Lyndsey Burton, managing director of Choose explores the issues with widespread rollout of communications only using VoIP.

Several recent storms this winter left over a million homes[1,2], without power and phone access for upwards of two weeks. Residents in Cumbria, the North East of England and rural Scotland were left without the ability to contact emergency services simply because they had been migrated over to Digital Voice.

After months of campaigning from charities, consumers and even MPs, BT has finally announced the decision to pause its Digital Voice rollout amid concerns the new technology leaves people without a means of communication during a power cut.

However, the reasons why the rollout went ahead without adequate solutions in place weren’t entirely the fault of BT. As well as issues stemming from a lack of robustness in the equipment provided, there are also fundamental issues around the lack of guidance from Ofcom that providers are expected to meet.

Digital Voice

Part of the rush to roll out Digital Voice is in conjunction with BT’s self-imposed deadline to close the copper phone line network by 2025. This means all current landline users need to be switched over to a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), or full-fibre, connection to continue to use a telephone at home.

Digital Voice works by using VoIP technology, where the voice is sent over a digital broadband signal, instead of previously over analogue copper wires. The major difference is the lack of a power supply in fibre cables means the phone handset, as well as any connecting devices like a router and Optical Network Terminal (ONT) box, must also be plugged into a home’s power supply to work.

While the basic precedence to ensuring connectivity in the case of emergency is for people to rely on mobile phones – there are still 1.7 million households in the UK that don’t have either mobile internet or fixed-line internet. There are also large numbers of households in more rural areas that simply cannot rely on decent mobile phone signal in an emergency.

In addition, there are 10 million people in the UK who lack the basic foundation knowledge to carry out essential online tasks, be that on a computer or a mobile device. As such, there are people reliant on landlines who simply may not be able to use a mobile phone.

Yet, despite telephone service providers being required to ensure end users have ‘uninterrupted access to emergency organisations’ by Ofcom, this condition isn’t being met by a range of full-fibre providers, not just BT, in rolling out FTTP connections to properties.

Regulations

In October 2018, Ofcom provided guidance on how VoIP providers could meet Ofcom’s General Conditions of Entitlement, that rules telephone service providers must ensure ‘uninterrupted access to emergency organisations’.

However, the problem here is that the guidance that set out how the General Conditions could be met rather watered down those conditions, most likely so they weren’t ‘unduly onerous on providers’ and didn’t cause too much of a roadblock to the rollout. But, in doing so, they’ve created a bigger problem whereby end users have had to experience the very issues the General Conditions set out to mitigate against, before those issues are given due consideration.

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For example, of the principles set out to guide a provider in whether or not Ofcom would consider them having ensured ‘uninterrupted access to emergency organisations’, the guidance merely places a requirement to ensure that access ‘for a minimum of one hour’. As Geva Blackett, a local councillor from North East Scotland who launched the petition to pause the rollout, put it best, one-hour battery back-ups are as useful as ‘chocolate fireguards’.

The remaining principles focus around this one-hour battery back-up solution only needing to be provided free of charge to ‘those who are at risk as they are dependent on their landline’. While on the surface this may seem reasonable, it’s also vague, which means people could be left out, and the principles place the obligation to ‘request the protection solution’ on to the consumer and not the provider.

It seems clear then, that Ofcom’s own guidance to the General Conditions have simply not laid down enough importance and responsibility to ensure people are protected in the digital upgrade.

Battery back-up

As recent storms have demonstrated, it's not always possible to judge who might need back-up solutions, and there is a risk of assuming – even with awareness campaigns – that consumers will know to request these devices themselves, again ahead of needing them.

Prior to 2018, BT supplied ONT boxes with built-in battery back-ups to all customers. This was withdrawn around the same time Ofcom’s guidance was published, suggesting both the ONT back-up alone wasn’t sufficient to ensure telephone connectivity in the event of a power cut (as it doesn’t provide a power supply to the router or a telephone), but also that a power back-up solution wasn’t required to be provided to all customers.

However, it seems incredibly prudent that the ideal solution here is simply to start thinking of battery back-ups not as external optional extras, but as integral parts of fibre equipment.

An ONT box, router and DECT cordless telephone all have low power consumption needs (approximately 15 watts combined), meaning they could all be powered by either a small built-in battery to each item, or by a combined external unit with power outlets. In fact, as the telephone requires connecting to either the router or the ONT box, only two of the three items need some form of battery back-up.

To give an example on capacity requirements, a 36Ah (36000mAh) battery would power 15 watts for 24 hours. Rechargeable power banks with this level of capacity are around the size of a thick smartphone and retail from around £40.

BT’s original ONT back-up unit came with battery monitoring lights to alert users to when the batteries needed replacing. In addition, a connection-break, like a ‘pull-tab’, could be used to extend the shelf-life of any built-in or provided batteries, so they were only in-use once a user activated them in the event of a power cut.

Broadband routers are frequently upgraded to new models, so there is little argument against updating these designs to include battery-back up solutions as standard. The BT Smart Hub 2 for example, provided to FTTP customers, currently retails at £200, suggesting equipment cost is not a limitation to innovation.

Consumer trust

It seems far from unreasonable for providers to offer full-fibre equipment that comes as standard with decent capacity, replaceable, battery solutions in place, and provided for free to all customers by default, at the point of sale.

Ofcom must honour the regulations as set out in the General Conditions and not water down guidance simply because it’s harder for a new technology to meet them.

If full-fibre and Digital Voice are going to successfully replace the copper phone line network, it must have the same level of resilience and security built-in, to ensure consumers remain confident and can trust in the transition to a new technology.

About the author

Lyndsey Burton is managing director and founder of Choose, a price comparison website that’s been operating since 2003. As a self-taught programmer, she develops the front and back-end systems, while also managing all other areas of the business. Her personal interests take her work in the direction of ethics and fairness, commenting on consumer policy and market regulation in broadband, energy and personal finance. Twitter: @LBurton