BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

The slow death of landline phones

Phone cord cut

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

British government workers are getting a two-day taste of life without fixed line phones. But how easily would the rest of us surrender our landline?

You pick up the phone on your desk and there is no dialling tone. Your colleague does the same.

It's a scenario repeated across the country, in a catastrophic nationwide communications failure caused by a natural disaster or cyber attack.

And this week it is happening. At least, it is for civil servants.

An exercise called White Noise, in which the "public switched telephone network" is disabled, is being simulated by Whitehall, in London, to test the response of government and the communications industry to such an emergency.

Having a landline is about having a commitment to place as much as anything
Ben Highmore

Similar exercises are regularly carried out for scenarios like a terror attack or a nuclear leak, and what they learn from this one will be used to improve the national communications network.

For the purposes of White Noise, internet access will still be working, but if all landlines were to be knocked out in reality, much of the UK's internet access would sink with them.

Could the mobile network take the strain? Are landlines really that important these days?

In the domestic setting, landlines are already starting to wane. Where once mobile phones were just for people on the move, in many homes they are now the handsets of choice - the first port of call to make or receive a call.

The thrust of BT's latest advertising campaign alludes to this receding tide. Once the landline phone was an essential. Now, it's a luxury to be savoured compared with the hit-and-miss tourist class experience of chatting on a mobile.

"If a conversation's worth having, use your landline," runs the strapline at the end of the TV ad.

So as the mobile internet market slowly grows, will the need for landlines disappear altogether?


For many young people in rented accommodation, the idea a landline phone is already anachronistic, says Ben Highmore, a lecturer in old and new technology at University of Sussex. But within this generational divide, many people share a strong, psychological attachment to landline phones.

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Suburbia, the 70s and a landline phone - the very essence of settled life

"Having a landline is about having a commitment to place as much as anything," says Mr Highmore, himself speaking from a landline phone. "Mobile phones are about mobility in a much deeper sense than just convenience. It's about not being rooted in the same way as a landline, which gives a feeling of stability."

There's a practical benefit too, because landlines offer you the means to ring a household, rather than a person, which on some occasions may be all you need. And like many new technologies, mobiles represent a compromise in quality, because landlines offer a clearer line.

"There is a terrible gee-whizzness to celebrating the new, for the sake of new."

In the US, one in five homes is without a landline as more people "cut the cord" during the recession and save money. The latest wheeze for those with defunct phone sockets is a reading lamp that takes its power from the electrical charge that comes down a phone line.

Research conducted for the European Commission at the end of 2007 suggested 15% of UK households had mobile phone access but were without a fixed phone line into their home, 2% up from 2006. But that's still a small proportion compared with the Czech Republic (63%) and Finland (61%), which is home to the world's biggest mobile phone maker, Nokia.

Graph showing households with no landline, in selected EU countries

One of those British householders who fits into this category is James Parker, a 27-year-old who moved into a rented flat in Chester that had no landline. Like many people, he had no fears about not having a landline to make phone calls.

"My initial concern was that was fine, because I'm more than happy to use my mobile for calls. Lots of households with younger people tend to use mobile phones for calls even if they have a fixed line, because it's easier than getting up off the couch and they can send text messages."

Mr Parker knows more than most about comparative costs thanks to his job at the price comparison website The only concern he had about not having a landline was not having a line for broadband, but weighing up the options - and the £120 price tag of getting a line installed - he thought he could get away with mobile broadband instead.

Three million UK homes have mobile broadband access
Many of them use 'dongles' which plug into computers
They enable internet access from anywhere with a mobile signal
Globally, the rate of growth of high-speed mobile connections has increased two-thirds in the last year

Using a USB dongle he connects to the internet via a mobile phone network, for £15 a month. But he concedes it's not as fast as broadband down a fixed line.

"It can be quite hit and miss at different times of day but I only use the internet to check e-mails, a small amount of browsing and to download the odd song. I don't download movies. It's fine for me, but if you're more than a light user then you would need to get a fixed line broadband."

The experience of Mr Parker and others shows we are slowly moving away from landline dependence, says Rob Webber, commercial director at Broadband Expert, although landlines still provide much more reliable internet access.

"The technology of mobile broadband has taken off in the past two years but [it] is struggling a little to keep up.

"If you're lucky enough to get a strong 3G signal then the technology is fine. It's not as fast as a strong home connection but you probably get one to two megabits per second."

That's ok for "everyday life" although "not really suitable for online gaming or downloading and streaming videos".

But Mr Parker thinks that could change in three to four years with the next generation of mobile telecommunications - 4G. Some being tested now achieve speeds of up to 100 megabits per second.

Collapse under demand

"Once that technology does arrive, then people will just ditch their home phones, ditch their home broadband connections and just have this on a device which will provide them with broadband anywhere they go. Just like a dongle now put in a laptop or home computer."

But Phil Sayer, principal analyst at Forrester Research, urges us not to start drawing up our landline cancellation requests just yet. Anyone who remembers the hype which surrounded 3G in the late 1990s will know where he's coming from.

