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New Guidelines on Accessing Emergency Services via Broadband VoIP

Friday, October 12th, 2018 (11:49 am) - Score 5,069

Ofcom has this week published their final guidance on how UK providers of Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) or similar broadband-based phone services can ensure that their customers are still able to call the emergency services in a power cut.

At present the 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.”

Traditional fixed line phone and mobile networks often employ a variety of different ways to ensure that access to the emergency services is maintained. For example, traditional copper telephone line connections are powered via the network (e.g. exchange) rather than your home or office (not that this helps much if the end-user is using many brands of DECT phone).

Over the next few years those older services will be retired and instead consumers are expected to gravitate toward VoIP phone solutions, which use a broadband connection to make calls. This could be particularly problematic if the broadband connection goes down in a power cut, unless additional measures are applied. Back in May 2018 Ofcom proposed four Principles to ensure that such providers met GC3.1.

The Four Principles

1. Providers should have at least one solution that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour in the event of a power outage in the premises. In all cases, the duration of the protection being offered by the solution, including the amount of talk time, should be made clear to the customer.

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. Providers 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.

4. Providers 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.

The underlying requirements have not changed from the original proposals and Ofcom states that their guidance is “not intended to be the definitive guide on how providers should comply with the obligations“. Instead, the guidance sets out Ofcom’s “expectations” on the measures they should have in place to ensure customers making calls over broadband are able to make emergency calls in the event of a power cut at their premises.

Some “full fibre” (FTTP/H) broadband ISPs have been dealing with this sort of challenge for awhile, such as by installing Battery Backup Units (BBU) alongside their customer equipment. The regulator also notes that many people will have access to alternative methods of calling, such as mobile phones, and thus their guidance is mostly focused upon tackling the most vulnerable users (e.g. those who live in areas where mobile signals may be poor or protracted power cuts are common).

However the new guidance does still leave somewhat of a grey area, particularly with respect to dedicated VoIP providers (e.g. Vonage) that are dependent upon the stability of other physical broadband networks that are outside of their control (i.e. where a direct relationship between the different providers may not exist).

Magrathea, Vonage, Gigaclear and ITSPA argued that a lack of clarity on where responsibility lay created a risk that customers would not receive adequate protection. Meanwhile others thought Ofcom’s suggestion that voice services and network providers should work together was not practical since there was generally no established relationship between them.

Ofcom disagreed and said that each side “should be mindful of the other when they are designing their processes and communications,” although the regulator is in future planning to facilitate further industry discussion over this point.

Ofcom’s Guidance on Protecting Access to Emergency Services

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19 Responses
  1. Avatar Neb says:

    Sure I read in an Ofcom publication that 80% odd of UK adults use a smart phone…

    Save the planet and all that, is the battery backup enforced upon the provider and consumer?

    I get the risk registers (from an emergency planning background) and identifying individuals, indeed a decent EPU will already have that box ticked with their local resilience forums (of which utilities are usually part of). Actually perhaps, Local authorities have the statutory duty here…

    1. Avatar Joe says:

      “local resilience forums (of which utilities are usually part of).”

      Its one of those all too familiar consequences of the idiocy of European Data protections that sharing such data is generally unlawful. Each provider has to contact you and find out if you are vulnerable and while they often ask if they you want them to tell the LRF and other utilities they can’t do it otherwise. (Anyone telling any provider they are vulnerable ought to be passed on to all providers as a matter of course.)

      That said the vulnerability criteria are pretty daft. You are automatically vulnerable if you are a pensioner. This massively inflates the numbers and pulls time/focus away from people with objective needs.

  2. Avatar Meadmodj says:

    This is an important issue. As I have raised before and been dismissed by other contributors.
    People may be denied access to urgent medical assistance and people may die as a result. Why the difference? because as we move from a predominantly fixed line telephony where the loss of a whole telephone exchange would be very very exceptional we are moving to converged technologies where the topology and power dependency of a provider will not be widely known.

    Scenario. Your are in a new neighbourhood of over 3000 homes. Only VoIP and varying internal mobile signal. You are woken in the night by someone in distress, the total power for the house is off and has been for three hours due to severe weather. You look out and the whole street is without power.
    How would you fair?
    How would your elderly parents fair?

    We can all take precautions like maintaining a charged mobile in a defined location, fitting a suitable UPS to protect broadband modem/ONT, Router and Devices etc but only a small percentage of people are likely to consider this issue.

    1. Avatar Mike says:

      Shouldn’t we let natural selection handle the unprepared?

  3. Avatar Optimist says:

    Presumably it is possible to incorporate battery backup into home routers?

