DESPITE the vast majority of the public owning a mobile phone, Spain still has nearly 15,000 telephone boxes in the streets – but their days are numbered.
National telecommunications company Telefónica says it plans to dismantle them all starting this year.
It’s now 93 years since the first telephone cabins went up on the streets, and they went on to become legally protected, considered under national law to be an ‘essential and universal public service’.
Now, though, Telefónica says each remaining phone box has only been used for an average of just one call a week in the past year.
A total of 14,824 are still in operation, but they are not expected to still be in place by the time they would have reached their 100th ‘birthday’.
This would have been in 2028, a whole century after the first cabin was erected in what was then known as Viena Park and is now called Florida Park, a section of central Madrid’s huge green Retiro Park, and inside a kiosk that had to be opened up for the public to use the phone.
Telefónica has always been the sole company responsible for maintaining the service and keeping phone boxes in working order – although the job is regularly put out to tender by the ministry for the economy, the national communications giant has always been the only bidder.
The last time the contract was up for bid was in December 2019, for two years, meaning it expired two days ago.
According to Telefónica, as of the end of 2020, the average phone box was used to make 0.17 calls a day – 1.2 calls a week, or roughly one every six days.
From the end of 2017 to the close of 2018, each cabin was used to make 0.37 daily calls – 2.6 calls a week, or just over one call every three days.
To this end, phone box use halved in two years, although figures are not yet known for the year 2021.
It was, however, always on the cards: Even as far back as 2006, more mobile phone numbers were active in Spain than human inhabitants.
Over 88% of the country’s population admit they have never used a phone box in their lives, although it is likely their presence will be missed for reasons other than nostalgia: If you’re away from home and your mobile phone battery goes dead, you don’t have a charger or USB cable with you or there’s nowhere to plug it in, a telephone cabin would come in very useful to contact whoever you’re due to meet and tell them where you are.
Many of Spain’s neighbouring countries had already dismantled their phone boxes years ago, according to the National Markets and Competition Commission (CNMC), referring to data from the 2014 Eurobarometer.
The UK, for example, still has a handful of its famous red telephone boxes, and these same red cabins are found dotted around in Malta and Portugal, but in general, they are not connected to the network and are only in place as a landmark souvenir, sometimes as a mobile phone charging point or, in the case of Britain, a few of them have even become ‘libraries’, where the public can pop in to pick up a book and drop them off again once they have finished with them.
This would probably not work in Spain, given that many phone ‘boxes’ are actually not Doctor Who-style cabins, but simply an open-air booth – similar in shape to a parking meter with a telephone attached, and a perspex ‘hood’ to protect the phone and the user from the elements – rather than an enclosure that cuts out background noise.