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Protecting Access to Emergency Services in a Broadband VoIP World

Thursday, May 24th, 2018 (2:11 pm) - Score 2,285
voip broadband calling uk

Operators like KCOM and BT are preparing to move away from traditional analogue telephone networks (PSTN) and replace them with broadband based all IP solutions. As part of that Ofcom are consulting on maintaining access to UK emergency services (police etc.), which could be more exposed to power cuts etc.

The regulator’s existing General Condition 3.1 (GC3.1) rule requires every communications provider to “take all necessary measures to maintain, to the greatest extent possible, the proper and effective functioning of its network at all times … and uninterrupted access to emergency organisations for their end-users.”

One often overlooked advantage of the existing copper telephone network is that they’re powered via the network (e.g. exchange) rather than your home or office, which for example means that you should still be able to make a phone call during a power cut. This assumes that you have an analogue phone to plug-in, since DECT phones don’t always work in a power cut (even when fully charged).

Unfortunately future broadband-based call services will not work in a power cut at all, without additional measures, and as a result Ofcom has proposed to update their existing guidance for telecoms operators. This will be based around the following four “principles“.

Ofcom’s Proposed Principles for Broadband Calling

1. Communication Providers (CP) should have at least one solution available that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour in the event of a power outage in the premises;

2. The solution should be suitable for customers’ needs and should be offered free of charge to those who are at risk as they are dependent on their landline;

3. CPs should i) take steps to identify at risk customers and ii) engage in effective communications to ensure all customers understand the risk and eligibility criteria and can request the protection solution; and

4. CPs should have a process to ensure that customers who move to a new house or whose circumstances change in some other way are aware of the risk and protection solution available.

At this point it’s worth highlighting that many “full fibre” (FTTP/H) based broadband networks have been dealing with this sort of challenge for awhile. For example, when Openreach installs a new Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) line into a property then they also install a combined Battery Backup Unit (BBU) alongside their Optical Network Terminal (ONT) inside the premises (pictured below).

fttp_ont_and_bbu_open_lid_openreach

Going forward we’re likely to see more of this, including similar solutions for those who may not wish to have a broadband service and instead only desire to retain a landline phone. “We recognise that most consumers could use their mobile during a power cut, but those who are dependent on their landline, including those without mobile access, will require additional protection,” said Ofcom.

On the other hand the requirement to support at least 1 hour of service (e.g. battery backup) is all well and good but it does mean that some consumers may still be vulnerable to more protracted power outages (NOTE: BBUs often enable you to add replacement rechargeable batteries). Luckily for most of us such outages are usually restored within an hour, although major storms have been known to cause outages that can last much longer.

At present consumers shouldn’t really be worrying about any of this because the process of withdrawing the old phone network will take several years, with BT (Openreach) hoping to complete it by 2025 (here). Admittedly KCOM in Hull are widely expected to make much more rapid progress (here).

Ofcom’s consultation can be found here and they intend to leave it open for responses until 5th July 2018.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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32 Responses
  1. Avatar chrisp

    Does this apply to VM and the AltNets like hyperoptic and Gigaclear or is this just for OR?

    Also is the CP solution delivered dependant on the recipient, i.e disabled or those with kids will get a “solution” lone non-vulnerable adults won’t?

    • Avatar Joe

      They will probably use the existing definition for vulnerable (Which are frankly a bit silly). Personally having kids is not ‘vulnerable’.

      Offer every1 else the kit at cost.

  2. Avatar Meadmodj

    I’ll sound like an old record, but I have raised this before. Consumers will need to think about a UPS or similar for their router and associated phones. However more important is outages last more than a several days FTTC/VIVID services and mobile masts could be affected. Still await a reply via my MP and now received this Ofcom consultation today. Of course, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue if we all had full fibre and solar panels on the roof but we don’t.
    If there were extreme storms that brought down power lines and the repair did take a very long time then how would someone call emergency services. I know others have replied previously that the grid is very resilient and the scenario will not happen, but the Government/Ofcom must consider abnormal situations not BAU.
    I’m expecting a “where economically feasible” fudge.

    • Avatar chrisp

      my neighbour has solar panels but I don’t think his kit would last long at night during a power cut. I don’t think he’d invest in a battery back up on the off chance his phone won’t work either.

      Exchanges usually have a generators to keep things going in the event of a power failure which I assume would also keep the cabs and their batteries working and charged.

      Many hard to power mobile masts are generator fed anyway & i assume topped up when they reach a minimum number of days of fuel left.

      Lastly i have spotted a number of temporary power generators around recently, they are very quiet and look easily moved into place, i would assume if general power availability was of greater importance due to the communications networks and users needing it then there may be greater strategic deployment of mobile units to be connected when needed at shorter time scales negating the need for consumers to invest in UPS’s.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Also applies to FTTP cabinets.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Solar sufficient to charge UPS
      Yes exchanges protected but not sure of newer providers.
      Cabinets have small backups but don’t last long.
      Larger mobile masts have more kit than the smaller ones.
      Mobile generators yes but how many if an outage was widespread
      Fuel will be in short supply as garages no longer have manual pumps.

      The likelyhood of all this happening is of course is very very remote but I just think people should at least be aware of the issue.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      @The Facts
      FTTP cabinets? I assumed passive network.

    • Avatar wireless pacman

      Standard home solar panels do not provide power during a power cut, believe it or not! They power down to prevent mains voltage on the damaged lines.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Yes for standard installations the inverter will shut down so that electricity does not go out onto the supposely dead power lines for safety reasons. Has to be an approved battery storage and back up system.

