Time Sellers: A Telecommunication Informal Economy in Urban Colombia

Time is gold. Minutes are money. Literally, in the streets of Bogota and other Colombian cities, you can buy minutes for hundreds of pesos. Selling time is one of the innovative practices of the urban informal economy. I am not sure when it exactly started but I remember buying minutes in the 1990s. As mobile phones were adopted by the population,  and telephone companies offered very expensive plans, street vendors deployed the idea of providing informal communication stations. As they were already on the sidewalks and public squares selling snacks, candy, soft drinks, and tobacco, they decided to provide a pop-up communication  infrastructure. Specifically, they had the idea of providing a public telecommunication service in which a client could pay for phone-call minutes.  The informal vendors, just needed to have a couple of cellphones with them, usually attached to their carrying carts and display shelves, and then allow their clients use them while keeping track of the duration of the call. The idea worked so well that almost 20 years later, in every Colombian city one can buy minutes on the streets. Today, in 2015, a minute costs $200 pesos.bogota street vendors and minutesThe informal use and appropriation of public space was one of the practices that boosted the popularization of the selling time practices. With so many street vendors located in side walks, public squares, corners, and parts, an informal telecommunication infrastructure was already in place. Furthermore, due to the gradual disappearance of public telephony due to the total deterioration of the devices and the lack of maintenance, the informal calling service spreaded up very fast. Suddenly, among the other clusters of street vendors one could always locate a sort of pop-up communication hub under colorful umbrellas.pop-up telephone street hubSigns of minutes  (MINUTOS) today can be seen almost any where in Colombia. From small rural towns to urban metropolis, the country has been populated with sellers of time. Or more accurate, with informal vendors who have included the selling time in their lists of products. The characteristics of these signs are very interesting. As they usually have hand made qualities, they vary in type, size, font, and color. They also appear sometimes in curious mash-ups lists where different informal services of a vibrant economy are advertised.  minutos laminacionThe picture above, for instance, reveals the signs of a street vendor who not only sells time and phone calls, but also batteries, gas, and other kinds of services including plasticizing an identity card. todo operador Sometimes the signs are hanging on light poles next to the stret vendor carts.

200pesosOther times they are just attached on trees. However, no matter where the signs are located, there will be an informal communication infrastructure ready to be leveraged.




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