Over the next few years, landline telephone services will switch to a fully digital network. This means phone calls will be carried over the internet.
Why are landlines being switched to digital?
Phone companies intend to withdraw the existing analogue telephone system, called the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), by 2025. The PSTN is an aging network that is becoming harder and more expensive to maintain.
The withdrawal of the PSTN is industry-led. Decisions on migrating customers are made by the companies that operate and provide services on the network (for example, BT and Virgin Media).
BT’s new home phone service for digital calls is called Digital Voice.
What is the role of the Government and Ofcom?
The decision to switch to digital-only services is made and led by industry. It is not the direct result of Government policy. The Government says it is working with Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, to ensure that service providers meet their obligations to consumers and that affected sectors are prepared for the switch.
Ofcom has published expectations for how telecoms companies should support customers during the migration. It also publishes guidance for treating vulnerable customers fairly.
What do customers need to do?
Ofcom expects that most customers will see minimal disruption. Only a very low broadband speed is required to support voice calls.
Some may need more support from their phone service provider. Ofcom advises customers to get in touch with their provider if they:
- Have other devices that rely on the PSTN, such as telecare and security alarms (see section 7 of the briefing);
- Would be unable to contact the emergency services if they lost landline services in the event of a power cut, for example because they do not have a mobile phone or reliable mobile signal (see section 8);
- Have a disability or other needs that mean they require help with installation (see section 9).
Ofcom’s website provides frequently asked questions about upgrading landlines to digital technology.
What about other devices that use the landline network?
There are other services and devices that use the PSTN that may be affected by the switch, such as security alarms, telecare devices, CCTV, and fax machines. Ofcom’s guidance states that providers should seek to identify customers who rely on these devices and that they should receive additional support.
What about during a power cut?
Unlike traditional landlines, digital phone lines will not work in a power cut without a backup power source. Ofcom requires providers to take measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency services including during a power cut. This could include, for example, a battery supply or mobile phone.
Concerns have been raised about the digital switchover following lengthy power cuts after storms in late 2021 left customers without access to emergency calls, particularly in areas with poor mobile signal.
Following these concerns, in March 2022, BT announced that it was pausing its Digital Voice roll-out for customers that did not want to switch straight away while it worked on a more resilient programme.
DCMS, UK transition from analogue to digital landlines, 6 January 2023
Ofcom, Moving landline phones to digital technology: what you need to know, 11 July 2022
Future of Voice (a telecoms industry website established to inform businesses and consumers about the switch to digital services)
Which?, Digital Voice and the landline phone switch-off: what it means for you
Age UK, Changes to landline telephones
For general background information on consumers issues in the telecoms industry, see the House of Commons Library briefing, Mobile and broadband: affordability and consumer protection (November 2022).