Westminster City Council has accused BT of cheating to push its national rollout of 5G phone boxes past public officials who oppose it.
The London authority made the accusation in formal planning objections it raised against BT’s requests to install next-generation ‘InLink’ phone kiosks across the capital in August, as it prepared to take legal action in an attempt to bar the phone boxes from London’s most famous streets.
Westminster accused BT of cheating by running a lucrative advertising business in the guise of a public phone service.
BT’s kiosks, which have been designed to carry 5G phone masts in preparation for the rollout of the next-generation mobile technology in 2020, had been devised “only in order to circumvent normal planning controls”, said Westminster planning officers in reports objecting to BT’s plans on 10 August.
The kiosks already supply public streets with free, high-speed Wi-Fi and touchscreen web services. Yet, said Westminster’s objection, BT and other call-box companies were masquerading their advertising businesses as comms ventures, to exploit privileged planning rights reserved for companies building public communications infrastructure.
BT’s kiosks had been devised “only in order to circumvent normal planning controls”, said Westminster planning officers in reports objecting to BT’s plans on 10 August.
BT and other call-box companies were masquerading their advertising businesses as comms ventures, to exploit privileged planning rights reserved for companies building public communications infrastructure, said the objection.
Westminster raised a similar accusation in a High Court claim it made on 7 August against another call-box company competing with BT for pavement space – New World Payphones, a trading name used by a street advertising corporation called Clear Channel, which bought the troubled payphone business in 2015.
The council claimed New World Payphones used comms planning privileges to install equipment that was not really designed to do communications, according to court documents obtained by E&T.
Westminster planning documents described how it had become frustrated that while people’s use of call boxes plummeted in the last decade (by 90 per cent, according to BT), a raft of new telecoms companies began installing phone boxes, threatening to clutter Westminster streets with fake furniture.
Since phone boxes were so rarely used, they had become “almost wholly unnecessary”, wrote Westminster planning officers in their objection. Hundreds of payphones BT installed in Westminster in the 1990s have become largely “redundant” since most people carry a mobile phone with them.
The objection also implied that since falling call revenue made public phones commercially unviable, call-box companies made money instead by selling advertising space on their sides. As the installations would be little used as phone boxes and their main commercial purpose was now advertising, they should not be entitled to comms planning privileges.
Call box companies have universally become owned by outdoor advertising corporations, the council concluded. BT’s InLink telephone kiosks were supplied by a company part-owned by UK street advertiser Primesight.
The objection repeated an accusation the Local Government Association made in January, when it launched a campaign in opposition to next-generation phone kiosks; namely, that they were just a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the outdoor advertising industry.
“These things are not primarily phones. They are big advertising hoardings with a cursory phone attached,” said a Westminster City Council spokesman.
“We dispute that they are being used as telephone boxes. The rationale for them is flimsy. It is clear they are just for advertising.
“People are exploiting planning rules to put advertisements in the name of a telephone in areas of high footfall, where you will get lots of people looking at the adverts,” the spokesman said.
He conceded that the phone companies often offered to remove two existing payphones for every new kiosk they put in, which was a more acceptable proposition, but “we don’t want any of them”.
Phone companies had made 300 applications to install phone boxes in the last two years, he said. Westminster City Council had opposed all of them, at great cost, because each had to be rejected individually and they would then be taken up as appeals with the UK Planning Inspectorate. The council would then have to contest each of those appeals.
The council had filed for a judicial review at the Royal Courts of Justice in August to try to get powers to refuse phone boxes, because comms planning privileges ultimately left it little choice.
BT, which operates most phone boxes in Westminster, made 108 applications to replace old phone boxes with InLink kiosks in the summer, according to council planning records. The push was part of a BT plan to install 1,000 of the futuristic InLinks around the country, while simultaneously scrapping 20,000 old phone boxes.
Another eight notable councils have become wholly opposed to InLinks, according to public planning records: Bristol, City of London, Hackney Hammersmith, Islington, Kingston, Liverpool and Tower Hamlets. Some councils have opposed them because, like old phone boxes, they are sometimes used by drug dealers and vagrants.
Many public authorities have, however, welcomed InLink at face value, as a means of providing free, high-tech comms to public streets. BT has installed around 200 kiosks in 20 UK cities.
BT has been connecting its phone kiosks to a fibre optic network, and has lobbied the Mayor of London to change planning rules to make local authorities support public comms systems. Matt Bird, general manager of InLinkUK, said in a March 2018 submission to the Mayor of London’s consultation over his Draft London Plan that the kiosks were designed to carry 5G ‘small cell’ base stations. Reports about InLink plans in New York and south Wales have noted that the kiosks’ product roadmap includes 5G.
Westminster planning records show that of 160 applications BT and New World Payphones made to install phone boxes in the last 20 months, almost all of them involved replacing and removing existing payphones.
Tim Carnegie, chairman of The Marylebone Association, a Westminster planning lobby which the council consulted over its phone kiosk decisions, said: “The market is not interested in call boxes but advertising. At the end of the day it’s an advertising play.
“BT, along with all the other phone operators, are trying to circumvent the planning laws around advertising. They are playing the system,” he said.
The High Court claim Westminster made against New World Payphones was over a request to replace two old phone boxes with one new kiosk, said Stuart Allen, head of legal for Clear Channel, in a witness statement filed at the Royal Courts of Justice on 29 August.
The new kiosk had more comms functions than the old phones, “including a pay telephone, a way-finding touch screen and Wi-Fi,” said the statement.
The council had used powers granted by planning law to serve 193 requests for New World to remove redundant payphones last year, said Allen. It responded with “substantial information demonstrating the usage of each kiosk”, and subsequently heard nothing more.
Westminster’s planning report said it had sought legal advice because BT routinely ignored its formal requests to scrap old, disused phone boxes.
Mark Westmoreland Smith, barrister acting on behalf of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who is co-defendant in Westminster’s High Court claim, said in a court document that it was obvious the kiosks were comms devices.
New World Payphones had been struggling for 20 years before US-owned street-advertising company Clear Channel bought it in December 2015, for £16.5m.
It had gone bust with £45m debts and 7,000 payphones around the UK in 2002. Comms giant Arqiva had bought it for £3.8m in 2012.
The directors of NWP Street Limited, New World’s commercial parent, said in their 2015 annual financial accounts: “The core business of call income is declining over time because of the ever-greater use of mobile phones and internet-based telephony.
“There are opportunities for mitigating this decline by using the street locations for other sources of revenue, such as cash machines, mobile phone transmitters and public WiFi,” they said.
Within a year of Clear Channel buying the loss-making business, NWP operating profits increased nearly tenfold and its sales doubled to more than £2m, with most of the increase coming from advertising.
It disposed of £1.8m of old payphones and invested £0.2m in ad-carrying, next-generation kiosks in preparation for a 2017 upgrade programme, which resulted in its stand-off with Westminster City Council.
Alongside Primesight – the other owner of InLink UK, whose kiosks BT has been using to replace its own legacy phone boxes – is Intersection, a US company formed from the merger of the country’s largest street advertising company, with backing from a sister company to Google, the US search giant that supplies ad-funded tech services.
BT, Clear Channel and InLink were not available for comment.