UK ISP BT appears to have begun a beta trial of their future Digital Voice service, which will eventually replace the PSTN analogue phone / voice services of today (expected to be completely retired by 2025) in favour of modern Voice-over-IP (VoIP) style alternatives that harness your broadband connection.
At present if you buy a copper (ADSL) or hybrid fibre (FTTC / G.fast) based broadband package from an ISP on Openreach’s network, such as BT, then you either need to already be paying for the phone service as part of copper line rental (the copper line is essential for the broadband itself to work) or you’ll most likely get it bundled alongside the overall package.
However copper phone lines are changing. In particular the forthcoming adoption of new services, such as Single Order Generic Ethernet Access (SOGEA and SOGfast), will make it possible for consumers to order a standalone FTTC (VDSL2) or G.fast broadband line without the analogue voice service (some ISPs like Freeola and AAISP have hacked together a similar fix but SOGEA goes a lot further).
All of this is necessary because the old analogue phone services are due to be withdrawn by 2025 (here) and, much further down the road, we’ll even see the physical copper lines being completely switched-off as full fibre networks start to dominate (here). But in the meantime many consumers will still expect their ISP to offer a voice service and this inevitably means a move toward VoIP (See our VoIP Guide).
NOTE: The analogue voice component of a copper line only represents a tiny part of the line rental cost and its removal will not save you much money.
The above is one of the reasons why any ISP looking to launch a new broadband router today will generally offer a device that includes ATA / telephone ports (FXS) on the back, which are designed to work alongside an internet protocol based voice (VoIP) service (i.e. you plug your old analogue handsets into these and can still make calls, albeit digitally). Many “full fibre” (FTTP) providers already do this.
BT’s Digital Voice Trial
The proposed BT Digital Voice beta trial is largely designed to help the provider prepare for the aforementioned changes and it will also complement their own move toward a single converged all-IP platform by 2022 (here). The trial aims to examine everything from placing an order, through to equipment delivery, set-up and fault reporting.
“Over the coming years BT will roll out a new phone service to all our UK customers. This is called Digital Voice. This may sound like a small change but it will be one of the biggest technology changes our customers have experienced to date, and we’d like your help to deliver this exciting new product to households across the U.K,” said BT’s private trial invitation.
The trial itself will supply customers with both a free Digital Voice Handset and one of BT’s Smart Hub 2 broadband routers (these already come with a phone / FXS port on the back but until now it’s remained dormant), unless the customer already has a SH2 in which case you’ll be expected to use that (all usage and service charges will be free during the trial).
So far we’ve only heard of this trial being used on lines that have been converted to SOGEA. The handset also appears to pair with the SH2 over WiFi (or DECT) rather than a wired connection, although we assume it’s possible via a wired link to the SH2 (can’t be sure until we’ve got more feedback from our sources). The phone number then appears on the SH2’s admin page and seems to allow for contact importing, as well as adding additional handsets etc.
Naturally we’d expect other ISPs to follow with their own VoIP style calling solutions over the next few months or years. On this front we’ll be very interested to see how the costs compare with existing broadband and phone bundles, not only in terms of monthly rental but also the cost of calls and portability of the service (i.e. access via multiple devices).
Providers will also have to tread carefully here as there are a lot of dedicated VoIP providers around (i.e. competition on price) and many consumers will expect to have a choice (i.e. hopefully ISPs won’t lock their routers to a specific VoIP platform as that may cause some anger).