Ring Ring... London calling


by Michael Smy, Head of Street, BT Group

It’s Friday night on a cold February evening. Along the dimly lit cobbled street you hurriedly walk to the red phone box that’s round the corner from your house.  It’s jazz night at your local dance hall in Charing Cross and as per the plan every Friday at 6pm, you’re calling your friend to arrange a time and place to meet. The inside of the box is illuminated just enough for you to see the slot, press button ‘A’ and enter your tuppence. The number of her local phone box is sketched into your memory. Ring ring. She picks up! The year is 1926.

How times have changed. Today, for most, the smartphone is king and organising a Friday night out looks very different. Not only can you make plans with friends in an instant, but ordering a taxi, making a reservation, placing a take-away order to end the evening and putting the heating on for when you get home is available at the touch of a button, or at the end of a voice activation.

Yet, look at any current depiction of London and it will often include the traditional red phone box. A much-loved cultural icon and celebrated symbol, this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the design of the K2 - Britain’s first red telephone box.

The K2 was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in a 1924 competition and introduced in 1926. By 1934, more than 1,700 K2s had been installed - mostly in London. In this decade K2s were a community lifeline, used to call the emergency services (via the operator), doctors, friends, family and businesses. In fact, the majority of callers used local phone-boxes until the 1950s and 60s, with home-phones being more commonplace only for the more affluent members of society prior to that.

Today, 98% of the adult population use a mobile phone and, understandably, the need for phone boxes has dramatically reduced. Conversely, the need for connectivity has exploded. Just as BT provided critical connectivity in the 1920s, today our network connects more than 200 million devices, empowering our customers to stay connected to the people and things that matter most to them. With EE’s 5G now covering more than 70% of the UK population and EE’s 4G available to 88% of the landmass, we continue to expand our network across towns and cities, countryside communities and the major road and rail routes connecting them.

And while times have certainly changed, the iconic K2 continues to play a part in communities today. In 2021, BT revealed that 4,000 red phone boxes were available through its ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme, enabling communities to take on their local kiosk, with a refreshed purpose. To date, more than 7,200 kiosks have been adopted across the UK, repurposed into mini libraries and life-saving defibrillators, among others. Another 200 red phone boxes have been given grade II listed status.

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the design of the K2, we’re delighted that it ‘lives on’ with the newly released model from LEGO IDEAS – enabling people to own a little piece of British history for themselves. The model also serves as a mobile phone holder, beautifully capturing the evolution from the payphone, to the smartphone, blending history with modernity.

As we continue to build the next generation of communication networks, the K2 will continue to be preserved as a much-loved cultural icon, whether that be through adoption by a community, or as a timeless Lego model, sitting on a shelf. Invoking a warm sense of nostalgia, looking back, we can see how far we have come.