Before the rise of mobile technology, close friends' and family members’ phone numbers were committed to memory. For other contacts, landline users relied on the little black books beside the phone.
The need to dial traditional phone numbers has diminished with the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and interconnected digital communication platforms. And traditional landlines are becoming increasingly scarce. Does this mean that traditional calls and landlines will soon become obsolete? The future of telecommunications may rely more on names than numbers.
According to Statista, there are approximately 5.18 billion internet users worldwide – 64.6 percent of the global population. Of this total, 4.8 billion (59.9% of the world's population) use social media. VoIP calls – via WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and other cloud-based platforms – are becoming more widely used among South Africans. Around 93 percent of South Africans use WhatsApp alone.
While the number of landline users in South Africa dropped to only 2.48% in 2021, cell phone use rose to 169 cell phone subscriptions per 100 people in the same year. The same shift is not as drastic in all countries, but international trends are following the same direction.
Says Nic Laschinger, Chief Technology Officer at Euphoria Telecom: “Making calls using VoIP platforms is more affordable than using traditional landlines. VoIP technology has also given us the capability to select names rather than having to remember phone numbers or dial them manually.”
He adds, “Like we use email addresses, VoIP platforms intelligently associate an ‘address’ or name with a specific individual. And astonishingly, this capability has existed for over 15 years, so do we still need to continue relying on outdated phone numbers?”
Laschinger suggests the answer lies in recognising that society's technological landscape has overtaken the need for distinctions between landline and mobile networks, as seamless and ubiquitous connectivity is fast becoming the standard.
“By removing the barriers that separate our communication channels, we can create a more inclusive and efficient telecommunications infrastructure,” says Laschinger. “What truly matters to users is the ability to stay connected, regardless of the access mechanism they use.”
He explains, “In South Africa, landline numbers still give consumers the perception that a company is established and credible. A dedicated business line, rather than a mobile number or no number, suggests that the company is legitimate. But that doesn’t mean we are tied to landlines forever.
“If your business has a geographic landline, you can keep your existing number and port it to a digital service provider. And for home users, there are cloud-based home phone options that can also replace analogue landlines. Phone numbers are still widely used at this stage – particularly for business purposes. It isn’t so much ‘out with the old’ as landlines become less common. Rather, we can now integrate old functionality with new technology.”
“Carriers like Telkom are actively shifting from analogue fixed telephone networks to VoIP networks behind the scenes,” adds Laschinger. “So, in many cases, what is perceived as a traditional landline call is already VoIP-based.”
With copper-based networks on the way out, Laschinger speculates on the future of phone numbers: “For the moment, phone numbers are here to stay. But that may be temporary. All phone numbers do is provide a code to connect lines directly without going through a switchboard or third party.
“It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, we simply use an email type structure, which is easier for us to remember, and telephone numbers fade into history,” he comments.
According to the Digital Transformation Summit, South Africa’s mobile internet user base is expected to grow from the 2022 level of 57.3% to 67.48% in 2026; and the IoT (Internet of Things) market is expected to grow from $4.98 billion in 2022 to $31.6 billion by 2028.
The landline is making way for digital alternatives globally, and fewer people remember phone numbers than ever before. As rapid urbanisation and imminent smart city initiatives pave the way for further digital transformation, the communication landscape continues to evolve. This is likely to change the way people connect permanently.