As landlines go digital, fears grow for people whose home phone is a lifeline
Campaigners say the switch to Digital Voice is going too fast and leaving many people unable to make calls in an emergency, writes
Customers risk losing lifelong telephone numbers, or being stranded without a service, as analogue landlines are switched off over the next two years, according to campaigners. From December 2025, all households will have to use the internet to make and receive calls, as BT digitises the national network in a move, critics claim, that is happening too fast and too soon. Telecoms providers who use BT’s network will have to switch to an internet-based service, Digital Voice, which does not function during power failures and is incompatible with some panic button systems. There are fears that thousands of vulnerable customers, in areas with a poor mobile phone signal, could be left incommunicado in an emergency. “The situation is bad enough now with some customers losing their phone numbers during the switchover. But with the proposed shutdown of the traditional network, the problems will become much worse,” says retired forensic telecommunications engineer Richard Cox. “The average fixed-line customer, many are retired, will not understand what’s happening and could lose their telephone service.” Margaret Boden, 73, and her husband, who live in Northern Ireland, were forced to accept a digital line when they took out a new contract with BT after moving house. “We woke soon afterwards to a power cut,” she says. “We have no mobile signal in the house and I had to go up the road to phone our electrician. Nor did the mobile phones of first responders work when, a month later, my husband was taken ill and needed an ambulance. They had to use our landline. “My husband has had open heart surgery and it has concerned us ever since that a failure on the BT line would mean no access to emergency services without leaving the house.” Since September, customers who start, or renew, contracts, have been switched to the internet-based service. Some 95% of over-65s have a landline and face being forced to switch to an unsuitable service before technical and regulatory safeguards are in place, according to campaign group, Silver Voices. The charity, which advised BT on the introduction of Digital Voice, has accused the company of reneging on a promise to allow over-70s without broadband to opt out of the switch until reliable alternatives, such as hybrid phones and landline-only deals, were available. “We’re getting dozens of complaints from people who’ve been told Digital Voice is their only option if they take out a new contract,” says direc tor Dennis Reed. “People over 70 are not being told they can opt out of the upgrade at this stage and, in some regions, BT has quietly upped the age limit to 75. There needs to be an extension of the timetable because it’s just not feasible to transfer millions of landline customers in two years.” Paul Rowlandson’s 87-year-old mother received a letter, out of the blue, from BT stating she would be switched to Digital Voice when her landline contract ended, warning calls could be affected during power cuts. “This alarmed me as my mother lives with my disabled son who has learning difficulties, and they rely on the phone for emergencies,” he says. “I spoke to a BT agent who didn’t appear to understand the changes and was keen to sell a phone and broadband package to my mum. “After repeated requests for more information, I was put through to another agent who was unable to answer my questions and transferred me to a technical department. “I was told I could buy a back-up battery, in case of power cuts, or use a mobile. The battery unit would be £85. My mum doesn’t know how to use a mobile. It took great persistence to get this crucial information.” Households without broadband will have to rely on a router provided by BT to continue a landline service, but there are concerns vulnerable customers will be unable to manage the device, or get help if it fails. According to Cox, some are left unable to use their phone at all because Openreach, the BT sister firm that operates the network, does not provide wiring inside homes. “The simple hub will be provided at the point where the cable enters the property, usually the hallway, not where the customer already has their phone,” he says. One 87-year-old widow with dementia was repeatedly disconnected, sometimes for days, due to a weak signal after a hub was installed in her understairs cupboard. Some with broadband have been left without phone or internet for weeks during the switchover because of delays replacing the cabling. Others have lost their phone number when their contract was transferred. Customers are not allowed to contact Openreach directly about installation failures and complaints have to be made via the service provider, or retailer who sold the package. This can lead to a stalemate, according to Cox, who is calling for a central helpline. BT is required by regulator Ofcom to provide free battery packs, in case the power goes down, to vulnerable households and those in areas with a poor mobile phone signal. However, some qualifying customers, including Boden, have been told they must pay £85. Customers whose handsets or telecare alarms are incompatible with Digital Voice are expected to have to pay for replacements. BT says that vulnerable customers, and those over 70, are not being proactively switched unless they renew or start a contract, or live in urban areas with existing broadband. “If customers have additional needs, identify as vulnerable, or have a carer who has concerns, we are urging them to get in touch so we can explore how best to support them,” it says. “We are very sorry for the issues Mrs Rowlandson and Mrs Boden have experienced. We are looking into their cases to help ensure we provide all the necessary support they need.” Ofcom tells the Observer it was an industry decision to terminate analogue services and that it has published rules to prevent customers suffering undue costs or disruption.