The End of Analogue Phone Lines (Part 1)

By Michael Spalter
November 2020

About the author

Michael Spalter

Michael Spalter


Michael Spalter has been a networking technician for over 30 years and has been the CEO DrayTek in the UK since the company’s formation in 1997. He has written and lectured extensively on networking topics. If you’ve an idea for a blog or a topic you’d like explored, please get in touch with us.

Analogue Phone Service in the UK - It's switching off soon


In 2025, Openreach* will be switching off their analogue phone service ("POTS"). If you still have an analogue phone plugged into a regular 'BT' socket on the wall, it will no longer work.  By June 2021 Openreach will already no longer install or accept new analogue line orders for lines at 120 exchanges around the UK, with that number increasing over time.

For some people, this will make no difference at all. Many people only have a landline analogue phone service because they are 'forced to' in order to have DSL service - you have to have an analogue line before your ISP will provide broadband on that line and analogue lines normally come with analogue voice service.  Many people never never use their landlines for voice calls; mobile inclusive packages normally provide better value for calls and convenience for mobility.

According to Ofcom, only 5% of household do not have mobile phones however, that doesn't mean that every member of the other 95% have a mobile phone or that they don't still need their fixed line.

Those who do use their landline now, given the choice of saving a little line rental subscription in the future, might welcome this change. However, even with analogue phone service discontinued, it's unlikely you will actually see any reduction in line rental as the copper line still needs to be provided for broadband, and that's the costly part for Openreach - the actual phone service is a revenue generator.  If line rental is combined with your broadband ISP bill, you won't get a separate bill from BT.


*Openreach, previously part of BT is the company responsible for most (but not all) of the physical UK phone network, as opposed to services such as telephone calls and Internet connectivity which is provided by many companies, including BT, over the Openreach lines. Openreach's role is similar to what Network Rail is to the UK train network, allowing independent operators to run services separately from the underlying infrastructure in order to promote greater competition.  Openreach is now a separate legal entity from BT, as required by Ofcom to avoid BT having an advantage over other operators with regard to network access.

The Cost of an Analogue Network

An analogue phone line requires a pair of wires to run from every single home or office all the way back to the town or village telephone exchange. If a home or office has multiple lines, that's another pair or wires for every extra line. Hundreds of individual lines have to run to every street and thousands back to the exchange.

If a larger cable in a street is severed, hundreds of customers can lose their service (phone and DSL). An engineer then has to repair those hundreds of individual wires, one by one. 

If there are 100 lines coming to the street, serving 100 live phone lines and someone wants one more line, Openreach must run a whole new cable to the street for that one extra line. There may be a spare line in a nearby street which you can commandeer, but you end up with a really messy layout or have to run a new cable miles back to the exchange.

One digital cable can carry thousands of phone calls and if damaged, it's a lot quicker to repair one cable than hundreds of wires.  Modern fibre is also very robust, and it rarely fails along an uninterrupted path - whereas copper lines can be brittle, can suffer from water ingress, slight mechanical damage and have decades of chops and changes which make them unreliable.

Of course, fibre and modern cable isn't immune to problems or damage and if a major fibre cable is chopped, a lot of people can be affected, though a street cabinet can have failover connectivity, sometimes coming into the cabinet via a completely different route.

As further justification for the switch to fibre, Openreach also cite the age of the current network equipment, availability of parts and the lack of  younger engineers who are famiilar with the systems.   It was only 20-30 years ago that BT switched off the last of the electromechanical 'Strowger' exchanges.  If you're interested in those, you can read my 25-year old web site on that topic here. Yes, there were web sites 25 years ago -  no Google, Instagram, Netflix or YouTube so my 'fascinating' guide there was what passed for online entertainment.

BT's Full Fibre Ambition

In 2018, the government pledged full fibre for everyone by 2025. That would mean running fibre to 4.3M more premises (homes & businesses) every year for the next 5 years. Although BT are investing and estimate that they could 'pass' 70% of homes by 2025, without some huge government (taxpayer!) investment, based on current estimates, the goal wouldn't be met until 2033.

This means that whilst analogue lines will be switched off, we'll still need to make use of the existing copper wires and DSL/cable for some time.  Even with increased government investment, it's doubtful that enough resource exists to meet the target, including an estimated 23000 new engineers. Openreach claim1 that it would be possible to reach 90% of premises passed by fibre by 2025 with some legislative changes, government subsidies and changes to some planning laws.

