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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Do land lines face being cut off?
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

A Dodo, BBC
The Dodo: A model for your land line?
You pay too much to use the phone.

You do, really.

Chances are that you have got a fixed line phone at home, 93% of UK households do, so you pay one bill for that.

You are also likely to have a mobile too, 73% of British adults do, which means at least one more bill. Perhaps two if your partner or spouse has a handset as well.

And if you have children they are increasingly likely to have a mobile as well.

Statistics for those under 15 are hard to find, but Ofcom figures suggest that almost nine out of 10 younger users have a phone, more than any other group. That's more bills for you.

There may well be extra costs for ring tones, games, text and multimedia messages and perhaps browsing some Wap pages.

Finally, if you have a dial-up net or broadband account you have to pay more for that.

That means you could be paying perhaps six or seven times to do these things with a phone, or via a phone line, even if it is a wireless one.

Call handling

The thicket of bills the average person receives has not yet persuaded many to ditch their fixed phone line and do everything via a mobile or the net.

Ofcom figures show that only 6% of households communicated solely via mobile in August 2003 (the most recent figures). Strangely this was down on May 2003 when the figure was 8%.

But Mark Heath, director of research at consulting company Sound Partners, says this looks set for change.

Mr Heath was co-author of a report into fixed-mobile substitution which concluded that mobile operators could take 50% of fixed voice calls and 63% of the cash we pay for them by 2009.

What could hold up this change, said Mr Heath, is net access.

Children using mobile phones, BBC
Kids are big fans of mobile phones
"If people want the internet they are not going to get rid of their fixed line," he says.

Dial-up net access has a lasting popularity. Broadband net access in British homes is growing, but twice as many homes still use dial-up.

This situation offers a real opportunity to third-generation mobile phone firms, says Mr Heath.

"3G could bring internet access to the home," he says.

Data download speeds on the 3 and Vodafone 3G network top out at 384kilobits per second, which is far faster than the fastest dial-up speed of 56kbps.

But it isn't as fast as the 512kbps that many broadband users are getting.

And so far the 3G operators are not selling their services as home net alternatives.

Currently 3 charges by events, for instance for each e-mail messages you send or receive, which would make it very expensive to swap a dial-up account for a 3 phone.

Third-generation phone operators that offer cheaper net services and good deals on voice could well see customers flock to them, says Mr Heath.

Cut the ties

One other way of reducing those bills and ridding yourself of the fixed phone is perhaps to do everything via the net.

A fistful of cables, Eyewire
Net access keeps people tied to their fixed phone
But that is not easy to do. Yet.

Voice over IP services, which route voice phone calls across the net, are getting more popular and widespread, particularly in businesses, but home services are few and far between.

BT's Bluephone initiative may change this as it will route calls via Bluetooth short-range radio through a net switch.

The service has undergone successful trials and snared Vodafone as a partner so it could offer consumers a way to reduce how much they pay to call and browse the web.

You could do far more of your calling via the net using a service like Skype, but returning calls from old-fashioned handsets is still not possible.

In the UK Ofcom is considering using the 056 prefix for Voice over IP numbers but nothing concrete has happened yet.

"Consumers are going to have to decide who they want to go with for their telephone needs," says Mr Heath.

Until then you are going to continue paying the price of progress.

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