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Concerns Raised Over the Ending of Analogue Phone Lines: Questions & Comments

In June 2019 BT Openreach announced that the traditional analogue phone network (or PSTN) will reach the end of its life by December 2025. Support for devices reliant on the PSTN will be withdrawn, and the removal of analogue support on fibre network begins.

Concerns have been raised about how this will impact people in Orkney and particularly the elderly. The new home phone service, Digital Voice, runs on the broadband network.

What happens if you do not have broadband or there is a power cut?

What happens if you don’t have a mobile phone charged up and ready for use?

The change affects homes and businesses: everything that currently uses the old phone network, all your non-voice services connected to PSTN or ISDN lines. Things like alarms, EPOS machines, door entry systems, CCTV, and faxes. – BT Digital Voice

Many older people in Orkney may not have a mobile phone or if they do, keep it charged ready for use – and we have many not spots, areas where mobile devices do not work.

The Orkney News contacted BT to find out what measures it is putting in place to address the issues of people who might be seriously impacted by the roll out of Digital Voice.

A BT spokesperson said:

“As part of the industry-wide shift to digital land lines we are rolling out our new home phone service, Digital Voice, on a region-by-region basis to allow us to support customers every step of the way with the change.

“We won’t be proactively contacting customers across Scotland until next Summer and will have advisors visible and present at events across Scotland, to meet people in their communities and offer advice and support to as many residents as possible.”

What about older people?

We set up the Digital Voice Advisory Group an assembly of charities and representative groups – including Age UK and Independent Age – who have been advising on the needs of customers most affected by the switch, including the elderly. We’ve consulted them on how best to create awareness among these customers, so they understand why they need to switch, what they need to do, and how to speak to us if they have any concerns.

“In April, we also announced a partnership with AbilityNet to help improve digital skills among older people. AbilityNet will be supporting us with the region-by-region rollout, ensuring customers understand why the changes are happening and how they can make the most of this new technology.” 

What happens if there is a power cut?

“In the event of a power cut, if they are able to do so, customers should use their mobile as an alternative to their landline. This is the simplest, most reliable back-up for landline users. Mobile phones generally have 12-24hr battery life (often longer) and they can also be charged in the car in the event of a long lasting domestic power outage. We would also encourage these customers to buy a low-cost 4G mobile phone if they are comfortable doing so.   

“For Digital Voice customers without a mobile, we’ve also developed a hybrid phone that can switch to a mobile network in the event of a power cut and has an in-built battery.” 

“For Digital Voice customers with additional needs, including those who identify as vulnerable and those who live in an area without mobile signal, we will provide a battery back-up unit free of charge. Customers without additional needs can also choose to purchase a battery back-up unit.” 

BT will be holding a series of events throughout Scotland next summer, 2024, to offer support and advice. BT customers are contacted at least four weeks in advance before making the switch, to ensure that they are ready to move to Digital Voice. 

The Orkney News also contacted politicians and Third Sector organisations to get their reaction.

The Scottish Government has said that this is an issue for BT as a Private Company to address but it is keeping informed about what is happening.

John Nicolson MP is the SNP spokesperson at Westminster for Culture, Media and Sport he did provide a comment. He said:

Orkney and Shetland LibDem MP Alistair Carmichael said:

“The new concern which is developing around our connectivity issues is the proposal to turn off the ‘copper network’ of landlines next year. I think that deadline is unachievable, but this change is clearly coming and we cannot allow it to happen in such a way that we are left in the Northern Isles without a proper service. Let’s not forget that late last year much of Shetland was without power for several days. Being able to contact people in the more difficult to reach parts of our islands was essential to making sure that they were safe. Regulators and telecoms companies south have to understand the realities of life in the isles before they go too far in making decisions of this sort.”

Telecommunications is a power reserved to the UK London Parliament, however, the Scottish Government has taken on Scotland’s Full Fibre Charter which contains a series of pledges to help extend full fibre broadband across Scotland. It is now consulting on plans to enhance broadband connection speeds in new homes across Scotland. The consultation closes on 12 December, 2023.

The proposals would amend building regulations to require developers to ensure that:

  • all new build homes are installed with the gigabit-ready physical infrastructure necessary for gigabit-capable connections
  • a gigabit-capable connection is installed in a new build home subject to a £2,000 cost cap per dwelling
  • or where a gigabit-capable connection is not being installed, the next fastest broadband connection is installed within the £2,000 cost cap

Innovation Minister in the Scottish Government Richard Lochhead said:

“The Scottish Government is committed to providing an efficient and resilient digital infrastructure in Scotland, as set out in our National Strategy for Economic Transformation.

