In 2025 the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that powers the Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) will be closed, writes Dan Davies, CTO at Maintel. And many public service providers simply aren’t prepared.

This was announced five years ago by BT, with the plan to introduce new, improved digital services. That means that over 16 million copper phone lines will be rendered obsolete, with ‘the big switch off’ affecting many homes, businesses and essential public services that still rely on this outdated analogue infrastructure. Organisations using ISDN, PSTN or DSL broadband services will need to migrate to new digital alternatives.

However, with time running out for authorities to ensure the switch goes smoothly, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request suggests that over half (56%) of UK councils have no strategy in place to deal with this major milestone. Concerningly this figure leaps to 70% of London boroughs questioned who also lack a plan to ensure service continuity.

The consequences of a poorly planned switch over could be disastrous for vital public services. Alarm lines, traffic light systems, payment terminals, payphone lines, medical devices and external connectivity to telephony systems could all be impacted. This leaves councils in a precarious position, with the clock ticking to ensure continuity across crucial services.

Failure to prepare is not an option

Failure to plan for the WLR withdrawal deadline could have a significant impact on public sector organisations and, crucially, their users, citizens and patients. Any major change in infrastructure requires solid planning, and migrating critical services ahead of the WLR withdrawal has the potential to be a huge undertaking for organisations. Time really is of the essence.

As with any major undertaking, the secret to managing effective change is clearly understanding your starting point. This means public sector organisations must complete a thorough audit of their networks to understand its structure and any services that might rely on WLR. These could range from simple voice lines to DSL broadband or even building alarms. BT has helpfully identified over 40 potential ways in which these lines could be being used, many of which aren’t immediately obvious. These cover everything from simple voice service, through telemetry devices (such as roadside telemetry and streetlights) and a plethora of special devices (such as CCTV, Fax Machines, PDQs etc).

Whatever existing WLR services, there are several migration paths to ensure continuity of service when the switch over occurs. However, it is essential to discover and audit the existing estate, define your digital roadmap and design a speedy practical plan for implementation – and to do so sooner rather than later.

Time for action

Alongside the need to map current communications and plan a roadmap, organisations will also need to be mindful of current supply chain issues for networking technology that can currently be over 12 months, along with the challenges of installing new technologies across their historic buildings.

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To reach the 2025 deadline, public sector organisations will need to account for this in their FY 2023 budgets to ensure that any technology upgrades needed can be ordered to be delivered and installed in time for 2025. They, therefore, need to start comprehensive audits of their estates in preparation for identifying any affected services right now. In addition to this, any expansion required of these legacy offerings will not be possible after September 2023 so identifying the most appropriate replacement solution for each use case is more urgent than many think.

Delivering a reliable future

While WLR withdrawal throws up challenges across the public sector, the payoff in improved services will deliver numerous benefits. New services will be almost exclusively fully fibre-based and completely digital, delivering greater resilience while also integrating seamlessly with other next-generation services. Driving operating efficiency, productivity and collaboration with high-speed digital connectivity is crucial for ensuring public services can continue to deliver to increasingly demanding users, citizens and patients.

For example, especially post-pandemic, many healthcare patients now expect online services such as video consultations to be provided as standard. The success of the coronavirus vaccine rollout via digital, provided a standard by which users now expect all services to be delivered. With improved features, speed and eventual reduced operating costs, there is no doubt that the big switch-off is an opportunity to realise a better future for critical services and to meet the needs of users.

It also provides an opportunity for public bodies to consider the future of their digital roadmap more holistically. From supporting the shift to digital workplaces to next-generation contact centres and secure, multi-cloud infrastructure, there is now even more impetus to ensure that public services are made future-proof.

Despite huge uncertainty in recent years, we can be certain of one thing, The big switch off will happen in 2025 whether we like it or not. Councils must take heed so public services can continue to run smoothly.

About the author

Dan Davies is CTO at Maintel, a digital service company devoted to supporting companies through switch-off transition.