Finding solutions to the complex issues

Are channel businesses being supported in their preparations for the PSTN switch-off and the move to all-IP? Tracey Wright, head of Comms Council UK’s industry developments working group, and Lee Turner, Comms Council UK member, share their thoughts with Comms Business.

Back in April, ITSPA changed its name to Comms Council UK in recognition of the reality that internet-based telephony is now the mainstream communications. At the time, Eli Katz, the organisation’s chairman, said switching off PSTN services will be the biggest change in the telecoms industry for over 30 years.

Tracey Wright, head of Comms Council UK’s industry developments working group (and director at Magrathea), and Lee Turner, Comms Council UK member (and head of industry engagement and regulatory affairs at Gamma) spoke to Comms Business about the issues at stake.

Turner explained there is a little confusion about the timeframes of the different programmes. He said, “There are three separate programmes at work here and they tend to get conflated. We have the fibre deployment, which Openreach and other fibre operators are rolling out. That’s one programme with certain timeframes and budgets. You have a separate one, which is BT’s switch-off of its PSTN. Then you have a third one, which is the withdrawal of traditional voice products. Each one of those has slightly separate timelines. There are some interdependencies but certainly the WLR switch off and the voice switch-off has a very strict and fixed timeline that [BT] appear to be adhering to.

“The PSTN switch off is the last thing that will happen – they’re looking at 2027, or maybe 2028. By that time most users will have been migrated, but it all tends to get lumped together as the all-IP programme.”

Understanding complexity

Wright explained that there needs to be a concerted effort across the industry to address complex use cases. She said, “There’s general agreement that the straightforward simple residential services are not an issue. That’s just a logistics issue of getting fibre to the right places, educating users, and getting people moved across.

“But the complex services, and any business-related services, are where it would appear [there has been] a massive lack of attention and focus. It’s almost like: do the easy stuff first, and leave the complicated stuff to last – where perhaps it should be the other way around. However, if you can address the complicated cases up front, the rest suddenly becomes easy – that’s certainly what I would have thought. In terms of readiness for those complex cases, I’m still believing it’s quite a way off track. It wasn’t helped by Covid, because some of the testing facilities were not opened when they were expected to be. Many organisations have not had opportunities yet to test their technology against new deployments.”

Turner added, “From day one, we [have been saying] that we need to address the complex issues now. [Complex use cases] were put on the back burner, with the focus being on the mass market deployment. What we’re finding now is that [strategy] is starting to bite, the business issues are starting to bite, and only now are some of these issues being addressed.”

He added that there is a lack of confidence within the Channel as a result. “We have to build that up again, but that’s got to come from the access provider.”

Educating end users

One barrier to the efforts of channel businesses is the reality that many end users do not understand the transition that is coming. Wright explained, “There’s been quite a reluctance to do any kind of national communication campaign, ... [yet] businesses sign up to long term contracts. Everything is planned years in advance. But because the communication and understanding of the changes aren’t out there widely – those decisions are not being made. When people are trying to push new technology and changes, there’s quite a lot of resistance being met, because who wants to spend money on things they don’t understand or don’t feel they need?”

This is causing issues across sectors. Turner highlighted the knock-on impact of this lack of education in the public sector. He explained, “That lack of communications has led to some poor decision making. Most local authorities are facing budget cuts, so when they look at what they have to spend on social care, for example, when it comes to their telephony [requirements], they will look at the most cost-effective solution. Without knowing it, some of them are still buying analogue solutions [thinking they will] have a shelf life several years, but they’re not going to. That’s part of the education that has to get out there.” In this example, a sector with limited resources could spend more in the long-term.

Wright concluded, “It needs to be a multi-pronged attack, but if there’s a bit more general education, some of the progress will start getting pushed a bit more by customer demand – potentially, if we get the message right, and the benefits are expressed. That would really help because it’s only when customer demand [picks up] that you’re going to properly understand the challenges that are going to come out of the woodwork. There’s probably systems and use cases haven’t even been thought of that we’re going to uncover as we go through this.”

This feature appeared in our December 2021 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.