The beginning of the end for copper-based telephony: what it means for you
This week marks the beginning of the end for a technology that has served us well but is increasingly no longer fit for purpose – the ‘stop sell’ of traditional copper telephone lines and the services that use them.
From 5 September 2023, Openreach – the BT Group subsidiary that looks after the UK’s telephony infrastructure – will no longer sell new copper telephony services, as we move towards the full retirement of the copper lines in December 2025. This blog looks at what this means for your organisation and how you might prepare for the final switch-off.
Background: why the end of the copper phone lines?
Understanding why the copper lines are being phased out is essential for context. The are many reasons for this change, including technological developments and economic considerations.
In broad terms, the copper lines that underpin the UK's telephone network have a limited lifespan. Originally established in the Victorian era, these lines are now more than a century old and are increasingly costly to maintain, with dwindling supplies of necessary parts and a shift in engineer training toward fibre-based telephony. As time passes, running the copper network becomes prohibitively expensive, leading to higher costs for customers.
Additionally, the rise of smartphones has led to a decline in landline usage, making the transition to fibre-based telephony more palatable. This shift mirrors a global trend away from landlines in favour of mobile voice and data usage.
The UK’s move towards fibre-based telephony has been years in the making. Originally announced by Openreach in August 2021, a number of trials have been running during that period – in Salisbury, Wiltshire and Mildenhall, Suffolk – and you can find out the latest on them through link 1 below.
A closer look at the systems involved
Essentially, the retirement of copper telephone lines will mark the end of two different copper-based telephone systems: PSTN and ISDN, with fibre-optic-based internet telephony taking their place.
Broadly speaking, PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) is the system used for residential telephone lines, also extending its reach into businesses for various purposes like security and lift alarms.
ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) serves a similar role and is primarily used to connect lines within a business telephone system, enabling direct numbers for employees and departments.
Both PSTN and ISDN rely on the old copper telephone network. Consequently, when these copper lines are phased out, PSTN and ISDN services will cease to exist.
Why prepare for the switch-off now and how can you benefit?
While 2025 may seem distant, the 5 September ‘stop sell’ means nobody – whether consumers or businesses – will be able to acquire or add new features to their PSTN or ISDN-based telephone services.
Considering these ongoing developments and the impending restrictions, we strongly recommend that you engage in informed discussions about your telephone system. The process may appear daunting, but it's a straightforward one and may bring some pleasant surprises, as we outline here:
Essentially, all telephone lines will eventually be shifted to fibre - technology that's already prevalent in brining the internet into homes and businesses.
Fibre-based voice services, often referred to as "IP telephony" (Internet Protocol Telephony) or "VoIP" (Voice over Internet protocol), will replace traditional copper phone lines. If you've ever made calls through internet-based services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Or WhatsApp, you've already experienced a form of VoIP. These services offer a wide range of features, including video calling, screen sharing and recording.
For business, fibre-based telephony can lead to improved teamworking, better disaster recovery and business continuity options, enhanced information sharing and richer call features. It can also result in cost savings, and is particularly valuable for home-based and mobile workforces.
What’s likely to be involved in my organisation’s transition to fibre-based telephony?
As with every organisation’s technology, your telephony setup is unique, so we can only answer this question in general terms. But reassuringly, moving to full fibre-based telephony is a relatively straightforward process involving three main steps.
Assessment: your organisation's transition starts by auditing your existing telephony setup to confirm the lines throughout your organisation and identify what's connected to each line. If you choose to work with Wavenet, it's likely we can conduct this audit remotely, with on-site assistance only when it is necessary to locate missing or outdated information.
Hardware installation: if you opt for fibre-based telephony and are satisfied with the assessment and recommendations, your organisation will need to prepare for the switch. This involves installing a gateway that makes internet voice compatible with your current hardware, including handsets. Yes, this does mean in many cases you can retain existing equipment, which obviously is good news for your technology budget.
Transition: the final step involves switching off your old telephony service and activating your new fibre-based telephony. This process typically means your phone line will be unavailable for up to two hours, although it can be quicker. The transition can be scheduled to minimise disruption, and it can be made remotely or with on-site support if preferred.
As technology upgrades go, transitioning to fibre-based telephony is one of the more straightforward processes. Our focus is on providing a consultative service that prioritises finding the right solution for your business, rather than pushing products and services for the sake of sales – and we actively encourage customers to retain existing equipment where possible, because aside from everything else, we know retraining staff to use new hardware is the last thing you need when undergoing change with ICT.
Openreach have announced a temporary extension of ADSL Orders until March 2024. This means where SoGEA and FTTP are not available legacy ADSL maybe available to order for new provision where an existing copper telephone line exists.
5th September 2023 – Stop Sell
March 2024 – Extension of ADSL Orders
December 2025 – PSTN Switch Off
We’ve included some further information below, but it’s worth noting as with all technology topics, you may come across some jargon that may have an obvious meaning to you, but might be less obvious to colleagues outside the ICT department who are also involved in making ICT decisions. Some terms to keep in mind in this respect are:
"Wholesale line rental" (WLR): you may find this referenced in discussion and guidance about the copper line switch-off. While it's industry jargon of lesser importance, if you need further clarification, please feel free to contact us, or refer to our blog explaining more about WLR via link 4 below.
IP telephony: as above, this is essentially a synonym for fibre-based telephony. But in discussing this with non-ICT colleagues, it may be more helpful to refer to ‘fibre-based’ telephony as it clearly distinguishes it from older, copper-based telephony.
Similarly, we’ve found explaining fibre-based telephony in terms of services like Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp tends to resonate with non-ICT professionals, since most people are highly familiar with such services.
In conclusion, the transition from copper lines to fibre-based telephony is a significant change in the UK's telephony landscape, with far-reaching implications for both individuals and organisations. Being prepared and informed about this shift is crucial to ensure a smooth transition and take advantage of the benefits offered by internet-based telephony.
Sources and further information – all accurate at time of publishing
Update on the Wiltshire and Suffolk trials: https://www.openreach.com/news/openreach-trials-service-methods-to-support-analogue-network-retirement/
More information about the 5 September 2023 stop sell: https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2023/08/one-month-until-openreach-stop-selling-new-uk-analogue-phone-lines.html
Openreach’s information hub about the copper line switch-off: https://www.openreach.com/fibre-broadband/retiring-the-copper-network
More on wholesale line rental (WLR): https://www.adept.co.uk/what-is-wholesale-line-rental-wlr-for-business/