I’ve come across a variety of statistics recently from various surveys about communication preferences, and was tempted each time to do a post. Instead, I’m doing one post on all of them, which should allow for some bigger-picture thinking. In essence, the conclusion you naturally come to when reading these articles is that landline telcos are in for a nasty period of rapid decline in their core business thanks to the communication preferences of the rising generation. But there are things they can do to manage and slow this decline and remain relevant.
The first couple of articles concern the trend for greater use of mobile devices and the decline in the number of landlines:
- One in Six Use Only Cell Phones at Home (AP / Discovery Channel)
- Number of landline-free households up 10% in US (Ars Technica)
The second set concerns the communication preferences of younger people (often described as Millennials):
- Gmail Preferred By Students, But Nothing Beats Texting (ReadWriteWeb)
- Email vs. Texting (EMarketer.com via LDS Media Talk blog)
Both sets of articles, though, are really about the changing communication preferences of the population as a whole, and the impact of that younger group in particular. Those currently aged 15-25 are growing up with a radically different set of communication behaviors and preferences from those embraced by even 25-35 year olds, let alone the older generations. And this will have a massive impact on the landline telcos around the world, which don’t really feature in this picture at all. As the rising generation makes up an ever greater proportion of the total population this impact will only increase.
Mobile substitution happening from the bottom up
First, the increased use of mobile devices and abandonment of landlines. I remember talking to Gavin Patterson, then head of the consumer retail bit of BT, about six or seven years ago, about the challenge of driving growth in his business, and he told me his worst nightmare was a generation of kids growing up never having a relationship with BT. Sadly for him, and other landline telcos around the world, the nightmare is now reality. The CDC survey both articles are based on tells us that 17.5% of households have no landline but do have wireless phones. However, the most striking statistic for me is this one:
Nearly two-thirds of all adults living only with unrelated adult roommates (63.1%) were in households with only wireless telephones. This is the highest prevalence rate among the population subgroups examined.
You’d better believe that that’s mostly college students and those recently graduated from college and still living with roommates, almost all in the 18-25 category. Here’s more detail on the age split overall:
More than one in three adults aged 25-29 years (35.7%) lived in households with only wireless telephones. Approximately 31% of adults aged 18-24 years lived in households with only wireless telephones.
Remember that a good chunk of 18-24 year olds live with their parents and thus technically have landlines in the home even if they don’t ever use them. The question is whether these people will ever return to the habits of their parents as they get older, settle down and have kids of their own. There’s not that much evidence yet to suggest that they will, and there’s not much incentive to either. It used to be that a landline from the phone company was necessary to get broadband but since ‘naked DSL’ is now widely available and cable competitors offer TV/broadband packages without voice that’s no longer the case.
The next question is whether these future households will have landline connections at all - with the increasing availability of 3G and impending availability of 4G wireless options for web access and an increasing preference for web-delivered rather than broadcast/linear video content, I’d question whether these households will need a wireline connection - from a telco or a cable company - at all.
Voice isn’t even a communication option for most young people
Of course, all this assumes that voice is still one of the main modes of communication for young people, but the second set of articles suggests this isn’t the case either. The ReadWriteWeb article cites an eROI study on the communication preferences of high school and college students and includes this chart from the survey:
One caveat: the survey seems to have asked about online communications specifically, but from other surveys I’ve seen and personal experience with teenagers voice would barely make a blip on charts like this even if it was included. But the other key thing is that email - so newfangled when it first entered most people’s lives in the mid- to late-90s - is becoming distinctly passé. Text messaging already enjoys a much higher use rate, and both the combined social networking categories and the combined IM categories in the chart above already add up to the same as email (26%). IM seems to be on the decline with the exception of social networking IM but texting and social networking are now the major components of online communication for most young people. And none of those services is provided by a telco either. Wireless telcos have the best opportunity for capturing some of this spend by creating easy-to-use and low-cost wireless options for using these things on mobile devices, but landline telcos risk being entirely marginalized.
It’s grim reading, all of this, if you’re a landline telco or someone who works with them. Is there anything they can do? Yes, absolutely. They should immediately begin (if they haven’t already) building partnerships with social networks and other online providers to ensure that the necessary interfaces are in place to allow telco services to be linked in to those environments. BT’s acquisition of Ribbit is a great example of an innovative approach to tying online and landline worlds together, and Telecom Italia has also done clever things with Facebook, allowing customers to make calls from within the Facebook site, for example.
Telcos need to offer deep integration both ways between their systems and these online service providers’ systems to allow address book sharing, easy initiation of old-fashioned phone calls and other methods of telco-based communication from within websites and otherwise make the linkages between the two worlds as clear and easy as possible. Telcos have no hope of creating standalone offerings for young people that will generate any kind of real interest, but partnering with the sites where those young people already spend their time is the next best thing. Allow those companies to innovate, and offer them things they can’t easily do as an incentive to partner.
All is not lost - yet. But it’s certainly heading in that direction, and only innovative telcos willing to really rethink the way they engage with teenagers and young adults will have any chance of staving off the steep decline that seems to be on the cards.