How can businesses prepare for the upcoming switch-off? Comms Business talks to stakeholders across the industry.

The copper-based public switched telephone network (PSTN) will be retired in December 2025. Over the next two years, the telecoms channel faces an uphill effort to migrate all remaining PSTN lines to all-IP alternatives and there is widespread agreement across the industry that the current pace of change will need to pick up speed to meet the deadline.

Low awareness about the changes that are coming is often discussed as the main barrier to migrations. Ben Thomas, sales and marketing director at network services provider Flomatik, said, “Despite ongoing discussions, there is a notable deficiency in raising awareness about the impending PSTN withdrawal. While the deadline is well-known throughout the channel, the larger implications of this transition have not been adequately addressed.

“It’s not just about upgrading communications infrastructure, like broadband and voice, to meet modern demands. PSTN underpins so many elements of organisations’ tech stack— from safety alarms and security cameras to water valve controls, elevator controls, and more. The biggest challenge is therefore understanding which OSS [operations support systems] and BSS [business support systems] underpin firms’ current infrastructure and support their critical telecommunications services.”

Jamie Ward, CEO, Gradwell Communications, agreed not enough has yet been done to raise awareness. He said, “The PSTN switch-off significantly impacts both businesses and consumers. Despite this, not enough has been done across the industry to raise public awareness to date. The impact of this change warrants campaigns across national media, TV and more. It’s essential that we educate the market in order that they can make informed choices as soon as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of businesses failing to act early enough.

“A lack of public awareness also leaves open the threat of opportunists taking advantage of an information vacuum. Small businesses and consumers could be exposed to unscrupulous business activities if more is not done to raise awareness of how the switch-off will take place, the schedule of activity and most importantly the choices available to customers.”

Tim Loveday, head of new business and channel sales, Gigabit Networks, also highlighted the absence of a national campaign to date. He said, “I don’t think there has been enough awareness of the upcoming PSTN withdrawal so far. As of yet, we haven’t seen any of the big boys like BT or TalkTalk wade in to do this nationally. My thoughts are that, over the next 12 months, we should see a national advertising campaign that is driven by the government to ensure that all businesses and consumers in the UK know what is happening and what the repercussions could be if they don’t switch.

“The switch-off has certainly been at the forefront of many channel campaigns over the past couple of years. However, the issue is, have enough businesses made or started working out plans to make the switch or are they going to leave it to the last minute? Taking a proactive approach and talking face to face with partners and customers is vital to address the significance of the PSTN switch-off and what it means for all businesses, from the impact on telephone systems to connectivity.”

Scott Rixon, solutions director, Evolve IP, added, “Not enough is being done generally. There is a big educational piece that is still needed as businesses are not taking action and many end users don’t even know what PSTN is. There is a big difference between informing people about the switch-off and making sure they understand the steps they need to take.”

Conducting an audit

The next barrier after awareness is for businesses to then understand their next steps. When asked how businesses can prepare for the switch-off, Roan Pratt, sales and marketing director, Techland, said, “The first step is a technology audit. As we all know, the switch-off is about more than telephony. Do they have FTTC or ADSL broadband? Is their access control or CCTV running on PSTN? It’s about establishing whether and where they’ll be affected.

“Then, they need to decide where they want to get to. Do they want to be cloud-only? Do they need to retain a PBX? How will their overall network affect the choices available to them? Then it’s time to create a migration plan. This is a great opportunity for MSPs and resellers to step in and help. Most businesses don’t have the institutional knowledge to address these questions. MSPs and resellers do!”
Shaun Bodsworth, managing director, Inform Billing, added, “The key to preparing for the switch-off is knowing what you need to do, developing a strategy, setting priorities and then having visibility of the impact of your decisions.”

Bodsworth pointed to Inform Analytics, a new offering for the Channel that includes pre-built business intelligence dashboards to give channel companies real-time visibility into critical information related to the switch-off. He explained that this provides “critical information such as which of your customers currently have legacy services, what else they have, where they sit contractually and how account managers are performing at migrating their customers”.

He added, “Armed with real-time information, businesses can make informed decisions. Prioritisation becomes more straightforward, allowing businesses to focus on areas that require immediate attention.”

