OnePerspective: How the shift from analogue to digital telephone services affects telecare provisioning

TTA has an open invitation to industry leaders to provide a personal perspective on issues of importance to readers. This week, Charlotte Rathbone, Product Account Manager for CareUnity Digital, Chubb, examines the ongoing transformation of the UK telecommunications industry and how the shift to digital technology will affect telecare provision.

Interested contributors should contact Editor Donna. (Pictures and graphs/infographics are welcome)

According to the Technology Services Association (TSA), the representative body for technology-enabled care, more than 1.8 million vulnerable people* rely on telecare in the UK. In most cases, telecare consists of a care alarm in a person’s home, which when triggered by pressing a button or an automated sensor, sends data via the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) to a monitoring centre, where an operator will give advice or seek help.

The UK telecommunications industry however is undergoing rapid change. By 2025* all analogue telephone services across the UK will be switched off as infrastructure is upgraded to digital connectivity. This approaching switch highlights the need for dedicated digital telecare solutions. 

So how will this affect telecare services in the UK?
As early as 2023*, British Telecom (BT) customers may not be able to buy an analogue phone line. Instead, BT will move its customers to a digital Internet Protocol network in readiness for the shutdown of traditional telephone lines in 2025. It’s then that we’ll see the PSTN and all Integrated Services Digital Network lines switched off. These lines are currently used by many telecare services to feed alarm data into their monitoring centres.

While the digital migration is underway, analogue telecare alarm services are reporting a rise in the number of failed alarm call attempts – with one service provider reporting a failure rate of 11.5% for the first alarm attempt*. This is concerning.

Another concern is failed care alarms through loss of power. When analogue alarms run on a digital network, they require a router to be plugged in at home. In the event of a power failure, this router will stop working, so if a vulnerable person triggered their alarm, it would duly fail.

It’s little surprise that telecommunication providers and Ofcom are all recommending a shift away from traditional analogue devices to digital devices to ensure consistency of access to care*. Some countries including Sweden are ahead of the curve when it comes to switching to digital. More than 95% of Swedish digital alarm installations now use mobile network connections*. There is some way to go in the UK.

Currently, there are approximately 1.6 million analogue telecare devices** across the UK that need to be changed to digital-dispersed alarm units so it’s going to be a gradual process. There are, however, benefits for telecare service providers that make the change sooner rather than later. 

Why switch now?
As we approach the switchover date, the time to replace analogue units in the field reduces. This will likely result in significant resource pressures for customers to complete the transition; by switching early, this can be completely avoided.

References
*TSA, 10 Facts about Analogue to Digital: How it will affect telecare.   ** TSA survey of service provider members, May 2021.

Hat tip to Kathryn Ranger of PRG Marketing Communications

Telecare – time to sweat the analogue assets, not dump them

Veteran Editor Charles climbs on his soapbox, one more time.

There must have been a moment, somewhere, when a bronze age warrior realised that iron really cut the mustard (and other things) better. Unfortunately, that resulting genetic preference for new over old has left us open to the blandishments of salespeople through the ages, encouraging us to take every opportunity to buy new and cast out old.

And it costs! A current example is the drive by many telecare companies to use the digitalisation of the telecoms network in the UK to encourage users to ditch their analogue equipment in favour of their new shiny digital kit…when there’s no need. The telecare world has of course an honourable tradition of encouraging box shifting – back when I ran a telecare programme at LB Newham, in 2007 the government was encouraged to offer a Preventive Technology Grant to all local authorities. Perhaps the most memorable campaign though was Three Million Lives which, from the outside, appeared to have that one aim. Indeed there must be few telecare consultants who have not at some point in their career opened a cupboard to find the shelves heaving with unused – and sadly in a few cases unusable – kit.

Wise telecare providers will resist the current pressures though – both BT and Virgin have been provided with a wide range of old analogue telecare kit to test in their digital simulators alongside the appropriate digital/analogue converters and, I am reliably informed, it has worked well every time. Some companies, I am told, may not have taken full advantage of these facilities and only tested their new digital offerings, whilst ignoring analogue; I’ll leave the reader to work out why they might have done that. This is important because telecare kit is built to last and whilst some service users will benefit from the latest tech wizardry, most will be completely happy with the older kit – indeed those with dementia may find it impossible to get used to any new kit, providing one more incentive not to change. The original cost of that analogue kit must conservatively be well over £500 million, so it would seem to be a crying shame just to dump it whilst it still works well – indeed with local authority budgets as they are, it effectively would hugely reduce their ability to provide a service for all who want it.

There is of course one potential issue, as no power comes down the fibre telecoms lines, unlike with copper, so the service could fail in a blackout. However I understand that both BT and Virgin are working on solutions to this. GSM alarms, supposedly the future, are also vulnerable; indeed apparently this already happened a a few weeks back when the country suffered widespread power outages, when mobile networks failed in some areas. I understand that many masts don’t currently have a power back-up for such occasions and those that do only last 30 minutes.

So, if you are responsible for a telecare provision budget and a nice salesperson pops by to encourage you to switch out your old, ask them how their old kit behaved in the network simulations when paired with an appropriate converter.

If they tell you anything other than that it went really well, look askance. If they say they haven’t tested their old kit, ask them why not.

TSA’s International Technology-Enabled Care (ITEC) Conference 16 & 17 October 2017

The TSA is holding its annual conference on 16 & 17 October – one of their key issues will be the analogue to digital phone service shift which poses huge risks and opportunities for the TEC sector. The TSA will be unveiling their white paper on the topic at the conference – a great reason to attend! 

Even if that’s not uppermost on your mind, ITEC has much to offer – from politics to health science, demographics to robotics, many factors combine to shape new models of care nationally and internationally: find out how TECS fit into the bigger picture and how the sector can flourish within this complex and uncertain landscape!

Book here.

(Disclosure, this editor is presenting at the conference on a very important topic – be sure to say hi after his presentation!)