Few people in the tech sector care about landline voice these days but for landline operators it’s still a significant (though declining) cash cow, and will be for years to come. Mismanaging this service could provoke a customer stampede away from landline voice. If BT and the other UK landline service providers can’t stop the deluge of nuisance calls that have flooded British customers over the last few years, the scammers and spammers will effectively and swiftly kill this business area for BT et al. (This is the downside of English being a global language. There are no Swedish or Finnish speaking call centre operators in India.)
A survey by consumer watchdog Which? found that 70 percent of respondents had received unwanted calls. In their comments fields, many Which? members reported being bombarded by several calls every day, and sometimes even in the wee hours of the morning. There are silent calls, robocalls, calls to people’s work numbers, there are scams about a legal settlement of repaying credit card fees, calls selling shady PPIs, calls about selling protection against unwanted calls, fake market research calls that morph into sales calls, there are calls about double glass windows, fake calls from “Microsoft support” where they want to access your PC, and on and on and on. Asking to be removed from the call lists rarely helps, they continue to call regardless. Some spam callers hang up immediately if you deviate from the caller’s script. Based on the accent, many calls seem to originate from Far East call centers. Many users reported that adding their numbers to the TPS list that rejects telemarketing calls was of little help.
This deluge of nuisance calls is forcing people to change their usage patterns. The older generation is still stuck with the idea that the telephone has to be answered if it rings while the younger generation gladly ignores unknown callers. But even the older generation will be forced to change their habits due to this problem.
Users are also trying to defend themselves with countermeasures. There are answering machines and phones with integrated “Nuisance Call Blocking” functionality (CPR Callblocker, Trucall, BT6500). They use the caller ID and block known nuisance calls. Typically they block all international calls, “unavailable” and “withheld” calls in addition to a blacklist of numbers for known call centers.
The problem for BT & Co. is that these counter measures undermine the landline voice business. Blocking all unlisted and international calls will make it harder for friends and family to reach you on the landline and it also blocks SkypeOut calls. Asking your service provider for a new number that has never been used will leave your contacts stranded unless you manually provide them with the new number. Blocking your own caller ID for outgoing calls makes you a “suspicious caller” and your friends and family might not want to answer. Using an answering machine to screen calls is inconvenient. And once anonymous call blocking becomes widespread, the spammers and scammers will most likely find ways around this, for example by spoofing Caller IDs.
One of the angry Which? members had taken the drastic measure of paying extra to add a premium 0871 number to his landline which he always gave to companies and other untrusted parties. This stopped most of the spam callers and if anyone called they would have to pay for the privilege of talking to this user. He actually made some money on this. But for most users, cancelling their landline subscription probably makes more sense.
Spam has ruined email as the dominant form of e-communication. Nuisance and scam calls will most likely be the final nail in the coffin for traditional landline voice. BT (and the other landline operators) should make it a top priority to stop spam calls. BT should lobby for tougher laws with severe fines for companies that profit from nuisance calling. Fraud is a crime in India as well as in the UK, and British law enforcement should cooperate with its Indian counterparts to bring high profiles cases against Indian “telemarketers” that defraud British customers. The recent £90k fine against a company in Glasgow is a first step but BT should urge law enforcement to be more vigilant.
BT’s first step should be to stop selling wholesale termination minutes without a requirement that the buyers use caller ID and that they comply with ethical guidelines (are there any ethical guidelines for wholesale customers?). BT should also upgrade security in its technical infrastructure. Another flaw is that the British landline network can only display 11 digits in the caller ID, which means that most international numbers can not be displayed. (Mobile networks display international caller IDs without any problem.) BT should upgrade their network and enable longer caller IDs. They should also look into regular QoS issues such as sound volume. Calls on a regular UK landline vary widely in quality. Quite often, the volume is so low that it is almost impossible to hear the other party.
Few pundits and analysts in the telco sector bother to look at landline voice. It is viewed as a boring dinosaur legacy business. That is a mistake (even though it’s true that it’s a boring, declining cash cow). For the landline operators, the speed of the decline of landline voice is a matter of billions in cash flow over its remaining lifetime. Nonchalance about nuisance calls could swiftly put an end to these operators’ business. They should heed the warning.
Update: On 18 April, Ofcom fined TalkTalk £750,000 for making an excessive number of abandoned and silent telemarketing calls. Things are moving in the right direction.