24th July 2020

A full-fibre future: what the copper line switch-off means for you

From calls with our loved ones, to making a business agreement, the humble telephone is arguably one area of technology that’s integral to our lives, yet is so easily taken for granted. After all, we’ve all grown up with telephones and as such, they’re part of the furniture.

But in December 2025, telephony in the UK will change forever. Openreach – the infrastructure division of BT – will retire the old copper lines that have been at the heart of the UK’s telephony for decades. It’s a development that appears to be behind the scenes, but it has a very real impact on every household and every business.

How this affects you and your business

There’s obviously a lot of complex technical, practical and political discussion around this major change in the UK’s telephony. Essentially, the switch-off of copper telephone lines will see the withdrawal of two different copper-based telephone systems – PSTN and ISDN – with fibre-optic based internet telephony taking their place.

Broadly speaking, PSTN – or Public Switched Telephone Network – is the system that is used by most residential telephone lines. It’s also used by businesses too: if you have a security or lift alarm that’s linked to a phone line in your business, then you too use PSTN.

ISDN is similarly prevalent. It stands for Integrated Services Digital Network and is generally used to connect lines to a business telephone system, giving you the ability to provide a direct number for every employee or department.

Both PSTN and ISDN run through the old copper telephone network. And as such, when these copper lines are switched off, so too will the PSTN and ISDN services cease.

Why act now?

We appreciate 2025 seems a long way into the future. And particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its massive impact on our professional and personal lives. But, five years is not a long time in business – and there are other, more immediate, factors to consider.

One of the most pressing considerations relates to Openreach’s decision to stop providing new PSTN and ISDN services at more than 118 UK telephone exchanges. As described in this article from ISP Preview, Openreach is already trialling this in Suffolk and Wiltshire – and is replicating this across the UK.

The article provides a full list of the affected exchanges. If you are served by one of them, do keep in mind that this does not mean your telephone service will cease, but rather, you may not be able to add new PSTN- or ISDN-based features to your existing telephone service, including features such as caller display, call barring, and the 1471 service.

Furthermore, this so-called ‘stop sell’ transition is due to be in place across the UK by September 2023. This means that after that date, nobody – whether consumers or businesses – will be able to buy or add new features to their PSTN or ISDN-based telephone services.

Given the ongoing trials by Openreach – and the September 2023 restriction of new PSTN and ISDN services – we are advising all of our customers to at least have an informed discussion about their telephone system. And while it might seem daunting, it’s actually a very simple process, and may bring some pleasant surprises…

How you can benefit from the copper line switch-off

Practically speaking, there isn’t a lot for you to do to respond to the copper line switch-off. We’ve explained what’s involved below, but before that, it’s worth noting some of the benefits of the change.

Essentially, our telephone lines will all eventually be run over fibre optics – the technology that already brings the internet into so many of our homes and businesses. You may see these kind of internet-based voice services referred to as ‘IP telephony’ – which stands for ‘internet protocol telephony’. And you’ll understand why VoIP – ‘voice-over internet protocol – is another term that’s bandied about in such discussions.

If you’ve ever made a call through an internet-based service, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype or WhatsApp, then you’ve already used a form of VoIP. This is particularly relevant to the past few months where many of us have been working remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. So whether knowingly or not, millions of us have already been using VoIP services to make and receive calls.

During this time, you may have noticed that these services bring with them a huge range of features that aren’t available through traditional phone lines. For example, applications like Microsoft Teams and Zoom feature video calling, screen sharing and recording. You may already have reaped the benefits of such features.

On a more personal level, smartphone apps like WhatsApp – which now has more than two billion users – have made internet-based phone calls a familiar concept, meaning it now only takes a few swipes to make a call to someone on the other side of the planet, only requiring an internet connection to do so.

If any of these examples ring a bell with you, then you can probably envisage the benefits of internet telephony. For businesses specifically, internet telephony can translate to improved collaboration, enhanced disaster recovery and business continuity options, better information sharing and a greater, richer, variety of call features. Internet-based telephony can also bring cost savings – and for home-based and mobile workforces, it often proves invaluable – which is particularly important in the post-Covid workplace.

How might your business respond to the copper line switch off?

