BERLIN -- It would take the unimaginable -- a major power outage, a natural disaster or a sudden, permanent loss of income -- for many people to abandon their mobile phones.
That is what appears to be happening in Spain in the midst of its economic crisis. But in the country's telecom sector, as in a Salvador Dalí painting, there may be more than meets the eye.
The Spanish regulator, Comisión del Mercado de las Telecomunicaciones, said last week that 486,183 mobile phone accounts were deactivated by Spanish operators in October alone, the ninth straight month of contraction that has seen two million prepaid accounts, or 9.4 percent of the current total, taken off networks since February.
The biggest reason for the industry's difficulties is the most obvious: Spain's economic slowdown, highlighted by its 26.2 percent unemployment rate in October, including a jobless rate of nearly 50 percent among cellphone-conscious young consumers.
Rosalind Craven, who analyzes West European mobile operators at International Data Corp. in London, said the nine months of contracting figures reported by Telefónica's Movistar and Vodafone Spain, the two largest mobile operators, reflected the economic challenges facing consumers.
"Because it has been going on for so long, this indicates that the reason is indeed the country's economic distress," she said. "People in Spain have less money and are looking to save where they can."
From January through October, Movistar, the market leader, has deactivated 2.3 million mobile accounts. Vodafone Spain, the No.2, shut off 1.3 million accounts, according to the telecommunications commission. Conversely, Orange Spain, the No.3, has gained 124,420 customers and Yoigo, owned by TeliaSonera of Sweden, has added 412,580. Virtual operators, which are low-cost resellers, have added 1.1 million customers.
But three other developments unrelated to Spain's slowing economy may be exaggerating signs of a telecom sector meltdown.
The first was the decision by Movistar and Vodafone this year to stop subsidizing new handsets. The cost-cutting move caused many customers to switch to Orange, Yoigo and virtual operators like Simyo, which continued to provide subsidies. Both Movistar and Vodafone have since partially reinstated subsidies.
The other influence was a decision by Telefónica and Vodafone to focus on their most lucrative clients -- contract customers who pay on average about €25, or $33, each month, more than double what prepaid customers pay. Telefónica, for example, has signed up one million customers since October to a new plan called Movistar Fusión, a package of mobile, fixed and Internet flat-rate service starting at €49.99 a month.
A third, less obvious reason, may be the counting methods used by the operators, which during economic downturns have been known to purge inactive accounts more aggressively from subscriber lists. Such cullings bolster the average monthly revenue per user, the main bellwether used by investors to value operators.
Representatives for Telefónica and Vodafone declined to say if they were aggressively purging their lists. Ms. Craven, the I.D.C. analyst, said operators in Greece conducted a mass purge in 2009 as that country's economic crisis began to worsen.
Operators generally declare accounts to be inactive when they are unused for three or six months. In good economic times, bigger customer rolls help operators claim greater market share. In bad times, the bigger lists dilute scarce earnings.
Spaniards do not appear to be abandoning their "móviles." Cellphone penetration in Spain was 116 percent in October, and many people carry more than one SIM card. The inactive accounts being shut down, said Agustín Diaz-Pinés, an analyst at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, are likely to be extra SIM accounts.
"Undoubtedly the economic downturn plays a role here, but I don't think many people are dropping their mobile subscriptions," he said. "They may rather be canceling duplications, for example, the prepaid line you never use."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.