Remember Telepoints? The Mobile Phone Experiment That Ended In Disaster

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 45 months ago
Remember Telepoints? The Mobile Phone Experiment That Ended In Disaster
The 1990s called - it wants its phone back

In the wake of the fast-moving telecoms boom of the past few decades, there lies a trail of debris that whiffs of failure. Alan Sugar's lumpen Amstrad E-m@iler Telephone (we saw a heavily discounted one in a Reading Tesco in 2006, and still rue not buying it) being a prime example.

Another chapter that had a sorry ending was that of London's 'Telepoints' — specific locations dotted around the city, where beyond-parody businesspeople could use their home phone as a mobile, for no extra fee. A decent idea enough for the time, but there were some serious limitations.

Image: Thames News

In the summer of 1988, the government issued licences for up to four companies to operate in the capital (these turned out to be Zonephone, BYPS Communications, Phonepoint and Callpoint). Soon, receiver areas were popping up all over London, and in other major UK cities. The companies predicted scenes as depicted in the image above. They were being optimistic.

Telepoint was a sort of Wi-Fi of its day, except that it was much more rubbish. If you're not near a Wi-Fi spot, you can always switch on your data. With Telepoint, your 1980s/90s style brick would only function at home or within a few metres of the receiving point. And even then, you could only make calls from your phone — not receive them.

So while Zonephone et al has signs plastered across prominent locations, including on Oxford Street and outside Warren Street station, already by the early 1990s, the concept was tanking badly. "Callers are as rare as bees in winter," smarms a Thames News Chris Morris-alike in the report above.

There was one final push from Rabbit — late to the Telepoint game, arriving in May 1992, when it took over from BYPS Communications. It arguably became the most memorable of the Telepoints (perhaps because of the simple logo, perhaps because it shares its brand name with a sex toy). But while Rabbit offered phones at a third to half the price of an average mobile phone — and reception from as far away as 100 metres from a Telepoint (glory be!) — the same problems that plagued the other networks were largely still there.

That 10-year estimate is out by exactly 280,000. Image: Thames News

Whipping up just 9,000 users, in contrast to the 50,000 it hoped for, Rabbit operated its Telepoints for just over 18 months — shutting down operations on 31 December 1993... 1994 couldn't be dealing with this kind of crap.  

Look around London today, and you may still see vestiges of the failed technology — Rabbit signs have been spotted at the likes of Watford Junction and New Barnet stations. They're reminders of an era that was bristling with innovative comms ideas... and a few turkeys too.

Have you spotted a Telepoint sign recently? Did you ever use one? Let us know in the comments below.

Last Updated 28 July 2017