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The Changing Face of UK Home Phone Lines and Broadband Provision

Monday, February 13th, 2017 (7:00 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 5,377)
telephone broken uk

The way that fixed voice services are delivered and used in the United Kingdom is changing. Over the next few years more and more people across the United Kingdom will gain the ability to take a truly standalone home broadband connection, albeit without a phone (voice) service.

Most of us own a Mobile phone and probably make way more use of it than our dusty home phones, many of which are connected via a copper line over the traditional Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN / POTS). On top of that a lot of people also complement this with Voice-over-IP (VoIP) services (Skype, Vonage etc.) and or Internet messaging solutions (email, Facebook etc.), all of which are changing how we communicate.

Unsurprisingly voice call volumes for fixed lines are in decline and fell by 9.2% to 74 billion minutes between 2014 and 2015 (Ofcom data), while Mobile grew by 3.9% over the same period to top 143 billion minutes. Similarly total Mobile subscriptions increased by 2% to 91.5 million in 2015.

On the other hand there has been relatively little change in the number of UK fixed lines (it’s been hovering just above 33 million for years) and that’s largely because most of us still NEED it for broadband (ADSL, FTTC / VDSL2, G.fast etc.). However the revenue from fixed voice services has only declined very slightly, which is partly because providers have been propping it up by raising the cost of Line Rental and related bundles.

fixed voice uk revenues 2015

The fact that most of us still get our Home Broadband over the exact same copper line as the Phone service means that you typically still have to buy both in order to get online, albeit not always from the same ISP. A few years ago we asked our readers whether they would get rid of their fixed phone service if it wasn’t needed for broadband and 64% said they would (here).

The Coming Change

Telecoms and broadband providers have recognised this change in the market and are moving to adapt, which has also been indirectly assisted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and its recent move to force ISPs into combining the cost of line rental and broadband into a single price (here); the two sides are now harder to separate and thus simpler to compare.

However the main change stems from the fact that operators’ are starting to adopt a broadband-first approach to fixed line service provision, which will also trickle down to the network and infrastructure level. So in the near future you’ll start to see many more packages that allow you to buy a “broadband line“, albeit without the need for a phone service.

Admittedly this won’t wipe out the underlying cost of line rental on copper networks because you’ll still need that line for the broadband side, but it might conceivably save a tiny bit of money if you only need the line for Internet connectivity and don’t want the voice service. Not that you’d notice as the price of broadband will continue to increase due to rising data consumption and other factors (new Government policy demands etc.).

How Operators are Planning for PSTN’s Demise (Ofcom)

* BT is planning to fully migrate customers off its PSTN network by 2025 and is currently trialling the first IP-based voice services that will replace those offered by the PSTN. It is expecting to start piloting a range of new services in late 2017 leading to a full commercial launch thereafter.

* Virgin Media is deploying Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH/P) under Project Lightning between now and 2019 and we can expect it to move to the adoption of IP voice services to replace its current PSTN based offering.

* KCOM expects around three quarters of its network will have ultrafast capability by the end of 2017 under its Project Lightstream. Consequently, we would expect introduction and increasing adoption of IP voice services over roughly the same timetable.

* TalkTalk and Sky Broadband both already operate an IP-based voice network, albeit still using analogue transmission over the LLU copper connections it buys from Openreach. With the increasing adoption of superfast services, both may choose to migrate customers to “broadband voice“, using the experience gained in the full fibre trial they are undertaking in York with CityFibre.

The growth in pure fibre optic (FTTH/P) based networks from alternative providers, which are data centric and thus don’t carry a traditional analogue phone solution over their optical fibres, is another area driving the shift away from PSTN and towards VoIP. Similarly Ofcom highlights Virgin Media’s FTTP development above, although VM’s existing Hybrid Fibre Cable (EuroDOCSIS) network is also being adapted to support VoIP (here).

Meanwhile Openreach’s (BT) approach will largely involve the adoption of their new Single Order Generic Ethernet Access (SOGEA) and associated SOGfast service, which from around 2018 will allow people to order an FTTC (VDSL2) or G.fast hybrid-fibre broadband service without the need for a phone / voice component (update); the latter will become optional via VoIP.

Some of this shift will require end-users to change hardware (e.g. a VoIP equipped router may become more important), but most of the move should be seamless and if done properly then it could also make retaining your “home” phone number (assuming you take one) much easier than it is today. Far too often people can lose their number during a house move or when switching between two physically separate telecoms networks, although a lot will depend on Ofcom’s future regulation.

On top of that Ofcom are working to ensure that those who prefer to use Mobile or VoIP as their primary means of calling can benefit from better coverage and reliability, which is particularly important with respect to accessing the emergency services.

However there are problems. Many organisations still require people to input a Home Phone number in order to register for something (e.g. certain banks, security checks etc.). Sometimes you can get around this by simply re-entering your mobile number into the home phone box, but we’ve noticed that this doesn’t always work because some forms will check it for UK area codes (this can also cause problems for certain VoIP numbers).

Likewise there are still around 3.2 million voice-only consumers in the UK and these may be frustrated by the idea of having to get a broadband service in order to make calls. On the other hand we expect to see a new type of voice-only router being introduced to help cater for those people. Likewise businesses with old fax machines or dial-up style data links will need to modernise as those services may cease to function.

Never the less the direction of travel is now very clear and indeed quite a few people have already made the move to a network that supports some form of broadband-only connection (e.g. FTTH/P based users), but many more will follow when the major operators join the trend. In time we’ll all have to adapt.

