Switching from copper landlines08 August 2023

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We’ve been making telephone calls over copper landlines since the days of plummy-voiced Post Office operators plugging cables into exchange switchboards. Now the deadline’s finally looming for the copper network’s retirement party. And Britain’s businesses are all but oblivious to the potential risks to their companies’ support and alarm services. Chris Pateman reports

First the good news: Britain is heading full-speed towards a digitally interconnected future where all telecommunications and data transactions take place over reliable high speed fibre optics.

Now the bad news: your existing automated key-holder alerts, fire alarms and remote back-office support services will probably stop working as a result.

BT argues that the old, familiar PSTN (public switched telephone network) copper infrastructure is well past its sell-by date, and costing a fortune to maintain. PSTN is already being retired in some parts of the country. It is due to be phased out completely across the UK by the end of 2025.

And this is not something that can be kicked into the long grass. This is happening now. To give an idea of how urgent things are, Openreach’s two initial trial areas (Salisbury and Mildenhall) are already at the stage where, from

6 June this year, customers who have not transitioned are having their broadband speeds throttled and their ability to make outgoing calls on their copper lines restricted at exchange level: in other words, there’s nothing they can do about it. They are being forced to get in touch with their communications provider to put new IP-compatible kit in, just for internet access and making phone calls.

And, as so often with business services, the devil is in the detail.

Many business managers have already benefited from a shift to all-IP telecoms, with its clever automatic call-forwarding to home workers, call hunt groups and rich recording and networking functionality. For many businesses, trading during the pandemic lock-downs would have been impossible without it.

All these productivity gains are made possible by digital technology’s ability to process, package and distribute data packets – of which voice is simply just one type – and transmit them around the world on fibre optic cables.

Running a business is not just about the shiny front-end, though. What about those legacy support services, often running quietly and unremarked in the background? The key-holder alerts? The IT back-ups and fail-overs? The fire and burglar alarm systems?

For many businesses, services such as automated burglar alarms, emergency call-lines in lifts, remotely monitored process fail-safes or even card payment systems are simply bought on recurring monthly terms from specialists. These services might be used in industrial premises such as workshops. They are facilitated by third-party providers that install dedicated telephone lines.

Which wasn’t a problem all the time we had a copper telephone network for those services to quietly run on. But now all these lines are going to have to transition from copper to fibre. And that, technically, is not just a matter of unplugging one piece of kit and plugging in another.

The difference between copper alarm lines and fibre alarm lines is not trivial. It is – quite literally – as fundamental as the difference between fail-safe and non fail-safe. The old familiar legacy copper network provides ‘always on’, fail-safe functionality. The system runs on its own 48V DC power supply, regularly pulsing a ‘chirrup’ up the line to check continuity for signal. It’s this pulse which provides the familiar dial tone, reassuring the user that there is a working line to the exchange equipment.

IP, by contrast, is an innately non fail-safe alternative. The fibre line is entirely passive until it is ‘lit’ by equipment at the business end. To light the line requires a modem and a power source. Which is why your phone at home, which offers that helpful built-in answering machine, needs to be plugged into the mains as well as the broadband socket.

So we are moving from a system which powers itself remotely to a system that has to be powered from the user’s end. This has two major implications.

Firstly, is your alarm or process provider equipped to update your kit ahead of the copper switch-off?

Secondly, what happens if there is a mains power failure?

Beyond that, the logistical implications for the business itself are obvious. Is there even power available to the equipment? Will it need to be re-sited? Does it need to be wired into the emergency circuits? Will it need battery back-up or a dedicated 5G modem?

And so to the bad news: when the team from cross-industry campaign Fit To Switch raised the issue with the trade associations representing two of the obvious ‘at risk’ service sectors – lift suppliers and fire alarm companies – their responses yielded only referrals to high-level publicity articles and supplier sales presentations made at last year’s industry conferences. There was no specific guidance for their members. There was no directory of members whose systems are tested, ripe and ready for the non-copper future.

“Perhaps the telecoms industry should congratulate itself on the excellent job we have done convincing businesspeople to trust our specialist expertise,” says Fit To Switch co-founder Chris Pateman.

“Our initial unprompted research among trade associations confirmed that telecoms is still pretty much a black art as far as most business customers are concerned, even among informed, technically literate business managers.

“Up until now, business owners have been able to rely on third-party alarm and service providers. Now, for business continuity sake, they need to know their companies’ future ability to cope with crises or power cuts will be up to the mark in a new all-IP world. That may mean having some hard conversations and asking some hard questions with suppliers with whom they may not have spoken for years.”

Participate in a survey (available via www.is.gd/tusupu) to learn more about the particular risks posed to you by the digital transition.

Chris Pateman

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