2023-03-01

The end is nigh (for phone lines, anyway)

This is both simple and complicated...

The simple bit is that old fashioned phone lines, as have been around, providing telephone service, for well over a century, in the UK, are coming to an end. Well, at least the main provider of such, BT, is stopping them.

That is the simple bit, and it really is simple. Even now, in a lot of areas, you cannot now buy a "normal" landline telephone service from BT, or any of the companies that use BT for such services. You can't take over an existing line, or move it to a new provider. This is spreading across the country area by area. The next step, in a couple of years, is that the existing lines stop working.

What's the plan?

When I explain this, I am asked "What's the plan then?", and "What are they [BT] going to do?".

In principle this is an odd question, BT are stopping phone lines. Why do they need a plan? Why do they need to "do anything"? Why do people think BT will do anything? All that is happening is that a company is stopping selling a particular service. Simple as that.

I think people see phone lines as some sort of right, or public service, but it is not. It is just a service that some companies sell. It is also a service which is purchased less and less. So many people use mobile phones these days, and so many people use other means to have a telephone service, which I come on to later. It makes commercial sense for BT to stop selling this service, simple as that. Other providers will follow suit, though a lot of other providers use BT lines so are stopping anyway.

Just to be clear, bits of copper wire in the ground will be around a while longer, but used for broadband, and not have a telephone service. Though this is gradually being changed to glass fibre.

In practice though...

Of course, in practice, BT, and other providers of such services, are not daft. They have a range of other products that will provide "telephone service" by other means, and will be keen to sell them to you.

This is, of course, confusing to a lot of people. No service will be exactly the same, but some will be very close. One of the issues is the fact that telephone exchanges used to have power backup for several hours, and they powered the telephone handset - so phone lines used to work for a while in a power cut. Also, if the power cut was local, at your house but not at the exchange, they worked as long as you like with a power cut. Almost every other service does not have that exact feature. Even if you have batteries yourself, your internet access may not have, or may only work for a short period (batteries in street cabinets, etc). So no service will be quite identical, but in subtle ways people don't always consider (e.g. power fail and calling 999).

There is also the issue that people will ask why they have to buy some new service? Well, they don't, obviously, but the existing service they buy is stopping, so it is up to them what they choose to do.

999

Emergency services are a concern for people - as I mention, batteries may not last very long even if you have them. There was a reported case where someone could not call 999 on their VoIP service as they had no power during a fire. This is sad. But remember 999 on landlines is not a 100% reliable service, that would be impossible. It is very reliable, and the power from the exchange helps, but even that is only for a few hours at most. 999 has always been a service that telephone providers have to provide to the extent technically possible, and they do a good job. But there are always edge cases (a fire could have damaged the phone line and it would not be a news story, it is only a story because it is "change").

One small issues is VoIP is an "over the top" service. It uses an Internet service to work. ISPs have never had to try and provide a service with the same level of reliability for 999 use, nor when no power, and so on, and as they are not providing 999 it is unlikely that will change (if it does, it will be a lot of cost). That said, an over the top service can be made more reliable - you can have have multiple providers and even satellite links. The snag is most people would not want to pay the extra cost for that increased reliability.

Of course, in a lot of cases, a mobile service is also available. Though people forget that these too need power at the cell site, and those sites do not necessarily have battery backup, or backup for very long.

At the end of the day, try to have a battery backup on your shiny new VoIP service if you can, and a mobile if you can, but as I say 999 has never been guaranteed 100% reliable. So think of your options.

What really are the options?

I am not going to go in to a sales pitch here. Obviously we (A&A) sell some of this. But there are a lot of options.

Firstly - do you even need something like a landline telephone service? A lot of people use mobiles, and only even have a landline for broadband. The line for broadband is fine and will continue to exist, just with no telephone service, though obviously you ideally want to be on fibre now, if you can.

Secondly, what does a landline telephone service mean to you exactly?

A telephone number

A key part of the old landline telephone service is the telephone number itself. A lot of people have had a telephone number for a very long time, and people still know it and call it. So receiving calls on a conventional geographic telephone number is important.

  • One option is have a company take over the phone number and simply send it to your mobile. There may be some call charges for that.
  • One option is a ceased number message telling people your mobile number - possibly forever, or just for a while until you stop the number altogether.
  • And finally, there is also the case of having a telephone service on your number using Voice over IP

For businesses that publish a local phone number, keeping it working one way or another is important.

