I last used a phone box in 2002 or so when I left my mobile somewhere in the high street and rang home to say I'll be late back from the shops.
My kids have never used a phone box and have no idea how to use one.
Grotty, soaked in urine, and plastered with escort ads if the windows haven't already been kicked in – the public phone box is a British institution on its last legs. And yet comms regulator Ofcom has a plan in place to protect the endangered species. BT has been tolling the bell for copper phone lines for some time now, but …
I remember a weird payphone at boarding school that needed at least 10p inserted, but could only hold four coins. So you'd insert four 2p coins (that were enormous), and then push the fifth one in really hard. The first would fall out into the return slot, but the phone would register that you actually had 10p and could thus make a call. Upon connection it would start dropping in the coins, so you had to insert that extra 2p as fast as you could after the coins started to drop.
The senior phone was much more friendly. It always gave a dialling tone, so if you don't have money you could make a call by tapping out the number by quickly bashing the handset cradle. The phone would ring and you'd get about two seconds before it cut you off, but that was enough to say "call me back".
They put up a number of these "InLink hubs" in central Southampton about 4 years ago.
They quickly became a gathering point for people - who would beg, deal drugs and/or misbehave - all this while charging their phones though the free USB charging points.
Aside from providing communications for serial killer's and muggers victims or quick change facilities for super heroes, the phone boxes that used to be in the village close to where I kept my horses in the 90s, provided the young teens of the village somewhere for a knee trembler out of the rain.
All the phone boxes I've seen around here (rural France) are mini libraries nowadays.
As for the books on offer, my god. Let's just say that if the Daily Mail clocked their eyes on that, there would be many many column inches of "outrage". Over here, the attitude is more "meh, boobies, so what?".
The last time I used a public payphone was about a decade ago, but it was a life saver. Full parliamentary disclosure of interests, I was homeless and I needed to make a call. I did have a £10 mobile phone but no money or charge in it. I had a pocket full of coins and a long walk to find a phone box as all the boxes I remembered had been removed.
I eventually found a row of three in the city centre. All of them were pitch black inside because all the glass was covered in advertising. The first one didn't work, the second one didn't work and kept my coins, but third time lucky.
I suppose I could have asked passers by to use their phone, but would you give your phone to a homeless man? I think phone booths should be maintained at current numbers with free calls subsidised by the tax payer, and if covered in adverts then they should be lit inside.
Public phones are a public good, and should be retained at as many locations as possible. As you've mentioned, Danny, claiming that "most people" have mobile phones doesn't cover all the situations. Leaving aside the coverage/battery/credit issues, mobile use can be monitored. I'm not particularly talking about tracking, even though we know it can be done relatively trivially, but simply by looking at call logs and Internet history. I know women whose male partners went through their phones every day to see who they'd been calling. These women desperately wanted to be out of the relationship, but couldn't use their phones to call support organisations or the police. Easily accessible public phones would have saved them anxiety and beatings. Children have similar problems, but they may not have a mobile at all.
Public phones should be much more accessible than they are now. As someone down-thread mentions, they don't necessarily need to be in ornate boxes. Shops and fuel stations would provide some protection from vandalism, for example, and would probably see regular usage because if the number of people passing through. This isn't an insurmountable problem, and we can roll back the post-Thatcher assault on civil resilience.
The logic for getting rid of phone boxes is not that different from plans to get rid of fire and ambulance stations ... "you don't need an ambulance or fire station locally we can just drive over from the end of town if you have a heart attack or catch fire ... we'll be there in 30 minutes." The way things work these days all that needs to be done is to make phone booth use free of change and fund them by insert adverts into all the calls ...
Does that sound stupid? try browsing the Internet...
Could installation of a robust mobile be cost-effective?
Hardly; if a phone box is too little used to be worth retaining when connected by line how would it become worth retaining if converted to a "robust mobile"?
Some of the boxes that are likely to be decommissioned haven't been used at all in the last 12 or even 24 months.
And before anyone asks I do not and never have worked for BT.
Just helped a colleague move a [Bell System] phone booth from work (it was used in a "work of art")
While unbolting it from its plywood base, I was treated to proof of its authenticity: the lower portion had a distinct "pong" to it...frequently smelled in restrooms. Perhaps this one was originally located outside a pub. My colleague applied a liberal amount of bleach to the booth, and all was well.
Public phones are a necessary lifeline for the poor and, especially, the homeless. They can also serve abused people who don't have a cell phone.
But, the traditional booth enclosing the phone is probably not necessary. As others have pointed out, it often serves as a public toilet. It does provide privacy but that's nice to have, not a requirement. In America, most public phones are weatherproof, standalone phones.
Ideally, I would see weatherproof, standalone phones with no coin slots and free calling deployed as a public service.
In some places it could well be. I happened to be in Loch Lyon last week and wholly impressed by a fully functional (and clean) phone box. There are already many examples however of fully derelict ‘boxes having been taken over by nature. They are actually an art form in themselves.