Does the digital telecom switchover threaten the lives of the most remote old and disabled? (UK, updated)

The UK’s recent preview of winter (which officially starts today), Storm Arwen followed by Storm Barra, was yet another exposure of the downside of the digital telecom switchover. As our UK Readers know, BT Openreach has been aggressively proceeding with the full conversion to VOIP by 2025 and closing the ‘broadband gap’ in rural and remote areas. Connecting them to the internet and more feature-filled VOIP service, including telecare services, has major advantages, especially where mobile service is sketchy or blank. 

Here’s the problem–power outages. According to the Energy Networks Association, 1 million homes and businesses in the northeast of England and Scotland lost power for days after Storms Arwen and Barra in late November, making it the worst storm in 15 years. Many of these homes were in rural villages and isolated areas. Power lines in these areas go down frequently in lesser storms that don’t have 100 mph winds and snow. When the power goes out, the VOIP goes out unless you have backup power. Phone lines no longer have their own power, as in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), equivalent to the US POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service or “copper”).

Add to this BT’s shortage of backup batteries. Digital phone systems in the US are usually installed with a backup battery, which isn’t cheap but sustains about 24 hours of basic voice service. Older models had special ‘brick’ batteries that you ordered from your phone provider that were around $50, newer models are powered by 12 D cell flashlight batteries that at least you can buy at the supermarket. Apparently, BT’s backup units are not only unavailable due to a global shortage, but also cost £85, a substantial charge to a pensioner–unless you live in a ‘not spot’ area without mobile service, in which case it’s free.

No power, no phone, no telecare, no PERS. But plenty of danger to thousands of older isolated adults, plus the frail, alone, and disabled. No connections to friends, carers, and emergency services for days, during a late fall snowstorm which made roads impassable. The storm may be early, but if this is a galloping start, there’s a whole winter to get through.

What about mobile service as a backup? Rural areas are, in bright sunny weather, plagued by spotty service. Supposedly nearly all areas in England have a minimum of 2G service sufficient to call 999. But when the cell phone masts go down, as they did in the storm, and the power to charge the phone is out, the backup is out of commission. One unnamed resident of Grizedale in the Lake District put a molto fino point on it. “It’s embarrassing that a supposedly world-leading country has such a shonky infrastructure. I had full 4G in the mountains of Transylvania a few years ago.”

Ofcom, the regulator, positioned the storms as exceptional. “Even in those circumstances, our rules are clear that there should be protections in place for people to call the emergency services” (999). Rules are one thing, reality another. Judge for yourself as we head into winter. BBC News Hat tip to Editor Emeritus Steve Hards.

Editor’s note for our US Readers: The situation is not that different for us. Nationally, POTS service is deteriorating and not being replaced by providers, forcing changes to VOIP. (I can personally speak to this–20 miles from NYC.) And if you believe that we’re well covered everywhere by cell phone service, you haven’t been to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, much less further west in the area the locals call ‘Pennsyltucky’. That area also skews older–18.2% of state residents are age 65+. The US also has a wide variety of extreme weather–ice storms, blizzards, ‘snow bombs’, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tropical storms.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.