Thousands of payphones across the UK could be protected under new rules.
Regulator Ofcom said it is proposing stronger rules to safeguard phone boxes from removal if they meet certain criteria.
The organisation estimates some 5000 phone boxes could be protected.
The criteria includes payphones in locations not already covered by all four mobile networks, those in an area considered an accident or suicide hotspot, and those which have had more than 52 calls made from them in the past 12 months.
There are also exceptional circumstances such as issues related to the location of the phone box, for example those in a coastal location where mobile reception is poor, and those from which helpline numbers have been called.
BT and KCOM – which operates Hull’s unique white phone boxes – can propose to remove phone boxes that do not meet the criteria but Ofcom said there must be formal consultation with local communities before any action is taken.
Ofcom said there are around 21,000 boxes across the country, and that almost 150,000 calls were made to emergency services from phone boxes in the year to May 2020, while 25,000 calls were made to Childline and 20,000 to Samaritans.
Selina Chadha, Ofcom’s director of connectivity, said some pay phones can be a “lifeline” for people in need.
She said: “Some of the call boxes we plan to protect are used to make relatively low numbers of calls. But if one of those calls is from a distressed child, an accident victim or someone contemplating suicide, that public phone line can be a lifeline at a time of great need.
“We also want to make sure that people without mobile coverage, often in rural areas, can still make calls. At the same time, we’re planning to support the rollout of new phone boxes with free wifi and charging.”
Under the plans Ofcom said BT and KCOM must also install batteries in some payphones, ensuring they can be used during a power cut.
The regulator said that under BT’s “Adopt a Kiosk” scheme – which allows local bodies to purchase a red phone box for £1 and use it for something else – more than 6000 have been converted to things like community libraries, or are used to store public defibrillators.
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