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Who needs a home phone? In the UK, that’s pretty much all of us

It’s the mobile age for the smart generation, the “hyper-connected world” as Christine Lagarde of the IMF said during the BBC Dimbleby Lecture last night. We carry smartphones with us at all times of the day and night, we personalise them, they’re ours and ours alone. So who needs a phone for the home?

Unfortunately, we all do. Try ordering a broadband serviced with no home phone – it’s not going to happen. In most parts of the developed world (and this is obviously going to be a UK-centric viewpoint) and for most consumers, the two are inextricably linked. If you want an ADSL or FTTC VDSL service, it’s going to be delivered over the phone network and that means you are going to have to have a basic phone contract in place.

Yes, there are so-called ‘naked DSL’ services available in some countries, from some providers, where you don’t need a phone. But not in the UK.

A typical UK ADSL deal could cost between £6 and £12 a month for a modest 8Mbit/s download, depending on usage caps and the presence of a long-term contract. A VDSL deal for 60Mbit/s would cost you about £20 or upwards a month. So far, so good. But then you need a phone line, which even if you never use it will set you back an additional £16 a month in line rental. When you consider that the average spend on fixed voice services per household is about £20 (according to Ofcom), you can see that the vast majority of this fee is being taken up by this spurious notion of ‘line rental’.

Line rental must rank alongside the ‘standing charges’ of utility companies as amongst the biggest consumer rip-offs still deemed to be ‘fair trade’.

True, many towns and cities are fortunate to have dedicated fibre networks – in the UK, that’s limited to Virgin Media. But in most cases we’ve come across you still need a phone line if you want to receive the best TV or broadband deal. And in the UK, Virgin’s coverage is very limited.

There’s also the mobile broadband alternative, but let’s get realistic… Going down this route is going to cost you a fortune. Even if you’re happy with 3G speeds, you are going to get restrictive usage caps and be heavily penalised for over-spend. It’s certainly not a cheap option, but in some rural areas it’s still the only option.

But for most people in the UK, home broadband means also having a home phone line. So if we’re stuck with a home phone, perhaps we might as well try and use it?

The problem is, most home phones are vastly inferior to mobiles. You have to re-enter your contact numbers (nobody remembers numbers anymore, just names) usually manually, you can’t multitask in front of the TV with Facebook or Twitter, you can’t play any App-based games, the screen is usually monochrome and the phone’s build quality is often so bad that it never lasts out the year. What’s more, whisper it quietly, but some home phones are even connected to the wall with a wire…

And, incidentally, why do these DECT manufacturers sell them in packs of 3, 4, even 6 – Panasonic is selling a DECT home base-station with six handsets. Why? Who on earth has the need for this?

Thank goodness then that there is at least a glimmer of innovation in the home phone market. BT today announced a new DECT phone that it says has “all the features of a smartphone on the home landline, plus it blocks up to 80 per cent of nuisance calls.”

If it does indeed block these calls, then sign me up. Whilst I never use our home phone for outgoing calls, it constantly rings with unwanted calls, despite signing up for the industry’s ‘telephone preference service’ that is supposed to deal with this plague.

With BT’s own developed Nuisance Call Blocking feature claims to block calls from ‘international’ numbers, ‘withheld’ numbers, and ‘unknown’ callers. There’s a ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode that switches off the ringer, you can bar outgoing calls to selected numbers, such as premium rate lines (it’s often so easy to accidentally call a help line without realising that you are being fleeced for cash), and you block incoming calls from up to 10 telephone numbers (just don’t put you mother-in-law’s number in there, whatever you do).

BT says that last year it received on average more than 50,000 calls a month into its Nuisance Calls Advice Line. Research from Ofcom last May showed that consumers received on average two nuisance calls per week, with more than half being automated messages from Payment Protection Insurance companies.

The phone can also rightly claim to be a smartphone because it runs on Android (Jelly Bean 4.2). But users are limited to downloads from the Opera Mobile store, not from Google Play. Still, you can link it to your wi-fi network and access Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Plus you have a browser and email client. So perhaps ‘smartphone-lite’ might be a better description.

“The Home SmartPhone S makes the home phone central to family life again,” claims Erik Raphael, Director of Wifi and Devices at BT, “allowing you to look up numbers online and communicate with friends and family via email, facebook or calls.”

At £170 it isn’t cheap. In fact, it’s incredibly expensive – and you only get one handset. At independent retailer Argos, it’s ranked as the most expensive single-handset home phone out of a range of 72 (excluding a specialist unit from Radius that covers 10 acres – somewhat larger than an average family home…)

Industry regulator Ofcom reported that in 2013, 15 per cent of households throughout the UK do not have a home phone, and instead rely on a mobile. And one per cent has no phone whatsoever. In 2000, 7 per cent of homes didn’t have a fixed home phone. That’s not a big increase in 13 years, but it highlights the outdated relationship between home phones and broadband that still dominates in the UK.

Only 5 per cent of homes rely on just a landline, with 79 per cent also having at least one mobile. Christine Lagarde is right; we are living in a hyper-connected world, but for a lot of us we still have one connection too many.

Time to drop the landline.

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