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Ofcom Moot Phone Number for Life as Broadband Changes UK Calling

Saturday, January 5th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 8,441

New research from Ofcom has today suggested that remembering phone numbers – or even needing to dial them – could soon become a thing of the past as consumers are changing how they communicate and making greater use of broadband internet and mobile services. The landline phone era is slowly coming to an end.

Last year’s Communications and Market Report 2018 (CMR) has already done a good job of highlighting this change. Back in 2012 UK people made a total of 103 billion minutes of landline calls, which has fallen to just 54 billion in 2017. Over the same period mobile call minutes have increased from 132.1 billion to 148.6 billion, while the average person’s monthly mobile data usage has soared from 0.2 GigaBytes to 1.9 GB.

Now a new qualitative study from Ofcom, which is based on feedback from 14 focus groups and 8 in-depth interviews amongst a cross-section of consumers and businesses across all four UK nations, has confirmed a number of interesting findings about how we all use communication services.

Key Findings of the Study

* Younger people prefer to use messaging services, such as WhatsApp, rather than use their phones to talk. As one 18-year-old from Aberdeen said: “Calling someone is a bit daunting. It’s much easier and quicker to WhatsApp my friends. If I have to call a company, I’ll always try to use webchat if it’s available.”

* Older people still prefer having a conversation. A 68-year-old participant from Belfast said: “I prefer to speak to a person. You can get a better understanding.

* People now rely on contact numbers stored in their phones, as opposed to dialling the number directly each time. It’s now common to click on a name or web link on your mobile to call a number, rather than manually dial it.

* Young and Old people have different understandings of geographic area codes. Younger people generally don’t feel strongly about whether area codes represent a particular location and many don’t even know that area codes have geographic significance (many mistake them for other numbers or associate with nuisance callers), while most older people recognise what area codes are and trust the codes local to them.

None of this is particularly new or surprising and we’ve already reported on how it’s impacting the way broadband ISPs and network suppliers operate. For example, at present Openreach (BT) supplies a copper phone line or bundles it with broadband, although the latter is considered somewhat of an optional extra (i.e. you get the phone service first and then broadband). Even though most of us only take a landline for broadband.

In the future Openreach’s approach will be reversed as they move from analogue to Internet Protocol (IP) / VoIP based communications, which means that broadband will become the primary service you buy and phone (voice calling) is the optional extra. A lot of fixed wireless and full fibre (FTTP) broadband ISPs already do this since they cannot deliver an analogue phone on the same line (e.g. optical fibres carry data in laser light, while older copper lines use electrical signals).

NOTE: Check out our article – The Changing Face of UK Home Phone Lines and Broadband Provision – for a bit more background. The BSG has also highlighted some of the Challenges in Moving to All-IP Networks.

One interesting change with all this stems from how phone numbers themselves will change. Broadband-based call technology (e.g. VoIP) does not need area codes to tell it where to send a call. At this point the regulator asked their study group how they’d feel if area codes were scrapped, which might enable you to have a number that never changes no matter where you are (not unlike how mobile numbers work today – rarely changing between operator moves).

Some younger people welcomed the idea of having greater freedom to own a number “for life“, which they could see as becoming a part of their personal identity. But once again older people were strongly against losing geographic meaning from area codes.

Liz Greenberg, Head of Numbering at Ofcom, said:

“Some of us can remember a time when we stored phone numbers in our head, rather than our mobile. But the way we use and feel about telephone numbers is changing.

In the future, as more calls are made over broadband, dialling codes won’t need to be fixed to a particular part of the country. So the question is – could area codes become a thing of the past?”

Ofcom and the Office of the Telecoms Adjudicator (OTA2) have been busy working on the issue of number portability with major ISPs for some time, not least because at present it’s still too easy to lose your home phone number when moving house and sometimes while switching ISP (platform dependent). Likewise shifting a fixed phone line number to VoIP is still a process that in many cases could do with some refinement (too slow and unfamiliar to most people).

Last year this work seemed to move forward after the regulator secured £700,000 from the UK Government’s new £10m Regulators’ Pioneer Fund, which is being used to fuel a project that will seek to tackle problems like the one mentioned above (here). This will all be based around a new blockchain using trial from BT and several other participating ISPs (i.e. some form of decentralised database).

At present the trial is still only in an early stage of development and so it’s unlikely to arrive anytime soon, but the direction of travel seems clear.

NOTE: There are 1.3 billion landline phone numbers in the UK (not to mention 610 area codes), of which 400 million are currently allocated to telecoms operators. When area codes were first created in the 1950s, they had particular significance on a telephone dial (i.e. numbers corresponded to two-letter identifiers, such as AB (22) for Aberdeen. So today, Aberdeen’s area code is 01224 [01AB4]).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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19 Responses
  1. Adam says:

    Our household only has a fixed line for the internet, we never give it out to anyone and instead provide our VOIP on Skype number which we’ve had for nearly a decade.

