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Challenges as UK Moves to All IP Networks from Analogue Phone

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018 (12:29 pm) - Score 5,038
telephone broken uk

A new report from the Broadband Stakeholders Group has warned that work to retire the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and replace it with all-IP voice services by c.2025 will face a number of challenges, particularly around ensuring resilient access to emergency services and encouraging user migrations.

At present a number of major operators (e.g. Openreach (BT) and KCOM) are already in the process of considering how best to manage the migration of users off their traditional phone (PSTN) network (here) and on to the new generation of Internet Protocol (IP) based services (e.g. VoIP).

The move to adopt all-IP networks is a necessary step in order to help lower network running costs, give consumers additional flexibility with their voice services and is also a precursor to the eventual retirement of copper networks. The latter reflects the Government’s aspiration to deploy Gigabit capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) style broadband ISP networks nationwide by 2033.

However a new Plum Consulting report from the BSG – ‘Preparing the UK for an All-IP future‘ – has today been published. This examines how similar migrations are being conducted in Germany, France, Switzerland and New Zealand. In particular it notes some of the problems that have occurred and why “as much as possible” should be done to avoid a “forced migration” (as opposed voluntary, coincidental or passive migrations).

NOTE: Check out our article – The Changing Face of UK Home Phone Lines and Broadband Provision – for a bit more background on all this.

For example, it notes that in Germany some initial poor communication led to higher than anticipated levels of forced migration, which resulted in consumers complaining to the regulator and political pressure that paused the process. But those issues were eventually resolved and Germany’s migration now stands at over 80% (the Germany market has many similarities with the UK).

The 4 Paths to All-IP Migration

• voluntary migration in which the end-user migrates from the PSTN to a new VoIP-based product because he or she is attracted by the superior functionality of the VoIP product;

• forced migration in which the end-user is faced with an imminent firm date for closing the PSTN/ISDN and is required to take action in order to continue to enjoy fixed voice telephony service;

• passive migration in which the communications provider is able (through PSTN emulation) to move customers to an All-IP network without them needing to do anything to preserve their fixed voice telephony service; and

• coincidental migration in which the end-user moves from a PSTN based product to another product, such as FTTP, which is inherently IP-based.

Apparently the lessons from these countries has shown that simply highlighting to end-users the benefits of VoIP compared to their current voice service is unlikely to lead to mass voluntary migration, but efforts to bundle it with other products have been more successful.

Matthew Evans, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said:

“Whilst we are at the start of our migration, a considerable amount of work has taken place at the technical level, and increasingly around industry engagement. In May 2018, Openreach consulted with its Communication Provider customers on the process and timeline for withdrawing Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) products as a result of PSTN closure. In July, BT opened a new lab to help providers of data over PSTN services to test their equipment under real-world conditions, to help ensure the industry can continue to deliver services over the new networks.

It is clear however that the digital infrastructure sector cannot be complacent and may need to accelerate our work engaging with data service providers as well as potentially engendering greater alignment between operators’ communications to consumers, and particularly vulnerable consumers. On the latter there are relatively few lessons to be gleaned from the four case studies primarily because the UK has a unique approach to how it approaches vulnerable customers including a regulatory requirement for uninterrupted power supply. The role of Ofcom here in supporting effective collaboration will remain key.

Germany and New Zealand have made at least some use of PSTN emulation, a form of passive migration for voice services. Whilst imperfect, as it does not tend to maintain data services over the PSTN, some form of a “PSTN emulation” approach may be a useful bridge for some voice-only customers, particularly those who may be vulnerable. It is important to recognize this as an interim step rather than a settled end-state, albeit one which can still allow communication providers to realise some savings.

One particular area for concern is the difference between the UK’s number portability process and the four countries studied. All four have a centralised database whilst the UK operates a number forwarding system. There are concerns that this is unsustainable given the volume of numbers which will need to go through this process and we are pleased that Ofcom has recognised this in its 2018/19 Annual Plan.”

The report claims that the UK is currently “well-placed and has sufficient time” to conduct an orderly and successful migration as it rolls out a new generation of fibre optic broadband networks. But while doing this it must also ensure provision of voice services is maintained for vulnerable landline-only users (e.g. elderly pensions who may not even have broadband) and that resilient access to emergency services is not sacrificed, particularly during a mains power failure.

On the latter point we’ve previously noted how some FTTP operators don’t provide any form of battery backup for their service and Openreach are going in a similar direction (here). A big question mark thus remains over where the responsibility (if any) for maintaining voice services will come from in the future, as ISPs and network operators increasingly adopt a broadband-only focus.

At the same time ISPs must consider how best to build broadband + VoIP packages that are capable of matching an equivalent broadband + analogue phone line combination today. At present some VoIP phone providers seem to charge almost as much for their voice services as the rental for a full physical copper phone line, thus simply directing users to adopt one of those may not be enough.

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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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23 Responses
  1. Avatar Joe

    “For example, it notes that in Germany some initial poor communication led to higher than anticipated levels of forced migration, which resulted in consumers complaining to the regulator and political pressure that paused the process. ”

    Surely The fact that they only gave users 4 months notice has more to do with the early issues than anything….but they seem to have solved that now even with such a timeline.

    Its interesting to note that other countries have managed transition without UPS/providing new free routers etc and largely left things to users/ISPs. Can’t see Ofcom letting us do that though!

    • Avatar Joe

      I chuckled at the comment that in Switzerland the regulator had no role in the migration. I can see Ofcom running for the smelling salts at that!

    • Avatar osewaninaru

      In Germany almost no one moved to VoIP “because he or she is attracted by the superior functionality of the VoIP product”. Basically all ISPs except the incumbment (Deutsche Telekom) had been offering nothing but VoIP due to costs for many years. So if a customer went from DT to a different ISP the only feature he wanted was to pay less €€€.
      Then also DT started forcibly migrating to VoIP. Which for many Germans was a downgrade because DT didn’t offer any features that would put it above the exisiting ISDN (actually had less features) with the big downside of being a lot less stable.

