England and Wales councils unprepared for PSTN withdrawal in 2025

Freedom of information act request reveals worrying finding that over half of councils in England and Wales have no strategy for the prospective withdrawal of traditional PSTN communications networks

In 2020, BT-owned Openreach began its programme to stop selling traditional copper-based communications products nationally in preparation for withdrawal of services based on the technology by the end of 2025, yet even though the programme has continued apace with hundreds of exchanges upgrading to fibre links, most councils across England and Wales still have no strategy for the proposed wholesale line rental (WLR) withdrawal of public switch telephone network (PSTN) and integrated services digital network (ISDN) services.

This was the standout finding of a freedom of information (FOI) request by cloud and managed services company Maintel, which believes that if the switchover is not done in time it could lead to widespread disruption, as public services such as alarm lines, traffic light systems, payment terminals, payphone lines, medical devices and external connectivity to telephony systems could all be impacted.

Through the FOI, Maintel found 23 of 40 England and Wales councils that responded have no strategy in place. In London, this was 10 of the capital’s 14 boroughs (70%) that responded. Of the councils that do not have a strategy in place, most have no goal date for completion in mind. However, those who do say they are expecting completion by 2025, when traditional copper phone line services will be withdrawn.

Maintel warned that the clock is ticking. It noted that while BT will switch off the PSTN and ISDN in 2025, all WLR products will be removed from sale by September 2023. Organisations using ISDN, PSTN or DSL broadband services will need to migrate them to new digital alternatives.

However, in August 2021, Openreach alerted users that if they have anything connected to a phone line such as a care or security alarm, they will need to check with the equipment supplier whether their devices could work over the new fibre network.

Furthermore, older telephones – currently powered by the local telephone exchange – could be cut off from the new network if there is a power cut. In this scenario, Openreach said users may have to “do something different” to make home phone calls.

Maintel also cautioned that businesses will need to be mindful of current supply chain issues for networking technology that can currently be in excess of 12 months, along with the challenges of installing new technologies across their historic buildings.

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It said organisations need to account for this in their financial year 2023 budgets to ensure that any technology upgrades needed can be ordered to be delivered and installed in time for 2025. They therefore need to start comprehensive audits of their estates in preparation for identifying any affected services. 

“Failure to plan for the WLR withdrawal deadline could have a huge impact on organisations, their users and their citizens,” said Maintel chief technology officer Dan Davies. “Without services such as alarms or lifts, which rely on PSTN lines, offices and hospitals will not meet safety standards and will be forced to close. Telephony systems that connect to the outside world via ISDN could also be cut off, potentially impacting critical services.

“Migrating ahead of the WLR withdrawal has the potential to be a huge undertaking for organisations,” he said.

“Decision makers should not wait until 2025, as exchanges are being phased out now. A rapid audit of your network is recommended to understand how many connections you have, of what type and what they are being used for. Leaving it to the last minute could result in increased installation costs and delays. Depending on the nature of your organisation, these could be anything from simple voice lines to DSL broadband, building alarm circuits or even all external connectivity to the telephony system in use.

“The past two years have delivered huge uncertainty, but the 2025 deadline for the PSTN and ISDN switch-off is one thing that’s for certain,” said Davies. “Councils must act now to ensure services can continue to function.”

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