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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Why we shouldn’t hang up on the landline

The traditional telephone has become an endangered species it seems. That reassuring purr of the landline when we pick up the receiver is a sound that many will never get to hear. The mobile phone is, of course, to blame. It’s managed to kill off an abundance of electronic devices; everything from the Walkman to many a portable game player and has had a dramatic impact on the sale of cameras and camcorders.

For the masses, today’s smartphone has it all it seems, but for me it lacks the innocence of those clunky-handset days of old. Call me a sentimental old fool, but I recall with nostalgic whimsy the days when you could call up someone dozens of times, just to annoy them, with the satisfaction of knowing there was no way for them to find out who you were. So what: I may have been a naughty boy.

A double-edged sword

But back to today, and the downward trend in landline ownership is set to continue across the UK, Europe and indeed the world, with research showing that the majority of homes in the US could be without a landline as early as 2016. And, with the ‘big five’ EU telecom firms raising their tariffs by as much as five times the amount of inflation, it’s no wonder that, as a nation, we’re choosing to switch to free technology options instead.

This is actually a double-edged sword however as, by doing so, operators are forced to continue to raise prices to compensate. British Telecom refute this, saying that the recent rises were simply a result of their regular annual price review – I think someone’s telling porky pies and I’m not the only one! James Barford of Enders Analysis agrees saying “People are using Facebook or WhatsApp, or even email if they’re a little old-fashioned, so operators are having to recover their costs from increased line rental”.

A ‘not so romantic’ sunset

Operators have in fact lost out on £85m of revenue in 2015 compared with the previous year so I can understand their predicament but, come on guys, be honest about it at least! And it seems that BT aren’t as nostalgic as me for the landline days of the past. They are in fact calling on Ofcom (the communications watchdog) to appeal for their consent to the dismantling of their UK’s fixed landline network.

BT’s rationale is that it will enable them to focus more effectively on new technology so that they can compete with the likes of Microsoft (Skype), Facebook and Apple. But what about those left behind? BT’s group director of regulatory affairs, Mark Shurmer, says the group: “are looking for a kind of ‘sunset clause’ that will help customers to plan.”

That San Andreas matter

But before we all look sadly to the sunset days of the landline, perhaps we should consider the safety implications of such a move. “Safety?” I hear you ask, “Why yes.” I reply! I’ll say two words to you San Andreas! A mediocre movie maybe, but it made a great point about the safety issues of deserting the landline altogether. During the movie, the female heroine led her fellow survivors to an electronics shop in search of a landline after the trauma caused by the massive earthquake (in all its technicolour on-screen glory) caused the mobile infrastructure to be destroyed in its wake.

You see, landlines work by transmitting voice and data signals by copper wire through electric pulses. In short, this means that landline phones still work even if there’s a blackout or a satellite disturbance that renders our mobile phones useless. Similarly, a landline service uses a central battery system, where power to operate the basic handset (without call display, speakerphone, indicator lamps or cordless features) is supplied by the telephone exchange. This allows it to continue operating from backup power during an extended power outage.

But seriously…

I hate to end on a sober note but this is actually something that should be taken very seriously. On September 11, 2001, a day we’ll all remember, tens of thousands of people were calling the emergency services and, as a result, the volume of calls flooded mobile towers. Many calls could not get through because of the lack of bandwidth, so the network completely crashed. This overload of data signals not only delayed communications, but it also slowed response time of police and fire departments because they could not properly communicate.

New technology can sometimes come back to bite us where it hurts in terms of providing basic functionality in times when communication is needed the most.  So please, let’s not be in too much of a hurry to bury the good old landline. It just might turn out to be a saviour of tomorrow.

Until next time…

I often see and it ever-so slightly annoys me: Yes, 5G is being touted so prematurely! I’m sure most of us are still wondering when 4G will be finally delivered in our area? So next month I will take a look at the 5G proposition and examine what’s what since 5G surely is many years away, right?

So, this is where a slightly miffed Dr G signs off this month.

Originally published in Telecoms.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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