Ringing the changes: do phone numbers still matter?

18 January 2019

People in the UK spend half as much time on their home phones but use ten times more mobile data than just six years ago, as new Ofcom research reveals changing attitudes to the traditional telephone number.

With smartphone ownership increasing, and landline use continuing to fall, our research suggests remembering phone numbers – or even needing to dial them – could soon be a thing of the past.

Look who's talking

Graph illustrating the change in total annual mobile call minutes, total annual landline call minutes, and average monthly mobile data use (2012-2017).In recent years, the amount of time we spend talking on the home phone has nearly halved, while the amount of mobile data we use has increased almost tenfold.

In 2012, people in the UK made a total of 103 billion minutes of landline calls, but in 2017 that fell to just 54 billion.

Over the same period, mobile call minutes have increased steadily from 132.1 billion to 148.6 billion, while the average person’s monthly mobile data use has soared from 0.2 gigabytes to 1.9 gigabytes.

Reflecting these trends, our research confirms that younger people prefer to use messaging services, such as WhatsApp, rather than use their phones to talk. As one 18-year-old from Aberdeen told us: “Calling someone is a bit daunting. It’s much easier and quicker to WhatsApp my friends. If I have to call a company, I’ll always try to use webchat if it’s available.”

By contrast, older people still prefer having a conversation. A 68-year-old participant from Belfast said: “I prefer to speak to a person. You can get a better understanding.”

When they do ring friends and family, people now rely on contact numbers stored in their phones. A 22-year-old from Belfast admitted: “I don’t need to remember numbers.” It’s now common to click on a name or web link on your mobile to call a number, rather than manually dial it.

In the area

The study also reveals a big difference between older and younger generations in understanding area codes – for example, knowing that if someone calls you from a number beginning ‘01782’, they are calling from Stoke-on-Trent.

Younger people generally don’t feel strongly about whether area codes represent a particular location. In fact, many don’t even know that area codes have geographic significance, often mistaking them for other numbers and associating them with nuisance callers or call centres.

Most older people, on the other hand, recognise what area codes are and trust the codes local to them. They are considered helpful and reassuring when searching for local businesses, and when making and receiving calls. As one 67-year-old from Wrexham put it: “It’s helpful to know where things are.”

What next for phone calls?

Changes in technology could revolutionise how phone numbers are used. In the coming years, it will become more common for calls to be made over broadband, rather than traditional telephone lines. Broadband-based call technology does not need area codes to tell it where to send a call, in the same way the traditional phone network does.

As part of our research, people were asked how they would feel about area codes losing their geographic meaning. Some younger people liked the idea of having greater freedom to own a number ‘for life’, seeing a number as part of a person’s identity. But older people are strongly against losing geographic meaning from area codes.

Liz Greenberg, Head of Numbering at Ofcom, said: “Some of us can remember a time when we stored phone numbers in our head, rather than our mobile. But the way we use and feel about telephone numbers is changing.”

“In the future, as more calls are made over broadband, dialling codes won’t need to be fixed to a particular part of the country. So the question is – could area codes become a thing of the past?”

Ofcom has already begun looking at how UK landline telephone numbers could be managed more effectively in future, with the aim of making it quicker and easier for landline customers to switch providers while keeping their number, and potentially reducing nuisance calls.

How did area codes come about?

Graphic illustrating how early area codes corresponded to the first two letters of the location, e.g. 01224 = Aberdeen, 01348 = Fishguard, 01792 = Swansea.There are 1.3 billion landline phone numbers in the UK, of which 400 million are currently allocated to telecoms operators. Ofcom allocates phone numbers, and keeps an eye on how they’re used.

When area codes were first created in the 1950s, they had particular significance on a telephone dial. Numbers corresponded to two-letter identifiers, such as AB (22) for Aberdeen. So today, Aberdeen’s area code is ‘01224’ (01AB4).

There are 610 area codes in the UK. Due to increased demand for numbers, the numbering system has changed several times over the years. However modern phone keypads still offer clues to how certain area codes first came about.