The death of the landline?
If the landline isn’t dying yet, it’s days are definitely numbered. Since 2010 we’ve seen the number of fixed lines in the UK slowly dwindle from 33.4 to 33.2 million, and the number of minutes spent in fixed voice calls has dropped by almost 40% from 123 to 74 billion per year. Over 14% of adults now live in a mobile-only home. A December 2014 report by RootMetrics found that 95% of those surveyed believed they would not struggle without a landline. At the same time, line rental prices are on the increase. In 2010, BT’s standard line rental was £13.29/mth, now, it’s £18.99. That’s charging more for a service that fewer people want.
It’s not hard to work out what’s responsible. There are now 91.5 million mobile subscriptions in the UK, 39.5 million of them using faster 4G services. Where fixed line voice calls have fallen, mobile voice calls have grown, rising from 131 billion in 2010 to 142.8 billion in 2015. That doesn’t even reflect the growth in Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook Messenger calls or the massive increase in mobile internet usage. Where 283 petabytes, or million GB, of data were transferred over mobile networks in 2013, 873 petabytes were transferred in 2015. Cisco expects that figure to reach 634 petabyes per month by the end of 2019. If nothing else this proves that, for many, the smartphone has become their primary internet device.
In short, we’re no longer making anywhere near the same volume of calls on our landlines and we’re no longer tied to our home phones. Most analysts believe that the trend only grows with younger demographics, far more likely to reach for their smartphone than make a fixed-line call. That’s bad news for the landline. After all, once you spend most of your time communicating using apps and online services, you don’t really care whether the data you’re using runs across a fixed line fibre connection or a 4G link; just that the bandwidth’s there, the costs are affordable and the whole thing works.
Of course, the landline has always had one thing going for it: connection speed. When smartphones moved to 3G connectivity, you still needed ADSL for a rich internet experience with fast downloads, audio and video. Even today, with 4G-LTE and 4G-LTE Advanced services hitting average real-world connection speeds of 20 to 42Mbits/sec, a fibre broadband connection is seen as a requirement for responsive HD and 4K video streaming, online gaming services and Web-based applications. Most of us don’t stick to a landline because we want to make calls, but because it’s the best way to get stable, high-speed connectivity.
Sadly for the landline, that won’t be the case for much longer. Gigabit LTE is here and it’s set to take the landline out for good.
Why? Well it all comes down to the way Gigabit LTE uses the available wireless bandwidth. Think of your mobile data connection as your average two-lane road, with one lane carrying downstream traffic from your nearest mast to your smartphone. Gigabit LTE first uses a technology called carrier aggregation to combine multiple wireless 4G connections, effectively turning several single lane roads into a three or four lane super-highway. It then adds up to four MIMO layers – four antennae on the mast sending up to four streams of data to four antennae in the handset – on top of each lane. In total, current Gigabit LTE devices can receive up to ten streams of data simultaneously. Yet Gigabit LTE isn’t done yet; it then changes the traffic itself, optimising the vehicles and rearranging their contents to cram in as much data as efficiently as possible.
The result? Gigabit LTE takes theoretical download speeds up from the 150Mbits/sec of 4G LTE and the 300Mbits/sec of 4G LTE Advanced to 1Gbits/sec and beyond. In real-world usage, that should see typical download speeds go from around 14 to 90Mbits/sec to 100 to 300Mbits/sec and above, with speeds of over 750Mbits/sec being hit in a recent Wembley Stadium demo. That’s fast enough to download a two-hour full HD movie in under 18 seconds, and practically overkill for streaming 4K video.
Yet Gigabit LTE isn’t just about raw bandwidth. All these improvements ensure that Gigabit LTE can handle more traffic across more connections at greater speed and use the bandwidth more effectively, cutting down on the contention between users and devices. After all, if the movie download that used to take ten minutes now takes 18 seconds, the pipeline carrying it frees up eight minutes, 42 seconds faster. That network road can carry more traffic when it travels at a greater speed.
Put it all together, and – without a dramatic speed increase – the landline loses its reason to exist. In fact, it’s at an even bigger disadvantage, because higher-speed landlines require new infrastructure in the ground and at the exchange. In some locations, faster wireless networks might actually be the cheaper option.
Smartphones using the Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 835 Mobile Platform – the first with the Snapdragon Gigabit LTE modem – are just the start. Perhaps your next TV, your next laptop, your next games console and even your next router could have Gigabit LTE built-in, and that’s before we even get started talking about Qualcomm’s next-generation 1.2Gbits/sec X20 modem, and the 5G NR technologies that will bring even greater speeds after that.
Does this leave the landline any hope to cling to? Maybe. For a while, contract costs and usage limitations might make it the most practical, affordable choice, and Gigabit LTE networks will take a while to expand beyond the usual urban areas. However, costs have a way of dropping and data allowances of creeping up. In fact, because they enable more efficient delivery of data to mobile devices, technologies like Gigabit LTE may reduce the cost of data. The reach of networks is always growing, and the telecoms market is nothing if not fiercely competitive and open to disruptive ideas. Perhaps the landline should think about completing its bucket list and cancel any long-term plans. Within the next few years its number could be up.