Analogue UK Phone Switch Off Reportedly Facing 2 Year Delay

A new newspaper report has claimed that the ongoing work to withdraw BT and Openreach’s old copper-based analogue line services (PSTN phones and WLR), which was due to complete by December 2025, could be facing a delay of up to two years. But the delay may only apply to vulnerable users who remain dependent upon old telecare devices, which often haven’t been updated to function with IP-based digital alternatives.

Most people should hopefully be aware that Openreach and BT, much like other operators across Europe with a legacy of older copper phone infrastructure, are in the process of upgrading all of their old analogue phone services on to a fully digital (Internet Protocol-based) network (the national stop sell began last September). KCOM are doing something similar in Hull, which aims to finish by the end of 2024, but all ISPs that offer analogue phone services are affected.

NOTE: Openreach are withdrawing their old Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) products as part of this change, while BT are retiring their related Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

The above change is an industry, not government, led programme that is partly driven by the looming retirement of copper lines in favour of full fibre (FTTP). Not to mention that modern mobile and IP-based communication services have largely taken over from traditional home phones, which no longer see much use.

However, this change is NOT to be confused with the physical removal of copper and aluminium lines, which in many areas will continue to deliver broadband and IP-based digital phone solutions for some years to come, until FTTP has become available and customers migrated (this is a related, but separate process).

In place of PSTN/WLR, many ISPs are introducing Internet Protocol (IP) based digital phone / voice services, which require a broadband connection in order to work (either via copper or full fibre). Put another way, you plug your existing handset into the back of a broadband router (assuming it has a phone port) or Analogue Terminal Adapter (ATA), rather than the old wall socket.

Caveats of the change

The problem is that the new generation of IP based digital phone solutions do have the odd caveat, aside from being a little bit more complex to setup. For example, the new services are not remotely powered (i.e. if there’s a power cut, they go down, but ISPs can often provide very limited battery backup solutions upon request) and often don’t work properly with older alarm or telecare monitoring systems.

The issue of poor telecare support is the fault of telecare and alarm providers (i.e. failing to upgrade their systems), but this doesn’t change the reality that nearly 2 million people use these vital telecare systems in the UK (e.g. elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people). Often these exist in rural and isolated areas, where mobile services may also go down during power cuts. Ofcom are separately reviewing mobile resilience, but complex issues of cost and wayleaves may create some barriers.

According to The Telegraph’s (paywall) sources, the high risk that the digital phone switch-over could put a significant number of vulnerable people’s lives at risk may result in the December 2025 completion target being pushed back by up to another 2 years. But the new report appears to state that this delay would only apply to vulnerable people, such as those who make use of telecare systems.

NOTE: BT and other providers have already paused all non-voluntary migrations, temporarily moving from an opt-out to an opt-in approach, with customers asked to confirm they’re happy to go ahead via text (here).

A BT spokesman said:

“We’re working closely with the Government and Ofcom as we continue the important programme to move customers onto digital landlines.

Our priority remains doing this safely, supporting our vulnerable customers and those with additional needs in particular, and we’re working with key organisations that represent these groups to achieve that.

This includes encouraging more local authorities and telecare providers to make us aware of telecare users so we can make sure they get the right support at the right time.

The current pause will have an impact on the timing of the overall programme – but we are working to minimise any delays, as the switch to digital landlines is a necessity given the increasing fragility of the analogue landline network.”

A spokesman for the government (DSIT) said:

“The decision to switch off the analogue landline network has been taken by the telecoms industry, and the UK Government has no formal role in administering the switchover. Deciding timelines for its completion is a matter for providers, but we continue to engage with the industry to ensure vulnerable customers are protected throughout this process.”

The reality is that keeping the old analogue services going would not only be extremely expensive, but is also proving difficult as manufacturers stop producing related kit and services for a declining and increasingly ancient technology. At the same time, telecare providers seem unlikely to up their game in time for the 2025 deadline. All told, this increasingly suggests that some delay may be unavoidable.

On the other hand, the Telegraph’s piece seems to overlook that Openreach and BT are about to pilot a new SOTAP for Analogue product from 1st May 2024 (here), which is a phone line service that does NOT require broadband to work and can harness modern networks to function similarly to the older analogue service.

The solution, once introduced, would not be available for new service provisions (only existing / vulnerable customers) and is intended to be a temporary product (possibly running until around 2030 or as long as it takes). In theory, this would allow more time for people and networks to adapt, but it won’t be launched until later in 2024 at the earliest and is arriving quite late to the party, which might help to explain today’s talk about a delay.

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