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Norway has a month left until sun sets on its copper phone lines

Residents in westernmost municipality of Solund praise new mobile coverage, but others have been left behind

Norway is a couple of years ahead of Britain in mothballing its century-old copper telephone network, which is due to shut down on January 1, 2023.

The UK is scheduled to switch from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to voice over IP (VoIP) by December 2025, but although it is geographically 33 percent smaller than Norway, the task is considerably larger – the Scandinavian country has some 60 million fewer inhabitants.

Telenor, the majority state-owned telecommunications provider, has been filling the void with fiber broadband where possible or by improving mobile coverage.

It has a couple of things going for it in this respect, not least its mobile network being named the fastest in the world by Ookla in 2018, recording average download speeds of 71.97Mbps.

This is comparable to what most Brits get from their wired broadband connections at home in 2022 and many times the speed of the UK's stuttering 4G networks, where coverage can be spotty even in large towns and cities.

In October, Telenor sold a 30 percent stake in its fiber broadband unit to a consortium led by US investment vehicle KKR and pension firm Oslo Pensjonsforsikring, releasing $1 billion to "support continued high-speed fiber rollout in Norway," said CFO Tone Hegland Bachke.

Telenor Fiber AS owns the group's passive fiber assets, including 130,000km of cables connecting more than 560,000 homes. But as most of the country could be considered remote and rural, opening new base stations is often an effective way of ensuring people in the most far-flung parts have access to internet and emergency services.

One cutoff area to have been bestowed with more reliable coverage recently is Solund in Vestland, Norway's westernmost municipality with a population of 768 living on 13-14 small islands.

Now a new base station has opened at Klovedalsheia, residents have described the improvement as an early Christmas present. "Before, we only had one line on the mobile phone, and I had to sit on the stairs inside the house. Now there is full coverage everywhere," one Bjarne Rørdal told news outlet NRK.

The municipality, which has an area of 228.20km2, now has six base stations operating, or that will be operating in the near future thanks to a collaboration with Telenor. Over the last three years, 100 municipalities have asked Telenor for help with internet and mobile projects ahead of the 2023 sunset for the copper network.

"Norway is a large country geographically, so even if 99.8 percent of the population has coverage where they live, there is still around 13 percent of the area that does not have coverage," said Bjørn Amundsen, director of coverage at Telenor.

"In connection with the remediation of the copper network, we have been clear that no one should lose their phone. Either we move them to fiber or mobile. For some very few people, we have been forced to find special solutions."

For example, Botnane in Bremanger, north of Solund, will retain access to the copper network "until a better solution is in place" after it was found that mobile coverage was insufficient. This is despite a fiber cable running straight through the area.

It is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 people lack mobile coverage in Norway.

Across the North Sea, Openreach, the UK's broadband plumber, has been banging the drum for some years now that businesses must take stock of their communication systems and make the necessary preparations for the retirement of the PSTN.

James Lilley, director of ALL-IP at Openreach, said: "Ahead of the switch from analogue to digital phone lines, it's crucial that businesses understand their current systems and the implications of the shift.

"This upgrade will provide the nation with faster, more reliable services and will allow devices to become more connected, providing UK industry with a framework from which it can develop innovative emerging technologies. Taking these simple steps now will make the process of upgrading much smoother."

The company has a Call Waiting List where businesses can fill in a form to ensure they will be ready when the PSTN is shut off in 2025.

No doubt Norway's transition will be watched with interest by other countries. Though the people of Solund are happy for now, there will be many more elsewhere who are left behind, and there are fears that the 2023 cutoff is too hasty.

NRK has reported on locations like Kråkenes in Kinn municipality where residents can only get signal in a very specific part of their homes due to the mountainous terrain, and yet landlines have already been shut off with no promise yet of a fiber connection forthcoming.

According to EuropeOn, a trade association for the electrical contracting industry, as of 2020 74 percent of Norwegian households had access to internet based on fiber optic networks, 89 percent had access to high-speed internet of 100Mbps or more, 98 percent had access to broadband with a speed of 30Mbps, and 73 percent of all commercial buildings had access to broadband with a symmetrical speed of at least 100Mbps. ®

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