London’s new high tech phone boxes are busted & broken

With great fanfare London’s new phone boxes were unveiled last week, boasting wifi, a touch screen journey planner, maps, and local points of interest.

The promise is that these phone boxes are the future — similar to New York’s $200m project to blanket the city in super-fast free wifi and Android tablet stations for browsing the web or making calls.

New York’s efforts have given over a million people free wifi in the last year.

Sadly if you’re excited to try out the phone box of the future, I have some bad news.

While cycling around Tower Hamlets this weekend I came across one London’s “iconic” new phone boxes, and found the entire experience a disaster.

A digital eyesore

The first thing I noticed about the new phone box design is the whopping huge digital advertising screen on the rear (which conveniently doesn’t appear on any of the press photos that were sent out last week).

Yes, it’s no surprise that Lord Sugar was closely involved in the project, his Amscreen digital signage group “charged with manufacturing the remodelling of this classic design icon.”

These new black phone boxes are actually a private project being run by ad group Clear Channel and Amscreen, and are separate to BT’s red phone boxes.

Get ready for these bright digital ads to spread across London, there’ll soon be 750 invading the capital’s streets.

That’s fine, I suppose, as the free wifi and touch screen maps have to be paid for somehow.

If they actually worked.

Out of touch

First things first, the innovative ‘touch’ screen on these phone boxes is exactly the kind of unresponsive nightmare you’ve come to expect from such public computers.

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.

Forget touch typing on these screens, every letter you enter feels like a battle against the computer gods.


Once I finally mashed my finger hard enough to activate the touch screen I was surprised to discover that… nothing worked.

That touch screen journey planner? “Sorry! Mapping service not available at this time.”

That free wifi? “No Data, please enter commissioning mode,” the screen cryptically told me.

How about just letting me know the time? “22:45” Lord Sugar’s display proudly boasted, despite my own wristwatch telling me it was a little before 3pm.

Calling for help

It’s not all doom and gloom however, the new phone boxes have two redeeming features that do work.

There’s the actual payphone, which had a dial tone and appeared to take card payments (although I can’t be certain as I didn’t want to risk putting my card in).

And, of course, Lord Sugar’s huge digital ad screen trying to flog the latest Samsung smartphone.

The Memo asked Clear Channel about the busted and broken phone box on Saint Paul’s Way, Tower Hamlets, and a spokesperson told us: “As with all new technology there will be a short period when the kiosks aren’t fully operational.”

“Our team is working around the clock to ensure Londoners can benefit from telephone, free public wifi and interactive maps as quickly as possible after installation.”

These fat Tardis phone boxes aren’t the future, for now they remain just another busted and broken example of technology on our high streets.

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