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BT Wants to Scrap Traditional UK Phone Services Within 10 Years

Thursday, June 25th, 2015 (11:27 am) by Mark Jackson (Score 6,284)
high uk prices and costs

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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13 Responses
  1. DTMark

    Would be nice to get more clarity on what this is about.

    Is it a requirement for traditional analogue voice lines to be provided because they have greater reach – as an example, with analogue TV you might get some signal, with digital TV, if it’s borderline, you get nothing, or it is unusable?

    Does that affect things like burglar alarms? Are there any devices which absolutely demand analogue rather than digital? For instance our turntable can fool our cats making them think that something is in the room, but the CD player cannot.

    But then surely the signal becomes digital at some point anyway. I don’t suppose anyone cares how the calls are handled. Telephones are not audiophile equipment and AFAIK a call only requires a spare 100kbps of bandwidth in each direction to provide reasonable quality.

    Though I’m still surprised that the phone hasn’t morphed into something similar to what you see in “Back to the Future 2” yet, routed through the TV, with an HD picture, too. Though that has far more to do with the “last mile” capability or lack thereof.

    • The last paragraph describes Skype on my TV 🙂

    • DTMark

      I think our TV can do it too, but you have to fork out about £70 for a web cam for it. I’ve wondered why VM don’t bundle a cheap cam in with their Superhub and make it all work together with some software on the box – would make for some futuristic advertising given their premium tech position.

      Have Skype on my mobile which goes over wireless than out over 4G and you can make and receive calls on that with video, same for the PC. Actually that has been one of the real plus points of 4G upstream – perfect video calling. As long as the other person isn’t on something like ADSL.

      It makes “phone lines” seem so charmingly quaint and outdated.

    • MikeW

      The basic building block of voice telephony has been, for 40 years, governed by G.711. This allows for 3.1kHz analogue bandwidth (300Hz – 3.4kHz) to be PCM-encoded onto 64kbps.

      64kbps has been, for a long time, the gold standard for telephony, even though it only encodes 3.1kHz of bandwidth. The ISDN concept was built using the 64kbps chunks as the building block, as was pretty much the entirety of the 20CN PSTN.

      System X, and System Y (AXE 10) both do the same thing – encoding the analogue on line cards, and switching the 64 kbps digital stream; the inter-exchange connections were then all based on these same 64kbps chunks; 2Mbps links (30 channels) tended to be the smallest form; 8mbps links aggregated 4 of the 2Mbps links; 34Mbps, 140Mbps and 565Mbps links aggregated more of the basic 2Mbps frames further.

      The final dial-up modems, 56k, used tricks to make this PCM-encoding work better for carrying data, allowing them to break the theoretical limit of Shannon’s law.

      When GSM came along, they chose different encoding techniques, that meant a call could be carried over approx 13kbps. They then introduced half-rate encoders working at 8kbps .. but this very much felt worse quality.

      For voice-standard telephony, the 64kbps PCM and 13kbps GSM encodings are the ones still most in use.

    • dave

      you can get voip audio quality with very low bandwidth and low latency if you use the Opus audio codec. HD voice is another standard that is commonly used for voip which isn’t as good but still decent, you don’t need 100kbps to be able to deliver voip quality calls using either codec.

    • Bob

      I believe it is just phasing out the analogue in the network. It removes a lot of duplication for example you no longer need a cooper line from the street cabinet to the exchange and removes the need for some analogue equipment at the exchange. To the end user p it will be invisible they would still have a fixed line but voice calls would be totally digital

  2. Steve Jones

    It seems to be pretty clear that this is not the swap-out of the core PSTN network to IP based. It is surely the manner by which voice services are delivered to the home and the implication would seem to be that it would be IP based point-to-point. That would mean some form of functional broadband USO would be required.

    It’s interesting that they want to go this way as analogue POTS services can be provided from roadside MSANs (it’s unclear to me if existing FTTC cabinets are able to do this though). However, what both using IP only and the roadside MSAN approach would allow for is the closure of many expensive telephone exchanges. Or it would, if LLU didn’t get in the way. I think the implication of using IP based voice services is that closing a lot of local exchanges is part of the aim (and the elimination of the E-side part of the copper network).

