In Zimbabwe, the telecommunications utility has announced that it is decommissioning all public coin-operated telephones, a move that will seriously inconvenience millions of Zimbabweans for whom the phone booths are an important means of communication.

In a press statement, the phone company Tel.One says it is taking the phones out of service because the company that made them has declared they are obsolete. This makes it impossible to obtain spare parts to maintain the phones.

The decommissioning of the coin phones comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean domestic and business consumers are on the waiting list for a private telephone.

A Tel.One engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the current telephone exchanges are fully subscribed and applicants can only get a number if another subscriber gives it up. He says some people have been on the waiting list for more than five years and depend heavily on coin phones.

The engineer says the capacity of the telephone exchanges cannot be increased because the equipment would have to be bought with foreign currency, which is in short supply in Zimbabwe.

Public phones operated by phone cards will continue to operate, but the cards people buy to pay for their calls are imported, and the foreign currency shortage makes it difficult to get them.

Mobile phones have proved to be popular since the service became available in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s. But they are an option the majority of Zimbabweans cannot afford.

Tel.One says it plans to set up phone shops to provide service to people who do not have their own phones. There are nine such shops operating across the country. But the Tel.One engineer says the effort to open more is also hampered by lack of foreign currency, and they are likely to be far less convenient than were the public phones that are soon to be inoperative.

Even if the coin-operated phones could be maintained, Tel.One says there is another problem with them. The utility says that the Zimbabwean five dollar coin, the largest in circulation, is too small to pay for a basic phone call. In fact, five of the coins are needed to pay for a three minute local call, priced at 40 U.S. cents at the official exchange rate. The phones' coin boxes fill quickly and must be emptied frequently, and Tel.One says that makes them uneconomical to operate.

Government owned Tel.One has enjoyed a monopoly since the introduction of the telephone to Zimbabwe. But this is to change before the end of the year, when newly licensed private company Tele Access starts operating.