They might be a classic London icon, but red pay phone booths have been used so little in the last decade that British Telecom started basically giving them away in 2008–for £1, a local community can adopt a phone booth and turn it into something else, like a library or the world’s smallest pub.
Still, those projects are fairly rare, and many booths end up as neglected, unintentional urinals (possibly used by those staggering home from the phone box pub). Now, two entrepreneurs are starting to turn them into solar-powered charging stations instead.
“I lived outside a vandalized old phone box during my second year of university and thought, surely we can find a new use for these iconic, yet disrespected British structures,” says Harold Craston, a recent London School of Economics graduate who started the new project, called Solarbox, with classmate Kirsty Kenney. “The idea to make them free and solar powered was born out of our interest in the use of public space and London’s green agenda.”
Solarbox gives old phone booths a coat of new green paint, and installs a solar panel on the top. In a single day, the panel provides enough power to charge about 100 phones or tablets at maximum charging speed. A battery in the booth stores extra energy, so the charger keeps working even if at night or on one of the city’s many cloudy days.
The charging station is free to use, funded by ads from companies like Tinder and Uber, and the founders decided to also offer free ad space to promote local artists, musicians, and social enterprises.
Solarbox also wants the boxes to double as community space. “We used our first box as an ‘urban green space’ during our launch week,” says Craston. “We invited buskers along to perform, brought plants along and had a large piece of street art in place . . . we want every Solarbox and its immediate surroundings to be used as a positive public space.”
Although it’s unlikely that all of London’s public pay phones will completely disappear–British law still requires “reasonable public access to public call box services”–maybe the vast majority will end up being used for something like Solarbox. Two thirds of current phone booths, Craston says, are already commercially unviable.
Solarbox recently installed its first charging station, and plans to install five more in the next few months.