The afterlife of the telephone box
WHEN was the last time you used a telephone box? Probably years ago. In the age of the mobile phone, most people don’t bother with public landlines and, anyway, boxes get used for other purposes, including urination and drug abuse. However, councils find that it’s difficult to get old phoneboxes removed—not just the red Gilbert Scott-designed models, but the dreadful 1980s replacements as well—even when they have no working phone in them. Worse than that: applications are being made to install new ones. There are more than 70 cases in the City of Westminster alone.
W hy? Because the Telecommunications Act 1984, in an effort to stimulate competition, gave special privileges under the planning system in the shape of permitted development rights for infrastructure. This applies to other public utilities, now privatised: across Britain, hundreds of companies have the right to dig up roads irrespective of local priorities.
Phoneboxes may have exceeded their useful life in terms of the equipment they contain, but owners can still derive an income from them from advertising. Existing phoneboxes will not be removed and new ones will pop up, because they occupy sites on streets where planning permission would never otherwise be given.
In this respect, the Telecommunications Act has become like that ancient piece of legislation that used to require the drivers of hackney carriages to carry a bale of hay. There are other reasons for it to be revised. Look at the freedom with which BT, through its soon-to-be-separated subsidy Openreach, has been scattering broad- band cabinets around the streetscape. The impact on conservation areas has been particularly dire. Again, this is a result of permitted development rights.
Rural readers who can’t get superfast broadband may feel that they’d be happy with any kind of cabinet if it only worked, but it’s not that simple. Bt/openreach wouldn’t need the cabinets, which provide a fibre-optic connection to the existing copper-cable network, as well as the electricity to transmit the signal, were it not wedded, for commercial reasons, to an outdated technology.
The copper cables were installed in the 19th century; short-term profit means BT won’t give them up. Fibre-optic cables don’t need cabinets, but FTTP—FIBRE to the Premises—isn’t routinely supplied, even in central London. Incredibly, accor-ding to Grant Shapps’ Parliamentary British Infrastructure Group report, when Britain’s 650 constituencies are analysed in terms of access to broadband speeds more than 30Mb/s, the cities of London and Westminster come almost last, at 638th.
Fortunately, competition is on the way from smaller, keener providers. Who knows? Broadband cabinets may soon be as redundant as telephone boxes. Let’s hope they’re not used for advertising.
‘Existing phoneboxes will not be removed and new ones will pop up