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Last call for Britain's iconic telephone booths?

Image: Two telephone boxes are is seen on the River Thames Embankment
Two telephone boxes are seen along the River Thames in London on Wednesday. The familiar sight may be in danger as telecommunications company BT no longer wants to maintain many of the kiosks, about half of which lose money.Sang Tan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Britain's bright red telephone boxes are increasingly unused and unprofitable, but far from unloved.

The fate of more than a third of the country's 12,700 iconic red telephone booths is up in the air: Telecommunications company BT says it wants to scrap about 400 of them and is in negotiations with local authorities about what to do another 4,000.

Villages and local governments are stepping up efforts to salvage the street furniture, converting the booths into community notice boards, greenhouses, or possibly even miniature art galleries. They have until Saturday to apply to adopt a phone booth.

The small English hamlet of Lighthorne, about 90 miles northwest of London, recently became the first community in Britain to take over a red phone box from BT, paying 1 pound (less than $2) for the privilege.

"The point is it's very much part of our heritage," said Josette Tait, who chairs Lighthorne's parish council, which made the decision to buy the booth after learning BT was going to remove it. "It's been here well over 60 years."

Tait said no one had used Lighthorne's phone booth — about 25 yards from the village green — in about a year. She explained that the village, population 460, had no real use for it.

"Everybody's either got land lines or mobile phones," she said. "I suspect that's probably true nationally."

That's apparent from figures supplied by BT Group PLC, the successor to Britain's national telephone monopoly.

"Pay phone usage has declined dramatically since the advent of the mobile phone," BT spokeswoman Gemma Thomas said. She declined to say how much BT was making — or losing — on its pay phones, but said more than half of them no longer turned a profit. Among the money-losers are several thousand traditional red kiosks — many of which could be sent to the recycling heap unless local councils take responsibility for the phones' upkeep.

Thomas said authorities — mostly in rural areas — had so far applied to save about 300 of the boxes, adding that she expected more as the deadline for applications neared.

'Iconic image'
Conservative lawmaker Alan Duncan, who championed the "Adopt a Kiosk" plan earlier this year, said he hoped more communities would take action to protect what he said was "an iconic image in Britain."

"It goes with black taxis and double-decker buses," Duncan said. "Both in rural and in urban areas the red box itself is seen as part of the local streetscape."

Designed by British architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the first of the classic red telephone boxes appeared in 1924. The phone booths have been tweaked several times since. The K6, rolled out in 1932, became the most widespread. Some 70,000 of the soundproof cast-iron kiosks popped up across the country, according to Icons Online, part of the official Web site for Britain's museums and galleries.

But vandalism, high maintenance and problems with accessibility spurred the Post Office, BT's predecessor, to begin replacing them with modern phone booths in the 1960s. Campaigners managed to list around 3,000 kiosks as historic buildings, meaning that those cannot be removed; the rest remain in limbo.

It's unclear how long Lighthorne's phone box has been in place: Tait said BT told her it had no record of when it was installed. Barbara Townsend, a lifelong resident of Lighthorne, said she could remember slipping coins into the machine to buy three minutes of conversation with her sister in the mid-1940s.

Village landmark
"We didn't have a telephone at home then," the 75-year-old said. "You had to be very well off to have a telephone."

She said she was pleased the council had decided to hold on to the box, calling it a village landmark.

Tait said the council would pay 25 pounds ($39) to renew the kiosk's coat of red paint, but that the villagers had not yet decided what to do with the box now that it no longer contained a telephone.

Whatever its ultimate use, Tait said she was pleased that the kiosk would remain in place.

"We thought it was probably better to purchase it rather than lose it completely and have a very blank space where it's always been," she said.