The af­ter­life of the tele­phone box

Country Life Every Week - - Athena -

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

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