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ISP BT Prep UK Beta Trial of Broadband Based Digital Voice Service

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019 (2:45 pm) - Score 3,225
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UK ISP BT appears to have begun a beta trial of their future Digital Voice service, which will eventually replace the PSTN analogue phone / voice services of today (expected to be completely retired by 2025) in favour of modern Voice-over-IP (VoIP) style alternatives that harness your broadband connection.

At present if you buy a copper (ADSL) or hybrid fibre (FTTC / G.fast) based broadband package from an ISP on Openreach’s network, such as BT, then you either need to already be paying for the phone service as part of copper line rental (the copper line is essential for the broadband itself to work) or you’ll most likely get it bundled alongside the overall package.

However copper phone lines are changing. In particular the forthcoming adoption of new services, such as Single Order Generic Ethernet Access (SOGEA and SOGfast), will make it possible for consumers to order a standalone FTTC (VDSL2) or G.fast broadband line without the analogue voice service (some ISPs like Freeola and AAISP have hacked together a similar fix but SOGEA goes a lot further).

All of this is necessary because the old analogue phone services are due to be withdrawn by 2025 (here) and, much further down the road, we’ll even see the physical copper lines being completely switched-off as full fibre networks start to dominate (here). But in the meantime many consumers will still expect their ISP to offer a voice service and this inevitably means a move toward VoIP (See our VoIP Guide).

NOTE: The analogue voice component of a copper line only represents a tiny part of the line rental cost and its removal will not save you much money.

The above is one of the reasons why any ISP looking to launch a new broadband router today will generally offer a device that includes ATA / telephone ports (FXS) on the back, which are designed to work alongside an internet protocol based voice (VoIP) service (i.e. you plug your old analogue handsets into these and can still make calls, albeit digitally). Many “full fibre” (FTTP) providers already do this.

BT’s Digital Voice Trial

The proposed BT Digital Voice beta trial is largely designed to help the provider prepare for the aforementioned changes and it will also complement their own move toward a single converged all-IP platform by 2022 (here). The trial aims to examine everything from placing an order, through to equipment delivery, set-up and fault reporting.

Over the coming years BT will roll out a new phone service to all our UK customers. This is called Digital Voice. This may sound like a small change but it will be one of the biggest technology changes our customers have experienced to date, and we’d like your help to deliver this exciting new product to households across the U.K,” said BT’s private trial invitation.

The trial itself will supply customers with both a free Digital Voice Handset and one of BT’s Smart Hub 2 broadband routers (these already come with a phone / FXS port on the back but until now it’s remained dormant), unless the customer already has a SH2 in which case you’ll be expected to use that (all usage and service charges will be free during the trial).

So far we’ve only heard of this trial being used on lines that have been converted to SOGEA. The handset also appears to pair with the SH2 over WiFi rather than a wired connection (you can also use a standard DECT handset by plugging into the back of the SH2). The phone number then appears on the SH2’s admin page and seems to allow for contact importing, as well as adding additional handsets etc.

Naturally we’d expect other ISPs to follow with their own VoIP style calling solutions over the next few months or years. On this front we’ll be very interested to see how the costs compare with existing broadband and phone bundles, not only in terms of monthly rental but also the cost of calls and portability of the service (i.e. access via multiple devices).

Providers will also have to tread carefully here as there are a lot of dedicated VoIP providers around (i.e. competition on price) and many consumers will expect to have a choice (i.e. hopefully ISPs won’t lock their routers to a specific VoIP platform as that may cause some anger).

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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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34 Responses
  1. Avatar Joe

    ” (i.e. hopefully ISPs won’t lock their routers to a specific VoIP platform as that may cause some anger).”

    I would imagine potential legal issues with that.

    • It’s a tricky one as they could still design a bespoke solution for their own service, which wouldn’t be quite the same thing. But obviously if you have an ISP with FXS/FSO ports on the router and they were only to allow the use of those for their own service then.. hmm. Net Neutrality isn’t strictly affected because the ISP isn’t blocking VoIP traffic or the protocol itself (i.e. you could use a different router, if the ISP allows that). All of this is of course an academic discussion as we don’t yet know who will do what.

    • Avatar Simon Heather

      I would expect BT to lock down the VOIP setup on their own routers – same as they do for DNS or disabling ICMP replies etc. – if you want to change any of these services then you need to buy your own router.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Mind giving an example of these potential legal issues, please?