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18 Responses
  1. Sledgehammer

    * BT is planning to fully migrate customers off its PSTN network by 2025

    It will not happen by 2025, it will take a whole lot longer. Every new FTTC would have to have the capacity of the old cab it is replacing, and that is going to take decades. Or are BT going over to a full FTTH policy?

    • AndyH

      Technically speaking, over 95% of the UK is already covered with IP based using BT’s network. 21CN was a move PSTN over to IP.

      Also, you can run IP services over ADSL.

    • MrIcaras

      No, you’re spot on there. Sky and TalkTalk can do things their own way.

      But yes if the dialtone coming from the exchange is switched off on BT Wholesale connections then there will have to be enough capacity on some form of FTTC cabinet to take over from the job the exchange was doing. It won’t have to be a precise match as not everyone will take phone service. Indeed most won’t.

    • MikeW

      @AndyH
      “21CN was a move PSTN over to IP.”

      Didn’t happen in the end. 95% coverage of WBC in various forms, yes, but no migration of PSTN beyond the original trials.

    • AndyH

      @ MikeW – Are you sure about that? From what I’ve read, the network to the 21CN exchanges is IP for telephony, but PSTN from the exchange to the end user.

  2. Steve Jones

    Including line rental into the revenue for voice calls on lines with mixed voice/broadband provision is clearly highly misleading. I know that the shared line unbundling services put most of the cost on the voice line and a much smaller charge on the BB element, but that was just a regulatory way of encouraging a degree of alternative BB provision.

    I would suggest it’s even more ridiculous to allocate the entire line rental cost, including the above-inflation increases to voice revenue when it’s increasingly used for BB. I would invite people to consider the degree of activity on the line. Are there more minutes spent with BB active or on a voice call? That might give a better reflection into the actual use of the line.

    This is not a matter of semantics. If people truly do believe that their line rental will just stop or even be substantially decreased if the voice service was also halted, then it might explain the result of that survey.

    This myth that line rental = voice revenue ought to be dropped now. It isn’t. It’s a cost for the fixed provision of a line, whether it’s used for BB, voice or both. It is not voice revenue.

    I would suggest paying attention to the revenue regarding actual voice calls

  3. Kits

    Since I moved my phone line from BT removing the call package i was paying for, I found out I wasn’t using the phone enough to warrent the call package. My hghest monthly bill for calls was £5.86 that included calls to leicestershire and a call to Australia, if only local lucky if I spend £1.

  4. MikeW

    Unstated here is the impact to calling during a power outage. No longer will a wired phone be enough. Some of these solutions are going to need battery backup, or a UPS.

    • DTMark

      A wired phone isn’t enough when there’s a power cut at the exchange and the battery runs out, as happened here. Access to multiple networks provides some redundancy e.g. if fixed line is down, mobiles can still work if the outage doesn’t impact them and vice versa.

    • FibreFred

      ^ obviously, however I’ve had plenty of power cuts and the landline has worked every single time.

    • MikeW

      Absolutely true – HA depends on power coming from the exchange. That happens in most cases, as the batteries do cover the outage. And even where they don’t last long enough, then the majority of those cases are covered by having generators too.

      But where the power is handled centrally, then so are the plans to cope with power failure.

      Move some of the power dependency out to homes … and you decentralise the planning too. And a good proportion of the country won’t realise.

      Use of mobiles does indeed mitigate against this.

    • Steve Jones

      @DTMark

      “A wired phone isn’t enough when there’s a power cut at the exchange and the battery runs out, as happened here.”

      Something went wrong then. There are procedures for bringing in mobile generators before batteries are exhausted. I seem to recall that BT have got a number of such generators especially for that contingency. Of course, that’s just for the voice service. Perhaps if there are special circumstances, like widespread floods, where this is not possible due to access or simple logistics, but it really ought not to happen. Battery backup for broadband at exchanges might well be different. Large exchanges should be equipped with generators.

    • MrIcaras

      Most exchanges that can fit one in have generators.

    • Steve Jones

      There are lots of small exchanges without generators. It simply costs too much as they need regular checks and maintenance, not to mention tanks to store diesel vulnerable to theft. Much cheaper in those cases to have a few mobile generators which can be towed to the exchange.

    • MikeW

      There’s always going to be the risk of some additional problem adding to the crisis. A fault with a generator, bad fuel, or a site cut-off from roads.

      I recall a Vodafone exchange suffering an outage in Leeds, caused by floods just over a year ago. Followed soon after by the BT exchange in York getting flooded. Those didn’t just hit the ability for customers to make calls to the emergency services, but also affected the services’ ability to receive calls too.

      IIRC, the police ended up making use of mobile Airwave transmitters then, to cope with the extra traffic.

  5. MrIcaras

    Sorry for the double post, you can’t edit on here. The generator would power the whole exchange in the event of a power cut. Not just voice.

    However if the power was off in your house then of course you couldn’t use your broadband anyway. If you could find some way of getting power to your router then your broadband WOULD work.

  6. richard

    speak to oftel bt unlike other operators has a thing call universal service obligation which requires them to provide a copper pair to provide telephone unlike others they can not provide a fiber connection only even if they offer phone over ip so yet again case of being held back

    • Mike

      Virgin do not provide a voice service in Stoke Poges (only broadband/TV), precisely because of this obligation which DOES apply to them as well as BT. They say they will soon have a workaround, presumably UPS at the customer location.

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