The phrase 'passing' a home literally means that fibre will be available in the street outside your front door (or path or gate). There's still the job of digging up every garden to actually install fibre into your premises (assuming there isn't a trunk pipe to pull it through with easy premises ingress).  For terraced properties, Openreach may run fibre to the first property and then split it, running fibre cables along the terrace. This was used extensively for copper lines in the past but if I don't want fibre, I might object to Openreach running a cable across the front of your house so that your neighbour can get it.   I think it's highly unlikely that fibre will be used by the majority of subscribers even this decade so DSL will continue to be used for some time for anywhere where fibre isn't available or when the customer has no need to upgrade.


Despite the reporter's best efforts,
Daisy refused to go along with the editorial narrative.

An Essential Lifeline

The news media will run scaremongering stories featuring an elderly person "for whom the phone line is a lifeline" (along with the TV, postman, post office and cash). Despite clear plans to provide alternative connectivity, many news outlets may ignore those in order to make the story more newsworthy. I'm certainly not mocking the elderly or vulnerable -  these are real issues - but the news networks who think we need these issues animated with some random rent-a-granny and the over-the-top pathos.

Indeed, many people in the UK do not use a mobile phone either 'at all' or for most of their calls. Many don't have broadband or any other digital communication service. Even of those who do, there are many people who like the comfort of a phone line which continues to work even during a power cut or other emergency. Analogue phone lines are powered from the exchange which normally has battery or generator backups.  

There are many other devices still relying on analogue lines. Most of those will not be compatible with VoIP so will have to be replaced by pure IP solutions. Openreach are urging suppliers and service providers to upgrade their systems or test them on the new network provisions. Devices which will no longer work in the UK include:

  • EPoS machines (Credit card machines and sales registers) - Estimated 500,000 still in use

  • Personal safety devices. Used with vulnerable persons, fall alarms etc - Estimated 1 million still in use

  • Intruder & fire alarms

  • Traffic light systems & other industrial monitoring

  • Dialysis machines and other medical systems

  • Payphones (these are most likely to still work on a VoIP line but billing signalling may not)

  • Fax machines. They were at least banned in the NHS from 2020 onwards but I bet there are a few being used surreptitiously in GP's surgeries, pharmacies etc.  I recently dealt with a company who insisted that I faxed something to them - scan and email wasn't acceptable - so I had to go down to the local bodega and pay 1.50 to send it. Many years ago, we had someone new working in the office who had been shown how to send a fax - they seemed impressed that we could send a document to a far-away place. Later, it was their turn. They fed in the paper, dialled the number and off it went. "Oh no!" they exclaimed at the end. " It didn't work!  The papers come back out again...It's still here". They weren't joking.

So, there are many users and applications which will continue to need an equivalent to an analogue voice line - and that equivalent should, from the users' point of view, appear to function in exactly the same way.

The switch to Voice over IP (VoIP)

VoIP is the method of using IP networks - your Internet connection - to carry voice calls. It's what Skype, DrayTEL, WhatsApp and other such services use for voice calls and is also how most modern businesses' phones are now connected. Under Openreach's analogue switch-off plan, VoIP will be used to replace all analogue voice services.

The analogue services being switched off in 2025 are known as the WLR (Wholesale Line Rental) services which include WLR3 analogue (a voice line), ISDN2, ISDN30, LLU  SLU SMPF  (Combined DSL and analogue voice lines), Narrowband Line Share and Classic products.

These services represent an estimated 16 million lines and channels (ISDN is counted by 'channels' as one ISDN line can have 30 channels). Note that some digital services such as ISDN are also included in the switch off, so it's more accurate to say that PSTN services are being switched off, not just 'analogue services'.

The physical lines to each house, of course, remain and will be used to run DSL services instead but without the analogue phone service alongside it. 

