View of the touchscreen interface on a BT InLink phone kiosk in Tower Hamlets. It shows the top third of the touchscreen with three big rectangular button icons displayed on the screen in bright blue, green and purple: Free calls, InLink Rewards, and Charity Helplines. The top of the next row of buttons is just visible: Maps, Tower Hamlets Council, Weather. The name of the borough is displayed at the top in big white lettering: Tower Hamlets, with in an image of a Brick Lane road sign behind.
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Crime link stalls 5G phone boxes

Image credit: Mark Ballard

Police and local authorities have stalled an attempt by British Telecom to build a national network of 5G internet phone booths after finding drug addicts were using them to score a fix.

BT was pushing for permits to install 1000 of the futuristic ‘InLink’ phone kiosks, and had already erected about 200 in 20 cities across the UK, in partnership with a company backed by Alphabet, parent of Silicon valley search giant Google.

Police intervened to stop the London Borough of Tower Hamlets issuing BT permits to install more InLinks in July, after the kiosks became associated with a crime wave of drugs gang violence that pushed London’s murder rate to its highest for a decade, with stabbings reported near-daily.

But officials tackling the drugs crisis have dismissed their concerns, while BT has sought to persuade local authorities to support InLinks as a way to bridge the digital divide: kiosks offer free calls and high-speed wireless internet on main streets in town centres, with touchscreen charity services, council services and local maps.

Tower Hamlets is in talks with BT, to get it to stop InLinks making free calls to mobile phones, said a spokeswoman for the council. BT has refused.

“People get 30 seconds of free calls – it allows people to phone their dealer and say, ‘two browns and one white, please’,” she said, using slang terms for crack and heroin.

“They have been used in similar ways across the UK. There’s quite a lot of drugs in inner cities,” she said.

The meetings have been ongoing since June, when local police produced evidence that drug addicts were using the InLinks to set up calls with dealers, and Tower Hamlets planning officials arranged an urgent meeting with BT and local police, in an attempt to resolve the problem.

BT put partial restrictions on telephone calls from some InLinks where police found drug dealing was a problem.

Yet police still objected to more InLinks, persuading council officials to prevent BT installing another eight in the borough, and effectively stopping the rollout.

PC Kevin Hook, the Metropolitan Police officer who filed the objection, told E&T that BT’s solution had been inadequate.

“We have been in discussion and negotiation with the applicant to try to alter the design and management of the devices to find an amicable solution for all.

“Unfortunately this has, to date, been unsuccessful,” said PC Hook.

Rikki Weir, a Tower Hamlets planning officer involved in the decision, said the borough’s CCTV unit had watched an InLink for a day and found 80 people used its free telephone, 90 per cent of them to buy drugs.

Similar concerns flared in other boroughs even before the end of August, when InLinks were cited in a court judgment as an instrument through which a gang of drug dealers arranged deals to sell crack cocaine and heroin, according to a report of the hearings.

View of the advertising hoarding fronting an InLink phone kiosk on the Old Kent Road, London, August 2018

Bristol City Council barred 20 out of 25 InLink applications after local police objected, citing concerns raised in Tower Hamlets.

Yet officials in the neighbouring London borough of Camden, which piloted the first UK InLinks, and where stabbings became so acute last year that Keir Starmer, its member of parliament, was called upon to lead a Youth Safety Taskforce to stop them, said the kiosks were not to blame.

“When kids are getting stabbed, that’s a higher priority,” said Peter Ward, secretary of the Camden Safer Neighbourhood Board.

People had always used phone boxes to call drug dealers, he said. People would use them as toilets and to take drugs, whereas InLinks have an open-air intercom and user interface.

A Camden planning official, who asked not to be named, concurred: she approved InLinks because BT removed old phone boxes whenever it installed a new kiosk.

“We think, on balance, in terms of community safety, it’s actually a benefit,” she said.

Tower Hamlets gave BT permission to install InLinks last year because it believed they would cut crime by replacing old, troublesome phone boxes.

A Camden Borough Council spokesman said phone calls were an insignificant part of the drug-gangs problem.

Criminals had always used pay phones, just as they always used cars.

“It’s just a facility,” he said. “Do you take away something people use 99 per cent of the time for good and honest reasons? The actual issue is very complex.”

A Metropolitan Police spokesman was equally unconcerned. “Drug dealers may use alleyways and whatever there may be. Why is this more of an issue?” he said.

But Councillor Danny Beale, Cabinet Member for Community Investment at Camden Council, said they were “magnets” for anti-social behaviour in some locations. “Most phone boxes don’t allow free internet use, phone charging and free calls, which seems to be the issue here,” he said in an email.

The comms interface and touchscreen on the side of an InLink kiosk on Bethnal Green Road, London, August 2018

A BT spokeswoman said there had been “isolated incidents” in Camden and Tower Hamlets. She would not say how many InLinks BT had restricted, nor whether it had done so in other boroughs.

“We take such incidents very seriously and have been working closely with the local council and the police to better understand the issues and see what we can do to support the work they do,” she said.

BT has appealed against Tower Hamlets’ objections to its InLinks. It attempted to placate local police and officials by preventing troubled InLinks being used to make free calls unless through headphones between 10pm and 6am.

Coventry police meanwhile objected to phone kiosks by a rival company to BT because it feared they would encourage “loitering, graffiti and flyposting”, and cause danger on the roads and pavements by being an obstruction and distraction. The City council refused applications for 39 kiosks in the summer, more than half from BT.

Through July and August, another seven London councils barred attempts BT made to replace old phone boxes with InLinks. And Liverpool as well.

Kingston Upon Thames cited local objections raised in fear that the next-gen booths would encourage crime if they were installed in the town centre.

Most however objected merely that InLinks would clutter the street and were discordant, aesthetically, with old town buildings whose architecture people should be able to appreciate without their views being spoiled by modern street furniture.

InLink UK has written of plans to fit the kiosks out with advanced phone masts, called small cells, capable of handling 5G. The next-generation mobile service is due for launch in 2020.

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