Spark announces plans to ditch some public phone booths, overhaul others

A Spark phone booth in New Zealand
"We're currently exploring what a modern phone booth might look like." Photo credit: Getty Images

Some of Aotearoa's 2000 public phone booths are set for a technology overhaul, with others disappearing forever due to ageing infrastructure.

Spark has announced that booths in "high foot traffic areas" will get updated with new capabilities, while poorly utilised booths will be removed as their hardware reaches end-of-life.

The withdrawal of those phone booths will start with a small number in Auckland's North Shore, East Auckland, and Wellington South from June this year, Spark said.

"Phone booths became part of Spark in our Telecom days of the 1980s, when we split from the New Zealand Post Office, and in 2013 we upgraded many of them to include WiFi hot-spotting," Spark product director Tessa Tierney said.

"But since that time a lot has changed in Aotearoa – the vast majority of New Zealanders now have mobile phones and free WiFi is more readily available. As a result, the use of phone booths has declined rapidly."

In the last four years, call volumes from fixed-line phone booths have declined by over 70 percent, Spark said, with 90 percent of them being used for less than three minutes per day on average.

"At the same time, the technologies that make these phone booths work - copper wiring and the public switched telephone network (PSTN) - are both end-of-life and in the process of being retired gradually across the country," Tierney said.

"Some of the physical equipment is not even being manufactured anymore, and we're running low on spare parts to use when there are faults, which leaves some booths non-operational.

That leaves the company investigating how it can maintain a more "appropriate number" of modern phone booths, while removing those no longer fit for purpose.

According to Spark, the current fixed-line phone booths cannot be upgraded to fibre or wireless, which means future-proofing the phone booth service will require replacing the booths with a new end-to-end solution.

"We're currently exploring what a modern phone booth might look like in New Zealand," Tierney continued.

"We've seen some pretty exciting examples overseas with features focused on delivering communities civic value alongside modern telecommunications services, and could include everything from wayfinding to in-built environmental sensors to localised news and content.

The company anticipates the vast majority of Kiwis won't notice any change, given the low levels of usage, but said they were cognisant that a small number of people may find the change unsettling.

"Which is why we've been liaising with key community groups around New Zealand to identify and work through any concerns," Tierney said.

"We want to assure New Zealanders that this isn't something that's going to happen overnight. Both the retirement of low usage phone booths and any upgrading to more modern alternatives will take a number of years to complete."