Challenges as UK Moves to All IP Networks from Analogue Phone

telephone broken uk

A new report from the Broadband Stakeholders Group has warned that work to retire the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and replace it with all-IP voice services by c.2025 will face a number of challenges, particularly around ensuring resilient access to emergency services and encouraging user migrations.

At present a number of major operators (e.g. Openreach (BT) and KCOM) are already in the process of considering how best to manage the migration of users off their traditional phone (PSTN) network (here) and on to the new generation of Internet Protocol (IP) based services (e.g. VoIP).

The move to adopt all-IP networks is a necessary step in order to help lower network running costs, give consumers additional flexibility with their voice services and is also a precursor to the eventual retirement of copper networks. The latter reflects the Government’s aspiration to deploy Gigabit capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) style broadband ISP networks nationwide by 2033.

However a new Plum Consulting report from the BSG – ‘Preparing the UK for an All-IP future‘ – has today been published. This examines how similar migrations are being conducted in Germany, France, Switzerland and New Zealand. In particular it notes some of the problems that have occurred and why “as much as possible” should be done to avoid a “forced migration” (as opposed voluntary, coincidental or passive migrations).

For example, it notes that in Germany some initial poor communication led to higher than anticipated levels of forced migration, which resulted in consumers complaining to the regulator and political pressure that paused the process. But those issues were eventually resolved and Germany’s migration now stands at over 80% (the Germany market has many similarities with the UK).

The 4 Paths to All-IP Migration

• voluntary migration in which the end-user migrates from the PSTN to a new VoIP-based product because he or she is attracted by the superior functionality of the VoIP product;

• forced migration in which the end-user is faced with an imminent firm date for closing the PSTN/ISDN and is required to take action in order to continue to enjoy fixed voice telephony service;

• passive migration in which the communications provider is able (through PSTN emulation) to move customers to an All-IP network without them needing to do anything to preserve their fixed voice telephony service; and

• coincidental migration in which the end-user moves from a PSTN based product to another product, such as FTTP, which is inherently IP-based.

Apparently the lessons from these countries has shown that simply highlighting to end-users the benefits of VoIP compared to their current voice service is unlikely to lead to mass voluntary migration, but efforts to bundle it with other products have been more successful.

Matthew Evans, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said:

“Whilst we are at the start of our migration, a considerable amount of work has taken place at the technical level, and increasingly around industry engagement. In May 2018, Openreach consulted with its Communication Provider customers on the process and timeline for withdrawing Wholesale Line Rental (WLR) products as a result of PSTN closure. In July, BT opened a new lab to help providers of data over PSTN services to test their equipment under real-world conditions, to help ensure the industry can continue to deliver services over the new networks.

It is clear however that the digital infrastructure sector cannot be complacent and may need to accelerate our work engaging with data service providers as well as potentially engendering greater alignment between operators’ communications to consumers, and particularly vulnerable consumers. On the latter there are relatively few lessons to be gleaned from the four case studies primarily because the UK has a unique approach to how it approaches vulnerable customers including a regulatory requirement for uninterrupted power supply. The role of Ofcom here in supporting effective collaboration will remain key.

Germany and New Zealand have made at least some use of PSTN emulation, a form of passive migration for voice services. Whilst imperfect, as it does not tend to maintain data services over the PSTN, some form of a “PSTN emulation” approach may be a useful bridge for some voice-only customers, particularly those who may be vulnerable. It is important to recognize this as an interim step rather than a settled end-state, albeit one which can still allow communication providers to realise some savings.

One particular area for concern is the difference between the UK’s number portability process and the four countries studied. All four have a centralised database whilst the UK operates a number forwarding system. There are concerns that this is unsustainable given the volume of numbers which will need to go through this process and we are pleased that Ofcom has recognised this in its 2018/19 Annual Plan.”

The report claims that the UK is currently “well-placed and has sufficient time” to conduct an orderly and successful migration as it rolls out a new generation of fibre optic broadband networks. But while doing this it must also ensure provision of voice services is maintained for vulnerable landline-only users (e.g. elderly pensions who may not even have broadband) and that resilient access to emergency services is not sacrificed, particularly during a mains power failure.

On the latter point we’ve previously noted how some FTTP operators don’t provide any form of battery backup for their service and Openreach are going in a similar direction (here). A big question mark thus remains over where the responsibility (if any) for maintaining voice services will come from in the future, as ISPs and network operators increasingly adopt a broadband-only focus.

At the same time ISPs must consider how best to build broadband + VoIP packages that are capable of matching an equivalent broadband + analogue phone line combination today. At present some VoIP phone providers seem to charge almost as much for their voice services as the rental for a full physical copper phone line, thus simply directing users to adopt one of those may not be enough.

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