  2. Avatar joseph

    At present a number of major operators (e.g. Openreach (BT) and KCOM) are already in the process of considering how best to manage the migration of users off their traditional phone (PSTN) network (here) and on to the new generation of Internet Protocol (IP) based services (e.g. VoIP).”…

    “The latter reflects the Government’s aspiration to deploy Gigabit capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) style broadband ISP networks nationwide by 2033.”

    When my home is FTTP capable i will switch to a VOIP or similar service for the landline, until then the government and BT can go whistle.

    ^^^ Also love the Ofcom comment LOL

    • Avatar CarlT

      They can switch you to VoIP without going near your home or your even noticing you’ve been moved to it.

    • Avatar Joe

      Nope. Even we emulation some functions can’t be emulated properly.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Some perhaps. Joe Average without a legacy alarm system who doesn’t want to send faxes isn’t going to notice anything.

    • Avatar joseph

      “They can switch you to VoIP without going near your home or your even noticing you’ve been moved to it.”

      Really so they do not have to change the phone socket? Or have me plug the phone into some type of dongle which then plugs into the phone socket or plugs into other equipment entirely?

      I think i will notice.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Correct. Your dial tone can be provided by an FTTC cabinet with you getting a POTS presentation but the network being all IP from the cabinet. Phone service delivered via remote terminal rather than exchange, all IP backhaul rather than the legacy system still in use on Openreach.

      There’s a fair chance service providers will force people to move in any event. I doubt refusal to move unless FTTP is provided will work as an Ofcom complaint.

    • Avatar joseph

      “Your dial tone can be provided by an FTTC cabinet”

      Er hows that work for people that do not have FTTC then???

    • Avatar bob

      “Your dial tone can be provided by an FTTC cabinet with you getting a POTS presentation but the network being all IP from the cabinet. Phone service delivered via remote terminal rather than exchange”

      Quite obviously that is not how things will work or how they plan on things working, if it were i doubt BT would have bothered with the FXS port for VOIP on the new Smart Hub 2.

    • Avatar joseph

      Yep every VOIP solution ive seen either requires a new handset or other equipment (router, adapter/dongle {insert proper naming}) to plug the handset into before the regular phone socket. Given as your say the smart hub 2 from BT and newer devices from other ISPs now seem to be coming with ports for VOIP and given the fact if they are indeed to switch ALL of us over then i doubt any complicated solution at a FTTC cabinet is going to be the chosen method as not everybody has FTTC as an option and thus you could not switch ALL over using that method.

  3. Avatar JB

    I have just completed a SIP migration in Switzerland. In the home, Swisscom provided a new router. It offers DECT support and an analogue port for wired phones. They can supply the SIP credentials, so they support using a smart phone to take your calls. They also offer some good roaming data packages to help use the SIP number when travelling. All this was done at the same time as a large FTTP migration so many people are oblivious to the fact that they were migrated to voip.

    It’s been more of a problem at work, purchasing the SBC and configuring it for Swisscom’s SIP proxy. This has been time consuming and difficult to sell to internal stakeholders. Although most things are working well, we spent a long time getting international faxes to work and emergency access which requires a XML document to be sent within the INVITE message to covey a location ID. It’s been an interesting journey, but as the SIP standards mature this should only get easier.

    The main selling point for us seems to be that you can take your number anywhere and that if you have multiple offices, you can centralise your call delivery and potentially optimise the capacity you pay for.

    Also, one thing to bear in mind is that although the Swiss Ofcom played little role in SIP, they have been involved in ensuring the FTTP operators deliver a standardised connection at all residences in Switzerland – I’m not sure this is the case in the UK.

  4. Avatar wirelesspacman

    I do wonder when we will (finally) start to see some VoIP corded handsets that are actually targeted at consumers rather than businesses. Ok, you can easily get cordless DECT handsets with a SIP base station, but have to admit I have yet to see an actual corded one that would “look nice” in the living room.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Not really much of a concern while operators provide their own ATA for customers to plug into. Openreach FVA and VM’s VoIP both use existing phones to provide the service.

      I’m not sure how many people have much interest in corded VoIP given the prominence of DECT kit now.

    • Avatar wirelesspacman

      I know what you mean Carl, I just find it a bit odd given (a) the huge number of home routers on sale with no FXS port and (b) the huge number of corded analogue handsets still on sale out there.

  5. Avatar Michael V

    Well…
    I’d be happy enough if my home ISP set a PSTN switch off date.
    But there’s people who will make migrating to a new technology difficult, so a coincidental & passive migration seems the best option here.

  6. Avatar Optimist

    Phones with battery backup would solve the power outage problem, but AFAIK even DECT phones are not so equipped.

    • Avatar Joe

      Germany took the position that power outages were sufficiently rare and mobile coverage so good it didn’t need to have UPS. By the time we have voip ~2025 that should be the case baring a few special cases.

  7. Avatar MikeP

    “One particular area for concern is the difference between the UK’s number portability process and the four countries studied. All four have a centralised database whilst the UK operates a number forwarding system. There are concerns that this is unsustainable given the volume of numbers which will need to go through this process and we are pleased that Ofcom has recognised this in its 2018/19 Annual Plan.”

    A bullet that should have been bitten long, long, long ago. The Ionica Sword of Damocles is hanging over anyone with a number in a less-then-bullet-proof CP’s numbering space. But as Vodafone destroyed Ofcom’s plans for doing this with mobile, I’m not in the least bit surprised that Ofcom put doing it for fixed into the “too hard” box.

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