Nobody uses phone kiosks any more, right? So why are companies busy installing new ones? I ask because here in Bow we've recently gained two, just round the corner from each other. Are people really going to stop and use them, or is there some other ulterior motive in mind?
The first new kiosk turned up on Stroudley Walk last year, outside what used to be the post office. Technically it's a replacement, the previous version being a shabby tilted box, open on one side, with a slightly oriental feel. This new box is sleek and shiny, broader than its predecessor, and unexpectedly black. It's good to be retaining a public phone in the square, but the design does look slightly out of place.
This is a New World Payphone, from the company of the same name, who were also responsible for its predecessor. It has a familiar looking coinbox and receiver, and accepts cash as well as cards in an undeniably retro way. It doubles up as a free wifi hub, should anybody realise (which I never had despite walking past dozens of times). Its big innovation is a touchscreen intended to be used as an information point, allegedly including access to maps and transport services. I had a go and found the glass woefully unresponsive, eventually slogging through to a low-res menu including the transatlantic abomination 'Subway station', at which point the screen froze and I gave up and walked away.
However few people end up using the telephone, that's not a problem, because financially what matters is on the opposite side. A large digital screen covers the rear of the kiosk, which helps explains the otherwise unnecessary width. It's made by Amscreen, a subsidiary of Amstrad run by Lord Sugar's son Simon, and its purpose is to beam adverts into the eyes of passers-by. Before Christmas it was urging the residents of Bromley-by-Bow to buy Hugo Boss perfume, which is very much not within reach of the average demographic, and this year it's moved onto Lurpak butter. Few advertisers have yet signed up, so the screen spends a lot of its time crowing that the phone company planted one tree to mitigate the kiosk's carbon footprint.
The second local addition is on Bow Road, near the church, alongside the Cycle Superhighway. Technically it's a replacement, the previous version being a metal monolith with a payphone booth on one side and a rolling poster display on the other. When the glass got smashed before Christmas and some workmen turned up with a truck I assumed they were taking it away. Instead they hung around and installed a new tall silvery slab, which is what BT reckons passes as a phone kiosk these days.
Apparently it's not called a kiosk, it's a Link, and it heralds a step-change in how BT expects you to make a telephone call in the street. All the action takes place on the thin side farthest from the road, where no separate receiver is apparent. Instead there's a socket for a headphone jack, provided by the user to cut costs, and a loudspeaker at waist height which'll broadcast across the pavement. To make up for this appalling lack of privacy the masterstroke is that all calls to UK landlines and mobiles are free, which also avoids having to incorporate any vandalisable coinbox.
Again there's a touchscreen, in this case the gateway to a main menu grid from which you pick the service you require. This includes Google Maps, access to the BT phone book, a local weather forecast and the Tower Hamlets council homepage, which is a sop allowing BT to claim they're providing a useful service to the community. Free ultra-highspeed wifi is available, so long as you log in and give an email address, and there are even two slots allowing you to charge up your smartphone, so long as you don't mind hanging around. Most striking is the big red button which if pressed immediately dials 999, an innovation surely far too tempting for passing fingers, which must have emergency switchboards cursing.
The actual phone/pad/display takes up a tiny proportion of the monolith, because what's really prominent is the 55 inch high definition screen on each side. Carefully angled towards the traffic, these provide a perfect canvas for bespoke digital advertising, and it's this lucrative income stream which explains how phone calls get to be free. According to BT's press team, Links "help reduce the amount of clutter on the street because they take up less space on the pavement, and will be installed in smaller numbers than the existing payphones they replace." Whilst saluting their brazen marketing spin, obviously what they really mean is "we're cutting the number of inner city payphones and replacing them with digital posters".
So far only inner London has Links, plus one outpost box in Leeds, but expect to see hundreds more in city locations over the next few years. Along with the New World Payphones mentioned earlier, their key benefit will be as hubs of free wifi, should anyone walking by actually notice. But in reality what's happening here is telecom companies exploiting the key sites they own, at the heart of communities or alongside busy roads, by transforming payphones into dazzling billboards. Should we perhaps be rethinking provision rather than prostituting our streets with paid-for pixels?