Providers to protect vulnerable customers in digital switchover

13 March 2024 19:00   By Lyndsey Burton

Broadband and phone providers commit to protecting telecare users when upgrading phone lines.

Seven network operators have agreed to new measures set out by the Government to ensure vulnerable customers are protected during the digital switchover.

The main commitment aims to ensure users of telecare alarm systems don't experience any loss of service while their phone lines are upgraded.

Openreach, CityFibre, and Community Fibre are among seven operators to join Virgin Media O2 and BT who agreed to similar mitigations in December 2023.

home telephone cordless

Protections for telecare users

The new Network Operator Charter, which aims to cover infrastructure providers like Openreach, sets out four commitments, including checking whether a customer has a telecare device and ensuring their service is functioning at all times.

The commitments agreed to are:

  • At least 12 months' notice to be given to communications providers before digital migrations to ensure the provider adheres to the Public Switched Telephone Network charter agreed in December 2023
  • Work to create a shared definition of 'vulnerable' customer groups that require greater support
  • Work with providers to check if customers have telecare devices before migrating their services to digital
  • Not to migrate a known telecare customer to digital without the customer, provider, or telecare company confirming the customer has a telecare device compatible with a digital service

The network operators who have so far signed the charter include CityFibre, AllPointsFibre, KCOM, Openreach, Ogi, Community Fibre, and WightFibre.

Vulnerable customers

The new commitments follow those agreed to by consumer service providers in December 2023, as part of the Public Switched Telephone Network charter.

In this, providers, including BT, Virgin Media O2, Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Shell Energy, KCOM, and Zen Internet, also agreed to protect vulnerable customers and ensure telecare users were only migrated to digital if their device was known to be compatible.

Importantly, they agreed not to make any non-voluntary migrations to digital landlines until the provider is confident that all vulnerable customers are being protected.

The charter also requires providers to work to improve battery back-up solutions that go beyond the minimum of one hour of access to emergency services, which could include telephones which fall back to a mobile network as suggested in Ofcom's recent consultation.

Overall, these two new charters have stopped digital switchovers where customers haven't asked for it and where they may be dependent on an analogue telephone line.

Digital switchover

The involvement of the Government in the digital switchover comes after BT was forced to pause their Digital Voice rollout in March 2022, after thousands of customers were left without power and any means to contact emergency services for more than 48 hours in the storms of 2021.

Older people and those living in rural areas were identified as being most at risk, with many being switched over that didn't have a reliable mobile signal to fall back on.

While battery back-ups are now a requirement of full fibre connections, they're only free to vulnerable customers, and only last for a minimum of one-hour, which has been argued is not long enough.

However, Ofcom's recent consultation into telecoms resilience and power backup, published in December 2023, suggests resilience of fixed-line phone services rests with mobile networks rather than extending the life of in-home power backups, which means those in rural areas or with poor mobile signal could still be at risk.


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