“A key theme of our digital strategy is ensuring that no one is left behind and that is why we are consulting on these proposals, as we look to transition to a fair, green and growing economy.”

For the Scottish Greens, Ariane Burgess, Highlands and Islands Scottish MSP said she will be writing to BT to ask about what is happening with Digital Voice across the region. She said:

“The switch-over to a fully digital system should make for clearer calls and will allow the development of more tools to better protect customers against scam and nuisance calls – something which I know many vulnerable residents are concerned about.

“I understand that BT is engaging with stakeholder groups and I will be writing to them on behalf of constituents to ask what groups they are working with in my region, particularly to support older people on our islands. No-one should be left without a home phone system.

“I am aware that AbilityNet has a free helpline for those concerned about the switchover. Constituents can contact them on 0800 048 7642.”

This is an issue which will continue to cause concern amongst many people in Orkney, and in rural and island communities across Scotland. If you have any worries or comments about this you can contact us and we’ll try and get answers for you email: fiona@theorkneynews.scot

Further Information from BT on the Background

Analogue to Digital Landline Switchover

  • The switch from analogue to digital landlines is a technological change that will see the decades old, analogue equipment in our telephone exchanges replaced with more modern, digital technology.
  • The old analogue equipment is over 40 years old, is increasingly fault prone and is no longer supported by manufacturers or suppliers.
  • Customers risk facing increased service outages if this urgent upgrade isn’t carried out now by BT and other operators. 
  • The move comes as part of an industry-wide shift from analogue to digital landlines, where calls are made over a broadband line, and will see BT and nearly all other landline operators in the UK, including Virgin Media O2, supporting their customers in making the switch by the end of 2025.
  • Whilst we’ll be switching off the old analogue kit in the exchange, this doesn’t mean the end of copper connections. 
  • The landline is here to stay, but the technology used to make calls is changing from analogue to digital, as part of an industry-wide shift acknowledged by Ofcom and the UK Government, as an important step towards future-proofing the UK’s connectivity.
  • UK Government website: UK transition from analogue to digital landlines – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
  • Ofcom: Moving landline phones to digital technology: what you need to know – Ofcom 

BT’s approach

  • Following successful pilots in Salisbury (Wiltshire) and Mildenhall (Suffolk), BT announced plans earlier this year to start contacting customers on a phased region-by-region basis across the country. Starting with the East Midlands in July, Yorkshire and the Humber in August, Northern Ireland in September, the North West in October and Greater London in November and December. Please see our latest press release on the Digital Voice roll out for further details.
  • Customers across Scotland will be contacted next Summer about the switch.
  • BT customers are contacted at least four weeks in advance before making the switch, to ensure that they are ready to move to Digital Voice. 
  • Initially, BT won’t be proactively switching anyone who falls under the below criteria, where it has this information available: 
  • Customers with a healthcare pendant 
  • Customers who only use landlines 
  • Customers with no mobile signal 
  • Customers who have disclosed any additional needs. 
  • Customers who fall into any of these categories should contact BT to ensure their data is up to date. 
  • Customers over the age of 70 are not being proactively switched to Digital Voice. However, since July 2023, BT has been trialling switching customers between 70-74 who live in urban areas and are ready to make the switch, i.e. they have the latest broadband hub and are not frequent landline users. These trials have gone well to date, with 98% of customers choosing to make the switch, and pending further consultation with the Digital Voice Advisory Group, BT will look to extend this trial nationally. 
  • We understand that for many, particularly those with additional needs, the landline is a lifeline. We want to be sure everyone remains connected. We’ve been working to make battery back-up units available to those that need them and Hybrid phones that can switch to a mobile network and have a built-in battery. Customers with additional needs such as health pendants or without mobile signal, can take advantage of free additional support, on request.
  • In readiness for the December 2025 deadline, Openreach has also taken steps to end the sale of new analogue services across the UK. That means when customers who have access to broadband sign up for a new contract – or when they switch, upgrade or re-grade their service via their provider – they’ll be moved onto a new digital landline rather than an analogue one.

The process

  • Customers are contacted at least four weeks in advance before making the switch, to ensure that they are ready to move to Digital Voice.
  • As part of our regional rollout we personally invite them to attend one of our regional roadshows and provide them with general awareness comms.
  • We then follow up with a number of pieces of information relating to the switch from the beginning until the day of the switch.
  • For most customers, the switch will be as simple as plugging their existing phone into the back of their broadband router.
  • For those customers who are taking broadband for the first time, we will provide them with a broadband router ahead of their switch.

