The transition of the UK’s telephone network to digital

Some years ago BT and associated communications suppliers announced that Openreach will be upgrading telephone networks across the country. The legacy communication networks are being phased out and migrated to an All IP infrastructure by 2025.

The existing analogue service has been in place for decades and has been reliable, providing foundations for many services like telecare, security banking etc, but technology has moved on. As the internet has become more prominent in our lives and work, Openreach and the communication suppliers, have been creating a national broadband network, upgrading all of the exchanges across the country.

In simple terms we now have an analogue (PSTN and ISDN) and digital (IP) networks sitting alongside each other. This is uneconomical and also restrictive. The voice service running over the analogue network can be moved onto the digital network and with this a host of benefits and improvements to service arise.

In addition, it is estimated that up to 40% of the population have stopped using their analogue phone line in favour of a mobile phone. The digital telephone switchover is happening due to increasing demand for faster networks and connectivity.

This is not just BT, other communications suppliers like Vodafone, TalkTalk and Sky have embarked upon this journey as ultimately they are all served by the Openreach network. Virgin has their own infrastructure but will align to do the very same work across their network so that it remains consistent across the country. Scandinavia and some other European countries have been through this journey some years ago and are already realising the benefits of digital services.

What does this mean for telecare devices?

Specifically it may mean that legacy analogue telecare devices may cease to work effectively over the new digital networks once these are upgraded. The reason behind this is that current analogue telecare devices and other security alarm type devices uses a communication method called DTMF (Dual Tone Multi frequency) which, in brief, are a series of tones which they exchange across the telecoms network to an alarm receiving centre (ARC). Due to the complexity of the network as it changes these tones can be corrupted or distorted within its journey causing devices to fail or seamlessly connect to the ARC.

The Telecare Services Association (TSA) found that currently up to 12% of analogue telecare calls fail to reach the ARCs first time around in certain geographical regions. In reality this means that the traditional connection speed of 30-90 seconds for some analogue telecare devices will then extend to double or triple this time depending on its success traversing the network. At Careium we understand that this is a risk to our end users.

How are we at Careium managing this risk?

At Careium we have been working closely with BT and Openreach to ensure that our digital solutions are technically robust and meets the requirements of the changes taking place to the telecoms network.

Last year we attended the BT headquarters in Suffolk, where they have created an environment that is “as close as possible to customers’ premises after the digital switchover”. Within the test lab we tested our digital equipment across the network and our digital equipment transitioned the network quickly and reliably, without any cause for concern.

Careium’s personal alarms have been tested for compatibility with the new BT Digital Voice product.

We also recently visited the Openreach test centre which they opened in November 2021. This showcases some of the top 10 communication providers digital lines and services that are either available now or will be available in the new digital world. What we know is that some of the analogue devices that providers have tested through these environments and that we tested for our peace of mind did not always connect reliably.

How did we test these devices?

As part of the new world, BT and other line providers will begin to offer Digital Voice lines and a Home Hub with an ATA (analogue telephone adapter) port, to allow analogue devices to continue to work while the switchover happens.

But, the concern here is that there are no guarantees these will work with all analogue devices and these ATAs may be phased out at a later date due to technical compatibility. Ultimately the message from communication providers is, the right product for a digital (IP) network is a digital (IP) product. If we try to convert communications back and forth between analogue and digital it is highly likely there will be issues now and in the future.

Careium has also attended industry events related to the digital switchover to ensure we are as educated as we need to be to communicate with our internal teams and our customers regarding the changes and how it will affect them.

We are also engaging with communication providers and the TSA to ensure they are aware that our ARCs are compatible with new digital alarms and that they have all of the information they need regarding telephone lines and destinations that the alarm units we monitor dial, thus allowing them to identify the number of “special service customers”.

We will be as supportive as we can to our customers as we understand that this is not a change that we have a choice to make. This ,change also has an impact on our monitoring services which we have to adapt to. However we do understand that this provides many benefits and a more reliable, efficient and more importantly a safe service to our end users. Our guidance aligns with the communication suppliers and our industry partners in that to maintain the vital service provided by your emergency alarm that you start to consider the switch to a digital device that is built specifically for travelling across the new digital networks. For more information on our personal alarm offerings.

BT has now paused the digital voice switchover for some special service customers.

