Cellular use closing doors on red phone booths in Britain

ByABC News
March 24, 2008, 12:08 AM

LONDON -- Those sturdy red telephone booths, a staple on Britain's streets since the 1920s, may one day be like the Empire just part of history. The iconic domed boxes are slowly disappearing.

Britain has more cellphones than people, so the use of pay phones has dropped by half in the past three years, according to British Telephone. BT has removed about 30,000, or a third of all pay phones, from the streets since 2002. Of the remaining 61,700 phone booths, 12,700 are the old red kiosks made of wood or cast iron that are so identifiably British.

"It would be a shame if they disappeared," Londoner John Pearl, 38, says after using his "mobile" what the Brits call a cellphone a few steps away from a cluster of the unused phone booths in central London. Pearl says the booths are "a feature of London like black cabs and the Tube."

He cannot remember the last time he used a pay phone "probably 10 years," he says.

According to the Office of Communications, a British regulatory body, there are more mobiles here, 70 million, than Britons, 60 million.

Over the years, BT has been replacing the old domed kiosks with modern glass-and-plastic boxes, which also serve as wireless hotspots for Internet connections.

Economics may dictate that those, too, will fade. Almost 60% of all pay phones are unprofitable, BT spokeswoman Gemma Thomas says. BT spends roughly $2,000 a year to maintain each one, she says.

The red kiosk has become a collector's item as it disappears from the street. A booth can fetch $5,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the make, year and condition.

The red kiosks show up in the homes and gardens of people who have a nostalgic fondness for them, says Stu Dockree, owner of English Phone Boxes, a company in Gloucester, England, that buys, restores and sells the booths around the world.

"It's everybody from professional people to celebrities to a guy who saved up three years and wanted one," says Dockree, 53, who has been in the phone box restoration business for seven years. "There's no common denominator but a fondness for the red box."