A digital revolution of BT’s home phone network has been roundly criticised by pensioner groups who believe it leaves millions of vulnerable people at risk and isolated if the system goes into temporary meltdown.
They accuse the phone giant of not consulting over its rollout and alarming some customers by sending them emails in the middle of the night saying their landline is to be changed. On Friday, Jan Shortt, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘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’s digital changeover sees the traditional handset replaced by a new ‘digital’ phone (powered by electricity) that relies upon the internet for calls to be made.
Concern: BT’s digital changeover sees the traditional handset replaced by a new ‘digital’ phone (powered by electricity) that relies upon the internet for calls to be made
If there is a power cut, this digital phone line will no longer work – and a potential lifeline for elderly people will be suddenly lost. Those needing to make an emergency ‘999’ call or raise an alarm via a health pendant could be left stranded – and unable to call anyone to ask for life-saving support.
The Mail on Sunday has been inundated with messages from readers fearful about BT’s change. Particularly galling has been those emails from the company in the middle of the night warning of the switchover. Flummoxed by the message, many have been left worried that when their old landline is switched, they will no longer be able to call anyone on their phone – family, friends or emergency numbers.
Shortt has had numerous pensioners contact her about the changeover, prompting her to question BT.
She says: ‘I asked BT what might happen to the vulnerable living on their own if a power cut left them without access to their phone.
‘BT said people should then use a mobile phone instead. It has no idea that many older people do not want a fancy smartphone or cannot afford one – and rely on their landline as a lifeline. It is wrong to discriminate against those – primarily the elderly – who are not wired up to the internet.’
There are an estimated 1.5million homes in the country that don’t have internet access. BT’s switchover, grandly branded ‘Digital Voice’, began two years ago and has so far made slow progress with only two million landlines converted.
But with an end-of-2025 deadline for switching 29million home landlines, there are fears that the new system’s flaws will be increasingly exposed.
The change also involves replacing old copper phone lines with internet cables. Phone calls are then made over the internet using ‘voice over internet protocol’ (VoIP) technology, rather than the old system of analogue signals sent down copper wires.
Most users will not notice any change in sound quality, but the new technology requires modern handsets that connect to a router socket – not compatible with many old phones. Potential problems are compounded by the fact that broadband depends on an electrical supply and the new handsets have to be plugged into mains electricity – not exactly helpful in these ‘green’ and big energy bill times.
Retired IT consultant Frank Coma is one of the early adopters of digital voice, switching a year ago when fibre optic cables were laid to his remote home on the Isle of Skye. Frank, 66, says: ‘When it works well, the technology is great and there is no loss of quality when talking to someone on the phone. But there is a massive problem if there is a power cut – and we get several a year that can last for a day or more. Then, the phone line simply dies.
‘It’s annoying, but fine if you have mobile phone reception. Yet it’s a real problem if, like us, you don’t.’
Frank, who is editor of the local Waternish Hall newsletter, decided he needed battery-powered backup for his router and phone when his home was hit by a power cut. This cost £160, but after a fight BT agreed to provide the equipment for free. Under guidelines laid down by industry regulator Ofcom, BT must ensure customers can contact emergency services in a power cut that lasts more than an hour. But how this can be achieved if you lose access from an internet phone line or do not have a mobile phone – or signal – is not clear.
BT offers a basic, free, ‘advanced digital phone’ handset. It is worth about £50 and should include an answering machine service as well as a ‘call protect’ option to screen calls. But if you want additional handsets you must pay the extra cost (you keep your old phone number). Charity Age UK is fearful the changeover could attract criminals claiming to be involved in the switch. Director Caroline Abrahams says: ‘About half of those aged over 75 are not online. We are concerned the changes could make many elderly feel more isolated than they do already. Steps must also be taken to ensure the vulnerable do not become victims of any digital voice scams.’
Martyn James, of complaints service Resolver, says a growing number of BT customers have contacted the website worried about the digital switchover.
James says: ‘They don’t understand what is going on. It is as if BT is wanting to keep the rollout a secret.’
He adds: ‘Scant publicity is only going to add to the unfolding shambles – and cause distress to vulnerable people. Landline phone users should not be forced online.’
Homes already on the internet should find the switch relatively straightforward. But the minority who do not already have an internet connection will have to be wired up to accept the new digital phone technology.
This will involve an engineer visiting for free to fix ‘digital voice’ sockets inside your home.
Even if you do not have fibre optic cables running to your front door and rely on traditional copper wire, these can still be adapted to provide an internet connection for phone calls – with the wires later replaced with fibre optic technology.
BT, for its part, claims customers should not see prices rise due to the change. Those already signed up to an internet service will see the landline charge included as part of the total bill – whether they use BT or a competitor.
Those just paying for a landline and not using the internet will be charged separately and not pay more. The move to digital for all phone calls is being led by the Government – which has charged BT with the task. Other phone providers will also help with the rollout.
On Friday, BT said: ‘We have put precautions in place to exclude older or vulnerable customers from the Digital Voice migration while we look into solutions that can help those customers who cannot access or do not want broadband or a mobile phone in their home.’
BT ordered to keep call boxes open to public
Protection: An iconic phone box
BT is not only under fire over the scrapping of traditional landlines – it is also now being ordered to keep its iconic phone boxes open.
The telecoms giant has been told by regulator Ofcom that around 5,000 are to be protected from closure in areas where they are deemed to offer a vital lifeline to those in need. This includes in rural areas that have a poor – or non-existent – mobile phone reception.
Phone boxes that are close to road accident blackspots or where people have committed suicide are also among those to be put on the new protection list. After consultation, the rules will be enforced next year. Selina Chadha, a director at Ofcom, says: ‘Public phone boxes can be a lifeline. We also support a rollout of boxes with free wi-fi and charging.’
There are 21,000 phone boxes dotted across the country that are still in use. But their number has plummeted in recent years with more people now relying on mobile phones. Yet five million calls a year are still being made from a public phone box.
At the start of the 1980s there were 77,000 kiosks – the vast majority of which were a classic red cast-iron design. Since then, about 6,500 have been turned into community services, housing defibrillators or books.
BT says: ‘We look forward to working constructively with Ofcom to ensure our network of public phones meets the needs of customers.’
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