BT: 'we went too early' on digital voice

BT is putting its digital voice service rollout on ice due to the fact it caused more disruption to customers than the telco had anticipated.

Mary Lennighan

March 29, 2022

4 Min Read
BT: 'we went too early' on digital voice

BT is putting its digital voice service rollout on ice due to the fact it caused more disruption to customers than the telco had anticipated.

Whether it should have anticipated it is up for debate but surely It’s reasonable to suggest that it could have.

The UK incumbent started rolling out Digital Voice last year. As the name suggests, it’s a VoIP product that runs over its broadband network rather than the old analogue network. As the telco itself notes, it’s a necessary upgrade, to replace analogue technology that is fast becoming obsolete and – as the telco did not mention – expensive to maintain when there’s a newer network right there. Naturally, BT is focusing more on the benefits, like voice call quality and a greater ability to filter out scam calls, as well as ticking the green credentials box with energy efficiency.

But while the reasoning behind the move is sound, it seems the execution was somewhat lacking.

Not all of that was entirely BT’s fault. The winter storms this year took out power in many places in the UK, which gave customers the jitters about having a landline that doesn’t work in a power cut. Admittedly, storms that take down power cables also often take out phone lines too, but not always, plus the perception of having a landline that won’t work if there’s no power is worrying for many, particularly older or more vulnerable customers, who are often also the ones still reliant on landlines for communication.

In addition, there’s the extra kit for customers who currently do not have a fixed broadband service. While most customers can simply plug their landline phone – if indeed they still use one – into their broadband router, there is more disruption for landline-only customers. And for all customers, BT seems to accept that it has more work to do on the marketing front, so we all known why things need to change.

“We underestimated the disruptive impact this upgrade would have on some of our customers. With hindsight we went too early, before many customers – particularly those who rely more heavily on landlines – understood why this change is necessary and what they needed to do,” BT’s consumer CEO Marc Allera said, in a statement. “We also recognise we have more work to do on getting better back-up solutions in place for when things disrupt the service like storms and power cuts. We got this part of our programme wrong and for that, we’re sorry.”

As a result, Allera said the telco is pausing the Digital Voice switchover for customers that do not want to switch immediately. It did not say how long this pause will last; it’s clear that the switchover will happen in the relatively near future. All landline users – not just BT customers – will have to move to a digital system before 2025, BT pointed out.

In the meantime, the telco is buying itself some time to both get some back-up solutions in place for customers who want them, and also to improve its messaging around why the change is happening.

It shared a list of back-up solutions, including hybrid phones that can also use a mobile network and have in-build long-lasting batteries; battery back-up units; and an awareness campaign. It aims to restart the programme once it has what it terms key solutions in place to provide more resilient connectivity.

There are a couple of exceptions. The telco will push on with rollout in Salisbury and Mildenhall, areas the company is treating as a testbed for the retirement of the analogue network, and customers using a fibre voice product will also be upgraded to Digital Voice. It also notes that its enterprise rollout is unaffected.

As usual, this is one of those situations in the UK where BT bears the brunt of customer ire simply by virtue of being the market’s largest provider; as it mentions, it has 10 million customers to switch to digital by the 2025 deadline. But it’s also fair to say that BT did not prepare well for this situation. Those 10 million customers should be sufficient to give it some insight into the fact that not all customers have the same needs and perceptions. Winter storms are no longer an unusual phenomenon either.

But it’s good to see a telco holding its hands up and moving to fix the problem, even if it is trying to spin it as being ahead of the curve, rather than a failure to know its customers.

“The existing analogue technology is up to 40-years-old in some parts and is becoming obsolete,” Allera said. That sounds like a fine vintage to us…but admittedly technology ages a lot faster than people.


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About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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