Consumer Watch: An upstart mobile lays siege to the traditional landline
The once iconic household blower is under attack from new technology, says Jane Bradley but don’t write it off just yet
THEY were once a pricey and novel alternative to the trusty house phone – to be used for nothing but a quick emergency call or text message.
But now, the increasingly cost-efficient nature of mobile phones is squeezing the need for a landline out of many householders’ lives.
The latest Ofcom survey showed that 17 per cent of Scots now live in mobile-only households – and the figure is rising.
The reason is that mobile phones are becoming increasingly cheap to use. From the early days of mass market usage, not much over a decade ago, the costs of sending a text or making a call to a landline or other mobile user has dropped significantly – usually now coming as inclusive in a customer’s service plan.
In the early part of the last decade, mobile phone tariffs were even more complicated. It was one price to phone someone on the same network – but a whole different ballgame if you dared to venture outside of your own phone provider’s realm.
Most companies started to offer cheap (or inclusive) calls to landlines – but any premium numbers or in some cases, even calls to pick up your own voicemail – were charged at higher rates. But things are changing – and at a rapid pace – making ownership of a landline ever less important.
This week, Ofcom announced plans to make 0800 numbers free from mobile phones – and to clarify charges for phoning organisations such as information, banking and directory inquiries – usually 08, 09 and 118 numbers – from mobiles.
Other regulations set to be brought in have made roaming far cheaper and proposals to do the same to data downloads on smartphones when abroad – in the European Union at least – have also been put forward.
“The price, portability and convenience of mobile phones mean that people are now much more likely to reach for them and use up their monthly allowances of minutes, rather than seeing them as merely a back up to a landline,” said Ernest Doku, technology expert at uSwitch.com. “And with mobile phone packages cheaper than ever before, and with contracts to suit all lifestyles, ages and budgets, they offer a real alternative.”
Consumer groups welcomed the news about 0800 numbers – which were launched in the UK in 1960, when the Post Office introduced a toll-free number – and currently cost mobile users an average of 21p a minute, pointing to the “ever increasing number” of mobile-only homes in the UK.
Late last year, supermarket giant Asda announced it was to stop selling landline handsets, saying they would soon become as outdated as the likes of cassette tapes, video recorders and hostess trolleys.
“Standing in one place to make a call just doesn’t make sense any more, nor does untangling the wire, so we’ve decided to hang up on sales of landline phones,” said Asda mobile buyer James McMurrough, at the time. “The truth is that mobiles are more powerful, more affordable and more convenient and there just isn’t a compelling reason to have a landline phone any more.”
But Mr Doku said he believed even rulings which bring mobiles further in line with landlines would never completely remove the need for fixed phones.
“There will always be a core set of users – the elderly, for example – who are less willing or feel less able to embrace new technology and are therefore likely to remain reliant on their home phones,” he said. “And many households also have a home phone line as a necessary component to support their broadband connections.
“While the number and duration of calls made from home phones may well be on the decline from this ruling, we don’t think the British public will be hanging up on them for some time to come.”
Josh Welensky, The Scotsman Magazine’s technology writer, agreed.
“I’ve just been trying to buy a new house from my staycation just outside Perth and if I could make a call it would have been free,” he said. “However, the most Vodafone could muster was a shaky two bars, which nearly resulted in £350,000 being confused with £315,000.
“Making a call on a mobile may well be cheaper and more convenient than a landline, but I can count on my big toe the number of times I’ve had a dropped call or a dodgy connection on my wired blower. Until UK mobile coverage is 100 per cent and reliability matches that of a landline, there’s still going to be a place for tradition over technology.”
Figures from Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report showed that 86 per cent of Scots currently have a mobile phone – while 21 per cent use their smartphones for accessing the internet.
A total of 72 per cent of Scottish households said they have both mobiles and landlines.
Vicki Nash, director of Ofcom Scotland, said: “We have seen a drop of around 10 per cent in landline take-up in the UK over the last ten years, although this has stabilised in the year.
“The UK has a very diverse consumer population who actively make choices about which services they want to take or subscribe to.”
However, in Scotland, only 80 per cent of homes have a landline – well below the UK average of 85 per cent.
“Research from the regulator Ofcom shows that the percentage of mobile-only households is on the up, but the rate of increase is slow,” said a spokesman for watchdog Which? “People have landlines for a variety of reasons, such as poor mobile coverage, because it can be cheaper, or for their broadband. Unless those factors change, then landlines are likely to be around for quite some time.”
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