Why taking away traditional landlines poses a danger to rural households

By Patrick O'Brien   |   Columnist   |
Friday 8th July 2022 11:22 am
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A CALAMITY that played out in rural Scotland last winter could be repeated in remote parts of mid and north Wales — unless there is determined public and media vigilance and protest to head off the threat.

One evening last November, an elderly man’s house caught fire half a mile from a remote Aberdeenshire village. Without near neighbours, and with little or no mobile phone signal, he needed a landline phone to call 999.

But stupidly, and dangerously, his telecoms company had not long before taken away that traditional lifeline.

They had pulled the plug on his ever-dependable conventional landline phone and dumped him in a brave new world of digital gadgetry. And, scandalously, the innovative communications technology he was landed with turned out to be disastrously unfit for purpose.

The fire had broken out after a storm cut off the pensioner’s electricity. Power-cuts don’t affect traditional landline telephones. They carry on working as normal, so that if this elderly man had not been caught up in the switch to digital he would have been able to phone for help.

As it was, the power-cut instantly knocked out the new-fangled device installed by the telecoms firm. They had given the man a wireless phone — dubbed Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP). These devices are totally tied in with the broadband internet network and, without electricity, that link with the internet is immediately severed.

Completely unable to raise the alarm, the pensioner’s house burnt down.

For the wilds of Scotland, we can read the innumerable remote homesteads of mid and north Wales, and take warning that they are included in an ill-considered plan by telecommunications companies to move all 29 million UK homes on to the VOIP by 2025.

Thus, within a mere three years from now, firms including BT and Virgin plan to switch off the technology that currently powers landlines in the most remote parts of Wales, where mobile-phone signals can be weak, or non-existent, where neighbours may be far-flung and emergency services many miles away. The very places where a solid and reliable conventional landline phone is a lifeline in emergencies, as well as a comforting and reliable defence against social isolation, a non-fickle connection with the outside world.

The Scottish pensioner’s tragic tale is just one repercussion, so far, of the telecoms industry’s blinkered rush to trash the secure and dependable analogue network, and to replace it with a system proven to be useless whenever there are power-cuts. Frequent blackouts are becoming increasingly likely because climate disruption is triggering more, and more severe, storms. And power-failures of course happen for a variety of other reasons, including, potentially, cyber-attacks. In any such eventuality, VOIP is a dead duck.

Telecoms companies claim the copper lines used by conventional landline phones will soon become too expensive to maintain. In the case of BT Group plc, the largest provider of fixed-line, broadband and mobile services in the UK, a British multinational with operations in about 180 countries, you just want to say: “Oh, pull the other leg…”

Take Openreach, the BT subsidiary which maintains phone cables and the rest of the paraphernalia that connect nearly all homes and businesses in the UK to the telephone and broadband networks. In the first six months of last year alone, Openreach reported pre-tax profit of £1 billion.

With yields at such a level, the threatened scrapping of conventional landlines must therefore be seen as a quest for ever greater profit, despite a consequent loss of assured day-to-day telephone communication and - as the Scottish pensioner’s experience shows - a real risk to public safety and well-being. All in all, a ringing example of high-handed capitalism.

Faced with escalating complaints by worried customers, BT has temporarily paused the VOIP roll-out, intending to restart it “once we’re more confident that the right products and solutions are in place that will provide more resilient connectivity. Probably later this year or early next”.

And how, practically, do you achieve such resilience faced with ever more furious Atlantic super-storms, which are rather adept at sweeping aside power-lines as if they were gossamer threads? Oh, no problem, BT consumer CEO Marc Allera tells us. His company will “work with energy providers on faster power restoration”. Oh yeah? Try telling that to those power engineers who slave away devotedly in atrocious weather to fix downed electricity poles and lines, but take sometimes days, even weeks, to complete the job.

And what of the real possibility that malevolent cyber-hackers may take an interest in targeting civil infrastructure, including power supplies? BT is silent on that score.

Ultimately, this pause in operations may be no more than an expression of hope that the spotlight of public displeasure will in time have become sufficiently dimmed for this money-making exercise to be quietly resumed.

We would indeed be naive in the extreme to take BT’s “solutions” assurance on trust.

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