Copper countdown hit by Covid curveball

Matt Dexter, head of client partnerships at Openreach, explains the role the Channel can play in educating businesses about the upcoming PSTN switch off.

The Covid pandemic has had an impact on almost every aspect of our lives and our programme to digitally transform our landline business is no exception. At the beginning of May – we took the difficult decision to announce to industry that we were having to delay giving notice on the stop selling of legacy analogue services in more than 100 locations around the UK.

The exchange areas, covering more than a million premises, were due to move to stop sell status in June after we announced our intention to move away from our old copper based analogue phone services (PSTN and WLR) in these areas, and onto a new digital all-IP network last summer. This is only a temporary pause in the programme, with all the delayed exchange areas now moving to stop sell four months down the line in October.

We’ve been able to obtain real-life learnings from the launch of the stop sell of copper services in Salisbury, which went live last December. The Salisbury trial enabled us and our Communications Provider (CP) customers to stress test our systems and processes and learn about potential challenges to the migration journey.

But of course, since the trial started, we’ve had to deal with the implications of further Covid-19 related lockdown restrictions. To keep our engineers and end customers safe, we had to severely limit the work we could carry out on the premises, especially for upgrading to Full Fibre.

The knock-on effect has been a curb on the level of what we have been able to learn from the migration journey in our Salisbury trial. This has been particularly apparent across some of the more challenging vulnerable customer and business migration scenarios.

Getting back up to speed

A delay to triggering stop sell in these 100 or so exchanges should allow us to catch up with the learning cycle and put those lessons to good use, especially as our engineers can now work inside premises. To help get us back up to speed – we’ve selected 13 exchanges where we’ll go ahead and trigger the stop sell process in June. We’ve picked clusters within the same engineering areas that will help us increase operational learning as volumes of FTTP increase but also exchanges in different UK geographies to ensure different parts of our UK workforce can also benefit.

The irony is that Covid, as well as thwarting our efforts in the short-term, is also helping to accelerate the move to digital. The pandemic has highlighted the need for flexible and remote working, and it is evident that many of us won’t be returning to the office any time soon.

Customers understand that flexible technology is required now more than ever, and many businesses have been forced to review their long-term strategy in the light of Covid. There’s always some resistance to change, but this is where resellers need to have that difficult conversation with their customers.

We know it can be tricky. Suggesting to a customer they’re going to need to resign from a long-term contract, and also pay a bit extra for new improved products and services, runs the risk that they’re going to shop around.
In addition, many reseller businesses are making healthy profits from legacy products. To a degree they’re playing on the fears of customers worried about the cost of swapping out kit and wiring.

Challenging edge cases

One of the big challenges we have with particular business customers of ours, is that they will all be affected by the challenging edge cases that we face with WLR withdrawal, for example lift lines, alarms, or water meters. Our CPs tell us that they are going to wait until they’re able to move everything in bulk before moving their assets to digital.

While we understand that for them that will make life easier, this is going to leave an awful lot of work and will bring jeopardy into their ability to achieve what they want by the time we reach the PSTN switch off deadline in 2025.

The Channel has a pivotal role to play in this space in helping to fill the knowledge gap and educating their customers about the benefits of migrating to IP sooner rather than later. It’s important that businesses aren’t scared into making the switch and can do so at their own pace. It will benefit everyone if they’re able to adopt higher margin services, but resellers can also offer guidance to ensure these are appropriate for the particular use-case.

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