Africa has the fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world
In countries like South Africa, mobile phones outnumber fixed lines by eight-to-one
Millions of Africans use mobiles to bank
Some of these countries never had an extensive landline network... they can expand their mobile broadband network slowly as demand increases

"It's great to talk about speeds of 50 to 100 megabits but we need to walk before we can run. Rolling out another high-speed network when they haven't finished the job on the current one doesn't make a very satisfactory consumer offer for people that don't live in central London."

Access to mobile broadband is useless because providers promise "up to" seven megabits per second but whether you get that depends on many variables, such as how close you are to a transmitter, how many people are also trying to use that transmitter and whether you're in a concrete-encased building like an office block.

"For the service to be universally usable and to use on the move, the coverage needs to be much better than it is today. But the wider question is whether there is an incentive to improve it because no-one wants to pay more than they do."

Places like Finland are way ahead because they can provide fast and reliable service, he says. Unlike the UK.

If White Noise really happened and all fixed lines were disabled tomorrow, says Mr Sayer, the mobile network would simply collapse under the demand.

Below is a selection of your comments.

There are many places in England never mind the remoter parts of the U.K. where the mobile network just doesn't work.I live on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire and it is not just the odd place where the mobile reception is unacceptable. When this is no longer the case mobile phones would be fine for all occassions.
John Holt, Horwich Bolton

The article implied that no fixed line / landline phone means you need to use mobile internet. Not so. It's the combination of fixed line broadband and mobile phones that is making fixed line telephones redundant. We have fixed line broadband - a 110 megabit fibre optic connection, but we got rid of our landline phone 5 or 6 years ago, it was barely used. Why pay €100 line rental per year for nothing? Local calls tend to be made by mobile. International calls are initiated by mobile giving both parties time to switch on a PC and fire up Skype or MS Messenger. Both programmes allow free video calls when the other person has a PC and the same software. Skype also allows us to call international landlines for a few cents per minute.
Michael (British ex-pat), Pori, Finland

"There's a practical benefit too, because landlines offer you the means to ring a household, rather than a person". This is one of the reasons we don't have a landline. No more hoax calls, or sales calls. Internet via cable, free minutes and texts on mobile or Skype on the mobile, the monthly tariff for line rental alone is more than my mobile phone rate. If BT would offer internet without the phone, they may be on to something.
Sarah, Swindon, UK

I'd quite happily get rid of the landline today, except that various credit card companies etc insist you have a landline to apply for credit. If you don't, you get rejected automatically! Crazy but true! I last encountered this only last week when I gave my mobile number as the contact number when applying for a loan. The company called me and said everything was fine except they needed my landline number!
Paul, Belfast

Landlines provide a safeguard in that they're linked to an address. This can be a significant factor if you're a buyer or seller. For example, I wouldn't consider buying an expensive product or service from someone who only offered a mobile phone number.
Graham Barker , Hebden Bridge, UK

No consideration has been given to the use of an answering machine. This feature only goes with land line phones. I have to screen all my calls with my answering machine because of the volume of wrong numbers and crank calls. Another consideration is getting all cell phone numbers into the phone book. I don't think that eliminating land lines is practical.
Al Finch, Lindenwold, NJ, USA

I do NOT agree to cutting of the line. I have recently purchased a land line phone with large letters and numbers so that my sister who is loosing her sight can continue to make phone calls - she cannot see the board on a mobile phone it is to small. Also there are people with arthritic hands who would find difficulty using the small mobile phone. Can you imagine the size the mobile phone would have to be to enable some people to use it, they would need a large bag to carry it - or need a very large pocket. OK for the young but they will get old one day!
Margery Palmer, Harpenden England

Companies such as Sky and Virgin often need a landline for there set top box to be used. There is still a large impact of not having a landline: technological and cultural. There are still companies that require you to have a landline to provide services such as utilities etc. Until many things are sorted I do believe that landlines are here to stay.
Geoffrey Coad, Harrow, UK

I bought a new build home last May. When I looked at the cost of installing a land line, it was £165, even though the wiring is all in place. It is not cost effective, I can manage just as well with a mobile and use the internet at work, I don't miss it at home at all.
Jo, Derby

I still have a land line for my internet connection, but I haven't had a phone connected to it for a couple of years. It hasn't been missed one bit - and we certainly appreciate the peace, as almost all the calls we used to get on it were marketing calls.
Andrew Rickinson, London

A BT landline (just rental) seems to be very expensive and that's before you make any calls, or have any broadband connection! Also, they charge you in advance and pretend you are in debt to them. Unless landlines get significantly cheaper (and you are charged in arrears as per every other utility), many people will jump at the chance to get rid of them.
BE, London, UK

There are many places in England never mind the remoter parts of the U.K. where the mobile network just doesn't work. I live on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire and it is not just the odd place where the mobile reception is unacceptable. When this is no longer the case mobile phones would be fine for all occasions.
John Holt, Horwich Bolton

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