Communications Networks

Communications Networks

31st January 2022

Kyle Scott is Policy Officer at Citizen's Advice Scotland

This column was first published in the Herald on 31 January 2022

Though it may sound alien to younger readers many of us remember the days when a choice had to be made between accessing the internet or using the house phone, or worse still the screeching assault on the eardrums that followed lifting the phone while someone else was online.

For more than two decades our internet and telephone connections in the UK have been serviced by the backbone of communications infrastructure in the UK; the ever so reliable, but not entirely efficient, copper wired Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

This copper network enabled internet access in many of our homes and businesses and as technology progressed eventually allowed the then holy grail of browsing the internet without worrying about any telephone calls cutting the connection.

Perhaps the most harrowing memories of those early days of the internet though were not cripplingly slow speeds or lost connections but the tsunami of new and complicated telecoms jargon that came with it.

While our connections have improved significantly the jargon is unfortunately here to stay as the telecoms landscape prepares for another fundamental change.

Openreach, the company responsible for the UK’s digital network, are in the process of phasing out their use of the copper wired network by December 2026 and other providers such as Virgin are in the process of following suit.

The replacement network will use newer digital technology, known as “Voice over Internet Protocol” (VoIP), which carries phone calls over a broadband connection. Some consumers may already have a VoIP enabled telephone installed and many of us have been using VoIP technology for some time via applications such as Skype, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams and Zoom that utilise this technology.

Depending on who you ask, these applications have functioned just as well as regular telephone calls, if not better. Some users may see no difference between VoIP based applications and a traditional telephone call, but there are some major differences that consumers need to be aware of.

Firstly, the old copper wiring will be replaced with fibre optic technology going straight to the premises. This will give consumers significantly faster download speeds, clearer calls, and more reliable connections.

So where does the transition leave consumers? Well, industry regulator Ofcom expects providers to ensure minimum disruption and protection from harm during the change and your provider will be in touch with you ahead of time to explain what will change and when.

It is worth noting that the changes don’t mean you will have to take broadband or other services you do not already have.

It is also important that you consider whether any additional services that are linked to your current telephone connection at home will be affected. This includes services such as telecare devices, emergency and security alarms. You will need to check with the provider of these services whether these will work with the new setup.

Citizens Advice Scotland has been engaging with the industry to ensure Scottish consumers get all the information they need to understand the changes and are supported in translating the often-intimidating jargon of the telecoms industry. CAS will continue to advocate on the behalf of consumers to ensure that no one is left behind.