Fixing the future of Fax - more important than you might have thought?

There is a term which crops up a lot in the technology sector – ‘legacy’. Occasionally, especially when talking to very long-established companies, the term ‘heritage’ occurs. It is useful therefore to consider the important difference between legacy and heritage:

  • Legacy tends to be used to refer to something previously purchased (probably by someone else) which you wish you no longer had. Or perhaps as part of a sales or marketing message trying to persuade you to think that way. “Rip out your legacy doodads and replace them with our new shiny widgets!” Once the term legacy has been deployed, the outlook turns negative.
  • Heritage is something already in place that you cherish and still use. Typically, in the technology world, this is because it still works effectively, or no one can figure out how to replace it. Nurturing your heritage can be a very pragmatic approach.

For many businesses their pragmatic heritage needs are often ignored by an industry chasing the latest and greatest currently overhyped meme. If there’s no blockchain, AI or virtual reality involved, then it’s probably not worth considering. This means that significant business needs are being overlooked because they are perceived as ‘a bit boring’. These are real opportunities typically with very convincing business drivers. They are also often fundamental parts of an overall ‘digital transformation’ trend. So, as well as bringing in revenues, should satisfy some of any ‘legacy’ need to appear ‘cool’.

One such area of strong heritage within business communications is fax. Some may think that sending facsimiles of pages of paper over networks died out long ago.  Perhaps replaced smartphone photos shared via cloud storage and social media? Not so. IDC’s Fax Survey in February 2017 found that overall 43% of organisations had seen growth in fax usage. Only 19% reported a decline.

Getting the message

The reasons for the traffic are pragmatic and sensible and will not change readily. The same IDC survey predicted a growth in fax traffic going forward. The drivers for using fax are related to sound business needs:

  • Reach – Fax is a globally adopted standard and pretty much every organisation has a fax number and machine somewhere. It can be simply deployed anywhere. It can support diverse communication needs without high performance Internet connectivity, with only a phone line and piece of paper. Apply it to everything from general purpose to application specific communications, such as meal orders into takeaway kitchens from food delivery aggregators.
  • Verifiable source – the originating organisation is known and cannot be masked. This has given fax messages a legal status likely to be trusted where email will not be. Many organisations will only accept requests via fax.
  • Data security – The content of a fax is encoded and transmitted as a burble of sounds. Interception en route is of no benefit, and images transmitted (including any signatures) are not stored in the network. Physical security at the point of receipt of incoming transmissions is the only requirement.
  • Paper trail – Confirmation of receipt of document transmitted can be requested by the sender, which is only sent once a message gets through in its entirety. This does not require human intervention and cannot be vetoed. The claim of “I didn’t receive it” is much harder to make with fax.

Sales of dedicated fax machines are diminishing with a shift towards software, fax servers and multifunction peripheral (MFP) devices with fax. However, despite the arrival of digital networks – with digital telephony (VoIP) and Fax over IP – there remains a significant number of dedicated hardware fax machines.

Respondents to IDC’s 2017 fax survey still expected over a quarter of fax volume to be from standalone fax machines in two years’ time. If traffic from fax servers and MFPs with fax is added to that using dedicated fax machines, over two thirds of all fax traffic will still be based around hardware. This is despite the anticipated strong growth in cloud-based fax services.

Pulling the plug

The reality is that these machines will mostly connect to an analogue phone line. The issue is that analogue telephone networks are being switched off by carriers in their move to roll out fully digital/IP networks. In the UK, BT is scheduled to stop selling any new analogue connections in 2020 and to switch off it off altogether in 2025. Telcos across Europe all have similar plans, which are often more aggressive in terms of timing. Businesses have already embraced VoIP for phone calls, but the heritage of fax communication embedded deep within critical business processes now needs attention.

It may not appear immediately urgent, but the impact on business process and change management required should not be underestimated. Fax is particularly heavily used in conservative and critical sectors such as legal, finance and especially healthcare. In many of these organisations the use of faxing messages is probably deeply embedded in processes. Or it was put in place by people who have long since left. Perhaps the organisation might be unaware that it uses fax so much. It will have probably been quietly performing so well that nobody took much notice.

As the analogue telco network switchover is looming, it would be wise to take another look at the fax sooner rather than later. Identify what use cases are required. Then consider a move to virtualise fax and shift from fax hardware and phone lines to fax software, networks and cloud services.

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