Telecoms - are you ready for the big switch?

16th of June 2022
Telecoms - are you ready for the big switch?

Are you ready to lose your legacy telephone system? As the switch-off deadline fast approaches, Hartley Milner explains why businesses dare not lag behind with their preparations for the most radical transformation to the way telecom services are delivered in generations.

BY 2025 THE VAST MAJORITY of European countries are expected to have completed the upgrade of their phone network from analogue to digital connectivity. Even so, a poll in one EU state found that 40 per cent of companies were either unaware of the rollout or had made no effort to prepare for it.
Telecom providers are encouraging customers to review their data transmission systems early to avoid disruption during the changeover … and to ensure they are well placed to exploit the full range of benefits going digital will bring.

SMEs, which make up 99 per cent of businesses across the EU, stand to gain the most in terms of savings on their telecom services, at a time when their operating costs in other areas are spiralling. Most companies can expect to save an average of 68 per cent on phone costs due to significantly lower call and line rental charges, including when calling abroad.

“This really is one of those rare win-win and win again opportunities for small businesses … a greatly more efficient telecoms network, big cost savings and at a price that will not break the bank,” said Jagienka Reeves, consultant to the European Telecoms Advisory Panel.

“The switch to all-digital is about much more than replacing a dated phone system. We are seeing a technology revolution, which is making communications so much better for everyone. In future, phone and internet services that were before provided on separate networks will be delivered on a single network via the internet.

“Going over to IP (internet protocol) means any number of employees will be able to make or take calls at the same time, on any device, from wherever they are and all on the same phone number … there’s no need for multiple phone lines. You’ll link your business applications and systems with video chat and other forms of collaboration, so you’re closer to customers and colleagues. With everything in the cloud, you’ll also be able to access services like voicemail from any internet-connected device and from any location which - with the trend to more of us working from home - will be a huge plus.

More reliable

“Businesses will enjoy near 100 per cent reliability as well as faster broadband, and if a fault or technical issue does arise it will be remedied automatically, so there should be no downtime or need to call in an engineer. Factor in the lower costs that IP can bring and the change makes sense, so my advice to businesses is go digital as soon as you can. Early adopters will be able to grow faster and gain a competitive edge. Businesses that delay making the transition will be unable to provide the same levels of customer service as their more proactive competitors.”

Fine, except that “near 100 per cent reliability” and “should be no downtime” are not likely to hack it with the business community, as any disruption to phone services can be extremely costly in terms of lost custom. However, telecoms provider BT said: “Digital phone lines can actually be more resilient. For instance, our digital services run across multiple data centres so if one goes down, no problem. Traffic switches seamlessly to another and your service carries on regardless.” Other major providers say they too have backup technologies in place.

So what structural changes are taking place? For more than a century, the majority of calls around Europe have been made across public switched telephone networks (PSTN). Now the old copper
wire infrastructure is being retired across the region in favour of a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) network, enabling phone calls via ultra-fast, full-fibre broadband connections.

Digital devices

VoIP works over all digital devices that run on an operating system and have an internet connection, such as desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. You just need a speaker, microphone or headset. You can also download software like Skype (Skype-to-Skype calls with WiFi are free).

Two-way conversations can take place either over the internet or an IP-enabled local area network (LAN). To ensure good voice quality, you will need sufficient bandwidth with both, at least 100 kbps. Because IP supports landline phones as well as broadband, landline calls will require special adapters that plug into either a wall socket or a router.

Changing to a digital phone line means all devices connected to your existing phone line, such as fax machines, will only work via a router and your service provider may need to provide you with a new one. Some routers may allow you to plug your existing analogue phone handset into the back of them rather than a wall socket. If not you may be provided with, or have to buy, new or additional equipment. When you switch, your service provider should give you more information on what you need to do.

If you have other devices or services connected to your existing phone line, such as a smoke or security alarm, you will need to check whether they are supported by the new technology. You should contact the provider of the device or service, or by going onto the manufacturer’s website. Now would be a good time to take an inventory of equipment in your office and of the products and services you provide to clients and customers to check that they will work when lines migrate from analogue to digital.

If they have not done so already, your landline provider will get in touch when the time is approaching for you to switch. They might call the new service Digital Voice, IP Voice or a branded version such as Sky Voice, depending on where you are in Europe. BT has already moved hundreds of thousands of customers to its Digital Voice service. Providers are currently focusing on offering digital phone services to customers when they switch broadband providers or upgrade to full-fibre broadband.

You may be offered cheaper or free access to add-on features you may have previously had to pay for, such as caller display, voicemail, call divert and recording, international call barring, anonymous call blocking and essential call analytics. While you should be able to use your existing phone number from any location, in some cases it may need to change. The digital rollout also signals the demise of the integrated services digital network (ISDN), which has governed internet connectivity since the early 1990s.

The shift away from PSTN and ISDN is being driven in part by consumer demand for an ever-wider choice of faster, more reliable and greener digital communication channels. With the popularity of mobiles and VoIP, more of us are using services such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, Portal, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams. Businesses are increasingly turning to these as well because they offer greater sophistication, scalability and cost savings. At the same time, the telecoms industry is looking to reduce the huge costs of operating and maintaining the PSTN network, which in turn has an impact on the price paid by the end-user.

European countries have been migrating to IP at a different pace. For example, PSTN phase-out dates were set by the following: Hungary 2017; Switzerland 2018/19; Germany 2019/2020; Greece 2019; France 2023. Progress in some countries has been held up partly due to the Covid pandemic. Others, including Estonia and the Netherlands, are already there and have switched off their PSTN networks, and France and Germany are in the process of winding theirs down. Most of the continent is expected to have switched by late 2025.

After falling behind in recent years, the UK is now following much the same timetable as the rest of Europe. Openreach, which is responsible for building and maintaining Britain’s telephone infrastructure, has stepped up its phase-out of the national legacy landline network and most small businesses have gone over to VoIP. However, more than 2.5 million are still tied to analogue.

Review equipment now

James Lilley, director of ALL-IP at Openreach, said: “Ahead of the switch from analogue to digital phone lines, it’s crucial businesses understand their current systems and the implications of the shift. This upgrade will provide the nation with faster, more reliable services and will allow devices to become more connected, providing UK industry with a framework from which it can develop innovative emerging technologies. Taking simple steps now will make the process of upgrading much smoother.”

Openreach stresses businesses should carry out a complete review of all equipment that currently relies on their phone lines and the phone lines of their customers, and specifically to:
• Make a list of all devices plugged into the master socket and any extensions on their premises
• Contact their phone or broadband service provider and supplier of hardware devices to check how these will work following the upgrade to digital.

 

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