the BT Internet payphone (1999)

by Roger Frost

A new style telephone box offering Internet access is making its debut at airports, motorway services, and railway stations across the UK. Called Multiphone and developed by telecoms firm BT, it offers round the clock, email and web browsing. In this first phase of the rollout, a thousand Multiphones will be installed over the next year aiming to establish it as an instantly recognisable piece of street furniture.
At a cost of £1 for a ten minute session, you can use a BT Phonecard or credit card whenever you are caught short and stuck for an Internet fix. There will be information services – such as news, sport and travel so when you’re travelling you might see what’s on, check cinema times or book accommodation. Those using web-based email – such as the free Talk 21 or Hotmail services can check their messages or drop a note to people who don’t answer the phone. Those using POP, a system that allows remote email pick-up, you’ll be able to catch up on ‘life’, even away from base. Priced at a bit more than a regular phone box call, my guess is that the queue for the phone box got longer.

Designed to survive unsupervised situations, the Multiphone is also a cool piece of technology. Developed in conjunction with King Products of Canada, the software runs on the reputedly stabile QNX operating system used by the military and nuclear power industries. The connection to the Internet is through an ISDN2 line to a BT service that also identifies unseemly Web sites and blocks them out. The screen is tempered glass, of the kind used in car windows and withstands grease, dirt and much abuse. It is claimed to be shatterproof and more than able to withstand a seriously good thwack with the handset. Having thought about hitting my computer on many occasions, I need one. The Multiphone uses a touch screen which displays a phone pad, keyboard or web browser as its use determines. The screen has an all-glass sensor with a film of conducting material – a finger touch causes ‘capacitive coupling’, drawing a current the size of which tells its location on the screen. Unlike some touch screens, it responds within a few milliseconds of a finger dab.

BT’s phone box venture happens at a time of massively increasing computers with Internet access in homes and offices. Surprisingly, not even that and the mobile phone have been able to cause serious damage to their payphone business. As a measure of this apparent move against a tide, kiosks have nearly doubled in number since BT was privatised and a new railway payphone business was only last year set up in Holland. Tourists, flat batteries and no-signal zones keep the business buoyant – apparently so does the need to report a lost mobile phone – in the past people reported lost umbrellas, todays it’s a lost phone.

Further developments due to appear late this year include the addition of information services, a printer and video camera. The services might include local street guides, route planners and free directory enquiries and will link up with local businesses keen to attract custom. Adding a maintenance free printer needed some problem solving – for example, the design features drop delivery to prevent people tugging at an emerging sheet. Fitting a camera on-board offers scope for fun – you could take a photograph to email to a friend and there’s talk about offering video-email or videophone services – the Multiphones to appear in London’s hi-tech Millennium Dome will have videophones.

Here then is another step towards ubiquitous Internet. It’s also a step towards public assess: like the days when not everyone had a phone, today 50 million people in the UK still do not have access to the Internet. If some town councils have not recognised that all people need some access to this increasingly useful system, the big hotel chains surely have. One US hotel chain offers web browsing laptops for $10 a day – I for one would readily trade the room’s hair dryer for it. I’ll throw in the trouser press too.


The current Internet trend of ‘more’ followed by ‘free’ continues as NCR, of cash machine fame start to install a network of 3,500 free Internet kiosks around the UK. These will appear in town centres to offer local and national information from the Town Pages service. Town Pages: www.townpages.co.uk

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