The Slow and Agonizing Death of the Landline Phone

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When was the last time you used your landline phone? For many people, especially 20-somethings in the UK, the answer to that will be: “What landline?”

With cell phones now ubiquitous, and house prices so astronomically high that buying a home is beyond the means of many young couples, the idea of having a fixed phone line connecting your home to the outside world is fast fading away, argues Jess Cartner-Morley in The Guardian.

The phones in our pockets and handbags are so much more convenient, so much more useful, that they have become our default means of communication. Put simply, people just don’t bother using their home phones any more.

There are only two things keeping the home phone line alive. The first is demographics. While younger people have grown up with cell phones, their parents and grandparents still cling on to landlines and still like to be contacted that way. In many cases, it’s the only way.

The second is the UK’s phone network. Built decades ago by BT when it was a state-owned monopoly, the network is now maintained and run by BT’s private company spin-offs. A thriving market of third-party internet service providers (ISPs) offers broadband services, but almost all of these are dependent on the physical network that remains in BT’s hands.

BT sells bandwidth to the ISPs at wholesale price; they in turn sell it on to customers. But when something goes wrong with the actual copper wire or fibre optic that connects your home to the wider network, it’s BT that must come out and fix it.

The consequence of this labyrinthine arrangement is that millions of British homes continue to pay BT for rental of their phone line, simply so that they can use it for broadband internet access. Cable connections from third parties are available, but only in certain areas.

The home landline isn’t dead yet, people are just using it differently.

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