In 2014, research showed that a quarter of people didn’t know the phone number on their own landline (this rose to 40% of people in London). With people increasing using their mobile phones for communication and with faster 4G internet that can even rival home broadband, is there still a place for landlines in 2016?
In telecoms, the biggest trend over the past decade has undoubtedly been the growth in mobile technology and the steady displacement of landline technology.
Today, mobile is becoming the primary way many of us communicate with the rest of the world. Whether that’s through a traditional phone call or through web-based applications like social networking and instant messaging, the smartphone has now become the hub of all of our communications. About a quarter of people no longer know their own landline telephone number (in fact, many people now only get a landline installed as it’s the only way of getting home broadband).
In the UK, we now have 120 mobile phones for every 100 people (yes: there are more mobile phone connections than there are people!). Furthermore, the latest versions of 4G technology are giving rapidly faster download speeds that can even rival home broadband. Will we soon get to a point where landlines become redundant and where mobile technology replaces it fully?
Some of the most interesting data around this area is published every year by the ITU (the International Telecommunications Union).
The following graph shows the number of telephone connections worldwide (fixed line connections are shown in blue and mobile connections are shown in red). Here, we can see the rapid growth in mobile connections over the past decade (from 2.2 billion in 2005 up to 7.1 billion in 2015) and a small decline in the number of fixed line connections (from 1.2 billion in 2015 to 1.1 billion in 2015).
When it comes to broadband internet connections, the figures look a little bit different. Both fixed-line broadband and mobile broadband have growing for the past decade, but the number of mobile broadband connections is currently growing 17 times faster. As of 2015, there are 3.5 billion mobile broadband connections and only 0.8 billion fixed broadband connections.
A trend can clearly be seen in both bits of data: mobile technology has fast overtaken the landline and it’s rapidly becoming the dominant of the two technologies. But how did we get here and what might happen next?
Out of landlines and mobiles, the landline has a much longer history (this can be traced back some 140 years):
1876 – The world’s first landline telephone was invented by a Scotsman named Alexander Graham Bell. Developed in his laboratory in Boston, USA, the first ever telephone call was between two neighbouring rooms. His voice was carried by a piece of wire connecting two devices.
1879 – The UK’s first landline telephone exchange was set up. Using copper cables, the telephone exchange would initially connect 8 subscribers. Over the next hundred years, the telephone system would continue to grow as part of the General Post Office (the GPO).
1981 – In 1981, British Telecom was split out as a separate company from the Post Office. This meant BT could focus on landline telephony and the Post Office could focus on delivering letters and parcels. BT was initially set up as a publicly-owned company but it was later privatised in 1984.
1992 – In 1992, a company called Pipex launched the UK’s first dial-up internet service. The service was initially priced at £400 per quarter, with an upfront fee of £250 to join the service. Taking inflation into account, this is equivalent to about £1,400 per quarter and £850 upfront in today’s prices. With dial-up internet, it wasn’t possible to use your phone and the internet at the same time. The maximum download speeds were also 56Kbps, meaning it would take about 10 minutes to download a MP3 file.
1999 – A new technology called wireless fidelity was released to the market (though it was more commonly known by the shorter name of Wi-Fi). It allowed people to start accessing the internet from multiple devices around their home, so they were no longer limited to a fixed location.
2000 – At the turn of the millennium, the first ADSL broadband services launched in the UK. With home broadband, it was initially possible to get download speeds of up to 512Kbps (this was nine times faster than dial-up internet). It also became possible to make a phone call at the same time as accessing the internet. This gave rise to always-on internet. In the first two years, about 200,000 people signed up to a broadband internet service.
2016 – Today, there are 33 million active landlines in the UK. Of those, about 24 million lines are being used for home broadband. The number of landline telephone connections is slowly in decline, though the number of the home broadband connections is still rising.
In contrast, mobile phones and mobile broadband have a much shorter history (mobile technology has been in existence for less than 50 years).
1973 – The world’s first mobile phone call was made by Martin Cooper, an engineer at Motorola. Using analogue technology, the first prototype handset weighed more than 1 kilogram. It also suffered from incredibly poor battery life: you would charge it for 10 hours to get 30 minutes battery life.
1983 – Ten years later, the world’s first commercially-available mobile phone would finally be released. The Motorola DynaTAC cost $4000 which is equivalent to about £8,000 in today’s money after inflation. It gave 6 hours standby time and 30 minutes talk time on a single charge.
1985 – On the 1st January 1985, Vodafone launched the UK’s first mobile phone network. Cellnet, the other company also launching a mobile network, followed shortly afterwards on the 7th January. Early mobile networks used an analogue 1G technology known as TACS and phone calls would easily cost you more than £1/minute (equivalent to about £3/minute in today’s prices). Analogue services would continue running in the UK until 2001.
1994 – The UK’s first 2G mobile networks launched in 1994. 2G networks used digital technology rather than analogue. It was still mainly for phone calls but it also allowed for SMS text messages and basic browsing over WAP.
2003 – Mobile broadband and 3G networks started launching in the UK. With early versions of 3G technology, it was possible to browse the internet at 384Kbps. This was only a little bit slower than the speeds available on a home broadband connection of the time.
2008 – Across the world, the number of mobile broadband subscriptions overtook home broadband subscriptions in 2008.
2012 – The first 4G mobile networks launched in the UK.
2016 – Today, there are nearly 80 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK. This is more than double the total number of landline subscriptions. For many people, the smartphone is now their primary device for accessing the internet. The number of mobile broadband connections is also growing 17 times faster than the number of fixed broadband connections across the whole world.
For more information, you may find it of interest to read the ‘brief history of telecommunications’ series from @matt_bird. This is a four part article (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4) that covers everything from mobile networks to handsets.
For many people, usage of mobile phones and mobile broadband has now overtaken landlines and fixed-line broadband. Is the end of the landline due to come very soon? Do you still use a landline or do you mainly now use your mobile? Could mobile broadband replace your home broadband connection? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments… please drop us a message below and let us know what you think!
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