Switch to hit the fan as BT begins prep ahead of analog phone sunset

Vows it won't 'proactively' shift folks who only use a landline or have no mobile signal

BT has revealed details on its UK-wide rollout schedule as it switches over from analog phone lines to a digital voice service to hit the deadline of retiring the analog service by the end of 2025.

The former state-owned telecoms giant, which still operates the bulk of Britain's telco infrastructure, has previously flagged up plans to switch from the old analog phone lines to internet-based voice calls operating over a fiber network.

BT said that pilots of the switchover in Salisbury (Wiltshire) and Mildenhall (Suffolk) were successful, and it is now beginning the next phase in the rollout of its new home phone service, "Digital Voice," on a region-by-region basis.

This kicked off with the East Midlands in July, then Yorkshire and the Humber region in August and Northern Ireland in September. The future schedule will cover London and the North West of England this autumn, followed by the South East, West Midlands, East Anglia and Wales in spring 2024. Scotland, the North East and South West of England will be switched during the summer of 2024.

According to BT, it is contacting customers at least four weeks ahead of the switch, to make sure they are ready to move to Digital Voice. The company said it will also be in contact with some broadband customers in England to invite them to switch their landline to Digital Voice ahead of advertising campaigns in their area.

Digital Voice will typically mean that anyone still wanting a landline can simply plug their existing telephone into the back of their broadband hub. Those who do not wish to switch can be transferred to a broadband-only plan, BT said.

However, BT claimed that switching to Digital Voice won't cost anything, and customers will not pay more than their current home phone plan, unless they are upgrading to Digital Voice while recontracting their home broadband plan.

BT is not the only telco doing this – other companies that still provide landlines, such as Virgin Media and KCOM in Hull, are also in the process of switching customers to internet telephony as part of an effort to replace copper lines with fiber connections.

When a power cut means nan has no phone...

While many people these days use mobile phones rather than a landline for calls, there have been concerns voiced about those who still rely on one, such as more elderly citizens or those with a healthcare pendant that can be used to call for help in an emergency. In the latter case, a power cut could mean the phone service is unavailable.

BT said it won't be "proactively switching" – an amazing piece of terminology – anyone with a healthcare pendant, those who only use a landline or have no mobile signal, or customers that have disclosed additional needs, where the company is aware of this situation. Any customers that fall into one of these categories should contact the company to ensure their data is up to date.

Free battery backup units will be available for customers with additional needs, BT claims, and other customers can also choose to purchase a battery backup unit if they so desire.

BT also said it can offer a hybrid phone with a built-in battery that can switch to a mobile network if necessary.

But some customers do not have broadband, and don't want it (yes, there are some, believe it or not). These customers will not be switched to a digital landline "until they are able to," BT said.

We asked what this meant, and the company told us that customers without access to broadband, will be offered a "Pre Digital Landline" service, where equipment will be installed in the local telephone exchange allowing them to continue to use their old phone line as before.

This will be available from late 2024 and is designed to provide "interim connectivity" until sometime around 2030, when customers will be required to move over to Digital Voice or an alternative. So refuseniks have until then to decide what they want to do.

BT told us that its focus between now and December 2025 is to move all customers off the old analogue PSTN service. It expects the majority of customers will move to Digital Voice, and said 99 percent of existing phones are compatible and the only change most users will experience is the need to plug it into the back of the broadband router rather than the socket on the wall.

The expectation that all customers will be switched within the next two years seems somewhat optimistic to us, but telecoms analyst at PP Foresight Paolo Pescatore said that BT deserves credit.

"While the plan seems to be ambitions, we should applaud BT for accelerating the rollout," he said. "It seems the initial rollout has gone better than expected due to communicating the merits, which gives the company confidence to complete the process within the stated timeframe." ®

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