      The underlying broadband will support multiple providers you just need to provide your own equipment. VoIP services aren’t obligated to provide CPE that can be used with other operators. ISPs aren’t obligated to provide routers that work with other ISPs.

    • Avatar Joe

      Carl: I’m not suggesting that any router has to be able to work to connect to/on another ISPs network. Thats fine legally you can lock them. But if you have a router and are via that router trying to connect to a service (via your router and your own ISPs connection) and they block that then I can certainly see potential legal issues in both competition law and net neutrality law.

    • Avatar CarlT

      But they aren’t blocking anything, Joe, just restricting what you can use the integrated functionality of their router for. Nothing stopping people bringing their own EMTA and connecting that.

      Virgin Media deliver a digital voice solution, they have stopped provisioning people in most of the country with regular phone lines, however their EMTA will only connect to their own phone service, customers have no control of the configuration.

    • Avatar Joe

      You don’t have to block anything in competition/NN law to potentially get caught by it. Players, with a dominant position in particular, can get caught by not offering equal access provisions to services or doing so in a sufficiently difficult manner. EU law keeps moving more in this direction generally.

      We will see. Ofcom will intervene to regulate this area in any event as VoIP becomes the norm. They can’t avoid doing so.

    • Avatar Phil

      Can’t imagine it causing many issues. Loads of ISPs already block traffic through their own routers from other SIP providers. BT already do it on their Hubs with Cloud Voice customers. Not sure about other products @ BT. Gamma Telecom do it with their Assured networks too.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Joe – I’m not sure of the relevance of what BT Retail provide to anything like this. Openreach provided equipment is a different story but I’m lost as to why BT Retail would have to allow their kit to be used for other voice services.

      This is what we’re talking about, the kit provided by BT Retail for SOGEA service. Openreach kit doesn’t block anything and may be used with any service that has paid for FVA directly or with 3rd party hardware.

      I still don’t get the problem here. You want to use A N Other VoIP you use their kit or buy your own. Can’t expect kit from one provider to work for any other service and can’t expect to be able to reconfigure every setting in it to facilitate this.

  2. Avatar AnotherTim

    The Digital Voice service will of course require a broadband connection – presumably they will have to come up with a solution that provides just a phone for people that don’t want broadband, at the price of just a phone connection?
    Also, will BT still have an obligation to provide a phone for people that may have broadband from an alternative provider (e.g. Gigaclear or other FTTP service), as they could get a VoIP service from a different provider if they wanted? If not they could save a lot of money by abandoning the remaining ADSL/ADSL2+ customers rather than upgrading them at the end of the equipment’s life.

    • Avatar Joe

      Yes, Openreach is developing a voice only data service i.e. data connection bandwidth is just enough to support a VoIP service. that should be in line with currently PSTN line rental providers pay OR.

  3. Avatar Phil

    I think it would be connecting using DECT rather than Wi-Fi. The SmartHub 2.0 supports DECT, and so the user could use their existing handsets also.

  4. Avatar Welshman

    Years ago i had a white hub 1 and it had a voip phone it came with its own telephone number it started with 9 ,it worked well as a second line

    • Avatar Phil

      Same here, had VoIP with Sipgate via a Thomson Speedtouch modem, it wasn’t very reliable though. The VoIP would just stop working sometimes needing a reboot, and caller ID didn’t always work correctly.

      Now using a Panasonic VoIP SIP phone but even this is prone to just crashing out and rebooting on longer phone calls. The trouble with a SIP phone compared to a wired landline is there is a lot more to go wrong with SIP and the hardware/software and its connection to the wider world. Analogue telephones are generally 100% reliable at their job.

  5. Avatar JmJohnson

    If you have an issue with your internet then please contact us via our website, email or phone… see the issue with this ?

    • Avatar Phil

      Which is why ISPs need to start focusing on failover options like 4G in the event that the primary circuit falls apart. If the government regulates that for 999 purposes I wonder if we’d all be entitled to 4G failover on our broadband services? Doubt it will happen!

  6. Avatar Lee

    I have been on this trial and although I do not really use the land-line much, I have to admit that the quality of the calls are very impressive and the phone that is supplied is pretty decent. Not sure I would add this to my package as I have a mobile phone with unlimited minutes but it’s a step in the right direction

  7. Avatar TheFacts

    Do we need to mention power back up? Probably not as many/most will use their mobile to call 105.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Yes. When exactly does “Providers 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” apply to ISPs following A3.2(b) Oct 18. Presumably BT have included this in the trial?

