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

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
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?

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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