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Major UK Home Phone Providers Commit to Protect Vulnerable Users

Monday, Dec 18th, 2023 (7:29 am) - Score 4,800
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The UK government has this morning announced the signing of a new charter with major broadband ISPs and landline phone providers, including Sky Broadband, BT, Virgin Media (O2) and TalkTalk, which sets out “new measures” to protect vulnerable customers when upgrading phone lines to a new digital (IP / VoIP based) network.

Hopefully by now most of our readers will already be aware that BT and Openreach are in the process of withdrawing their old copper-based analogue line networks (i.e. the Public Switched Telephone Network [PSTN] and Wholesale Line Rental, respectively) by December 2025. A national stop sell on new installations has already begun. KCOM are also doing something similar in Hull, which aims to finish by the end of 2024.

NOTE: The shift to digital phones is an industry, not government, led programme that is partly driven by the looming retirement of copper lines in favour of full fibre (FTTP). Not to mention that modern mobile and IP-based communication services have largely taken over from traditional home phones, which no longer see much use.

In their place many providers are introducing Internet Protocol (IP) based digital phone / voice services, which require a broadband connection in order to work. Put another way, you plug your existing handset into the back of a broadband router (assuming it has a phone port) or Analogue Terminal Adapter (ATA), rather than the old wall socket.

However, digital phone solutions do have the odd caveat. Aside from the fact that the setup is a little bit more complicated, the new services are also not remotely powered (i.e. if there’s a power cut, they go down, but then existing DECT systems suffer the same issue) and often don’t work properly with older alarm or telecare monitoring systems. In fairness, the latter is just as much the fault of telecare and alarm providers (i.e. failing to upgrade their systems).

Some people argue that mobile networks can help to fill the void, but that’s only true if your chosen operator delivers a good indoor signal to your home (not always the case) and mobile networks often go down during power cuts too (Ofcom are reviewing this). Not to mention that mobile networks don’t usually work with older telecare and alarm systems either.

The New Charter

Telecoms providers have now signed a Charter committing to “concrete measures to protect vulnerable households“, particularly those using personal alarms, known as telecare, which offer remote support to elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people – with many located in rural and isolated areas.

The Key Commitments

➤ All providers have agreed to not forcibly move customers onto the new network unless they are fully confident they will be protected.

➤ Providers will conduct additional checks on customers who have already been forcibly migrated to ensure they do not have telecare devices the provider was unaware of, and if they do, to ensure suitable support is provided.

➤ No telecare users will be migrated to digital landline services without the provider, customer, or telecare company confirming they have a compatible and functioning telecare solution in place.

➤ Providers will be required to work to provide back-up solutions [battery systems] that go beyond regulator Ofcom’s minimum of one hour of continued, uninterrupted access to emergency services in the event of a power outage.

➤ They will collectively work with Ofcom and the UK government to agree a shared definition of ‘vulnerable people’ for this transition, so it is no longer dependent on the company and establishes an industry wide standard.

➤ Government will also continue to work with the telecare sector to reduce risk for users during the digital transition.

We should point out that most ISPs with a digital phone solution are already offering optional battery backup options to their most vulnerable customers, and the Government has also asked Ofcom to look again at whether a 1-hour minimum backup remains suitable. One problem here is that the bigger the capacity, the bigger the cost, and somebody has to pay for that. Consumers can also buy a higher capacity power station to do the job themselves (battery backup options).

Michelle Donelan, UK Technology Secretary, said:

“It is absolutely right that the most vulnerable people in our society should feel safe, secure and have complete confidence in the services provided to them.

That’s why I have brought our biggest network providers and industry regulator to the table, agreeing a cast iron set of principles to reassure people and put their minds at ease.

The recent issues families have had to endure are unacceptable and today’s agreements will help to protect consumers in future.”

The extra clarity is certainly welcome, although it should be said that the big four providers were already doing a lot of what the new commitments seem to highlight. The Government also only appear to have engaged with the big four providers, which makes sense, but it does rather overlook the hundreds of other ISPs and phone providers that exist in this market, including some sizeable players like Vodafone etc.

In addition, we also have to wonder why it has taken until the last couple of years of the withdrawal programme to enshrine these commitments into a charter. Much as we’ve complained before, such things should have been agreed a few years ago, before the new digital phone services were launched by the big players.

However, it’s worth pointing out that BT and Openreach are currently testing an additional (SOTAP for Analogue) phone line product that does NOT require a broadband connection to function, is powered (no need for battery backup) and will be targetted at vulnerable and edge use cases (inc. CNI) users – those with old analogue phone lines who would otherwise “face challenges” in migrating to IP based voice solutions by 2025.

