Sign and logo above the entrance to an BT mobile phone store in Briggate Leeds

BT halts removal of landline phones following customer backlash

Image credit: Philip Openshaw/Dreamstime

BT has announced it will put its digital landline rollout on hold following backlash from some customers. It says it will work on the underlying technology to be make it more resilient.

BT, among other telecoms companies, had pledged to equip all homes with digital voice-over-internet phones by 2025 as part of a much needed update to the UK’s communication infrastructure.

The controversial rollout, which saw copper landlines removed in favour of fibre-optic cables, have resulted in some customers being unable to call 999 when their power has gone out as a result of storms cutting off their internet access.

BT’s chief executive of consumer brands Marc Allera apologised and said the firm had “underestimated the disruptive impact this upgrade would have.” He added that “in hindsight” the company had rolled the technology out “too early”.

Allera added that the disruption caused by recent Storms Arwen and Eunice brought these issues into sharper focus when people – including many of its customers in rural areas – needed to get in touch with loved ones during power outages. “We got this part of our programme wrong and for that, we’re sorry,” he said.

Some two million customers have already had their landlines removed to make way for the new systems, with around 160,000 forced to make the switch on average each month since the rollout started in April last year.

According to reports from the Telegraph, elderly users of health alarms faced being unable to call for help in an emergency if they fell or had a stroke, as many older systems still use landline technology to send alerts to monitoring stations. Many older burglar alarms will also cease to function once old lines are switched off, it has emerged.

BT said the postponement of its ‘Digital Voice’ service will last until it resolves such issues. It also said that no customer will have their landline turned off before then unless they specifically asked to be moved onto the digital system.

Dame Esther Rantzen, founder of the charity The Silver Line, welcomed the news, saying it had been “a devastating time for people who depend on their landline phones as a real lifeline.”

BT confirmed it would ultimately still press ahead with the rollout, saying the 40-year-old public switch network was becoming obsolete and less reliable. It said its planned fibre-optic alternative promises “crystal clear calls” and greater energy efficiency which would be “better for the environment.”

The firm said it intends to improve the resilience of the new network by working with energy providers on fast restoration after power cuts. It will also work on solutions such as hybrid phones that can switch to mobile networks if there is a loss in internet connection, and longer lasting backup battery units.

Allera added: “Many other countries are doing the same and experiencing the same challenges. With a programme of this sale, sometimes we don’t always get everything right and on this occasion, we acknowledge we have more work to do and will get on with putting these solutions in place to better help our customers go through this change.”

BT has said it hopes to resume the rollout by the end of the year.

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