Customers without broadband

  • Customers without broadband don’t need to worry, there’s nothing for them to do right now. 
  • We’ll be offering a dedicated landline service, allowing these customers to use their landline in the same way as they do today, so their phone will continue to be plugged into the socket on the wall rather than into the back of a broadband router. 
  • This service will be available from late 2024 and will keep customers connected to their existing service until they’re able to move over to Digital Voice or an alternative. 
  • To get this service up and running, we’ll be installing some new equipment in the local telephone exchange and our engineers will need to move customers off the old analogue kit and onto the new. We won’t need access to property to carry out this work, but we will be in touch with customers before we carry out any work.” 

Mobile resilience

  • We estimate that less than 1% of our landline customer’s premises have insufficient mobile signal to make an emergency call. This number will drop as we continue to invest in building the mobile Shared Rural Network. Under this programme we have already built or upgraded over 1,500 sites, providing reliable 4G connectivity to an additional 2,000+ square miles of rural landmass across the four UK nations.
  • We continue to invest in our ambition to enable a 5G solution to be possible anywhere in the UK by 2028. Earlier this year, we announced the arrival of 5G in over 500 smaller towns and villages across the UK, as well as the first 5G in National Parks including The Brecon Beacons, Pembrokeshire Coast and The Broads. This complements our leading 4G network, which stretches more than 2,500 square miles further than anyone else, and is on course to pass 90% of the UK’s geographic landmass by the mid-2020s.
  • We have extensive resilience in our core network, with generators that provide 7-day backup in the event that power goes down. We’re working with the power industry to help prioritise digital phone network resilience in the event of any future storms and subsequent power outages.  In addition, a lot of masts provide overlapping coverage and we’re also working to ensure more of our sites have back up generators.  
  • We also regularly speak with DSIT, Ofcom and other Government Departments about network resilience and we have robust contingency plans in place to protect customers through a range of different situations.
  • For the very small percentage of the population that neither has access to broadband, nor mobile coverage, we want to reassure customers that in line with our service obligations we’ll make sure that they have the connectivity they need.
  • Emergency calls can be made on any mobile phone network. If a customer lives in an area where their network doesn’t have reception but another does, they will get Emergency Calls Only.
  • Some mobile handsets are beginning to offer the capability of sending messages over low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Satellite connectivity provides options for coverage in very hard to reach areas. We expect this capability to grow over time.

Fiona Grahame

1 reply »

  1. It is not (yet?) a legal requirement to possess or use a mobile phone.

    For many, elderly as well as others, it is simply not worth to buy or use such a device.
    At the time of the planned switchover those people will be forced to waste money on a mobile phone, possibly even on putting credits on it (even when emergency calls remain free of charge). How do I know this? Simple… if you for example do not actively use your pay-as-you-go phone for a longer period, you will be switched off… perhaps not every supplier does it, but O2 definitely does, as we found out by coincidence when the (old) mobile phone was needed once in a blue moon. Basically this means that I have to either make an unnecessary call or send an unnecessary SMS every now and then (at my expenses!) just to keep the phone functioning so that I can perhaps use it in an emergency.

    Also, people will be forced to have their mobile phones sufficiently charged at all times. 12 – 24 hours battery life? Modern devices perhaps… older, simple devices’ battery life is a mere fraction of this, and this only on standby and not when making calls. Not good when someone is waiting in a phone queue for the NHS helpline… the battery could be flat by the time their call is answered.

    How do you charge a mobile phone during a longer powercut? With the car? What if you do not have a car because you do not need it since your carer comes in every day and you can’t drive due to age, disability or any other reason?

    Should we start learning smoke signals? Sadly, during a dark windy night and a power cut they are as useless as the planned digital landline will be.

    Some family members live abroad, in Germany to be precise. Since the rollout of the digital landline in their region about a year ago, there have been numerous issues with this “service”. Repeatedly experienced are outages, disruptions, technical problems… where previously were no issues at all.
    A rollout up here where much of the existing infrastructure (of many different utilities) could do with an improvement anyway, powercuts are much more frequent and many can’t just pop round to their neighbours unless they fancy a walk of a mile or more, possibly in a stormy night with horizontal rain… I am dreading the digital times to come.

    Perhaps best invest in a siren… a VHF radio… ?

    Analogue services have their benefits. Instead of dismantling them, we should appreciate those.
    And digital services come with their own additional vulnerabilities and risks.

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