Watchdog Ofcom praises us after phone redesign put on hold

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Telecoms regulator Ofcom commends us for sounding the alarm about serious shortcomings in the planned rollout of digital home phones

Telecoms regulator Ofcom praised The Mail on Sunday for sounding the alarm about serious flaws in the planned rollout of digital home phones.

The digital revolution could now be on hold after the MoS warned how vulnerable people were facing their landlines being cut off. BT was forced into a humiliating reversal following our November report on problems with its rollout of broadband internet lines that households would use to make phone calls home.

New digital technology requires users to plug their phone into an electrical outlet and the internet rather than relying solely on the traditional phone jack. So if there’s a power outage, the phone stops working – and you can’t call anyone in an emergency.

The future ? : The digital revolution could now be sidelined after we warned vulnerable people risk having their landlines cut off

BT’s plan to bring ten million customers to its “digital voice” service by 2025 has been “paused” – with many believing it could now be scrapped altogether. This newspaper was the first to highlight the potential crisis, although BT claimed to have “put precautions in place”.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom says BT has not done enough to help vulnerable people. He says: “As The Mail on Sunday pointed out, many customers were unaware of the digital change. Communications should be clear about how landlines might not work during a power outage.

“We expect support to be in place for vulnerable customers to ensure they have a backup.”

Unfortunately, our warnings came to fruition when thousands of people saw their phone lines cut during storm-caused power outages earlier this year – as digital line phones need to be hooked up to a power supply to work. In addition, 1.5 million households do not have access to the Internet and therefore cannot yet use the technology. Additionally, a BT suggestion to use a cell phone in the event of a power outage provides cold comfort for the six million people who don’t own one.

Geva Blackett is a freelance consultant in Aberdeenshire, an area hard hit by February storms. She says, “This deployment is fundamentally flawed. BT doesn’t seem to realize how many people live in rural areas without any mobile phone reception. This means that in the event of a power cut, they can be completely isolated. Unless BT can resolve this issue, the rollout should not continue.

Telecom companies want to move the 29 million home phones from copper lines to fiber lines by 2025 because traditional landlines are expensive to maintain. BT has offered customers a backup battery in case they lose internet access, but it only lasts for an hour. Blackett says it’s as useful as a “chocolate firewall” for storm-stricken homes during a power outage.

BT is working on rolling out longer-lasting phone battery backups that can last up to six hours – but some homes have been cut off for days by Storm Eunice. He says he also hopes to introduce a hybrid phone that switches to a mobile network signal if the internet connection dies. So far, two million BT customers have gone digital.

Meanwhile, other phone companies, such as Virgin Media, continue to roll out digital landlines. Virgin has around five million customers and is said to have completed a quarter of its digital schedule. He says: “Access to telephones is vital and we have telephones with SIM cards which, if needed, can be used in the event of a power cut as they can use mobile signals. We can also provide a one hour battery backup. We don’t expect the average power outage to last longer than that.

Chris Howe, BT’s Director of Customer Service, admits: “We underestimated the impact this technology upgrade would have on certain groups of customers. This is a temporary break – we have not disabled the program. We hope to resume deployment once we have the right products and solutions in place to support vulnerable people.

Most users have noticed no loss in sound quality as a result of switching to digital, but it does require a handset that plugs into an internet router outlet. Many older phones need to be plugged into a router with a free adapter provided by a provider to continue working. Otherwise, a new phone is required.

Even homes that still use copper wires, rather than fiber, for phone and internet connections could be adapted to digital lines. Fortunately, phone numbers shouldn’t change if they’re moved to a digital system, and the cost of phone bills should also stay about the same.

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