Is your business ready for the impending switch to all-IP telecoms?

We’ve been making telephone calls over copper landlines since the days of plummy-voiced Post Office operators plugging cables into exchange switchboards. Now the deadline’s finally looming for the copper network’s retirement party. And Britain’s businesses are all but oblivious to the potential risks to their companies’ support and alarm services. Chris Pateman, co-founder of the Fit To Switch campaign, reports.

The switch to an all-IP future could impact businesses' emergency systems
The switch to an all-IP future could impact businesses' emergency systems -

First the good news: Britain is heading full-speed towards a world-class digitally interconnected future where all telecommunications and data transactions take place over reliable high speed fibre optics.

Now the bad news: your existing automated key-holder alerts, fire alarms and remote back-office support services will probably stop working as a result.

BT argues that the old, familiar PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) copper infrastructure is well past its sell-by date, and costing a fortune to maintain.  PSTN is already being retired in some parts of the country. It is due to be phased out completely across the UK by the end of 2025. And, as so often with business services, the devil is in the detail. 

Many business managers have already benefited from a shift to all-IP telecoms, with its clever automatic call-forwarding to home workers, call hunt groups and rich recording and networking functionality. For many businesses, trading during the pandemic lock-downs would have been impossible without it. 

All these productivity gains are made possible by digital technology’s ability to process, package and distribute data packets -- of which voice is simply just one type of data – and transmit them around the world on fibre optic cables.

Running a business is not just about the shiny front-end, though. What about those legacy support services, often running quiet and unremarked in the background? The key-holder alerts? The IT back-ups and fail-overs? The fire- and burglar-alarm systems?

The public switched telephone network will be phased out in 2025 -

For many businesses, things like automated burglar alarms, emergency call-lines in lifts, remotely monitored process fail-safes or even card payment systems are services they simply buy on recurring monthly terms from specialist third-party providers. Specialists who install special, dedicated telephone lines to ensure their call handlers or data centres are automatically contacted the moment the customer needs their services. Which wasn’t a problem all the time we had a copper telephone network for those services to quietly run on. But now all these lines are going to have to transition from copper to fibre.  And that, technically, is not just a matter of unplugging one piece of kit and plugging in another.

The difference between copper alarm lines and fibre alarm lines is not trivial. It is – quite literally -- as fundamental as the difference between fail-safe and nonfail-safe. The old familiar legacy copper network provides ‘always on’, fail-safe functionality.  The system runs on its own 48Volt DC power supply, regularly pulsing a ‘chirrup’ up the line to check continuity of signal. It’s this pulse which provides the familiar dial-tone, reassuring the user that there is a working line to the exchange equipment.

IP, by contrast, is an innately nonfail-safe alternative. The fibre line is entirely passive until it is ‘lit’ by equipment at the business end. To light the line requires a modem and a power source. Which is why your phone at home, which offers that helpful built-in answering machine, needs to be plugged into the mains as well as the broadband socket.

So we are moving from a system which powers itself remotely to a system that has to be powered from the user’s end. Which has two major implications.

  • Firstly, is your alarm or process provider equipped to update your kit ahead of the copper switch-off?
  • Secondly, what happens if there is a mains power failure?

Beyond that, the logistical implications for the business itself are obvious. Is there even power available to the equipment? Will it need to be re-sited? Does it need to be wired into the emergency circuits? Will it need battery back-up or a dedicated 5G modem..? 

And so to the bad news: when the Fit To Switch team raised the issue with the trade associations who represent two of the most obvious ‘at risk’ service sectors - lift suppliers and fire alarm companies - their responses yielded only referrals to high-level publicity articles and supplier sales presentations made at last year’s industry conferences. There was no specific guidance for their members. There was no directory of members whose systems are tested, ripe and ready for the non-copper future.

“Perhaps the telecoms industry should congratulate itself on the excellent job we have done convincing business people to trust our specialist expertise,” said Comms Business consultant editor and Fit To Switch co-founder Chris Pateman. Our initial unprompted research among trade associations and readers of Manufacturing Management confirmed that telecoms is still pretty much a ‘black art’ as far as most business customers are concerned. Even among informed, technically literate business managers.

“Up until now, business owners have been able to rely on third-party alarm and service providers. Now, for business continuity’s sake, they need to know their companies’ future ability to cope with crises or power cuts will be up to the mark in a new all-IP world. That may mean having some hard conversations and asking some hard questions with suppliers with whom they may not have spoken for years, beyond signing off another 12 months’ service renewal.” 

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Fit to Switch is an all-industry campaign launched by The Engineer's sister title Comms Business