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UK comms regulator rings death knell for fax machines

Much-loved but outdated hardware could be consigned to tech history

UK communications regulator Ofcom is consulting on whether it should end the requirement for telecommunications companies to support the services necessary to send faxes.

It has launched a review of the universal service obligation (USO) under which telcos are required to provide fax services.

BT and KCOM, the remnant of a Hull-based municipally owned telephone corporation, are the designated universal service providers in the UK. Under Ofcom's current rules they are required to provide facsimile (fax) services. The scope of the USO is set by government through legislation and, until recently, it had required that fax services be provided throughout the UK, Ofcom explained.

In November 2021, Parliament removed fax services from the USO legislation following a consultation by Ofcom. Justifying the change, the government argued fax services would no longer work in the same way after telephone networks switch over to IP. Meanwhile, fax services are now very limited and there is a range of free, or low-cost, alternatives available, it argued.

Ofcom is consulting on amending rules to remove the requirement for BT and KCOM to provide fax services. It is asking for feedback before December 1 and expects to publish a statement in early 2023.

Early predecessors of the "modern" fax machine date to the 1840s and the first commercial telegraph printing service was introduced between Paris and Lyon, France, in 1865. Telephone-networked faxing was introduced by US tech and photocopier outfit Xerox in 1964.

Although email and online document-sharing systems have superseded fax machines, the technology has hung on with remarkable tenacity. There is even a website, FaxAuthority, which aims to provide serious and reliable information about fax machines, online faxing, and issues involving fax communication.

Only in 2017 did the UK hotel chain Premier Inn remove fax machines from the back offices of more than 750 sites.

The National Health Service has proved a particular stronghold of fax technology as multiple efforts to modernize its habits and infrastructure have to some extent met with the organization's labyrinthine complexity and intransigent processes.

From January 2019, NHS organizations were officially told they would be banned from purchasing the outdated devices after the Royal College of Surgeons revealed some 8,000 of the beige paper spewers were still in use in hospital trusts, with thousands likely to remain in GP practices. Yet reports emerged claiming at least 800 were still in use during summer this year.

The Register suspects that, along with cockroaches and motorcycle dispatch riders, fax machines will survive long after other vestiges of civilization crumble to dust. ®

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