The solution, once introduced, would not be available for new service provisions (only existing customers) and is intended to be a temporary product (possibly running until around 2030). In theory, this would allow more time for people and networks to adapt, but it won’t be launched until later in 2024 and is arriving quite late to the party.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
26 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Alex says:

    I am just going through this.
    Virgin Media blocked my mothers line, by diverting it to their call centre trying to force my mother to upgrade.
    We could only stop this by booking an appointment for broadband upgrade and then cancelling the installation when it became apparent that they were not setup for the telecare line.

  2. Avatar photo Bob says:

    The onus in my view should be on the Telecare providers thewy should be required to only supply and fit kit that is computable with Digital phones They should also be required to retrofit any existing non compactable systems. One problem is they may not have accurate records as to who has these systems

    There should also be an obligation on LA’s to ensure any systems they have fitted are compatible with digital

    1. Avatar photo Tim says:

      I question whether Telecare Providers have done enough to advise users of their telecare systems of the PSTN shutdown and the possible need to update the telecare systems. I can find little mention of the PSTN changes on many telecare providers’ websites.

  3. Avatar photo Optimist says:

    These issues have been flagged up from the time that the PSTN switch off was announced. Why has it take until now for politicians to recognise the inadequacies of the telcos’ plans? I wonder if its something to do with the upcoming general election?

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I think general ignorance of the change among politicians and a somewhat blasé attitude by the telecoms providers to the caveats of the migration have played a role.

  4. Avatar photo tech3475 says:

    “Some people argue that mobile networks can help to fill the void, but that’s only true if your chosen operator delivers a good indoor signal to your home (not always the case) and mobile networks often go down during power cuts too (Ofcom are reviewing this). Not to mention that mobile networks don’t usually work with older telecare and alarm systems either.”

    Or in my case they unplug the thing and let the battery die.

    (Yes this actually happened, I bought my grandmother one after and incident where her POTS line went down to use as a backup).

    1. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      their telecare device will also be in need of constant mains power. do people routinely unplug those too?

    2. Avatar photo tech3475 says:

      From what I’ve heard, she actually did keep doing this, until the constant visits finally got her to stop.

      Makes me wonder how she’ll react to having a router/ATA installed since she currently has no internet at all.

  5. Avatar photo David Wade says:

    I think a major problem with this move is that often “vulnerable households” don’t want to be labelled as such, and are very resistant being given special treatment, and insist “they can manage”.

    Perhaps if the people handling these moves received a bonus for every vulnerable household they identified, rather than a bonus for moving people, then might we say posative change.

    1. Avatar photo FibreBubble says:

      Not sure about that. In my experience customers all had a reason why they needed priority service. They were old or ill, their family member was ill, they knew someone who was ill, they were running a business, any number of reasons. etc.

    2. Avatar photo Anonymous BT provisioning agent. says:

      Indeed. Everyone is vulnerable if they think it’s something in it for them.

  6. Avatar photo MilesT says:

    Commentators on Radio 4 today repeated the misinformation that digital voice is linked to needing a fibre broadband line, which people reading this website are likely aware that it does not.

    Openreach engineers have been out and about in North Norfolk to upgrade the existing master sockets for copper landlines to NTE5C mk whatever in preparation for ISPs upgrading routers to include phone sockets, to make the best of what is in the ground in areas where FTTP is unlikely to be available any time soon and FTTC provision is also problematic due to long line lengths to nearest cabinet

    Said engineers (likely subcontractors on behalf of Openreach) have also been peddling some misinformation on the need for customers to replace perfectly good (and personally purchased) handsets as being “over 20 years old”. I had to put a nearby neighbour straight on this point.

    1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      Many old phones require the pin 3 “ringer wire” to be connected to ring. I suspect a lot of phone sockets in routers don’t have this connected. The work around is to use an ADSL microfilter as these mostly have the required “ring capacitor” between pins 2 and 3 built in.

  7. Avatar photo Ivor says:

    Feels like a bit of buck passing onto the telcos.

    “No telecare users will be migrated to digital landline services without the provider, customer, or telecare company confirming they have a compatible and functioning telecare solution in place.”

    and what happens if the telecare company won’t confirm that, and won’t pay for an upgrade? Who gets to resolve the stand off? Should the telco be required to maintain legacy services because someone else won’t do their job?

  8. Avatar photo Gavin says:

    I never got offered a backup solution from BT when I moved to full fibre.

    The telephone move was forced on me by saying I had to order the phone service with the broadband or I’d lose my phone number.

    When I upgraded I thought it would be awhile before the phone changed over. But it was 24 hours.

    So I’m on the digital phone with no battery backup even though I’m listed as vulnerable.

    These companies seem to talk the talk but not walk the walk.

    1. Avatar photo MikeW says:

      This seems incorrect, either call and request battery backup or complain to EE (BT/ whatever you have).

      Or buy one yourself since anything third party will almost anyway be better.

      I’m sorry I don’t see these small(ish) number batteries as a major expense for anyone, let alone a ISP.

