British Telecom is set to introduce what they describe as, the ‘next generation of calling’. Copper wired lines and analogue (landline) phones in the UK will be replaced with digital voice phones and voice over internet protocol (VoIP), which uses the internet to make calls. The telephone service plans to make these changes to millions of households by 2025. While there are certainly advantages to the new system, three million elderly and vulnerable people could find themselves further isolated.
As the storms this month have taught us, it’s well known that Wi-Fi can go down for a variety of reasons at any given moment, including during a power cut. In moments such as these, households without mobile phones will be unable to contact emergency services or use their health pendants to get in touch with family members.
Customers bewildered by the sudden switch
Derek Brown, who cares for his wife with dementia, was amongst the millions of customers that were sent letters (and emails) informing them of the changeover. Derek told Yorkshire Bylines that:
“People’s only means of communication will be a mobile phone. For many elderly and vulnerable people in a crisis situation, the ability to maintain a credit and charged mobile phone may well be the difference between life and death.”
On Sunday 7 November, Derek was told that the Digital Voice service would start before 11.58pm the following evening. On Monday 8 November at 2.18pm, he received a text from BT saying, “your Digital Voice service is now in use. You can now plug your existing phone into the back of your Hub and unplug any old phones”.
However, Derek had concerns over the internet in his house, and contacted BT. Customer services informed him that they would provide up to two VoIP phones, free of charge, which arrived the following day. All day Monday, however, Derek was reliant on his ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone, which ran out of credit on the first call.
Not only did this change happen suddenly and without consultation, but also BT did not make clear that:
- All the internal telephone sockets within the house become redundant
- Any remote ringers around the house stop working
- The new system is totally reliable on a fully operational modem/hub
- In the event of a power cut the phones and the modem stop working
What is VoIP and Digital Voice?
BT describe Digital Voice as the “new home phone service … delivered through your broadband connection”. The website states that the upgrade will “make it easier for you to connect on any device at home or on the go”.
Currently, landlines across the country are plugged into the wall and rely on radio services and 6–12 volt supplies with battery backups. When the changeover happens, phones will instead be plugged into Wi-Fi boxes. Within BT’s letter, customers were told that “Some homes may need an adapter or a Digital Voice home phone”, which you have to order. All analogue landlines would immediately stop working.
Ofcom has urged phone providers to offer internet connection, as well as ensuring households have ways to contact emergency services, for example by providing people with mobiles.
Benefits of digital voice
BT is implementing this change over as part of the UK’s ‘technological revolution’. In 2020, it was reported that 96 percent of households had internet access, but only 54 percent of those over 75 report recent internet use (within the last three months) and 6.3 percent of adults have never used the internet. With VoIP, long-distance telephone calls will become significantly easier and cheaper than before; for example, a call from the UK to USA currently costs 55p per minute, and with VoIP it will cost just 1.5p. Calls are also set to be faster and clearer than on analogue phones.
BT prides itself on the fact that it will be made easier for households to block scam calls and add numbers to the blocklist with the ‘enhanced call protect service’. For those with mobiles, there is a ‘call diversion’ feature to divert calls to mobile if you need to leave the house.
Cons of VoIP
But these benefits overlook the significant risks involved for customers in the event of a power cut, as many homes across the North of England and Scotland have experienced this week. Approximately 91 percent of the UK landmass has access to a 4G mobile network, but this is far from full coverage. During the pandemic in areas such as Nidderdale, in North Yorkshire, vulnerable residents found this lack of mobile access caused significant problems when trying to receive texts from NHS England about vaccines.
David Mitchell, in his article ‘It’s good to talk, unless you’re a BT customer’, writes:
“Getting rid of landlines means you can’t call 999 in a power cut unless you have a mobile. That’s not what I call progress”.
In his usual witty and satirical style, Mitchell suggests that BT’s motivation for the switch may be to avoid more complaints about the business. But his article draws attention to the genuine disadvantages of the new system. He highlights the fact that on BT’s website, it very discretely states: “If you do not have a mobile or alternative means to call 999 please contact us on 0800 800 150”. The irony is clearly lost on them.
Another concern for many awaiting the switch is that lifeline alarm systems, that currently use analogue landline connections, may be affected by Digital Voice. However, many lifeline systems can be connected to the back of the modem/hub and a normal phone can be connected directly to the back of the lifeline unit.
The main worry is that Digital Voice does not work without the internet; people in vulnerable situations without mobile phones, will be unable to call the emergency services, friends or relatives.
Transferring to Digital Voice without telling customers
There have been criticisms from those in vulnerable positions that BT did not consult customers about the switchover, other than with a brief email. Jan Shortt, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention said: “What on earth was BT thinking when it decided to bring in such a huge change without properly consulting those who rely on traditional home phone lines the most?”
BT has made an assumption, it seems, that all citizens have mobile phones: that they know how to use one, that they can afford one, and that people live in areas with strong mobile connection. Charity Age UK has also expressed concern that this move will further isolate the elderly.