Spark plans to modernise NZ's phone booth network

Source: 1News

Spark plans to modernise New Zealand’s network of public phone booths as the current technology reaches its end-of-life.

Spark phone booth (file image).

The company will also look to withdraw underutilised booths over a number of years as its hardware is retired.

“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 in a media release on Tuesday.

"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."

Tierney said call volumes on the fixed-line phone booth network has declined by nearly 70% over the past four years, with 90% used for less than three minutes per day on average.

The use of WiFi hotspots “has followed a similar downward trajectory”.

She said the copper wiring and public switched telephone network (PSTN) which make the booths work are both in the process of being phased out as some parts are no longer being manufactured and Spark is “running low on spare parts to use when there are faults, which leaves some booths non-operational”.

“As a result, we are investigating how we can maintain a more appropriate number of modern phone booths across the country, while removing those booths that are no longer fit-for-purpose and not being used as frequently as they once were."

Tierney said the current fixed-line booths are unable to be upgraded to fibre or wireless networks, meaning future-proofing the service “will require replacing the booths with a new end-to-end solution”.

Tierney said Spark is now, “exploring what a modern phone booth might look like in New Zealand”, which may include “everything from wayfinding to in-built environmental sensors to localised news and content” seen overseas.

“We’ve seen some pretty exciting examples overseas with features focused on delivering communities civic value alongside modern telecommunications services."

A “small number” of low-use phone booths will be phased out from Auckland’s North Shore, East Auckland and Wellington South from June 2022 “in line with the gradual retirement of Spark’s PSTN and Chorus’s copper network”.

“We anticipate that the vast majority of New Zealanders won’t notice this change, given the very low levels of usage we see on phone booths these days. We do recognise, however, that for the small amount of people who still use phone booths, they may find this change unsettling,” she said.

Spark will work alongside key community groups across the country to identify any concerns.

“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.”