For 20 years, the fax machine’s beeping, static-strewn screech was the sound of the future. But the pace of technology is pitiless: like carrier pigeons, portable cassette players and videocassette recorders, the fax machine is finally an official relic of the past.
The death sentence was handed down on Tuesday in the form of Ofcom’s announcement that it was minded to back the government’s decision to remove the requirement for fax services under the Universal Service Order (USO) legislation. These are the rules that ensure phone 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 switched telephone network to all-internet protocol (IP) telephony, which means that fax machines will no longer work in the same way.
Ofcom’s move comes after the government amended the Electronic Communications (Universal Service) Order 2003 to remove facsimile services from the USO from 1 October 2022.
“DCMS officials conducted … investigations with the healthcare, tourism, legal, and energy sectors, and found that the use of fax was minimal and alternatives are being sought where its 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 state their case. But based on their last 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 relegated to the great technology graveyard in the sky.
Two respondents – from the Communications Council UK trade body and a private individual – argued that the fax should be allowed to continue clinging quietly to life. Their argument, accepted by Ofcom, is that fax machines are still in use, particularly in certain professions including in the legal, medical and travel sectors.
There was also a concern that the removal of the fax obligation could have serious consequences for those who rely on other voice band data applications such as telecare alarms for elderly or vulnerable people.
“The migration to IP process is being managed by industry but Ofcom expects providers to assess customers’ needs and offer advice and assistance to customers who use telecare devices,” Ofcom stated. “This is a very important issue, given the potential vulnerability of these consumers, but it is not clear that the removal of the fax obligation would have any additional impact on this.”
The aim of the USO is to ensure that a minimum set of telephony services are available to people who need them, particularly those in remote or rural areas, or vulnerable customers, who the market might not otherwise choose to serve, and where there would otherwise be a risk of social or economic exclusion arising from the lack of such access.
But, Ofcom concluded, “given the availability of a range of alternatives to fax, such as email and online document management platforms (many of which are free of charge), we consider it is unnecessary for the provision of fax to continue to form part of that minimum set of telephony services under the universal service obligations”.
Fax and fame
Julia Roberts and Matthew Perry indulged in some heavy-duty flirting over fax prior to Roberts appearing on Friends in 1996. “There was a lot of flirting over faxing,” said Friends co-creator Kevin Bright. “She was giving him these questionnaires like, ‘Why should I go out with you?’ And everyone in the writers’ room helped him explain to her why.” The technology seems to have worked: the couple dated from 1996 to 1997.
Dolly Parton still uses a fax machine as her primary mode of communication.
In 2011, Prince William and Kate Middleton sent out their wedding invites by fax. Courtiers told the press that faxing was the most efficient way of sending out the invites across the world.
Camille Paglia and Julie Burchill engaged in what must be history’s most vitriolic fax war in 1993 when Paglia was asked to review Burchill’s book for the Modern Review. Burchill had previously given Paglia’s own book a bad review, so Paglia refused. This spiralled into the pair duelling via fax, with Burchill calling Paglia “pathetic” and Paglia firing back that Burchill was “a sheltered, pampered sultan of slick, snide wordplay, without direct experience of life of any kind”, who nobody had even heard of outside England. The faxes were later published in the Modern Review by the then editor, Toby Young, who, in doing so, also incurred Paglia’s wrath.
Stephen Hawking sent a fax to the music and fashion magazine the Face in 1995 in response to them asking for the formula for time travel. Hawking replied, via his personal assistant: “Thank you for your recent fax. I do not have any equations for time travel. If I had, I would 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 him pictures she had drawn to see if they matched up with his own. Apparently they did.