There’s life in the old dog yet – Why is fax still so widely used?

Legal Acceptance

When you ask large fax users why they continue to use fax as a preferred communication channel one answer you will get – in particularly in the finance and insurance industry – is the “legally binding” character of fax communications . It is assumed, that fax guarantees the delivery of a sent message to the recipient based on the underlying point to point protocol. So if you successfully sent a fax, the transmission report printed by your fax machine or the delivery confirmation in your fax server solution should serve as legally acceptable proof that the recipient has received your document. In consequence fax is accepted by many companies as a way to send contracts and other legal documentation while it is not permissible to send these types of documents by email.

Fraud Resistance

Users who stress the legal characteristics of fax also often mention that it is a more secure medium than email. Actually a non-protected textual email or editable attachment such as Microsoft Word documents can be easy to tamper with and even a format such as PDF can be manipulated with only a modicum of special knowledge whilst deploying readily available tools.

The main difficulty with manipulating fax messages arises from the point to point nature of the connection between the sending and the receiving party. All data is immediately transferred through the public switched telephone network (PSTN) without being stored temporally on other devices. A second argument for the more fraud resistant character of fax is the format in which the documents are transferred: Faxes are transmitted across the public telephone network in a graphical format called TIFF (tagged image file format) which literally encodes all data in bunches of black/white dots. This format is much harder to manipulate than the character based content of email messages and would require highly specialized skills and manipulation tools particularly in connection with the real time nature of the transmissions.

With email encryption, which can rely on public key infrastructures, an even higher degree of confidentiality and authenticity could theoretically be achieved compared with the security provided by fax. However, this technology has not achieved widespread adoption and is therefore not really applicable for the communications used by companies with hundreds or thousands of customers, suppliers and other business partners when compared with the already well-established fax communications.

Established Service

Once a reliable and cost efficient fax service is established based on an enterprise fax server solution and well integrated into the application landscape of a company it becomes – like other successful technologies – resistant to change. Even if more advanced technologies exist the major question remains: Why should a company make major investments and take operational risks to replace a smoothly running document delivery system with a more complex and potentially more cost intensive new environment?

In only 5 of the 34 cases covered by the INTERCOPE study has fax transmission been partly replaced by either email delivery, Web based interfaces or structured data exchange. In each of these cases the driving factor for this change was either strong customer requirements or the very high processing cost related to the manual extraction of data form received fax images.

In other cases however fax volumes are still expanding due to one or more of the following reasons

  • Increased business creating more messages
  • Additional departments of a company, or companies of an enterprise appreciating the convenient and secure characteristics of fax and wanting to use the service
  • Deployment of additional application integrations

 Working habits

While most users reviewed in the INTERCOPE study are large corporations with high fax volumes their correspondents include a significant number of small and medium-sized businesses. In these organizations the usage of traditional fax machines or standalone multi function devices is still widespread. People find it simpler and more convenient to dial a telephone number and feed paper into a fax machine instead of dealing with cryptic (and easily miss-spelt) email addresses and scanning and emailing attachments. This seems to correspond to the affinity for paper based work processes and the still overwhelming significance of document transmission by mail – in spite of the long promised move to the paperless office.

  • A company specializing in the handling of credit card transactions offered their customers a new web based interface to key in the required data online for these transactions. However the acceptance was very poor and the vast majority of all transactions are still transferred by fax. Many of the customers using the credit card service are small branches of saving banks and their employees obviously feel more comfortable filling out handwritten paper forms instead of using computer based graphical user interfaces.
  • The IT department of a large hypermarket chain tried to deliver information to the hypermarkets by email instead of fax. The results were massive complaints stating that this change would lead to more workload as now mailboxes would have to be monitored and the received documents had to be manually printed instead of using the intuitive process of just picking them up from the fax machine.