Digital switchover may be delayed over telecare systems concerns

The digital switchover could be delayed by up to two years amid concerns over its impact on vulnerable customers, including those that use telecare systems.

According to a Telegraph report, the deadline for ongoing work to withdraw BT and Openreach’s copper-based analogue line services could be pushed back from December 2025 to the end of 2027.

The delay of BT’s Digital Voice programme may only apply to vulnerable users, who are dependent on old telecare devices, many of which haven't been updated to operate using IP-based digital alternatives. Almost 2 million people in the UK use these vital telecare systems, many of which are in rural and isolated areas where mobile services may also go down during power cuts.

Openreach and BT are in the process of upgrading all their old analogue phone services to an FTTP digital IP-based network, with the national stop sell starting in September 2023.

BT and Virgin Media O2 initially agreed to stop installing digital landlines in December 2023. This was because of ‘serious incidents’ where health pendants worn by vulnerable customers stopped working when older, analogue landlines connected to emergency services were switched off.

Last month, telecoms firms agreed to new commitments to protect vulnerable people amidst the swithover. Providers that have agreed to these commitments are BT, Virgin Media O2, Openreach, CityFibre, AllPointsFibre, CommunityFibre, Ogi, KCOM, and WightFibre.

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 Department for Science, Innovation and Technology 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.”

A spokesman for Ofcom added, “We're keeping a close eye on telecoms providers to make sure they comply with our rules during this transition. Providers must ensure uninterrupted access to emergency services, with policies and procedures in place so that vulnerable customers will be treated fairly.”

Openreach and BT are about to pilot a new SOTAP for Analogue product – a phone line service that doesn’t require broadband to work and can use modern networks to function like the old analogue service – from 1st May 2024.

The solution is intended to be a temporary product and won't be launched until later this year at the earliest.

Russell Tilsed, vice president of sales, EMEA, 8x8, said, "If the reports are true that there is a potential pause to be announced to all or part of the PSTN switch-off, many organisations will welcome this for multiple reasons.

"As the switch-off is not planned for another 21 months, for most organisations the issue isn't about having enough time to change over to a digital solution, because that length of time gives most companies and public bodies enough time to source potential solutions, test them and integrate them - the bigger issue is having the funding to do the switchover correctly. Any delay potentially means that financing the move from the PSTN can be deferred to another financial year or the cost spread out over multiple years. Given how cash strapped many organisations are, that extra time could make quite the difference.

"For smaller businesses, where the costs of evolving to a digital network may not be so large scale, the delay may still be welcome. As the UK is currently going through a challenging economic period, delaying the change means one less thing business owners need to worry about - for now - and they can concentrate on day-to-day operations and staying afloat.

"This isn't something that's just going to be an issue for a few businesses in remote areas. It was reported in the House of Commons last year that more than 80 per cent UK businesses still rely on PSTN for services like phone lines, broadband, alarm systems and CCTV cameras, while multiple surveys over the last 12 months have also shown that between one-third and one-half of UK businesses have yet to plan or budget for the switchover.

"There is a flip-side to the switch-off delay that needs to be considered though. If the PSTN is going to be kept active - even for a small group of users - then who is going to pay for that? The government, time and time again, has made it clear that this issue is one for the telecommunications industry to resolve, so it will be interesting to see where the funding for any delay comes from."

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