2022 to spell official ‘adiós’ for Spain’s public payphones

The Spanish government has decided that from next year public phones will no longer be a mandatory public service in the country, with Madrid already announcing it will remove 2,000 phone booths from the capital.  But is the Spanish 'cabina' really dead yet?

A woman uses a Telefonica public phone in Madrid, 15 February 2007.
A woman uses a Telefonica public phone in Madrid, 15 February 2007. Public payphones are now used only once a week on average nowadays. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

Not that long ago, making a phone call from a cabina telefónica in Spain was as normal as stopping at a local bar for a morning coffee. 

But with communication completely transformed by mobile technology, phone boxes have become increasingly redundant for daily life over the past two decades. 

Many have already been removed and the ones that remain are hardly ever used (one call a week on average according to official data, twice as low as two years ago).

Bizarrely, Spanish legislations states that towns and cities must still provide a payphone for every 3,000 inhabitants, although it seems unlikely this has been strictly enforced.

The first public telephone in Spain was installed in 1928 in Madrid's El Retiro park.

The first public telephone in Spain was installed in 1928 in Madrid’s El Retiro park.

After 93 years of existence in Spain, the days are now technically numbered for public telephones in the country. 

In mid-November, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved a decree which removes the payphone public service requirement from Spanish legislation from 2022.

Although the green, grey and blue Telefónica payphones are a piece of nostalgia for many who have lived in Spain for a long time, they’re now falling into disrepair, they don’t have the visual appeal of the UK’s red phone boxes and only 20 percent of Spain’s current population of 47 million people has ever used one.

They’ve also become a bit of a money pit, providing zero earnings and costing €4.5 million a year for Telefónica, around €300 per phone booth.

Add to this the current pandemic and germ-fearing climate we live in, and the need for public phone boxes seems even more unnecessary. 

public phone spain
There were 55,000 public phones in Spain in 1999. Now there are roughly 16,000. Photo: Mi)/Flickr

Madrid authorities and Telefónica have already announced that they will remove 1,800 from the streets of the capital and other cities are likely to follow suit.

But in some municipalities there are attempts being made to give these cabinas a new lease of life.

In San Sebastián de los Reyes on the outskirts of the Spanish capital, a municipal order allowed phone boxes to be revamped and turned into mini libraries which also offer free wifi. 

Malaga startup iUrban has upgraded ten phone booths in Andalusia and the Canary Islands into tourist information points. 

In the northern city of Burgos, some phone boxes have been transformed into tiny art galleries.

Despite the mass removal in the capital, city authorities are still planning to honour the role of phone boxes in Spain with a monument phone box called ‘La Cabina’ on Arapiles street in the neighbourhood of Chamberí.

It’s also worth remembering that in some rural communities across Spain, public payphones continue to be used and play a vital role, especially for elderly residents who live in truly cut-off locations.

“In our village there is neither phone signal nor fiber optic internet, we do not know what will happen,” Odilo, a resident of the Galician village of Merí whose home houses the only phone box in the municipality, told Spanish radio station Cope upon hearing the news about the approved legislation. 

So it’s clear that for some rural communities, which have also recently been hit by bank branches and ATM closures, public phones continue to be a necessary universal service.

Early 2021 data by Telefónica estimated the total number of public payphones across the country was roughly 16,000.

The Spanish telecoms multinational will no longer be obliged to keep the country’s cabinas running from January 1st, but completely removing every single one of them from existence would be a shame, and a disservice for a few.


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Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.