    • Avatar Joe

      The odd thing is bt used to give out battery backups that lasted 1hr with fttp but have now stopped…

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      I understood the BB responsibility was passing from network provider to ISP. Hence OR will cease BB but BT/EE/PN will provide as ISPs.

      The most logical solution would be a BB within or augmented to the router with PoE back to an ONT if required. But that is probably too simple.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Have you actually read the guidance, Meadmodj? It doesn’t say what you think it says.

      Responsibility isn’t entirely with the service provider – Openreach don’t deliver battery backups to greenfield FTTP out of the kindness of their own hearts:

      ‘Application of the Principles

      A1.6 The obligations in GCA3.2(b) apply to all providers of a Publicly Available Telephone Service
      (PATS) and all providers of a Public Electronic Communications Network (PECN) over which
      a PATS is provided. ‘

      The solution is technology neutral so a mobile network based solution is fine where coverage permits – no battery backup required, the handset will have a battery.

      ‘A1.11 The obligations in GCA3 are technology neutral and therefore we do not intend to
      prescribe what type of solution providers should employ for the purposes of providing
      access to emergency organisations in the event of a power cut at the customer’s premises. ‘

      It is not required for every customer free of charge:

      ‘Offered free of charge
      A 1.26 Providers should, as a minimum, offer the solution free of charge to those customers who
      are at risk as they are dependent on their landline. ‘

      Indeed Virgin Media provide only to a subset of vulnerable customers and deliver via mobile network not battery backup.

      The most logical solution where the network operator is not providing a solution would be a hybrid handset that offers both DECT functionality and contains a mobile SIM as an emergency failover rather than separate battery packs that require maintenance. Where the network operator is providing such protection it’d be battery backup of an ONT / NTE that provides voice service.

      A battery backup solution owned by one part of the equation powering equipment owned by the other is a route to all kinds of pain.

    • Avatar Joe

      An oddity is that in most of the world you can call 999 (and such local #s) on any phone *without* a sim in a phone. But the UK needs a sim which is fairly unusual. So if you have a spare phone kept just for emergencies you have to make intermittent use or the sim is deregistered and can’t even call 999.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      @CarlT. Not since October no. Agree but my interpretation is that the ISP would need to make the consumer aware and offer a BB option if required. A provider supplying broadband would not know necessarily whether they have a mobile alternative or that specific indoor mobile signal is effective. My point was that BT should be incorporating this in their trial.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      VoIP/Digital Voice via broadband

    • Avatar useless

      You do not need a sim card in a phone to call 999. In fact most phones without a sim card in them will actually display ‘Emergency Only’ or similar on the screen with no sim card inserted.

    • Avatar Joe

      @Useless it won’t connect the call – its to stop hoaxs

    • Avatar useless

      That makes no sense at all. If you were somewhere devoid of any regular mobile signal neither the phone, the network or the emergency call is going to know if you have a sim card in the phone or not as the sim card would not be able to communicate with anything regardless.

    • Avatar useless

      PS… Even if it were the case, or even possible i dunno how that is supposed to stop prank/hoax calls considering for every mobile network you can get as many PAYG sim cards totally freely which you do not have to register.

    • Avatar Joe

      Well I suppose the belief was that a Sim can be identified. Someone may be found with it and be able to be prosecuted. At worst you know the same sim is making hoax calls when they come in.

      I understand they are likely to have another go at ending the burner sims.

  8. Avatar Lexden

    I have been using AAISP VOIP for over a year and apart from one minor issue it has been faultless. My set up is a Fritz!Box with DECT phones. Configuring the Fritz!Box for VOIP was as easy as entering a username and password into a website. My minor issue was deciding which of the 3 settings in the box was needed to get number tones (eg; select 2 for customer service or 3 for billing). Surprisingly, AAISP’s support pages are not clear on this issue. As said above, the quality of VOIP calls is impressive. For this rollout to work, Ofcom must find a simple way of allowing consumers to port their VOIP number to a new provider.

    • Avatar Phil

      >Ofcom must find a simple way of allowing consumers to port their VOIP number to a new provider.

      HA! Good one. By the time GNP is sorted out phone numbers will probably be redundant!

  9. Avatar Andrew

    You mean the one Virgin now do? I have a phone in the back of my SuperHub 3 via a little adapter – the calls are as clear as anything I’ve ever used before.

    BT are well behind with everyone it seems.

    • Avatar CarlT

      Anyone would think BT had a ready-made phone network in place making digital voice services unnecessary until recently.

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