Fax for memories: Ofcom backs death sentence for 80s office equipment

For 20 years, the beeping, static-strewn scream of the fax machine was the sound of the future. But the pace of technology is relentless: like carrier pigeons, portable cassette players and VCRs, the fax machine is finally an official relic of the past.

The death sentence was delivered on Tuesday in the form of Ofcom’s announcement that it intended to support the Government’s decision to remove the requirement for fax services under the Universal Service Act (USO). These are the rules that ensure telephone services are available to people across the UK at an affordable price.

As ubiquitous as fax machines were in the 1980s and ’90s, their obsolescence comes amid the industry-led migration from the public telephone network to all-Internet Protocol (IP) telephony, meaning fax machines will no longer work the same way.

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

“DCMS officers carried out … inquiries with the health, tourism, legal and energy sectors and found that use of fax was minimal and alternatives are being sought where use still continues,” Hansard noted.

Ofcom is giving those who feel strongly that the fax machine should live to beep another day just one month to have their say. But based on their latest consultation, the result is a slam dunk: only 13 responses were made to the two-month, UK-wide consultation in November 2021, with nine respondents agreeing that the fax machine should be moved to the great tech graveyard in the sky.

Two respondents – from the UK’s Communications Council trade body and a private individual – argued that the fax machine should be allowed to continue quietly clinging to life. Their argument, accepted by Ofcom, is that fax machines are still used, particularly in certain professions, including the legal, medical and travel sectors.

There was also concern that the abolition of the fax duty could have serious consequences for those who rely on other voice tape data applications such as telehealth alerts for elderly or vulnerable people.

“The migration to IP process is managed by the industry but Ofcom expects providers to assess customer needs and offer advice and assistance to customers using telecare devices,” Ofcom said. “This is a very important issue, given the potential vulnerability of these consumers, but it is not clear that removing the fax obligation would have any further impact on this.”

The purpose of the USO is to ensure that a minimum of telephony services are available to people who need them, particularly those in remote or rural areas, or vulnerable customers, whom the market might not otherwise choose to serve, and where there would otherwise be a risk to social or economic exclusion resulting from the lack of such access.

However, Ofcom concluded, “given the availability of a range of alternatives to faxing, such as email and online document management platforms (many of which are free), we consider it unnecessary for the provision of faxing to continue to be part of this minimum set telephony services under the universal service obligation’.

Fax and fame

Matthew Perry and Julia Roberts in Friends.
Matthew Perry and Julia Roberts in Friends. Photo: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
  • Julia Roberts and Matthew Perry engaged in some heavy flirting over fax before Roberts appeared on Friends in 1996. “There was a lot of flirting over fax,” said Friends co-creator Kevin Bright. “She gave him these questionnaires like, ‘Why should I go out with you?’ And everyone in the writers’ room helped him explain to her why.” The technique seems to have worked: the couple dated from 1996 to 1997.

  • Camille Paglia and Julie Burchill engaged in what must be history’s fiercest fax war in 1993 when Paglia was asked to review Burchill’s book for Modern Review. Burchill had previously given Paglia’s own book a bad review, so Paglia refused. This spiraled into the pair dueling via fax, with Burchill calling Paglia “pathetic” and Paglia responding that Burchill was “a sheltered, spoiled sultan of gleeful, sly puns, with no direct experience of life of any kind”, whom no one had even heard of . outside England. The fax was later published in the Modern Review by the editor at the time, Toby Young, thereby also incurring Paglia’s wrath.

  • Stephen Hawking sent a fax to the music and fashion magazine Face in 1995 in response to their request for the formula for time travel. Hawking replied via his personal assistant: “Thank you for your last fax. I don’t have any equations for time travel. If I did, I’d win the national lottery every week.”

  • When David Bowie told Laurie Anderson he thought she could read minds, her response was, “You know, I’m pretty sure I can’t.” But Bowie was convinced and had the musician randomly fax pictures she had drawn to see if they matched his own. Apparently they did.

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