Using the time left

With just two years remaining before the planned withdrawal of the PSTN, companies across the channel will need to make the most of the time that remains. For Adrian Sunderland, CEO, Jola, the reality is that current preparations do not go far enough. He said, “The BT Digital Voice debacle and the Salisbury and Mildenhall delays just show that neither industry nor customers were ready.”

As such, Sunderland explained, “businesses are totally reliant on their suppliers for advice”. Over the next two years, Sunderland expects the country to be “split into businesses with type A resellers and businesses with type B resellers”.

He explained, “Type A resellers will already be talking to their customers about the PSTN switch-off and guiding them towards appropriate solutions in plenty of time, potentially saving their customers money whilst making more margin. Type B resellers will be too busy to worry about 2025, so they won’t be proactively doing anything about the PSTN switch-off.

“As a result, they might lose some of their customers to the proactive Type A resellers. Alternatively, they’re going to be having a very stressful time in 2025 when suddenly their customers are being bombarded by warnings coming from every direction about their services being disconnected and then rushing to prevent that from actually happening.”

Paul Grant, channel manager, UK and Ireland, Snom, added, “Despite the VoIP market already having developed significantly in the UK, we expect it to grow further as the switch-off gets closer. More and more businesses will recognise the benefits of adopting an all-IP approach. For SMEs in particular, the technology will provide them with the flexibility to adapt and expand their phone network as they scale, effectively future-proofing their operations.”

Ward, from Gradwell Communications, pointed out the difficulty in building momentum with businesses not recognising migrations must start now. He said, “We expect many businesses to see 2025 as too far in the future and as such, there will be a slow start to the market mobilising to address the switch-off. This is likely to cause a capacity challenge in 2024 with services such as porting and connectivity engineers experiencing delays.”

Gradwell Communications has joined Fit To Switch, a Comms Business campaign to raise awareness and educate businesses from different sectors about potential risks to their business when the PSTN is withdrawn. Ward explained, “We expect public awareness to significantly increase because of initiatives like the Fit To Switch campaign, and this will have a positive impact on reducing the impact later in the year.”

Despite industry efforts to manage migrations more strategically, there is wide expectation that the final months of the PSTN will be hectic.

Rixon, from Evolve IP, said, “I anticipate that there is going to be a mad rush at the end. The reality is that people are not aware of the impact and that this is going to happen in 2025. It’s just not going to be at the top of their agenda. We will need to factor in that there will be people who will be impacted and it’s our job to factor this in and come up with a plan to support them effectively to ensure minimal disruption.”

Industry collaboration

The number of companies across the Channel who have signed up as Fit To Switch National Champions or supporting organisations illustrates the telecoms industry has resolved to collaborate to guide businesses through their upgrade options ahead of the PSTN withdrawal.

Sara Sheikh, head of product management, Gamma, explained, “One of the reasons Gamma joined Fit To Switch was there just seemed to be a complete lack of awareness about this issue. We knew, in 2017, this is going to happen and it’s going to have a massive impact on people.

“People needed solutions, so we built these amazing solutions to help people transition and we thought it was going to get a massive adoption straightaway. Everyone knows it’s happening, and everyone will want this amazing solution that we’ve constructed. And then nothing happened. For us, that was a real wake up call. We started asking: why isn’t everyone talking about this? Why isn’t everyone thinking about this?”

Sheikh pointed to Gamma’s own research that found a third of businesses have no idea this is happening. Of the two thirds that did know, only 75 per cent had a migration plan, and those plans were at various stages, so there was disparity within that 75 per cent.

She added, “The message is clearly not hitting home and we could talk about how the government should be pushing this or how there should be one concrete message. But there’s not. So it felt important for Gamma to join a campaign where we could speak to people and not have it sound like a sales pitch. Fit To Switch gives us this place to speak to people about how this isn’t just an important topic, it is an existential issue. It’s about survival, and businesses need to be adopting these new technologies.”

A switch-on

Dale Parkinson, managing director, connectivity, Giacom, agreed there is a pressing need to spread awareness and emphasised this must now also lead to action.

