London’s new phone boxes are experiencing some technical issues. According to some reports, about 100 of the new kiosks—which were built by Alan Sugar’s company Amscreen—have been installed, but they are buggy, hard to use, and in some cases can’t connect to the Internet.
The phone boxes, which are being installed by the outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, are meant to provide a range of high-tech features. In addition to a normal payphone, there’s meant to be a touchscreen journey planner and high-speed Wi-Fi Internet access provided by Virgin Media. Unfortunately, according to The Memo, only the low-tech payphone actually works—well, there was a dial tone at least.
Due to the lack of Internet connectivity, the journey planner doesn’t work, instead throwing up a rather cryptic “No Data, Please enter commissioning mode” error. It also sounds like the touchscreen is of the resistive variety, rather than capacitive, and the computer powering the whole thing is anaemic. “Each press is achieved only by ramming your finger against the plastic screen repeatedly, before waiting for the painfully slow computer inside to wake up and respond to your commands,” writes The Memo.
Of course, despite the poor experience on the user-facing side of the phone box, the massive digital billboard works flawlessly. It’s likely that new ads are downloaded over the Internet, which makes you wonder why the phone box’s other Internet-requiring features don’t work.
“As with all new technology there will be a short period when the kiosks aren’t fully operational,” said a Clear Channel spokesperson. We have pushed both Clear Channel and Amscreen for more info, but hadn’t heard back at the time of publication.
Clear Channel acquired its phone box business from Arqiva, which in turn acquired New World Payphones a few years back. You’ve probably never noticed it, but London’s phone boxes are actually owned by two companies: BT and New World Payphones. Both BT and New World Payphones use similar booths, including the iconic K6 design, but they’re usually painted different colours: red and black respectively. (Fun fact: BT actually sued New World Payphones for buying up old red phone boxes and installing them on their own sites, asserting that customers would wrongly think they are using a BT box.)
There’s a similar number of BT and Clear Channel phone booths in London (~800), and both companies are currently in the process of replacing old sites with high-tech, advertising-laden solutions. About 100 of the new Clear Channel booths have reportedly been installed, with about 500 more to come in 2017, while BT says “at least 750” of its new kiosks will be rolled out this year.
BT’s new phone box is more like a giant double-sided digital billboard with a little payphone slotted into the side. Somewhat predictably, the billboards are powered by Primesight, another big outdoor advertising company. The technomonoliths will provide a Wi-Fi hotspot, and will also be equipped with sensors to detect air and noise pollution, outdoor temperature, and nearby traffic conditions.
Amscreen says that the big advertisement on the back of each phone box will help pay for “weekly maintenance, countering the potential for urban decay.” Normal phone boxes are checked once a month, apparently.