If you need to connect analogue phones, you will have to receive your voice service over DSL (or another digital connection medium) and some sort of digital to analogue converter locally.   That means you'll need a router which has phone ports on it (see photo below).  These are widely available from many vendors, so if you're replacing your router, do consider one with VoIP/Phone ports to give you the option for later.  You can then choose any VoIP service provider.  Alternatively, come the switch off, your ISP may offer to upgrade your router because they'll want to sell your their own tied VoIP service to replace the analogue landline.

phone vigorvoip1
A router can have a phone socket on the back to connect a regular phone or cordless base into. It uses VoIP to carry your calls over your Internet connection

 

The 'new' Openreach Products for Communication Providers

BT have several different products (and acronyms) for the 'new' services which Communications Providers (CPs) can use to provide broadband. As a consumer, you don't really need to know about each of these.  In most cases, the services for CPs are the same as existing services where an analogue voice service is provided on the same line as a DSL service, but with the analogue voice service ("POTS") removed:

  • Single Order Transitional Access Product (SOTAP) - This is a copper line from the customer premises back to the telephone exchange over which a Communications Provider (CP) can provide ADSL or VoIP services  but without an underling analogue phone (POTS) service.  ADSL is necessary in more rural areas where subscriber premises density is low, so each is too far from the nearest street cabinet to get VDSL service. ADSL has much longer range, but slower speed compared to VDSL (Typically 20Mb/s max vs. 80Mb/s max). BT still provide the DSLAM termination and onward network connectivity back to the ISP's backbone.

  • Single Order Generic Ethernet Access (SOGEA) - This is VDSL2 service without POTS. It continues to be delivered to the street cabinet over fibre and delivered to the premises on the copper line (FTTC). BT Openreach's street cabinet provide the connection for any ISP offering service.

  • Single Order G.fast (SOGfast) - This is G.Fast (FTTC) without POTS.

  • Fibre to the Premises (GEA-FTTP) - Unchanged from the current FTTP service as fibre was always an all-digital service.

  • Ethernet - Also an existing all-digital service, so unchanged.

  • Metallic Path Facility (MPF) - MPF provides a CP access to a 'bare' copper line from the premises back into the telephone exchange Main Distribution Frame (MDF) onto which the CP can add any service they like, including analogue voice and/or ADSL. The service provider has to provide all of their own terminating equipment - they literally get a bare pair of wires at the exchange (well, it's probably nicely terminated in a frame, to be fair).  The telco can't add G.Fast or VDSL2 as those have to be provisioned in the street cabinets.  The provision of MPF seems to break the whole 'end of POTS' plan because any telco, including the services part of BT (non-Openreach) could elect to switch their wholesale customers onto MPF and continue exactly as they are, indefinitely. Maybe MPF will be made deliberately expensive and marketed as 'special applications only'.

If an analogue phone line customer currently has no broadband service (ADSL or VDSL), still doesn't want it and still wants a voice service, they will be switched to ADSL or VDSL (SOTAP or SOGEA) at BT's preference and some sort of ATA will provide an in-premise phone socket (see earlier).  If the above terms seems complicated, don't worry - they matter more to technies, ISPs and other service providers.  Those providers will ensure that your have continued voice service, one way or another.

Timescales

Openreach intend to complete the analogue switch off by December 2025 which means exchanges will be switched over the next five years.  An exchange, in Salisbury, England was designated as the 'full fibre' test site in 2019 and was the first test site in order that any practical issues could be idenfied when switching all types of customers.

Mildenhall is Suffolk is a second test site and will start switchover in December 2020. Based on the experience of those test sites, Openreach will optimize and adjust their processes and will then accelerate the process across the whole country. 

Salisbury is a 'full fibre' site whereas Mildenhall is more typical of most exchanges in that it will rely on a mix of fibre and DSL services to deliver broadband.  You will receive notice of switch off in your area - it won't be overnight.  

You will likely receive notice from both Openreach and your ISP (if you have one) - the ISP will want to sell you voice services if you don't have alternative provision. An alternative provision might be IP phones, an IP PBX ( for businesses), a router with VoIP ports or simply no need for a 'landline' as you're happy to rely on cellular/mobile networks.

Closing Thoughts

These plans are ambitious and have a relatively short time scale. Changes like this are not entirely unprecedented although at a smaller scale: NTL/Telewest (which became Virgin Media) used to provide their cable TV and phone service separately on a 'siamese' cable - it had coax for cable TV and an analogue phone line within the same outer sheath. 

When the network went all digital, they switched off the old analogue lines and the phone service moved onto VoIP phone ports on the new routers which were provided to customers.  The smaller scale, relatively more technical users, lack of very old legacy in-premise infrastructure, and notably a single CP/line provider (all Virgin), made things simpler than they will be for Openreach of course.