Voice over IP

The basic option for keeping a service on a phone number is Voice over IP (VoIP), which is a telephone service over the internet. You need a reliable internet service, and possibly even a service that somehow manages to make VoIP work well even when your kids are downloading the latest game update at the same time. Different services (for internet) have different features to help with this. Some providers may provide special broadband routers that have built in telephone VoIP services, maybe even working with an old school telephone if you want (bear in mind that it needs power).

For a business, VoIP can offer some fun options with better telephone systems, call queuing, messages, multiple calls at once, diverts, time profiles, all sorts. Just a matter of what kit or service you buy.

Service provider

One choice for VoIP is the service provider. It may be the same as your ISP, or may be totally separate. Just like with a landline or mobile, look at the costs, the terms, the bundles, call costs, and so on. Some may bundle equipment as well. Some may have a minimum term. Some may bundle calls and some may not. Some may even provide call recording. In practice, just like "porting" numbers between mobile providers, you can usually simply port your number between providers if you need.

Equipment

Another issue is equipment. This can be totally separate to the service provider in most cases, but not all. Some service providers provide an internet and telephone service and equipment all in one bundle. In practice it is probably better to have a service provider that provides the telephone service using SIP, which is a standard for VoIP. This then lets you choose different compatible equipment as you wish.

It is however worth ensuring it works well with your ISP - things like NAT (Network Address Translation) and CGNAT (Carrier Grade NAT) can cause issues with VoIP. IPv6 solves a lot of these but then has firewall considerations. There are also issues with full links - as I mention, someone doing a big download may cause calls to break up - as the Internet tends to expect services to adapt to links being full, and voice calls can't do that. So, it is worth considering an ISP that knows how to handle VoIP properly and consider the router you are using on your Internet access carefully.

What do I have?

I have been using VoIP for a couple of decades now - initially internally from a phone system on an ISDN line and then moving the numbers to a VoIP service and ditching landlines around 18 years ago.

On my desk I have a desk phone, like an old push button landline phone. It gets used more than my mobile (I know, I'm old). It has a headset which I like when talking and typing at the same time, and a speaker phone I use some times. It is connected by one cable, a Power over Ethernet lead, to my network switch, and works using SIP. I use a FireBrick as a SIP phone system in the house allowing me to transfer calls, and ring multiple phones at once, and so on (rings my mobile as well).

15 comments:

  1. One wonders what my parents will do. Middle of a forest in a valley with a population of about 30 (though ten miles from a town with a population of 7000). No mobile service. No ADSL (overhead phone line is on a DACS, and the exchange is full, hence their experience of the well-documented fun of being told yes you can have ADSL, it's £150,000). Satellite internet terminating in Italy with very low bandwidth requirements and 'no VoIP' in its terms of service (!). (This is the only satellite provider willing to sell to them at all.)

    If their phone service terminates, what can they use? Pigeon post? Just use Zoom for everything? That doesn't help much with incoming calls...

    To make it worse, being of a previous generation, like many of that age, they more or less live on the phone, getting more calls in a day than I get in a month. I've mentioned the discontinuation of POTS services to them and they simply refuse to believe it, "it's a right, BT can't stop it". A huge number of old people are probably saying the same thing, or would if they knew.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The problem is that is it not a right, BT can stop it, and that is it. What will they do - not make or receive phone calls. Simple. BT stopped telex service - if they had telex then what would they have done?

      Now, in practice, I would suggest, for somewhere like that, a Starlink on a pole, to be honest. It is surprisingly good, and works. Then VoIP over that.

      To some extent this blog was to try and highlight to people that this is happening.

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    2. I'd be very surprised if the government don't introduce some kind of universal service obligation for BT to provide a basic level of phone service to people who live in areas where the internet-based alternatives are unavailable or unaffordable.

      Imagine the political fallout if the Daily Mail published an article about an elderly couple who burned to death or were killed by criminals because they couldn't phone for help after BT terminated their phone service and refused to provide any alternative for less than £150,000.

      (And yes, of course there are other reasons why such people might suffer tragedy in a remote location, and there's no guarantee that a phone line would have saved them, but we all know how media and politics work.)

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    3. Do bear in mind that, anywhere you can see the sky clearly or put up a pole to so do, for something like £80 a month, you can get Starlink and a VoIP phone. It works surprisingly well. I'm surprised Starlink don't do a cheaper low bandwidth option aimed specifically at VoIP use. Not cheap, but not the sort of cost you are talking about.

