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BT Wants to Scrap Traditional UK Phone Services Within 10 Years

Thursday, June 25th, 2015 (11:27 am) - Score 10,379

Hands up how many of you still make regular use of your fixed line phone to make calls? Probably not many. In that sense the news that BT are pushing Ofcom to relax their regulation so they can close their traditional phone network and move customers to a new Internet-based system will not come as a shock.

The Telegraph quotes BT’s Director of Regulatory Affairs, Mark Shurmer, as saying: “We believe obsolete regulation should be rolled back, rather than clinging on until the last user dies. What we are looking for is a kind of ‘sunset clause’ that will help customers to plan.”

Ofcoms Current Universal Service Obligation (USO)

Ofcom has designated BT and Kingston to provide the following specific further services, all of which have to be offered at uniform prices across the UK:

* A connection to the public telephone network at a fixed location, following a reasonable request, which includes functional internet access [the benchmark minimum speed for this remains at just 28.8 kbit/s];
* At least one scheme for consumers with special social needs who have difficulty affording telephone services;
* public call box services; and
* A range of services for customers with disabilities.

At this point it’s important to reflect that there is some scope for confusion with what the Telegraph has written. For example, the operator might simply be referring to the eventual aim of replacing all their old 20th Century Network (20CN) infrastructure with the IP based 21CN platform.

Similarly even if the regulation was relaxed then it’s likely that an obligation to provide some degree of Internet connectivity would remain and lest we not forget that the Government is currently mooting a 5Mbps broadband USO.

In other words, the physical line coming into your property will still be required (at least for fixed line broadband), even if regulation of the voice side is removed or softened to be more flexible and support Voice-over-IP (VoIP) / SIP style solutions instead of analogue. In any case most of us today prefer to use our mobiles or Skype style solutions for calling.

A BT Spokesperson Clarified to ISPreview.co.uk:

BT believes all IP services will be used nationwide by 2025 and we think Ofcom’s review is an opportunity to roll back obsolete rules in this area to create a level playing field.

Regulation has not kept up with the massive growth in competition and rapid pace of technology change over the last decade, whilst there are many overlaps between British and European laws which could be removed and simplified.

Such measures would improve efficiency, stimulate competition, and encourage investment in the UK’s connected future.”

BT also wants to cut costs by being allowed to control its network from their own central data centres, although Ofcom’s rules require that such data must be kept physically separate to ensure that other parts of the operators business (e.g. BT Consumer) aren’t able to gain an unfair advantage. This seems like a fair rule to have.

By comparison BT’s rivals, particularly Sky Broadband and TalkTalk, would like to see BT’s Openreach division, which maintains and controls BT’s national broadband and phone network, being completely separated. But Ofcom’s new Strategic Review (here) may only be interested in “lighter regulation“, as remarked upon by the regulators new CEO Sharon White (here).

Similarly there could be many negatives, as well as some obvious positives around equality of access, to complete separation of Openreach, not least with regards to the question of future investment and service quality. It would be wrong to assume that full separation is a magic bullet; things could just as easily get worse. But that’s for Ofcom to decide.

Meanwhile the Government’s own Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy last year appeared to hint at a direction that would go even further than BT’s call for the rules on provision of traditional phone services to be relaxed. Indeed it ponders a future where completely “switching off copper networks” might be desirable (here), but there’s still a very long way to go and G.fast broadband suggests that copper will be around for a while.

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