BT relaunches Digital Voice, but it's treading very carefully

UK telco group BT is relaunching its digital voice rollout, after a false start last year.

Mary Lennighan

March 9, 2023

3 Min Read
BT Tower framed by decorative lamp post
AFW8EW BT Tower framed by decorative lamp post

UK telco group BT is relaunching its digital voice rollout, after a false start last year.

The UK incumbent clearly learned from its first attempt to switch landline customers to VoIP telephony from analogue and is moving very gently with extended pilot schemes that will begin next month.

When it pulled the plug on Digital Voice almost 12 months ago, following a backlash from customers who were concerned about making the switch, BT said it would continue with the deployment in a couple of key areas: Salisbury and Mildenhall. It was treating those towns as a testbed for the retirement of its analogue network, it said.

This week it revealed that April will see it extend beyond those two pilot schemes, carrying out trials with a small group of customers, consisting of lower usage landline customers who already have full fibre. They will be contacted four weeks before the switchover, BT said.

It took great pains to explain that for the vast majority of customers the switch would involve nothing more than connecting the user’s phone into their home broadband router, adding that for a small percentage of customers whose handsets are not compatible with its digital home phone service it would provide an adapter.

Naturally, the telco is making it all sound highly straightforward, and for many people that is no doubt the case. But its job now is to communicate that to its customers, something it arguably failed to do last time around.

“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, last March.

But now, there’s a big marketing push coming.

BT said that from summer 2023 it will invite more customers to make the switch on a region-by-region basis – we don’t yet know where it will start – backed by a multi-million pound advertising campaign. The telco will use local and regional media to raise awareness and explain the simplicity of the switch, it said. It is also planning to have a presence on the ground, with representatives answering customer questions in high streets and at town hall drop-ins.

A key element to customers’ objections last year was the lack of redundancy. Essentially, customers were worried that in the event of a natural disaster or similar, they would be left without a phone line, because digital voice needs power to function. Unhelpfully for BT, its digital voice switchover coincided with a series of winter storms in the UK that did indeed take out electricity cables – as well as telephone lines – and that added fuel to the fire.

The telco did not specifically address this issue, but listed a number of initiatives designed to give customers greater confidence in digital voice, one of which is the availability hybrid phones that can switch to a mobile network and have a built-in battery. That should help with the redundancy issue.

Furthermore, the pace of rollout should help allay customers’ fears about being rushed into something they don’t fully understand. BT said the early phase of the extended trials will take 12 months, and in that time will not involve certain groups of customers, such as the over-70s, those with additional needs and healthcare issues, and those who only use a landline or have no mobile signal.

The slowly, slowly approach works for now. But the telco can’t wait forever.

BT needs to move to digital voice. It needs to replace analogue technology that is becoming obsolete and expensive to run. But if it wants to do that without leaving a PR disaster in its wake, it must also persuade customers that they need digital voice too.


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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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