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    4. It's not a right, but there are enough people who think it is -- mostly old rural people who vote Conservative to a man -- that I suspect this will become a political issue if BT try to implement it while the current government is still in power. (So I suspect they'll put it off for a year or two and then implement it.)

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  2. This is catastrophic for my elderly aunt. She's hopeless with technology and phones me when she's pressed the wrong button on her TV and I have to guess what she's done and try to coach her remotely to get the picture back. She's got mobile coverage, she could have broadband, but it would spend half its time waiting for a family member to come and fix it. And if the phone is broken, how can she call us to let us know it needs fixing?

    There needs to be a very simple and utterly reliable replacement for people like my aunt that are technologically hopeless. Unfortunately I can't think of one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Broadband plus a 4G backup to a router. Then give her a corded VoIP phone, PoE so there's only one cable to worry about. Put all the equipment except for the phone in a nice wooden box and tell her not to touch it.

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    2. A desktop GSM phone might be a good option there, subject to the signal being OK. They can be both mains powered and battery powered and have a normal handset and decent sized buttons. I've not used one myself but they do seem like a tempting option.

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    3. Anything involving broadband, Starlink or anything else Internet based is too complicated for her (and some other people I suspect). Things go wrong with anything Internet based and they need rebooting or tech support calling.

      I suspect a desktop GSM phone is going to be the least worst option for my aunt. I still have concerns, it's not as bomb proof in terms of always working as an analogue phone.

      Why can't we keep analogue phone lines but have the analogue part done in the cabinet rather than at the exchange? Then it's similar to VDSL except the service the cabinet provides is a different one.

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  3. The red phone doesn't have a line cord...

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  4. Like others in this thread, I'm pretty worried for my own parents. I'm sure I can get them sorted, but my dad can be persuaded to buy just about anything so I fully expect to come over one day and find some new voip-only internet service in addition to the surplus internet connection they've never needed.
    Tbh, as long as telephone remains the primary way of contacting emergency services, I think exchange-powered landlines should actually be a right. I haven't used a landline to make or receive a call myself in a decade but still keep a basic telephone I could plug in if needed.

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  5. I've just been reading in the Radio Times that the current government and BBC Director General assume that by 2034 all TV will be delivered by internet and all other broadcasting will cease. I suspect this will be equally problematic for some people as the end of phone landlines, possibly worse if internet bandwidth is the issue (and fibre won't have fixed that in remote locations in only 11 years time). If my elderly aunt is still alive (she'd be 93) she'd say something like "if they turn my telly off just push me off a cliff". My parents will be almost as displeased, while they have FTTC broadband it's not exactly reliable, and there is no timetable for them getting FTTP.
    I won't be best pleased myself, currently I skip adverts with a Freeview PVR but streaming forces you to watch adverts or pay more to skip them. Also I have a 5 speaker surround sound system which Freeview HD channels (apart from ITV1 HD) support fully, but the streaming equivalents only support stereo. And then there's radio in the car, my car only has an FM receiver and it's integral with the factory fitted satnav so impossible to replace. Both work perfectly, why switch off the signal to millions of car radios?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Checking on my Roku box for the first time in ages, I find that ITV, C4 and Five now all require a username and password login before you can watch anything. I find that bizarre, much of the content was broadcast on free to air so why is any login required? Anyway, that is something else my aunt would be completely unable to do. And many of these usernames and passwords actually have email requirements, another barrier to their use. Do none of the people that come up with these policies have elderly and infirm relatives?

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  6. It doesn't help that mobile phones are crap, not just connection/voice quality, but even more so ergonomically.

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  7. I live in a community of flats in Salisbury, and Openreach are currently migrating customers who only have phone service (i.e. no broadband) onto fibre.
    Such BT customers are provided with free fibre broadband and a router. The router incorporates a DECT basestation (I think 2 handsets are supplied), and there's a single BT phone socket on the router. One of my neighbours wanted to use her own cordless phone system, and a wired phone in the hall - Openreach are supposed to be doing the wiring changes for her today.
    I presume that the fibre broadband is limited in some way - I don't want to try connecting a computer in case it triggers some alarm and causes her more hassle with BT.
    She's found the whole process quite stressful, and I pointed out that BT should make it easier because this is being done entirely for BT's benefit and not hers.

    ReplyDelete

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