On 29th March 2022, an announcement was made that BT is pausing the rollout of Digital Voice. BT has said they will not be automatically updating their ‘special service’s customers to Digital Voice if the customer is not prepared for the upgrade and chooses not to be upgraded just yet.

Digital Voice is BT’s new home phone service that has been introduced as a replacement for current PSTN and other associated services.

Marc Allera, CEO of the Consumer Division at BT said: “We under estimated the disruptive impact this upgrade would have on some of our customers. With hindsight we went too early, before many customers – particularly those who rely more heavily on landlines – understood why this change is necessary and what they needed to do. We also recognise we have more work to do on getting better back-up solutions in place for when things disrupt the service like storms and power cuts. We got this part of our programme wrong and for that, we’re sorry”

Why is BT pausing the rollout?

Ultimately, BT has admitted to underestimating the impact the upgrade would have on people (vulnerable customers more importantly) and that, in hindsight, they didn’t do enough to ensure many people – such as emergency alarm users – understood why the change was happening and what steps they needed to take to embrace it.

One of the reasons for pausing the rollout is due to the recent storm activity across the UK. The more recent storms caused several power outages lasting several days throughout the country and in the new world of router and battery back-up proposals this would have provided very limited alarm cover.

BT want to ensure that the switchover from analogue to digital is as smooth a transition as possible, and is currently aiming to restart the rollout once they have put key provisions in place, including:

  • Hybrid phones that can switch to a mobile network and have an in-built, long-lasting battery.
  • The option of longer-lasting battery backup units for BT customers who want or need them.
  • Providing in-home ‘mobile landlines’ for people without broadband.
  • Addressing so-called mobile ‘not-spots’, with continued investment in the Shared Rural Network.
  • Launching an awareness campaign so that BT customers better understand the need to switch.
  • Continuing to proactively engage the related industries – like healthcare pendants and burglar alarm providers to ensure BT’s most vulnerable customers continue to get the service they need.
  • Advancements to scam-call shielding and fraud reduction tools, that they know are becoming ever more important to our users of landlines.

I am a BT customer and haven’t been upgraded; how can I pause the upgrade?

In most if not all cases when it comes to upgrading the new digital voice service you will be contacted by your line supplier directly.

If you are a BT customer and are contacted regarding the upgrade to Digital Voice, and you are not ready for the change or what it may mean for your alarm service, you can simply say ‘no’. Advise them you have an emergency alarm service – along with any other concerns or questions you may have about the change. BT will then be able to discuss your concerns with you and should reassure you that nothing will change until you understand why and know what you need to do as a result.

If you have been informed that you’re going to be upgraded soon and are not sure if you would like to proceed yet – you can contact BT directly to discuss pausing the upgrade.

It is unlikely that you can say no to the upgrade indefinitely, but you may be able to pause it long enough to provide enough time to make sure everything is in place in your home, and that you feel confident about what you need to do to maintain your invaluable lifeline alarm service before being upgraded.

BT’s have their own FAQ’s about the move to Digital Voice.

I use a different telephone provider, what does this mean for me?

Other suppliers such as Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk may continue with their own conversions but have yet to comment on BT’s most recent announcement that we have seen or are aware of.

If you are not a BT home phone customer and are with a different phone company for your landline calls, we recommend pro-actively contacting your provider to get an update on their plans for your upgrade or region, to include timelines, process and any changes to your current bills etc.

On some occasions an engineer from your line supplier maybe required to assist you with conversion to the digital voice service.

Virgin Media customers

In April 2022, Virgin Media announced they have also paused the digital upgrade for their broadband customers that they know are also emergency alarm users. If you are a Virgin Media broadband customer and you have an emergency alarm service, you should contact Virgin Media as soon as possible to let them know you have an emergency alarm service and that you want to ensure that this service is not interrupted.

In summary the process should be consistent across line suppliers, the migration to digital voice will need to be agreed by you and will come from initial contact by your line supplier. As we mentioned earlier if you are not ready for this new service or migration then ensure the supplier is aware of this, ensure that you buy yourself enough time to seek guidance and ensure that you can maintain the vital service that your alarm provides. Equally if you feel that you are confident that you previously acquired a digital device or are ready to switch then you can proactively request from your line supplier an upgrade to digital voice ASAP if this is available in your area.

Please bear in mind that if your current telecare service does not connect to your home landline telephone but instead operates over a mobile sim card your telecare service will be unaffected by this upgrade.

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