    • Avatar TheFacts

      @Meadmodj – passive to where?

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      I thought FTTP used passive optical couplers and therefore there was nothing needing power in the distribution. Only OTUs each end.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Openreach FTTP is fully passive between ONT and OLT. VM’s FTTP alongside B4RN and likely others have optical kit in street-side cabinets.

      There should be battery backups for these and, as they pass far more premises than an FTTC cabinet and there are far fewer of them, or are owned by much smaller operators that can deliver a more bespoke service, temporary generators are more feasible for them alongside the battery backup.

      The Openreach design expects battery swapout, VM’s solution at least has a separate power cabinet and I believe B4RN can run their cabinets off generators no problem.

    • Avatar Joe

      Yes solar does shutdown but that problem is probably self solving within a reasonable copper EOL. The price of battery backup for solar is dropping steadily.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      How disappointing

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      @CarlT

  3. Avatar Mike

    What if the battery catches fire and burns your house down?

    • Avatar TheFacts

      Go next door and use their phone.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Same as with every other house fire. If your house is on fire with no obvious opportunity for you to put it out are you going to take the time to call 999 from your own house phone or GTFO of there ASAP and either use a mobile or a neighbour’s phone?

      With the amount of potentially flammable electronics we all have in our homes, a bunch of it mobile and hence battery powered, pointing the finger at an ONT’s BBU is a bit strange.

  4. Avatar occasionally factual

    As someone in this position now (FTTP and no landline), my emergency phone plan is use a mobile when the house power is out (or pop next door).
    The BBU is next to useless as it has zero power monitoring so until you lose power, you have no idea how long it will last.
    Currently mine will last less than 30 minutes. This is probably due to the batteries being 5 years old. I only know how long they lasted as I had to turn the power off for 35 minutes and notices the ONT/BBU had no lights after 30 minutes.
    So I need new batteries at some point.
    But as I don’t have BT FVA but use a VOIP adaptor, the BBU is useless without my buying a UPS for the VOIP adaptor.

    • Avatar Chris P

      does the BT FVA not work for emergency calls?

    • Avatar Joe

      Price of AA batteries (recharg) peanuts. cheap UPS 30£ or for the paranoid £120. Plenty of backup.

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      @Chris P
      I have no idea and of course it would be irresponsible to call 999 on it.
      I also believe that not every Openreach WBC FTTP deployed system has FVA anyway. I remember somewhere that it was only on fibre only builds where the infrastructure was put in place (I still have a copper line, it’s just disconnected)

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      @Joe
      BUT and it’s a big one, the installed kit (BBU) must be monitored remotely as the minimum by Openreach so that warnings can be given to the householder and CP. It is too later to find out in an emergency that nothing works.
      It cannot be the sole responsibility of the bill payer that the mandatory supplied BBU works. This is a fail by OFCOM as it stands (and there are only a few of us who have them).
      Once it becomes standard then how many 90 year old’s and other vulnerable people are going to be put at risk?

    • Avatar Joe

      OR don’t come and check my house phone works atm. Many people have cordless phones that die if the power goes again not ORs problem atm. I have no issue with OR providing free to the vulnerable some form of backup but don’t think it is reasonble for them to do more than that.

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      @Joe
      You’re talking about the old way of using technology.
      With a pure VOIP solution, every phone line will be an active network link. Even for those that refuse the internet but just want a phone.
      So you can easily pass monitoring data from the supplied equipment to a reporting system. Hell even give every consumer an app to monitor the health of their system.
      This is the way forward and given the scale of the roll out, the economies of scale are massive. A real Internet Of Things – not just a talking washing machine.
      But it needs to be in from the start.

    • Avatar Joe

      I appreciate its technically possible. But thats not the same a requiring OR to do it!

    • Avatar TheFacts

      @of – What would this monitoring data be and what would happen to it?

    • Avatar occasionally factual

      @thefacts
      1. Battery management statistics BMS from BBU
      2. Link availablity from ONT

      BMS built into 40 million BBUs would be very cost effective. (assuming 40m phone lines have a direct replacement with a BBU)

  5. Avatar Paul B

    Virgin Media provide an “Emergency Backup Line” if you’re in a fibre area where the phone is provided via the Hub 3.0. This is a small unit which connects to a mobile network in the event of a power cut – it only aalows you to contact the emergency services. See under “Telephone Accessibility” in their guide:

    http://store.virginmedia.com/content/dam/eSales/Downloads/Phone%20User%20Guide.pdf

    Don’t know how long its battery lasts though!

  6. Avatar Optimist

    Some years ago there was a power cut and my NTL (now VM) landline went dead. Subsequently however the line has kept working during power cuts.

    • Avatar CarlT

      VM’s phone network uses street-side cabinets that have battery backed UPS. In the more modern builds they are very recognisable as MSANs. They could probably supply xDSL via them if they really wanted. Presumably in the case of the one outage this didn’t work as intended.

  7. Avatar Pete Koukouzelis

    I am sorry to say this but the phrase “uninterruptible access to emergency services” is not satisfied by the use of a UPS since its operation is time dependent.
    Once the UPS no longer provides any power, then the “uninterruptible access” is no longer satisfied.
    On these grounds VoIP is not compliant with all EU regulations relating to emergency services where “uninterruptible access” is mandatory.
    Therefore VoIP or VoBB cannot replace PSTN since they cannot satisfy this condition.
    By the way, if a person fails to contact emergency services since VoIP cannot be used because of power outage, who gets the blame? Who is going to be accused of murder?
    Any answer on this?
    Remember the EU regulations on “uninterruptible access to emergency services”

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