    1. Avatar Meadmodj says:

      Yes but reasonable battery backup tends to be bulky. A single UPS supplying all key devices is recommended.
      The issue is that the Ofcom guidelines are “a minimum of one hour”. My view is this is OK for minor network disruption but is totally inadequate for clearly foreseeable scenarios. In addition the consumer will not be aware of how their service is being provided (not all FTTP is the same) and whether they need one to forty eight hour cover.

    2. Avatar Optimist says:

      My cordless phone keeps going during a power cut from a couple of AA batteries kept fully charged from the mains.

    3. Avatar Meadmodj says:

      Current BT FTTP backup device takes four rechargeable AA batteries. This meets the Ofcom guideline for One Hour which is probably what it is based on. It is designed only to keep the VoIP working for an attached telephone.

    4. Avatar wireless pacman says:

      The problem with a UPS is that it needs to be both maintained and tested periodically. Otherwise it gives a false sense of security. The chances of average customers doing this, particularly “vulnerable” ones would be pretty low in my view.

    5. Avatar Meadmodj says:

      @wireless pacman. Yes I agree it will need to be checked just like smoke alarms and gas boilers. I will be keeping my fixed line for as long as I am able and still would recommend it to anybody with mobility, disability, etc. However broadband only service is increasing at a pace and there are a lot of VoIP solutions available which are not resilient even for an hour.
      Even if consumers resilience was increased with a UPS what resilience is there in the FTTP providers service if there are premises or street equipment (OFNL, Hyperoptics, B4RN etc). I believe it is Government’s responsibility is to ensure people are aware of the issue and Ofcom’s responsibility that the service provider clearly articulates the resilience of their service.

  4. Avatar Regis says:

    The best solution is a pair of wires that can carry enough charge to power a phone handset attached by a cord to a socket on the wall and be powered by generator from a Centralised point…….

    Oh wait everyone wants rid of this safety net.

    What if all the people who register as vulnerable are issued with a special router that instead of powering the fibre for calls instead powers a basic 2g mobile transmitter that would route all landline calls via mobile. Since it wouldnt be doing anything other then voice calls the batterys would last for at least a few days depending on usage.

  5. Avatar Optimist says:

    I suppose the reason we have this expectation that phones should be powered by the telco is that for decades after phones were introduced most people didn’t have an electricity supply. But cordless phones depend on the domestic electricity supply, and so do mobiles.

    It makes about as much sense to expect manufacturers of household appliances to guarantee power in case we can’t get radio or TV news bulletins, the contents of our freezers go bad, the central heating fails or we can’t boil water to brew a cup of tea.

    1. Avatar Meadmodj says:

      They are unlikely to power anything via fibre but the technical decisions they make do have a significant impact on the effect of a power outage. We have moved a long way from “fetch the doctor”, the nearest hospital is 50 miles away and the local Fire Brigade are called out volunteers. To me it is more about awareness and the consumer making an informed decision.

    2. Avatar occasionally factual says:

      It is hard for the consumer to make an informed choice when the choice will not be in their hands.
      The PSTN system is going away, copper will be removed at some point and fibre will be the only supplied option (with small areas of wireless , satellite).
      Zero choice in any of that.

    3. Avatar David Meadmore says:

      But they will have choices as what replaces it. Not all FTTP or VoIP is the same.

  6. Avatar Mr Neutron says:

    All this to be read in conjunction with BT’s plans to ditch PSTN by 2025 https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2018/04/openreach-consult-uk-isps-on-wlr-telephone-network-closure.html

    1. Avatar Meadmodj says:

      Yes BT will be centralising further (fixed line, VoIP and mobile convergence) and will wish to minimise provision of equipment in local exchanges (still needed for compatibility/continuity). The more they can move users to VoIP the cheaper their PSTN conversion particularly in FTTP provided areas where VoIP sockets are included on the ONT.
      Indications of BT’s intentions for FTTC will become apparent if they start including telephone sockets on the Home Hubs.
      Some fixed line equipment will be retained/converted to facilitate long lines and special purposes. The proposed Broadband USO actually helps BT.
      Just like public phone boxes the copper network will decline into disrepair but I am hoping that BT will still see a marketing opportunity in the legacy network for some time if appropriately priced. If its end is inevitable, then how the different providers approach FTTP and VoIP needs to be understood.

  7. Avatar tonyp says:

    As someone (and my district) has suffered from 3 planned all day power cuts this year – 08:30 to 16:30 each time to cut trees, a one hour backup is totally unsuitable. I have a landline connected ‘lifeline’ which has enough battery backup (but keeps shouting there is a power failure!) to last but if the ‘broadband’ termination equipment only has an hour, an emergency might arise with no means of calling for help. Depending on a mobile phone is a bit nebulous (in my opinion) compared with fixed infrastructure.

    1. Avatar Optimist says:

      What if the landline gets cut?

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