The disappearance of telephone booths in Spain is approaching. The project of the new General Telecommunications Law (it is expected to be approved in the second quarter of 2022), which includes the regulations of the European Code of Electronic Communications, already makes it clear that the elimination of obsolete elements such as telephone booths will be established. or the guides. Some assets considered almost vintage, whose use by users is practically non-existent at present.
In this scenario, Telefónica plans to design a plan for the progressive dismantling of the booths throughout Spain, which will be specified depending on the approval and requirements dictated by the aforementioned new sector legislation.
The booths have been part of the history of Telefónica since practically its foundation. The first cabin was installed in Madrid, in the Retiro Park, in what was then Vienna Park, today Florida Park, in 1928, just four years after the creation of the operator itself, under the presidency of Estanislao Urquijo. Initially, bars and hotels were the places where the first booths were installed, known at first as pay phones.
Years later, in 1966, the operator decided to install equipment on public roads. Madrid and Barcelona were the first cities to see how the famous booths appeared on their streets, proliferating and spreading throughout various parts of Spain in the 70s.
In Spain, at the end of 2020, there were 14,824 phone booths, although their use has not stopped falling in recent years. In fact, during the past year, they barely registered an average of 0.17 calls per day, which is an average weekly call. Its use had been reduced to less than half in the previous two years, when an average of 0.37 calls per day per cabin was registered, that is, one use every three days.
The emergence of mobile telephony, from the second half of the 90s, has been the main cause of the fall into disuse of these structures. In 2006, more mobile phone lines were registered than inhabitants, and currently the ratio is 117.4 mobile lines per 100 inhabitants (55.64 million connections), a figure that represents an all-time high, according to the National Commission of the Markets and Competition (CNMC).
The regulatory authority has previously recommended, in different reports, the withdrawal of the mandatory nature of this service as a progressive abandonment of its use has been verified. According to Eurobarometer data from 2014, more than 88% of the population acknowledged that they had never used a cabin. In addition, the CNMC warned of the high cost of its maintenance within the universal service. In one of its reports related to this issue, the regulator specified that in 2016, the net cost of the universal service related to cabins was 4.5 million euros, although in recent years, the cost has been around two million.
The elimination of these infrastructures has been carried out in other European markets. France, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia have been eliminating the element of universal car service, according to data from the CNMC itself.
The last award took place two years ago, in December 2019, when in a large part of the sector it was expected to be abolished, although, two years later, it will expire on December 31. Telefónica has been the main responsible for the universal service as a whole, although regulation has forced other operators to finance part of the cost in recent years.
The universal service included in the previous Telecommunications Law, guaranteed that all citizens had access to a series of services regardless of their geographical location, with a specific quality and at an affordable price. This meant that populations with more than 1,000 inhabitants had so far had to have at least one cabin installed, and an additional one for every 3,000 inhabitants.
In addition, in recent years, many cabins have been destroyed by acts of vandalism and theft, which have caused them to be out of service until later repaired. In some Spanish cities, the municipalities have even proceeded to remove the booths that had already stopped working due to vandalism.
Investment. During the 60s and 70s, Telefónica invested heavily in expanding the number of urban and interurban public cabins, establishing call centers on beaches and tourist centers. The operator also installed devices in the public transport waiting shelters. At the end of 1972, almost half a century ago, the number of public telephones was 133,296. At the beginning of this century, there were still more than 60,000 public telephones.
Advertising. In its evolution in the furniture set in cities and towns, telephone booths have also been used as supports for advertisements. Telefónica has sought ways to make these assets profitable, given the aforementioned fall in their use.
Competence. Telefónica has been the main manager of the booths throughout its history. However, the company has also had competitors in this segment, who, at some point, have come to have a significant presence. For example, the Valencian company Comytel had several thousand public telephones throughout Spain at the end of the year 2000.
Languages. In 1985, with the introduction of the corporate image, Telefónica renewed the signage of the public booths, incorporating the languages of the different autonomous communities.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.