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Published: 5/3/2004

A British icon fades away

In Britain the iconic red public telephone booths are going the way of the tubed radio, wind-up Victrolas, 78 rpm records, rotary telephones, cranked transmissions, and cassette tapes.

The booths, whose gradual disappearance we and the British alike lament, are victims of the cell-phone revolution. Progress and invention can't abide limits. In this case, that's as sad as it is inevitable, but the cell revolution has offered more convenience for less money.

British Telecommunications Plc, the national service, noting that four of five Britons use cell phones, has announced plans to remove 10,000 of the red booths by the end of 2005. The firm, which had 140,000 booths in 1999, expects to have a mere 65,000 after the cutbacks.

How will filmmakers - who delivered horrible deaths to victims readily visible in the red booths as they sought personal salvation or tried to transmit last-minute, life- and nation-saving messages - cope?

What will tourists do? That remains to be seen, though the nation's phone service is obliged, revenue stream or not, to keep a number of public phones, and thus the red booths, activated.

Phone chat has grown cheaper since the heyday of pay phones, in Britain and in this country, what with cell billings that include countless calls for a set fee, as opposed to per call charges. It has become less private, as here, with people chatting in cabs, at parties, and in restaurants. It has also become less polite, as more users interrupt ongoing discussions to talk to callers.

For most, cell-phone technology has made phone systems more national. Standard cellular systems don't usually offer reasonably priced, untimed, overseas calls, except as extras, so without pricey GPS phones, people from other places can't use their cells while traveling here, just as our cells don't work in their countries.

That handicap could spawn a new rent-a-phone industry at ports of entry, right alongside Avis, Hertz, and other rent-a-car operations, to give visitors convenient access during their visits.

As for the old red booths, which are quickly becoming urban architectural artifacts, some will wind up in museums, pubs, and family rec rooms. Some will surely be auctioned on eBay or similar sites and shipped anywhere in the world.

We mourn their passing as they become another aching reminder of good things past.



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