    There are a lot of implications for this. One is that the phone service is a highly available network (although subject to the the single point of failure issues without diverse routing). I don’t think that Internet access is as reliable. Also, it doesn’t tend to work through power cuts unless you equip yourself with a UPS (which was always an issue for emergency calls). Given the availability of mobiles these days that is, perhaps, not the problem it once was.

    • dave

      they don’t need to let all users have broadband, they could just make it so that your voip phone works without general internet usage, they could also cap the broadband speed to 70kbps or so just for use for voip unless you subscribe to a broadband package in which case you get full speed and 70kbps or so is reserved and prioritised for voip.

  3. MikeW

    I don’t think the USO has ever been seen as a requirement because “analogue voice lines have greater reach”. I think it is a hold-over from days where the voice service was the only service, then became a vital service for 999 access.

    Once voice service became a USO, the location of exchanges (or, at least, remote concentrators) became a given … given the distance limitations of the voice service.

    If we now change our thinking to voice being one service of many over IP, even if it retains the “vital” label) then surely the thinking behind a USO changes to the supply of IP … of sufficient bandwidth for a voice service, and of sufficient quality to be robust and reliable.

    Of course, given the national choices being made about how IP (of sufficient bandwidth and quality) gets to every property – ie through a variety of means, fixed, wireless, mobile and satellite – the terms of a modern USO needs to reflect that.

    Thirty years ago, the holy grail of telecoms was an integrated network for all services … which ultimately became ISDN (integrated services digital network).

    Nowadays, the term convergence is used, incorporating data and mobile services, as well as fixed services. The all-IP network seems to be the thing that this convergence is all going to end up balanced on top of … so it makes sense to be rethinking any USO terms of an all-IP network no matter how that IP network gets deployed to a site.

    The matter of robustness and reliability come to the fore here, especially with relation to 999 access. And totally unstated are indeed the implications to LLU.

    • Steve Jones

      I tend to think that the 999 issue can be looked at in the light of widespread availability of mobile coverage. Having two or more independent methods could actually provide more resilience than a single fixed line one. Of course some things are lost (999 services have access to locality data based on the originating number) and there are mobile “not spot” issues. There are also potential issues of common-mode failures (maybe a local power outage will stop both mobile and broadband). However, these are surely manageable risk issues.

      The bigger regulatory issue will surely be the strong implication than universal MPF services back to the exchange will disappear, which has big ramifications for the LLU operators (although, in 10 years time, exchange-based ADSL might be a minority service).

      There is also the knock-on effect of requiring everybody who wants even a basic phone service to have a broadband connection of some sort. Having said that, there are always mobile services as for basic voice they can surely substitute for fixed lines in all but not-spot areas and the (stupidly high) call termination charges that previously applied are being radically reduced.

    • If there is to be a new USO, it is likely to defined in terms of a wholesale data transport service, or split between defining the properties if an access service, MPF or FPF FibrePathFacility, neccessary to carry the desired minimum throughput.

      Each time you sit to define ‘best effort’ for the peak hour in terms of throughput, packet loss, jitter and delay, do you write it as a capability or a service level. The former is more useful if only to see how quickly it goes out of date and to have a record of what someone thought was relevant at a moment in time.

      Just about everything that we call the internet apart from capacity needs very thoughtful engineering and design.

  4. Supposedly BT are looking to do a deal with the Chinese to offload the fixed line network. Don’t know if this is true though.

  5. JD

    It is nonsense to say that most people use a mobile or Skype now for calls. In Scotland in approx. 50% of Scottish homes there is poor or no mobile signal (this in many cases due to stone (often granite) constuction on building.(I suspect also that there is a high correlation between poor mobile signal and poor internet speed. Note: Talktalk disposing of 5% of its customer base where they would / could not supply a reasonable internet line speed. (eg. lack of mobile signal indoors, 2G outdoors and typical internet speed of 200K bit/sec at location 10 miles from major Scottish city.

    There are many people especially in their 40s plus that still use the internet not at all or to very limited extent. As with most other +50s I know, one only carries a mobile for emergency or specifically when wanting to contact people (eg. if travelling).

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