BT to increase mobile coverage with phone booths

If you can't beat your enemy, join them. That seems to be the reasoning behind British Telecommunications PLC's Thursday announcement that it would make space available for mobile phone transmitters in its public phone booths.

In a move to save its 140,000 pay phones around the U.K., telephone giant British Telecommunications (BT) is now offering mobile phone operators the possibility to rent space for small mobile phone base stations in pay phones, to get better network coverage in urban areas. BT also plans to use the space in pay-phone booths for the future rollout of 3G (third generation) mobile phone networks.

"Our public pay phone network is suffering because people are making more calls from mobile phones," said David Orr, spokesperson for BT, while adding that the number of calls made from public phones in the U.K. have dropped by a third during the past two years.

"This is obviously a way to bring new revenue stream to our pay phones," Orr said, although he wouldn't say how much BT is expecting to make from renting out base station space in phone booths.

BT first announced its intention to try this out in December last year. Orr said BT is expecting to have about 5,000 mobile phone transmitters up and running in phone booths by the end of BT's current financial year, which ends March 31, 2002.

Orr said BT has been in contact with mobile phone operators such as its own BT Cellnet Ltd, Vodafone Group PLC and Orange PLC, and that they "are expressing interest."

It looks like a win-win situation. BT earns money, the famous red phone boxes in London are saved, the mobile phone operators get better network coverage and the mobile phone users might not have to suffer the common "black spots" while talking on a mobile phone in big cities like London.

"I think it's quite ingenious," said Jason Chapman, senior analyst at Gartner Dataquest Inc., a part of Gartner Group Inc. "This really gets the mobile phone coverage down to people on the street."

Another advantage for mobile phone operators is that the base stations are already set up for them and they will not have to face the usual problems with building permission to raise tall masts on top of buildings, Chapman said.

There seems to be only one small problem.

"There's always going to be some people who are concerned about the health side," said Paolo Pescatore, senior research analyst in wireless mobile communication at International Data Corp. (IDC) in London.

Pescatore added that until studies have been done there is no way to tell whether these small base stations in the middle of the cities will pose any health risk to people on the street.

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