BT finds a WiFi use for its street payphones

by Guy Kewney | posted on 17 September 2003

It may be the last hope of keeping those handy changing rooms for Superman; with the rise in mobile phone ownership, BT has been struggling to justify putting a wired phone on every street corner. By putting WiFi hotspots into them, it may have found a way of covering the expense of keeping them clean.

Guy Kewney

But it's not obvious that the money will flood in immediately as a result.

BT already runs OpenZone, a premium-priced WiFi service for which (if you aren't careful) you can find yourself paying £6.00 an hour, or £15.00 a day.

It's one of the most common zone brands in the UK. However, users have two complaints about this: first, the price! - and second, the fact that it's hardly ubiquitous, and if you need WiFi access in a public space, you can almost guarantee that you'll be in a zone operated by someone else.

So BT has started installing WiFi hotspots in its payphone network. Exactly how long it will take, and how many of them it will equip, isn't available information; but (in theory) it has the capability to provide more hotspots than absolutely anybody. It has over 100,000 payphones around mainland Britain.

It's not planning an avalanche of installations, yet. There are BT Openzone access points in 91 broadband-enabled payphones already, but the rollout of kiosks will barely double that this year; it says it is expecting "over 200 kiosks" to be WiFi enabled by January.

In recent years, BT has actually been shutting public phone boxes for lack of demand, moving some payphones into other premises like pubs. It has also experimented with advertising on the glass panels of the booths - an idea that might have been successful, except for timing. This is the worst advertising recession the advertising industry has ever known, and even conventional and powerful media like TV and posters have been seeing companies go to the wall.

The costs of repairing vandalism of both the kiosk and the electronics inside, makes payphones more of a social amenity than a money-maker, in most sites.

Unfortunately, the payback of installing WiFi is slow. BT has a couple of thousand access points for OpenZone, and the number is rising; but even if it converted 2,000 payphones into OpenZone points, the effect on OpenZone subscriptions would be gradual, and dependent on people noticing that coverage was good.

Reality is that it would cost BT any thing from £300, up to about a thousand pounds to equip two kiosks, in hardware and labour. Spending £200,000 between now and January is one thing. Turning all 100,000 street boxes into WiFi points would be quite another matter.

An awful lot of them would never get a single customer, being in the middle of socially deprived areas where being seen on the street with a bit of expensive technology would be a big error of judgement. And it would take the best part of another year before this extra coverage could be translated into a serious boost to revenue.

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