Keen to avoid a panic over panic alarms, the UK government has tapped up some additional telcos to ensure vulnerable customers are not left behind when their landlines are upgraded to VoIP.

Nick Wood

March 11, 2024

3 Min Read

Openreach, CityFibre, AllPointsFibre, CommunityFibre, Ogi, KCOM, and WightFibre have agreed with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to put in place various safeguards as they migrate from analogue voice to digital services delivered via broadband networks.

They include letting customers know a year in advance of being switched over, and making sure they have a working solution in place before they are migrated. They were first launched in December, and various retail and wholesale telcos – such as BT, Vodafone, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), among others – have already signed up.

DSIT's push to protect customers is gathering momentum, as evidenced by this new group of signatories.

"The safety of vulnerable customers comes before anything else and that's why I called on the industry to listen to concerns and take action to make sure the right protections are in place," said technology secretary Michelle Donelan.

"I welcome more telecoms companies joining forces to make this a priority, meaning we now have agreement from those responsible for our telecoms infrastructure and those providing mobile and broadband services," she said. "This will provide much needed reassurance to those relying on these vital devices and I will continue to pressure organisations to do everything in their power to make sure the switchover is seamless and safe."

In doing so, the government and industry hopes to avoid the pitfalls that BT encountered at the start of its own switchover.

It's fair to say the migration to what BT calls Digital Voice got off to a rocky start.

Its bid to replace its ageing analogue voice service with VoIP delivered over broadband faced an almighty backlash from customers who were only too willing to share an array of concerns.

They ranged from the possibility of being out of contact in the event of a power cut; being forced to subscribe to broadband service when all they want to use is fixed voice; and having to upgrade analogue customer premises equipment (CPE) that relies on the old network.

Such was the ire directed at BT that in March 2022 the incumbent paused the rollout, admitting that it didn't give affected customers sufficient time to come to terms with what was happening and how to prepare for it.

BT didn't restart the deployment until nearly a year later, taking it very slowly by carrying out trials with small groups of customers who already use broadband, and giving them four weeks' notice of the impending change.

Taking a region-by-region approach, BT also pledged not to switch any customers who use a personal alarm, who are over 70, who only use landline service, who lack mobile signal, or have additional needs.

To ensure that lessons are learned from the debacle and to avoid a repeat, the government has worked with the industry to put in place several measures to protect the vulnerable.

Under this week's agreement with DSIT, the group of telcos has pledged to check whether customers use a telecare device; give retail phone service providers that use their networks 12 months' notice before enforcing a switchover; and to jointly discuss 'suitable migration options' with customers.

The telcos will also make sure that telecare customers are not migrated until they have a new and functioning solution in place. They will also work with Ofcom to draw up an industry-wide definition of a 'vulnerable' customer so it is no longer up to individual providers to work it out on their own.

The commitments will go some way to reassuring the public, but that same public will most assuredly speak up if any issues do still crop up.

"We've heard of vulnerable people being left unable to contact emergency services due to issues with digital migration, so it is positive that the government is getting assurances from operators as well as providers that they will protect customers during the switchover," said Which? director of policy and advocacy Rocio Concha.

"The government and Ofcom must be prepared to take tough action if firms fail to keep up their side of the bargain," she said. "The transition to digital landlines is necessary and offers advantages, but it is vital that no one is left behind as the migration continues."

About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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