about six times a day for work. I don't like mobiles because I'm not sure they know enough about the electronics and the damage they do. And they are far too expensive still - BT does reasonably priced telephone calls."
Especially if you stay on the line for the full 20 minutes on a 40 pence call, like teaching assistant Miss Spencer, 40. She recently lost her mobile but is adjusting happily to life without it.
"I wanted to speak to my sister before she went to a meeting. We forget that we managed to get hold of people and conduct our business without mobiles."
Long distance to Portugal
In those days, there would be long queues outside phone boxes and irritation mounted as people spent too long on the phone. Not any more.
An hour spent outside four of Oxford's red phone boxes bears witness to zero use, which suggests their more ugly, younger siblings of the 1980s have the best locations.
The oldest phone box in the city is a rare K2 - the classic 1920s design by Giles Gilbert Scott - and rather fittingly, it is located in the ancient heart of the city at the crossroads Quadrifurcus, more commonly known as Carfax.
Much like the Routemaster bus, the red phone box is associated with an age of innocence, despite the vandalism, the prostitutes' calling cards and the urinating that blighted it.
K6 and K2: Spot the difference?
Unlike its nemesis, the mobile phone, a call made in an old phone box is private, whatever the street chaos outside its four walls. Nowadays, a train carriage can sound rather like a phone box filled with a dozen people.
But there is nothing innocent about this phone box in Carfax, in the shadow of the 13th Century tower of the former St Martin's Church.
Its panes have been smashed and the floor is littered with rubbish and glass. According to staff at the nearly deli it has been like that for at least a week.
A Chinese teenager who wants to call her mother in Beijing opens the door, takes one look at the mess and decides against it.
Life without a mobile isn't too bad for the Spencers
But a group of French students are undeterred. They just want a photograph of themselves crammed inside, saying the red phone boxes they see on television are a "symbol of Britain", like the red bus or black taxi.
Maybe this is a glimpse of its future, its only function a photo opportunity.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
There's an old red phone box outside our house in deepest suburban Bucks. I often see cars pull up and watch their drivers get out and make a call and I've often wondered why. Then the other week I began watching the Sopranos and I noticed that whenever there was any kind of crisis someone would pop out to the nearest phone-booth to make a that urgent call, presumably, avoiding their tapped residential lines. Hmm ...
Barry Neilsen, Marlow, UK
In America you never see a phone box, OR a post box nowadays.
Malcolm Abbott, Leigh-on-Sea Essex
I'm a volunteer for ChildLine and we get a lot of calls from children and young people that are from a phone box.
Sally, Prestatyn, North Wales
I use them - I've never had a mobile and I neither need not want one, but now the demise of useable 'phone boxes looks like forcing me get one. The problem with phone boxes is that the reduction in use means BT spends less and less on cleaning and repairing them, so they get more squalid, so fewer and fewer people use them. I spend some time every year staying in a beautiful part of the country at a cottage which the owners have never equipped with a phone or TV in an effort to keep it peaceful and minimise distractions. Whenever I needed to make a call I always used to use the red phone box at the top of the lane. Now, however, BT have decided not to bother fixing it. The light's broken, the coin box is full and the hedge is gradually forcing the door shut. You can still dial 999 but that's it. I gather mobile reception in the area is patchy at best.
Henry Oliver, London
If they offered more facilities (i.e. the internet, a map of the area, mobile phone top up, a stamp machine etc) and were cheaper they would be used more. They are still useful for travellers and for emergencies.
Maybe spare ones could be put into pubs and clubs as it's usually impossible to hear someone on the phone in those places. They are a design classic and should be saved.
James Wild, London
Phone boxes can sometimes be a lifesaver. When I looked my keys (along with my mobile) in my car, I used a payphone to make a reverse charge call home, so someone could ring the AA for me. Very handy.
I tend to use phone boxes as they are often quite well sound-proofed - as a place to make mobile calls from - I don't like sharing my conversations with the world, his wife and their screaming children.
Mike Bailey, Vienna, Austria
You should still have payphones in places without a mobile signal, eg in underground stations. Would be very useful when the tube line comes to a halt (as it does often) and you desperately need to let your employer know that you're going to be late.
Bradley Grant, Sandy, Beds, UK
About 10 years ago when I was in the Brownies one part of the uniform was a 10 pence piece that we were to carry in case we got lost so we could use a payphone to ring our parents for help. I guess now most eight-year-olds carry there own mobile or maybe they're not allowed out by themselves.
Helen Lamb, Hemel Hempstead
I forgot my mobile the last Friday - absolute nightmare. Luckily found a phonebox - I had to put in a minimum 40pence, and I only had to make a 20 second call. No wonder no-one uses them anymore. I would have preferred to ask a random stranger if I could have used their mobile, they would probably have only charged me 10p.
Natasha, Worcester Park
in the States pay-phones have their own number so you can return calls to them. Useful if your buddy is always loitering around the same one.
I use my local phone box to direct visitors when to turn into my road. I would be quite happy to pay a small tax to support these icons, even if they are welded shut with models inside. Surely we want to continue to see them scattered around villages, towns and cities watching over us for years to come...in a Doctor Who style!?
We have a phone box outside our house. Every weekend the yobs smash the glass out and every other Monday BT repair it. Nobody uses it, but BT says they can't remove it because they have an obligation to keep it. It would be cheaper to give everybody who wants one a cheap mobile phone with a BT pay-as-you-go SIM card. I suppose the yobs get some fun out of smashing it, so it's really not wasted money. They could be smashing my windows or something else.
Tim Hughston, Neston, UK
I still use payphones! Every time you see someone with a massive pack on their back, trucking around your country with a funny accent...they use pay phones! tourists, backpackers... ET Phone home!
Rob Black, BC, Canada
I sometimes forget to charge my phone or take it with me, and in those cases a phone box still provides a valuable service. Not everyone can afford a mobile either, and we shouldn't let this public facility (or others such as the Post Office) be wound down just because it's unprofitable. I also think they've shot themselves in the foot with the massive increase in the minimum charge, because most calls I make on a payphone last under two minutes and that makes them really expensive on a per-minute basis.
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