BT’s new phone boxes to offer London free calls and superfast Wi-Fi

Bar serving as a backdrop for tourist photos and a canvas for pornographic calling cards, London’s red phone box is relatively useless in an age of smartphones and 4G connectivity.    

BT's new phone boxes to offer London free calls and superfast Wi-Fi

BT has announced plans to replace the iconic red boxes with kiosks boasting free calls to UK landline and mobile phones, free Wi-Fi access with speeds of up to 1Gbits/sec, and charging facilities.

The kiosks, which BT is calling “Links”, will begin to roll out in London next year. There are plans to install “at least 750” across the capital in 2017, and then expand that number across other cities in the UK.

“Expanding London’s digital infrastructure is a priority for the Mayor, and LinkUK can play a big part in improving connectivity for Londoners and visitors to our city, while reducing street clutter by upgrading and reducing the number of phone boxes,” said Rajesh Agrawal, London’s deputy mayor for business.

“London is already widely regarded as one of the technological capitals of the world but the mayor is determined to improve connectivity across the city to ensure we maintain that position.”

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As well as free calls and Wi-Fi, the touchscreens on the Links will be able to offer maps and directions, while sensors will pick up real-time data on pollution levels and air temperature.

All of this sounds a bit too good to be true, right? How does BT intend to prop up this small army of free communication hubs? Big surprise: advertising. The Links will allegedly be paid for with the money they make from ads. While that may simply relate to innocuous display ads, commanding a range of sensors does open up the possibility of more targeted advertising.

In 2013 a company called Renew London was told to remove a trial of smart bins from the City of London, after it found the devices were tracking the smartphones of people walking in the area. Big Data advertising is also being used in a growing number of retail environments.  

“We’re evolving the phone box to make it relevant in the 21st century by offering people ultrafast Wi-Fi and a range of digital and information services entirely for free,” said BT chief executive for wholesale and ventures, Gerry McQuade. 

“London is one of the greatest cities in the world and it’s entirely fitting that it becomes the first UK city to benefit from the Links. But we will be rolling out many more Links to the other great cities across the UK over the coming months as we look to transform the look and functionality of our public payphones.”

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