An era spanning over a century came to a close in the Czech Republic on Thursday with the removal of the country’s last telephone booth still containing a phone in a village in Central Bohemia. Just a couple of decades ago there were more than 30,000 of them.
The first ever telephone box in the Czech lands went into operation in 1911, three decades after the first phone lines were installed in this part of the world. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first 10 public telephones were located in Prague, including on Malá Strana, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square and at Prague Central train station (which we know as Masaryk Station). There was also one at the Sternberg Palace up at Prague Castle. Now, 110 years after the structures first appeared, the country’s last booth still containing a phone has just been removed, in the village of Hlubyně (population 149) in the Příbram district. With mobile devices having become utterly dominant in recent decades, operator O2 removed the remaining boxes containing phones in Prague last year. Public phones ceased to function throughout the country in the course of 2020 and have gradually been dismantled.
This follows a decision from the Council of the Czech Telecommunication Office to cease subsidising public telephones.
Until 2019 – when operators said some were being used only once a month – it was compulsory for there to be a public telephone in villages of fewer than 400 inhabitants. Last year the figure was reduced to 200. Another no longer applicable reason for mandatory public phones was the weak mobile signals in some areas.
Nevertheless, while functioning phone booths are no longer to be found, examples of this classic piece of street furniture are still visible around the Czech Republic.
Lucie Svobodová is a spokesperson for operators O2, which decided to pull the plug on public phones when the state subsidies ended.
“Some municipalities have taken advantage of the opportunity to hang on to their telephone booths, without devices. They are using them as what are called ‘Book Booths’ or as public notice boards. The number of telephone booths in the Czech lands reached a peak of around 30,000 at the turn of the millennium. Since that time their number has been declining steadily and last year there were 1,120 of them in the country.”
The biggest boom in telephones booths in Czechoslovakia was seen in the communist era, when families often had to wait many years to acquire a phone in their homes. Long queues formed to use public “automats”, as they were called.
It later became possible to make calls from the vestibules of Prague’s Metro stations and other places, though the vandalism of public phones was reportedly a problem even pre-1989.
Operators say the fight against vandalism was another reason that public telephones have been done away with.