    Landlines are so dated, the only use for the cable that comes into properties nowadays is for the internet.

  2. Joe says:

    “Back in 2012 UK people made a total of 103 **billion** minutes of landline calls, which has fallen to just 54 **million** in 2017.”

    Are you sure you mean this Mark?!

    1. Jim Blaggs. says:

      It’s 54 Billion. Easy mistake to make.

  3. Joe says:

    A # for life sounds good to me. The only downside I can see is fraud or call avoidance. Perhaps all commercial numbers having to stay in a certain range might solve the latter.

  4. craski says:

    Area codes are a useful coarse filtering method on incoming calls. That would be something I would miss.

  5. Michael V says:

    01, 02 obviously need to be geographic but that’s why we have 03 numbers, any company in the UK can one. Besides the fact certain areas have ran out of numbers!
    I think 03 should be opened up for residential use too.
    But also with more people not wanting a landline I don’t think there will be a demand for this.
    We need to think about the future of 07 numbers…

    1. AndyC says:

      can you not just add another digit to the end of the 6 already there like they did when they did the whole 01, 02. 03 thing?

  6. NE555 says:

    Given the shock pricing on landline calls – 25p or more just for call connection – this is not surprising.

    But why on earth Blockchain for routing numbers?? OFCOM can just run a central database of number mappings. It can be notarised if necessary (sign a hash on the whole database).

    Blockchain makes no sense here whatsoever, unless all the different telcos don’t trust a single database “source of truth”.

  7. Rahul says:

    Not surprising! Landline telephones are soon going to be obsolete just like with the old fax machines and typewriters.

    Of-course I don’t think it will be completely dead just yet. In order for copper lines to be completely scrapped the UK will need to first achieve 100% FTTP and that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

    There will still be a few older people who will use a landline phone, those that don’t have a mobile or don’t know how to communicate using internet services. But most of us use mobile phones, Skype and even Facebook’s voice and video call system.

    I don’t think I’ve used a landline telephone to call once in the last 5 years. We remove the phone cable from the micro filter and only reconnect it in very rare circumstances like checking voicemails, or line quality (such as noise). Since you can’t put the phone on silent mode like with a mobile device, you may get annoying calls related to telemarketing. Plus landline is more expensive overall than Skype services.

    My dad for example uses Skype app on his phone and makes international calls using skype credit and the rate is much, much cheaper compared to landline or most sim cards. Skype to skype is also free as well as Facebook. This is what basically kills the use of a landline phone other than the need for ADSL/2+ broadband service.

    Nobody even cares or needs to know our landline telephone number anymore and we won’t care if we lost the service or not as long as it doesn’t affect our internet service.

    1. Chris P says:

      When your old people will wonder why people where insistent on having a cable connecting their house to the internet and why everything didn’t just connect wirelessly, as most things in the home currently connect to the wired internet.

      The cable is just the current access medium, most people immediately terminate it on a wifi router and the cheaper older routers can’t even manage the full speed of the access circuit being paid for.

      In the not too distant future we will be registering devices to our mobile phone accounts that’ll just access the net or our own private virtual networks regardless of where they are without the need to connect to a cable in our homes!!

  8. Richi Jennings says:

    Um, the UK has had personal numbers since, what, 1995-ish? But they never really took off because of the ludicrous cost of calling them.

  9. Optimist says:

    If it wasn’t for the fact that I have to pay line rental anyway for broadband (VM), I would get rid of the landline.

    So I tend to use my mobile for voice calls, though I do find the line quailty is sometimes rather iffy with one or both parties often having to ask the other to repeat sentences.

  10. Robert M says:

    There is another couple of aspects to consider for landlines. When 999 is dialled the operator knows exactly where the call originated from without speaking to the caller. Also in the event of power failure you can still use the landline to communicate using a “corded” phone, if you had thought to keep one in a cupboard!

    1. R Brian says:

      With smartphones having GPS, it shouldn’t be an unsurmountable problem. OF course, VOIP can be used from anywhere, but with most Wi-Fi access points also geographically mapped, by those same smartphones using Assisted GPS, again it seems to be solvable.

    2. Horacio Hardline says:

      I had to phone 999 from a mobile recently. The call routed to the correct local police force and the operator knew far more about my location that I was expecting.

  11. Mark Tickner says:

    This simply shows that younger generations are losing life skills such as being able to hold a conversation.

  12. Mark Roberts says:

    Is that a typo? Minutes have fallen to 54m from 103bn?

  13. Horacio Hardline says:

    My land line rang a few days ago. It scared the bejesus out of me until I remembered what it was.

    There was a nice lady on the other end telling me there was thousands of pounds allocated to me due to an accident I had no recollection of having. All I had to do was fill a form in and tick a box to say I suffered from certain post accident conditions.

    The land land think is golly useful when people call you and send thousands of pounds you didn’t know you had. Pays for itself.

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