Britain bids farewell to fax

Under the new regulations proposed by UK regulator Ofcom, telecom providers will no longer be required to provide fax services under the universal service obligation (USO).

The lifecycle of fax machines has come to an end, or so Ofcom seems to believe. 

The UK regulator has proposed updating the USO – a set of rules that ensures everyone in the UK has access to telecommunication services – to remove the requirement for telecommunications companies to provide facsimile machine connections.

At the moment, BT and KCOM are the two designated telecom providers responsible for universal service in the UK, meaning they are legally obliged to ensure the existence of an affordable national telephone and fax service across the UK. 

The move comes amid the diminishing use of fax machines, which were first commercialised by Xerox in 1964 and reached a peak in popularity in the late 1980s. The technology works by processing the contents of a fixed graphic image and transmitting it through the telephone line using audio-frequency tones. These tones are then received by another fax machine and used to reconstruct a printed replica of the original image. 

The current version of USO was established in 2003, when the technology was still widely used in homes and offices. However, they have now been replaced by email and other document-sharing softwares that do not rely on telephone lines.

“As digital technology and broadband services have developed, the fax machine has been overtaken by email and document-sharing software that offer the same or better functionality,” Ofcom said in a statement.

“We’re now consulting on changes to telecoms rules that could see the fax machine become a thing of the past.”

The aim of the USO is to ensure that people living in remote or rural areas, or vulnerable customers, who the market might not otherwise choose to serve, are still able to access vital telecommunication services and avoid social or economic exclusion arising from the lack of such access.

Nonetheless, fax technology has been considered increasingly obsolete and less suitable for the sharing of confidential information than newer alternatives, leading Ofcom to push for an acceleration of the transition away from these devices. 

“Almost 20 years later, and the telecoms landscape has changed,” Ofcom said. “Not only are alternatives to fax machines now more widely available, migration of telephone networks to internet protocol (IP) technology means fax services can no longer be guaranteed to work in the same way.”

Healthcare is the sector that is expected to be the most affected by this decision. Despite the government’s pledge to phase out the “archaic” devices from 2020, it recently was revealed that more than 800 fax machines were still being used by the NHS, as of August 2022. 

Moreover, a freedom of information request in 2020 by eFax found that there were almost 1,000 fax machines still in use across local councils, police forces, universities and fire services.

Scott Wilson, Vice President, Sales & Service, eFax, stated: “Ofcom consulted on this subject in 2021 when it considered that fax should be removed from the USO. Now it is inviting comments on how this should be implemented.

“Cloud fax providers have had to develop an infrastructure that guarantees business users the most secure, private, and legally compliant way to transmit their confidential data to clients, vendors, partners, and other third parties. This is why the fax will remain at the heart of many business processes. Fax is dead! Long live the fax!”

Ofcom’s move comes after the government amended the Electronic Communications (Universal Service) Order 2003 to remove facsimile services from the USO from 1 October 2022.

The regulator consulted widely on this last year: “We considered it was appropriate for fax to be removed from the USO, given its limited ongoing use.”

BT said in a statement: “There is now such limited demand for fax services, which have been superseded by newer forms of communications, that we support the recent changes which remove our obligation to provide a fax service under the USO.”

A KCOM spokesman said: “Older technology such as fax machines have now largely been surpassed by the modern world and our focus is to constantly invest in the latest technology to ensure our services are future-proofed in this digital age.”

Dan Davies, CTO at Maintel added: “Fax is one of the first to enter the technology graveyard created by the WLR withdrawal. The clock is ticking, businesses need to assess their current systems to ensure they are not caught out relying on other disused technologies.

“If the switchover is not done in time, it could lead to widespread disruption. It isn’t just fax that will be impacted, services such as alarm lines, traffic light systems, payment terminals, payphone lines, medical devices and external connectivity to telephony systems could all be impacted.”

Although the younger generations might not remember fax, the technology was made famous by basketball player Michael Jordan, who in 1995 sent the message ‘I’m back’ to the Chicago Bulls to let them know he was coming out of retirement. In 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton also used the technology to send out their wedding invitations. 

The regulator is inviting comments regarding the implementation of this change until the end of 2022, and is expected to publish a statement in early 2023.

[This piece was edited on 02/11/22 at 16:50 to add the comments from Maintel and eFax]

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