  9. Avatar photo Robert Tatlow says:

    Ex BT engineer here. A fellow colleague who lives in France messaged me to visit his 92 year old mother in law who lives just round the corner. Has gone full fibre and the phones don’t work. Visited and did some phone substitution. One on a small plug in box didn’t work with one phone but it did if plugged direct into router. Another phone did work plugged in to the small unit. Then used a splitter from the router and extension lead with another phone. Success, three working phones spread around the property. Visiting engineers fitting full fibre don’t have the faulting experience of retired engineers or possibly the time to sort. This was the second time I have followed up to get phones working.

    1. Avatar photo The facts says:

      Anything to do with the ringing capacitor?

    2. Avatar photo alan says:

      EX- BT….My elderly neighbour who lives in a very old cottage decided to have fibre (from cab) installed
      When I visited the next day after installation, I noticed the Open Reach Engineer had installed a new drop wire but had neglected to upgrade the old 2 wire junction box on the window sill, which was covered in years of gloss paint. Consequently, there was no NTE5 installed.
      Thankfully, a few days later I saw the same OR Engineer working nearby, and after some friendly persuasion, he agreed to return to finish the job with a new Master Socket

  10. Avatar photo Marty says:

    In any other country with common sense they would have worked with alarm companies on newer tech and others to make the changeover less of a hassle by working together. I don’t blame politicians for this, mainly ofcom or the regulators for the teleco’s for sitting on their backside doing nothing constructive.

    By ultilising the very basic task of not thinking every is the same as them. Broaden their minds beyond themself’s for once and planning ahead.

    Which I’m starting to think these days is an impossibility.

    1. Avatar photo Steve says:

      I’m an alarm installer and there’s been plenty of discussion around digital voice for years. I use mainly Texecom panels and there’s been info for installers at https://www.texe.com/pstn-switch-off/ – also on the online forums for installers there has been discussion at least since 2019.

      Redcare has a dedicated support team for their signalling at https://www.redcare.bt.com/move-to-all-ip.html

      From my perspective the security industry has been very proactive. It’s generally commercial users sweating their assets that’s been the problem, so the upgrading of analogue signalling to IP all comes at a cost. During covid, security spending became a low priority hence the reason we are where we are today.

      I also wonder the issues with telecare if they’re borne out of care providers sweating their assets too, fingers in ears digital voice is coming. An analogue unit is much cheaper than a digital solution, but the big issue for this group is the real possibility of site visits to check their kit works.

  11. Avatar photo Michael Bradbrook says:

    I have had a go at OFCOM basically calling them out as not fit for purpose. If it was any regulator they wouldn’t be sitting on their backsides and just let the telphone industry railroad this in, because that has what has happened here. If OFCOM were monitoring the situation then why didn’t OFCOM say to the telephone industry that we have to work with these alarm companies and county councils that supply boxes so Wardens can get in touch with vulnerable and elderly people. I know that change has to happen, but this has been too quick and too fast and OFCOM have just sat there and let this happen. Also the 1 hour battery backup is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. What would happen if the power cut was more than 1 hour how would that person get in touch with emergency services if needed smoke signals……

    1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      Ofcom are a total waste of space, time and money.

    2. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      It works both ways. Has the telecare industry looked at testing their equipment? BT has a test lab for manufacturers to verify their products on BT’s landline replacement services. Have they looked at modernisation, eg using a direct IP connection, or including a mobile SIM for use when the landline is down (and landlines do go down, both old and new)?

      Too quick and fast? This change has bubbling along for the best part of a decade. How slow do you want it to be?

      When was the last time you had a power cut of any significant length that wasn’t linked to a natural disaster or similar?

  12. Avatar photo Swampy says:

    Shame Altnets don’t have to comply as well…

    I posted this on another article but I guess its relevant here… I’ve just signed up to a new altnet in my area, moving away from VM that we’ve had issues with, never mind the pricing.

    I asked about the VoIP services they provide, and the ‘backup’ systems in place in terms of a power cut or network failure, I used VM’s Motorola FW500 hybrid phone as an example of what VM provide, and if they provided anything similar…

    Well in short they don’t provide any kind of battery backup for the CTU/ONT, router, phones or anything of the sort, no GSM/LTE call backup either. Even for vulnerable people.

    I was asking because my wife is vulnerable, and we struggle to get a mobile signal here, we use Wi-Fi calling mostly.

    So basically if anything should happen during a power cut, I’m not sure what we’d do… it’s not like phone boxes are a thing anymore either. Even if they were by 2025 I guess they’d be VoIP as well…

    It’s a bit disconcerting to be honest… on the verge of cancelling the altnet and sticking with VM, where at least we have the FW500, even if the broadband service has been flakey…

    mmm, I wonder if the FW500 can be configured to work with another VoIP provider, and if I can put my own SIM in, it’d give at least an hour or so…

    I suppose we can have a belt or braces, but not both…

    1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

      You could always add your own UPS (uninterruptable power supply). These are available from Amazon from about £40 and should give up to an hour backup in the event of power failure.

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