Optical phonecard (1981 – 1996)

Optical phonecard (front)An optical phonecard is a form of stored-value card that can record the balance available, in this case by means of an optical strip read by an infra-red beam that is shone through the back of the card with the reflected beam allowing the reader to detect the remaining units. As the card is used, the strip is heated and erased unit by unit.

Optical phonecards were produced by Landis+Gyr and Sodeco from Switzerland, and were first introduced in Belgium in 1977. They were widely introduced in the UK in 1982 after a successful trial by British Telecom in 1981. In the UK, the BT Phonecard as it was known, was used across the public payphone network, and cards could be purchased from retailers such as John Menzies, and Post Offices. Phonecard payphones were five times less susceptible to vandalism than their coin-operated counterparts.

Mercury Communications Ltd had a competing public phonecard network for a time in the UK, but this used magnetic stripe card technology for its phonecards.

Thousands of different designs of phonecard were produced in the UK, and many cards became collectable. Phonecard collecters are known as fusilatelists.

The technology was secure, but was phased out by British Telecom in favour of chip cards in the UK in 1996, and the Landis+Gyr factory closed in 2006 by which time only a small number of countries were still using optical phonecards.

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