Demise Of The Fixed-Line Home Phone


Australian Communications and Media Authority Communications report 2017–18.

The landline is ringing. A saxophone riff from a Men at Work song plays in my head (‘who can it be now?’). Despite my better judgement, I pick up. It goes something like this. (Pause) “This is Nicole from Australian National Broadband. We have been trying to get in touch with you as we are soon going to disconnect your landline, Press 1 now to speak to a technician.”

I don’t press 1 and after 5 seconds the call disconnects. Poor Nicole (and apologies to the two women I know named Nicole). She has been robo calling our number without success for at least 18 months. How will you describe that on your CV, Nicole? (2018-2019: scam robo call voiceover).

Once again, synchronicity strikes. Just when I decided to write about the demise of the landline, I see it is National Scam Awareness Week (August 12-16). There are serious reasons for raising awareness of telephone and internet scams, as they are costing Australians about $1 billion a year.

Scamwatch estimates that NBN scams alone are ripping $110,000 a month from people who should have tuned in for NSAW last year (when the figure was $37,000 a month).

Few real people call our landline these days. Like everyone I surveyed for this essay, we average about 15 telemarketing calls or phone scams per week. They are often the 6.50pm calls, just as you are sitting down to eat. It’s someone in an offshore call centre, trying to sell you something. Most people just hang up.

My elder sister in New Zealand always calls the landline, as does John, our oldest friend in the village. They belong to a cohort who does not have mobile phones. They persist, some would say depend on, the dying communication form of a fixed copper wire telephone line.

The 2017-2018 report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) said that 36% (6.7 million) of Australians have scrapped their fixed home phone line and rely on a mobile service. Some may also have a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone as part of their National Broadband Network deal. There is one vital difference between a landline and VoIP. The major issue with a ‘landline’ that comes with an NBN package is that it stops working when you have a power failure. (This is also the case for a hands-free phone plugged into the power, rather than a dedicated phone wired into the wall).

The latter still works when there is a blackout – you can ring Fred on the other side of town to see if his power is out too. Useful stuff like that.

Nevertheless, fixed-line use declined 7% in 2017-2018, continuing a long-term trend (although 10m people still have one).  One could suggest that people are letting go of their landlines in favour of mobiles and reducing their monthly phone/internet bill. I suspect people no longer trust their landline. As FOMM reader John No 1 said: “The value of the telephone as a means of communication is being diminished because it is impossible to know if a caller is genuine…”

Meanwhile, eight out of 10 Australians own a smartphone – 64% more than five years ago. A smart phone is infinitely more useful than a one-function landline. Smart phones users can make voice calls, send texts or use apps for messaging or voice /video calls). And, as we all know, you can browse the internet, watch streaming TV, make videos, take pictures of your cat to put on Facebook, use it as a compass or a navigation device, tune your guitar, turn it into a metronome or use it as an alarm clock.

A few FOMM readers responded to my question: why do you still have a landline? John No 2 (no mobile), says he wants to stay with a fixed-line phone because mobile reception is poor where he lives. He is also a bit peeved that after paying for a silent number, he still gets nuisance calls.  Another reader told me she uses her landline exclusively for her counselling service so she can be ‘present’ (as opposed to being out and about and distracted if a client calls on the mobile).

Ian says he ended up with a VoIP phone when he changed to the NBN, but neither he nor Mrs Ian uses it, mainly because Telstra/Optus were unable to transfer his old number. They prefer to use mobiles, as they had been doing for years before NBN showed up. Ian says that until the change was forced upon him, he’d had a landline (and the same Telstra number), for 33 years.

I tend to avoid using the home phone, instead favouring text messages. She Who Likes To Talk To People always tries calling first.

“What’s the point,” I say. “It will just go to voice mail or they will get a garbled 10-second text message transcribed from voice.”

Example: “It’s Nog here, I be roundson to pick up cheers.”

The ease of text messaging (and the fast response when you use the Facebook app Messenger), has lulled us into a world where we communicate primarily by text and email (both formats which can be easily misinterpreted), in lieu of actually talking to each other.

A while ago, I realised this form of communication was the equivalent of holing up in the castle and sending a messenger on horseback to tell Princess Desiree in yonder palace that she is the fairest in the land.

Who would know if the fair damsel received the gilded message and what happened next (mayhap she was smitten by the messenger and they rode off together into the darkening forest (cue Game of Thrones theme).

Yes, so I decided I would have a telephone conversation with someone every week. I’m behind schedule, but I have excuses.

It is probably fair in National Scam Awareness Week to observe that mobile phone users are also plagued by scam calls, robo calls and telemarketers. Nevertheless, Australians continue their love affair with mobile technology. In Australia, there are now 34.54 million mobile services in operation, compared with 31.09 million in 2013, the last time I wrote on this topic. ACMA says the volume of data downloaded on mobile networks increased fivefold between 2014 and 2018. We can probably attribute a lot of it to Netflix (50% of Australians have a subscription), and Stan (13%).

The relatively slow growth in new mobile use suggests demand has peaked. Still, that’s about 10 million more mobiles than there are people. Given this huge target market, it seems likely the scammers and hard-sell merchants will keep finding sinister new ways to catch us off guard.

Robo calls are as big a problem in the US as the opioid crisis, mass shootings and Donald Trump. The regulators have been pressing the telecommunications industry to do something about it since 2014. In response, the industry has developed a solution to stop robo calls and ‘spoofing’. The latter refers to criminals and unscrupulous people altering the calling number of their outbound calls in order to deceive the person receiving the call. For example, the call may show up in your caller ID as your neighbour or a relative. The industry has invented a new technology standard to defeat spoofing and has given it an intriguing name based on two acronyms – STIR/SHAKEN.

Sounds like something you’d order at the bar when taking Miss Moneypenny on a date.

Further reading FOMM back pages:

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