In this article, we look at what the digital switchover is, why it’s needed, what the challenges are, and why it’s now been paused.
The Switch To ‘Digital Voice’
Back in April 2021, BT Openreach announced that starting from the end of the year and finishing in 2025, it would be “switching off the UK telephone network as we know it” by moving 15 million lines (some figures say switching 29 million home landlines) to a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) based replacement telephone service. The big switchover to digital was branded ‘Digital Voice’.
In essence, this means that the Internet (broadband) will be used to digitally carry telephone calls rather than traditional copper wires, i.e. landline voice calls will be transmitted digitally. In individual homes for example, this will mean that people will plug a new digital phone, powered by mains electricity, into their router rather than a socket in the wall.
End For ISDN Too
Switching off the UK’s traditional public switched telephone network (PSTN) will also mean the end for ISDN because it uses the copper wire phone network. Also, BT Openreach will not be accepting new orders for PSTN, and ISDN2 and ISDN30 services after September 2023.
As noted by Ofcom, the old PSTN is reaching the end of its life and is becoming increasingly difficult and costly to maintain, and Openreach may be looking to ditch the legacy copper network completely, so it won’t have to pay to run two parallel networks. Also, there are now more up-to-date alternatives that are compatible with how we communicate today, i.e. mobile and Internet communications. Broadly speaking, some advantages for customers of the switch-over to VoIP could include:
– VoIP offers a greater breadth of capabilities.
– Cost savings and fewer system failures and outages and reduced complexity for providers.
– Scalability and portability (VoIP phone systems can go wherever the company goes).
– Greater communications-mobility, flexibility, and increased productivity and collaboration. The importance of this has been particularly well-illustrated with the need to use remote, cloud-based communications and collaborative working platforms during the pandemic.
– Better security that’s continuously updated.
– Greater reliability.
– Improved customer experiences.
– Clearer calls, making it easier to keep existing numbers, and the choice to have broadband provided separately from the telephone service.
– Better identification and prevention of nuisance calls, thereby saving businesses time and money and potentially protecting against scammers.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
It was anticipated that there would be several possible challenges in pushing ahead with such a big change in a relatively short time frame. These included:
– Potential problems with latency.
– Vulnerability to phone systems going down and causing (costly) business disruption if there’s a broadband outage or if the electricity supply is interrupted.
– Older customers and/or customers in rural areas/areas poorly served by broadband may be at a disadvantage.
– A lack of awareness in the marketplace about the planned switch-over, and many small businesses in the UK are still using legacy lines.
-1.5 million homes don’t have access to the Internet (according to watchdog Ofcom). This could mean excluding them.
– Fears that millions more don’t have a mobile phone, or don’t know how to use one properly (a worry expressed by Charity Age UK).
Downstream Services An Area of Concern Too
Ofcom and Openreach also acknowledged that a big area of concern, if preparations are not made sufficiently for the switch-over, are how downstream services may be affected. These include security and fire alarms, telecare devices and panic alarms, retail payment terminals/EPOS, and equipment for monitoring and controlling networks. Specifically, these downstream services rely on some attributes of the old copper PSTN that may not be fully replicated in VoIP-based platforms, hence the importance of adequate preparation before the big switch-over in 2025.
Criticism From Pensioner Groups
In November 2021, BT Openreach’ s Digital Voice switchover plans were criticised by pensioner groups. Jan Shortt, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention said that “If there is a power cut, this digital phone line will no longer work – and a potential lifeline for elderly people will be suddenly lost”. Also, Jan Shortt pointed out that “BT has no idea that many older people do not want a fancy smartphone or cannot afford one – and rely on their landline as a lifeline. It is wrong to discriminate against those – primarily the elderly – who are not wired up to the internet”.
Challenges Highlighted By Storms
The autumn storms of 2021 are reported to have left customers in rural Northumberland without phone capability for several days. This was because there were power cuts, and their landlines that had already been converted to Digital Voice, which requires electricity and an internet connection to work. Although (as required by Ofcom regulations), customers were supplied with a back-up battery pack for emergency power, this only lasted one hour. The result was that the Berwick MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, met with BT Openreach earlier this year and asked them to pause the rollout of Digital Voice and put in place alternative systems that could improve resilience.
Concerns have also been expressed that many that those in rural areas are generally not ready for the move over to digital to carry out everyday functions.
Rollout Of ‘Digital Voice’ Switchover Now Paused
The incidents with the storms, concerns from age charities, concerns about rural communities and low levels of awareness about the planned changeover have all contributed to BT Openreach announcing that the rollout of the Digital Voice switchover is being paused. As expressed by BT Consumer CEO Marc Allera: “We underestimated the disruptive impact this upgrade would have on some of our customers. With hindsight we went too early, before many customers – particularly those who rely more heavily on landlines – understood why this change is necessary and what they needed to do.”
Mr Allera has also said that “we acknowledge we have more work to do and will get on with putting these solutions in place to better help our customers go through this change” and said that BT will work power companies to enhance the resiliency of the network, achieve faster power restoration, and provide better back-up solutions. Mr Allera has also said that BT is pausing all further Digital Voice switchovers for any customers who don’t want to move to the new technology straight away.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
For most businesses with an Internet connection and not in rural areas, and whose communications abilities weren’t disrupted by storms, the changeover looked as though it could be relatively trouble-free. It was also thought when the rollout began that if there is adequate information and support given by the regulator and BT Openreach, and coordination among communications service providers (CSPs), and adequate advice and help for downstream providers, then change should be manageable, and disruption minimised. However, there has been concern that sectors and organisations vital to UK business and infrastructure, that still rely on some attributes of the PSTN that may not be fully replicated in VoIP-based platforms may need extra help. As it turns out, however, the storms highlighted a lack of resilience in the new system and risks to and concerns by vulnerable groups, e.g. the elderly.
It also highlighted how rural areas need extra help, and how power companies need to be involved and how these issues were not fully anticipated. BT has now acknowledged the issues, apologised, and halted the roll-out. For businesses that have already spent time planning and arranging for the change and anticipating the benefits of the switchover, this is likely to be frustrating. For downstream services, and some sectors and businesses where there were more complicated potential issues, the pause may provide some valuable extra time to prepare.