With the changeover set for next year, there are concerns about the users of telecare devices and the effects of prolonged power cuts.
Back in 2015, the UK's BT announced plans to retire its analog telephone networks, such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), by the end of 2025.
Instead, it said, landline customers would be migrated to new digital technology using an internet connection, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Digital Voice, or All-IP telephony. Other phone operators are also making the move.
The announcement went largely unremarked at the time – perhaps because of the eight-year time frame. But with the deadline now rapidly approaching, there are serious concerns about what the switch could mean for vulnerable customers.
The need for reliable power
Unlike traditional phone lines, the new Digital Voice system will require power at the premises to operate – including making emergency calls.
But power cuts are not exactly unknown in the UK. On January 2nd, for example, the Energy Networks Association (ENA), which collates data from all energy providers, estimated that 38,000 customers were without power thanks to damage from a major storm sweeping the country.
BT's official advice is to use a mobile phone to contact emergency services. However, not everybody has one: according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in 2020-2021, for example, seven percent of households had no access to a mobile phone.
Regulator Ofcom says that BT will be required to take measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency services, including during a power cut, for example, by supplying customers with mobile phones.
Virgin Media, meanwhile, plans in certain circumstances to offer a device with its own battery that allows the landline phone to connect to mobile phone services.
However, many areas of the country, from remote regions to localized 'not-spots,' lack mobile coverage: as of 2020, according to Statista, nine percent of households weren't covered by any mobile network operator.
The other option specified by Ofcom is for BT to supply customers in remote areas with a battery supply. Again, though, this may fail to fix the problem. The batteries proposed can provide an hour's power – while storms in recent years have brought power outages lasting a week or more.
Even more worryingly, there are concerns about customers who are reliant on telecare devices: personal alarms that offer remote support to elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people. There are, according to consumer group Which?, 1.7 million people using these telecare devices in the UK.
And with the rollout for Digital Voice having already started in certain areas of the country, there have already been incidents in which telecare users have had their devices fail when trying to use them after the upgrade process.
The UK is by no means the only country to be making or considering this move, with Estonia and the Netherlands having already switched off their PSTNs and France, Germany, and Japan winding theirs down.
In Estonia, according to Oliver Gailan, head of the electronic communications department at the Estonian Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority, there are still a significant number of landline telephone customers – 50,000 – down from 240,000 ten years ago.
Estonia, he says, has excellent mobile coverage, and there is a requirement for operators to ensure backup power in important mobile base stations for at least six hours.
Meanwhile, he says, "In Estonia, the telecare alarm service, which uses landline phones, has been very marginal. Most of the telecare or other similar solutions are based on mobile services. Therefore, there has not been a very big negative impact from the shift of technology."
The Estonian Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority is not aware of any tragedies, he says.
The UK's latest move
In the UK, though, these issues still need ironing out – and so far, potential solutions look pretty vague.
Following concerns, technology secretary Michelle Donelan has asked all phone providers not to force people to switch over until enhanced protections are in place and not to forcibly move customers onto the new network unless they are fully confident they will be protected.
She has also called on providers to provide backup solutions that go beyond regulator Ofcom’s minimum of one hour of continued, uninterrupted access to emergency services in the event of a power outage.
However, they're only being asked to 'work to provide' this extended access, and there's no suggestion that the battery back-up should be expected to last for days.
Donelan describes her agreement with the industry as 'a cast iron set of principles' – but 'principles' are all they are, and there's nothing cast iron about them. If the PSTN is to be retired by the proposed date, a great deal more needs to be done.
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