By David Armstrong, CEO, b4b Group

Back in November 2017, BT announced its ‘Great Copper Switch Off’ with the intention to retire its analogue telephone networks by the end of 2025 and upgrade to new digital technology using an internet connection, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) or All-IP telephony.

In short, the transition means users will need to plug their phones into a broadband router for example, rather than the traditional wall socket, and has been described as the biggest change to telecommunications in the last 150 years.

Many tech-savvy individuals are aware of the switch over, with the roll-out well underway here in Northern Ireland, but many older and more vulnerable people may not be, and this could pose serious continuity implications for them.

Amongst those who are most at risk of being negatively impacted are the nearly 2 million older and disabled people using telecare equipment UK-wide.

In many cases these sensors or personal alarms offer essential remote support to elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people, many of whom reside in rural and isolated areas.

Alarmingly, a small number of serious incidents have recently come to light involving telecare users reporting device failures when trying to use them after the upgrade process.

As a result, telecomms companies including Sky, BT, Virgin Media, O2 and TalkTalk, have agreed a temporary cessation on all non-voluntary, managed migrations to a digital landline.

Positively, these firms are co-operating with government and industry watchdogs to expedite resolutions and have committed to a new charter, under which they testify not to forcibly move customers onto the new network unless they are fully confident users will be protected.

The charter also mandates:

  • Providers will conduct retrospective checks on customers who have already been forcibly migrated to ensure telecare continuity
  • Providers will be required to work to provide back-up solutions that go beyond regulator Ofcom’s minimum of one hour of continued, uninterrupted access to emergency services in the event of power outages

With almost half a million individuals in Northern Ireland aged 60+ and/or requiring support for complex disabilities, this is a reassuring development.

However, with confusion still rife around the much-needed modernisation of phone lines, we must ask ourselves are we doing enough collectively to alleviate fears and provide accurate information, reassurance, and awareness of the benefits of this new digital network?

2024 may be a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’ when it comes to telephone networks, but for the elderly and vulnerable within society, reliable communication in whatever form can be a lifesaver.