Ofcom has just published some new research on communication markets across the UK.  There’s lots of data, most of it broken down by the UK nations and the English regions.

One interesting area is the reducing importance of fixed line telephones.  Two years ago, 80% of adults said that they personally use a mobile phone; that figure has now gone up to 88%.  Over the same period, the proportion of people with home access to a fixed line phone has gone down from 91% to 87%, while the proportion of people who only have access to a mobile phone has gone from 8% to 12%.  As the chart below shows, there’s some significant regional variation – a fifth of respondents in Wales and in the north-west are in mobile only households.

Cross-ownership of household telephony services

Ofcom Cross-ownership of household telephony services

A growing number (12%) of adults in the UK live in a home with a mobile phone but with no fixed-line. This development is particularly noticeable in some of England’s cities and urban areas, where income is lower than average, for example: Birmingham (22%), urban areas in Yorkshire and Humber (18%), Greater Manchester (28%), the City of Manchester (19%) and Liverpool (21%). However, in London the proportion relying on mobile telephony is lower than average (7%). Across England 12% rely on mobile telephony, similar to the figure in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but lower than in Wales (19%).

The picture gets more interesting still when we look not at what people can do, but what they do do.  For the UK as a whole, although only 12% only have a mobile phone, for fully 33%, their mobile is the main means of making calls.  The regional pattern is also interestingly different between ownership and use:  London has one of the lowest levels of mobile-only ownership at 7%, but the highest level of mobile use preference at 41%.

Main method of making voice calls

Ofcom Main method of making voice calls

If use preference is a leading indicator for patterns of telephony ownership, then it’s possible that levels of landline ownership will start to fall more sharply – though it would be interesting to know (and I don’t think it’s apparent from the Ofcom data) how many people now have a fixed-line phone because it is bundled with the thing they actually want, which is one or both of broadband and digital television.  The closest I could find is the chart below which shows, unsurprisingly, that there are strong connections between landlines and internet access, but doesn’t cover DTV or anything about which elements of the bundle are perceived as having value.

Bundling of telecoms services

Ofcom Bundling of telecoms services

As the report summary notes, though:

Landline ownership correlates with broadband ownership. However the availability of mobile broadband services means that ownership of a landline is no longer a pre-requisite for many for a broadband connection, so this may change in the coming years.

Ofcom 3g coverageThat may be a bit optimistic. 3G takeup remains low and coverage is still patchy, as the report itself shows (the map on the right is the number of providers – the darker the green, the more providers have coverage,  but coverage seems to mean 75% of a postcode area, so is far from complete even there).  But even where there is coverage, speed varies wildly.  Sitting at home in the middle of London, my phone is currently reporting speeds averaging around 200kb/s (though it can be ten to twenty times faster elsewhere) while my copper wire broadband connection is on 5947kb/s.  That’s a compelling reason for keeping my landline – but it’s pretty much the only reason.

What should we make of all of that?

  • the brief period – only about twenty years –  when it has been safe to assume that fixed line phone access was close to universal is coming to an end
  • there are important groups of people and areas of the country where the shift to mobile is already significant – with the very different patterns of cost and behaviour which goes with it
  • public services which don’t take account of the first two points will start to struggle.


  1. As ever, a fascinating post. Don’t want to be picky, but I was struck by your last point about public sector organisations who ignore these trends struggling. Will they really struggle or is it their customers who will struggle? It is safe to say that public sector organisations who ignore these trends will fail to give a good service to an increasing number of citizens and it is probably also true to say that they will lose opportunities for becoming more efficient, but my fear would be that they could do both these things without ever having any sense that they were struggling!

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