UK tech change: we’re doing the same – just in different ways

This is a cross post of an article I wrote recently for the BBC College of Journalism’s blog.


The past decade has seen massive changes in the UK’s communications market. We’ve seen the launch of Freeview, Sky+ and the iPhone, as well as new services like the BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Facebook. Many of these are now mass-market technologies and services.

At the same time, the dial-up, landline-only, analogue four/five-channel TV home has become virtually moribund.

Certain technologies are now so ubiquitous that we forget how new they actually are. None of the above examples have yet to celebrate their tenth birthday, and several have only recently celebrated their fifth.

It’s hard to remember that ten years ago ownership of a mobile phone, multichannel digital TV and a domestic internet connection was far from the norm for most households. By 2011, that’s no longer the case.

The chart below illustrates these changes, showing the take up of communications services between 2000 and 2011. As you can see, the growth curves are pretty steep:

Ofcom/Oftel survey research

Source: Ofcom/Oftel survey research.

But, despite massive change, the size of the industry – if you take revenue as your yardstick – has remained relatively stable. Total annual communications industry revenues in 2010 were £53.4 billion, remarkably similar to the (inflation adjusted) revenues of £54.3 billion in 2000. Moreover, traditional industries like TV and radio have seen consumption remain relatively stable, even if there has been a proliferation of the methods by which we consume this media.

Perhaps not surprisingly, telephony-based services have seen the biggest changes. From the advent of 3G to the demise of dial-up internet, faster speeds and a greater choice of mobile and fixed providers, this is an area which has seen a massive increase in consumption.

Much of this has been driven by mobile, but it’s worth noting that in the UK fixed telephony still remains the main method of making and receiving calls for just over half of the UK population (53% when calls made from a fixed-line phone at work are included).

And while mobile voice minutes increased by around 350% between 2000 and 2010, we still – but only just – make more fixed voicecalls (i.e. from a landline) than we do from a mobile. No doubt it won’t be long before that is reversed.

What all of this shows therefore is that, despite massive technological change, we’re broadly doing what we did before – just doing it in different ways.

Whether we’ll be saying the same thing in ten years time is of course another matter. Until then, here’s a final chart which shows the story of the past decade as the UK became truly digital:

Ofcom research 2000-10

Source: Ofcom research 2000-10.

As LP Hartley says in the opening to The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. We did indeed.

Damian Radcliffe is Manager, Nations and Communities, at Ofcom. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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