Broadband plumber Openreach yanks legacy copper phone lines in Suffolk town of Mildenhall en route to getting the UK on VoIP

Just four years to go before planned switch-off

The tiny Suffolk town of Mildenhall is the second place where Openreach has stopped selling copper products as the company develops its strategy for withdrawing legacy telephone lines.

The "stop-sell" order came into effect on 4 May, and also extends to copper-based phone connections. It follows a similar stop-sell edict in Salisbury, which last year became the first UK city to receive full-fibre coverage.

While this decision hasn't had an immediate impact on those hanging onto their slower copper lines, it has meant those hoping to switch providers or upgrade their connection will be pushed to a digital-only service.

Mildenhall was reportedly selected as it represented a standard exchange area in terms of users, with the right mix of residential and business customers, as well as the diversity of providers operating in the leafy East England town, which include Sky, BT, and Zen Internet.

Openreach said it hoped the transition will allow communication providers to test and develop their procedures for migrating users from copper to fibre, particularly on the telephony front.

The company has set a target to retire the copper telephone network by 2025 as the UK's fibre rollout gathers pace and landline calls are shifted to SoGEA, SoGfast, and SOTAP digital connections.

The BT-owned infrastructure provider has repeatedly cited the costs of running two parallel networks as a major motivation. The legacy copper network has proven particularly expensive to maintain as the cables and telephone poles used are exposed to the elements, and thus susceptible to weather damage. And, as more people switch to fibre, it will inevitably become less relevant to the UK's telecommunications infrastructure.

Openreach has repeatedly touted the benefits of an all-digital system to consumers, including call quality.

For most people, the most immediate impact will be the need to plug their phone into a router (which providers will offer free of charge, irrespective of whether the customer has a broadband plan) rather than an RJ-11 jack. This may necessitate the purchase of a new handset, if the provider doesn't offer one free of charge.

It also noted that some devices that rely on analogue phone connections to work – like care and security systems – may cease to function.

Another potential drawback is that the all-digital system won't work in the case of a power outage, as it draws a current from the mains, rather than the telephone exchange itself. In short: anything that relies on a landline, from phone calls to alarms, will briefly cease to function.

In a statement, James Lilley, Openreach's director of managed migrations, claimed the Mildenhall move is "an important early step" in upgrading the UK to VoIP.

"We're working closely with service providers to make sure any changes happen as smoothly as possible. We also have extensive learning from our recent work in Salisbury, which became the first city in the UK to rely solely on digital services," he added.

For those living in Mildenhall, Openreach has created a site advising residents of the transition, and how it may affect them. ®

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