He said, “We work with 5,500 partners. And those technology resellers sell a variety of technology products, which we buy from the vendors, such as Microsoft, Vodafone, and BT Wholesale. And you’d be surprised how much awareness there is in that community. It’s not as great as we might imagine, which is pretty astonishing when we started to inform our own channel partners back in 2018.

“For us, we have this idea of it being a switch-on and that’s about us stopping the tirade of information and starting to take some action. There are nine and a half million assets or services that we need to transform in the next two years. We’re not going to get that by just educating partners. You have to take some action. Fit To Switch is an opportunity for likeminded organisations to come together and start doing something about the challenge.”

Simon Horton, vice president of sales, Sangoma, explained his company sees its role a little differently to Gamma and Giacom as it is a manufacturer as well as provider of cloud services. The withdrawal of PSTN services, he explained, provides “the opportunity to enable businesses to move away from legacy phone systems towards unified comms-enabled systems”.

Horton added, “It’s not one-size-fits-all, as far as we’re concerned. Some businesses might want to go straight to cloud, but there are other options. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve got a bunch of people around me that have been in the industry for a similar amount of time. We know how to make this stuff work. We’ve got to get the message out to the Channel and to the end users that we can fix their stuff. We can offer them choice.”

Getting migrations going

Joe Sheppard, head of marketing, CSL Group, explained his company has joined Fit To Switch as time is running out to complete all migrations in time for the switch-off.

He said, “From our point of view, our customers have been receiving information from us for five or six years. We’ve been working with Openreach and sharing upgrade options. But people don’t really believe it’s happening because they’re saying their phones are still working, so they’re not worried about it and say they‘ll wait until the end.

“But if we wait any longer, there won’t be enough time to do it, there won‘t be enough engineers, and there won‘t be enough equipment. We can do everything we can to get ready and we’re all sat here with solutions that work, have been tested, and are successful. But there’s so much more we need to do to get these migrations going.”

Real benefits for SMEs

Julien Parven, director of Daisy Partner Business, added, “Those 9.3 million PSTN lines that need to be migrated, when we break that down a little bit further, that is associated to 2.22 million UK SMEs. As an industry, we need this message to reach across that audience and that is incredibly difficult.

“Fit To Switch is important as we’ve been talking about this message, and pushing this message for a considerable amount of time. We have a vehicle of our own – Keeping Britain Working – but we feel that, given that we’ve now got two years until this deadline, as a community we’ve got an obligation and a responsibility to UK SMEs to help them do something now.”

Parven emphasised the reality that this transition is a good thing for businesses across the UK. He said, “For the businesses who are sitting there with legacy technology, or with estates that they don’t understand and services that are not being used but are being paid for.

“Businesses can unlock that wasted revenue and reinvest it into accelerating their own digital transformation. If the government or the regulator can support us [with Fit To Switch], we can lay down a real foundational benefit for the UK SME market.”

Understanding your risks

Sue Michaelwaite, solutions manager, 8x8, pointed out some businesses do not even realise they are using the PSTN and will need to examine their existing solutions.

She said, “Communications in the cloud can deliver improved collaboration, productivity, and analytics. But what we find is that, when we go to do this, there is so much legacy stuff that businesses do not know they have. And, at this point, this needs to be pushed forward. 2025 is not long away and, if you do not understand everything you have got, you don’t understand your risks.

“We look after healthcare organisations and care homes, for example, and if we say: how does your alarm line work? They just say: it’s on the internet. They don’t see the potential problem because they don’t understand the technology that was put in years ago. They pay the alarm provider a service fee every year, but they don’t know what it’s running on. You must know your risks, and that means every business must do a risk assessment at minimum.”

Lee Turner, Comms Council UK member and head of industry engagement and regulatory affairs at Gamma, explained trade associations such as Comms Council UK are joining the Fit To Switch campaign due to concern over how little time is left to find solutions to complex use cases.

He said, “When this project was kicked off back in 2018, we asked Openreach to look at the most complicated cases first. We said: if you look at complicated business, CNI [critical national infrastructure], and vulnerable customers, if we got all that worked out, then the easy stuff was just going to be easy. They decided to instead go for the mass market, and to throw lines into houses. That means today, we still haven’t addressed some of those issues, and they could have been done back in 2018.”

This feature appeared in our January 2024 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.