If everything goes to plan with Openreach's project, they will have a scalable sustainable and reliable and  phone network  for the next century.  Those of us still wanting fixed voice lines will be migrated seamlessly and will notice no difference in service, other than improvements.  That will be the metric for success.

The sensitive and careful handling of those who do not need or have broadband but rely on a 'land line' is important. They need to be assured that an equivalent service will remain available and reliable - particularly if they are are vulnerable or more likely to need emergency assistance.   Openreach acknowledge that those currently paying as little at 15 for simple analogue voice line can't be forced to pay 30 or more for broadband so will have low cost restricted broadband services which just support VoIP for those users.

In part 2 of this article, I'll explain the practical issues for end users - planning that you should consider, the replacement of your equipment and provision of digital services to replace your analogue voice service.


I hope you've found this article useful - please do share a link on social and business networks / media and do make any comments below.


1 https://www.bt.com/about/bt/policy-and-regulation/keeping-the-uk-connected/fibre-for-all


Tags

POTS
SOTAP
SOGEA
SIN 517
BT Openreach
SOGFAST
GEA-FTTP
MPF
MDF Frame
Telephone Exchange
TalkTalk
Virgin Media
VRI
BT
Sky Broadband
FTTC
FTTP
SIN 527
G.Fast
VDSL
ADSL
FTTP
Analogue Line
NTE5c
RJ-11
Phone Socket
Spectrum

Comments

From: Graham
21/01/2021

Thanks very much for this. It makes a lot of sense, and is what I have been hoping to receive from BT or line providers for some while. As a business, we are gradually moving to SIP with on premises telephone switches. I note the comment regarding fax (!) and more importantly credit card machines. We do use analog to IP converters with a reasonable amount of success. Also very interested about the domestic market of which I had heard nothing. MPF does seem to be a way that providers could leave consumers "as is", whilst satisfying BT's criteria of closing poor old POTS..


From: Chris
18/01/2021

Really interesting article as is your 25-year old info about the pre-1990 POTS system. I didn't know this plan was in place. Totally makes sense though. The failover via routing between cabinets alone would make reliability much better. The only issue is the loss of power one as home routers require power (as do the local fibre cabinets).


From: Martin Batey
15/01/2021

will draytek be offering any sogea products anytime soon as current sky sogea offering is pretty dire.


From: Russ
15/01/2021

A very informative article, although please get someone to proof read.


From: Mohclips
14/01/2021

First i had heard of this, thanks for posting.


From: Wayne
14/01/2021

Does that mean my old Courier V.Everything Modem is going to be redundant!? ;-) - I was saving it for the zombie apocalypse!!


From: Steve bissell
14/01/2021

I am curreworking rewards a switch off of the analogue on my bt connection a buisness grade service they have offered me a reduced line rental which is an attraction. My alarm provider wanted to implement an expensive solution for the comms but providing the alarm with an Analogue Porton my voice pabx serves as well and no extra cost. The switch over should be smooth if everyone is sensible most users will not notice any difference


From: Roger Sawyer
14/01/2021

Your article makes very interesting reading. As an ex employee of BT I am not sure that they will be able to complete the switch off (over) by 2025, most of their plans always had an amount slippage. Am I right in assuming that the telephone numbers will still continue to be part of any new system; having had mine since pre AFN I would be less than pleased to lose it.

I look forward to reading more about this very fundamental change as time goes on.


From: Mark
14/01/2021

A well written and sensible article Michael.

The key question is what happens to the numbers. Unlike you I'm fairly committed to my landline number.

It could be conveyed to my home by any means (although ideally it would be a means that still worked if I need to phone up and complain about a mains power outage) but it needs to be that number. I also like my "on premises" landline answering machine.

In practice what is needed is DECT base station (and POTS) functionality in routers (now there is something Draytek could make) and the ability to connect to a landline number SIP service easily.

I can't see this happening in the timescales either but obviously it is the direction of travel.


From: tobiz
14/01/2021

Very useful.


From: Chris
14/01/2021

Excellent Article, Mr Spelter, well written and very clear - you even explained all the abbreviations well.
This is all clear for the UK, but what about Ireland, where I have your product? Are the donkeys at Eir to go Digital too?