So far, the copper line switch-off has tended to make headlines in industry publications rather than general media. And consequently, many businesses are understandably unaware of the changes ahead. Meanwhile, we’ve already spoken with many of our existing business customers about the switch-off – and in all cases, the first thing we say is ‘don’t panic – just be prepared’.

For those customers, and for you, responding to switch-off is relatively straightforward, involving three main steps.

Typically, the first step is an assessment. We would start by auditing your existing telephony estate, to confirm the lines you have across your business premises and work with you to identify what is connected to each of these lines. This audit would be carried out remotely and we might only need to work with you on site to assist with identifying the location of lines where the information you hold may be missing or out of date.

Once this audit is completed it will be important to review the various lines and understand the commercial implications of changing – and how those commercials will change with time. Don’t assume that you need to change all your lines immediately – your telecoms supplier should be able to discuss your various lines with you and agree the best course of action, both commercially and technically.

Next – the second step – is a simple hardware installation. If you decide to change to internet-based telephony and are happy with our assessment and recommendations, we’ll need to prepare your business for the switch from your copper-based telephony to fibre-based telephony. Practically, this means we’ll need to install a gateway in your business that converts internet voice to the format that will work with your existing handsets and hardware.

And here’s a really important point of note – you do not need to change your hardware to use internet telephony. Of course, if you do want to upgrade your handsets and perhaps even connect your PCs and other devices to your new IP telephone system, then we can help with that. But it isn’t necessary to do this to use IP telephone services: you can continue to use your existing handsets and other connected devices.

Finally – the third step – we’ll need to turn off your old telephony service and switch on your new IP telephony. Typically, this means your phone lines will be unavailable for up to two hours, but we’ve seen the switch happen in as little as 15 minutes. We can do this at a time that minimises disruption, and make the switch for you remotely. However, if you’d prefer to have somebody on site while the switch happens, we can be there throughout the process.

As you can see, as technology upgrades go, switching over to IP telephony is one of the more straightforward processes. And for all our customers, we’re very proud to give a truly consultative service: one that’s focused on finding your business the right solution, rather than cajoling you towards products and services because we have a sales agenda.

Next steps: what now?

If on reading this blog, you feel ready to make the switch – or you’re still not sure – then we can advise you either way. Of course, there is no obligation to make the switch now – and for our existing customers who are not ready to change to IP telephony, we’ve agreed with them to have a chat every three months as a gentle nudge. This might be the right option for you if you’d like to see a return to a little more normality before you make any commitments.
Whatever your circumstances, our voice and telephony experts can give you objective advice. You can call us on 0333 4002490 or email enquiries@adept.co.uk – or get in touch with me through LinkedIn, as below.

A final note: why are the copper lines being switched off?

This is an important question to ask for context. And as mentioned above, the rationale for the change is complex, touching on everything from advances in technology to economical reasons.

In broadest terms, as with all technology, the copper lines that serve the UK’s telephone network have a shelf life. And since the origins of these lines can be traced to the Victorian era, it’s fair to say that more than a century later, our copper telephone network is feeling the strain.

At the same time, the cost to maintain this copper network is increasing, as suppliers of parts and hardware are becoming scarce. Likewise, relevant knowhow is dwindling – training of engineers now tends to focus more on fibre-based voice telephony, rather than older systems. It all means that as time passes, running the copper telephony network will become more and more prohibitively expensive – and this expense will be ultimately passed onto customers.

Finally, consider the advent of smartphones. Certainly domestically, we are using our landlines less and less. For example, according to Ofcom, the amount of time we spent making landline calls dropped by a half between 2012 and 2017, while the amount of data we use through our mobile phones has increased tenfold in that period. This pattern has been mirrored around the world, and it suggests we’ve gone past the point of no return with our landlines.

One last point of note relates to industry terminology. You may see the phrase ‘wholesale line rental’ – or WLR – mentioned if you read further about this topic. For what it’s worth, it’s industry lingo and is of far less importance than the points covered in this blog. But if you need any further explanation, please call 0333 4002490 or email enquiries@adept.co.uk.

  • Peter Fisher is the Head of Network Services within the Comms South division at AdEPT Technology Group and has been in the industry for over 20 years. He has built up a wealth of experience in the various technologies available across both telephony and networking, making him well placed to offer insight and guidance to businesses, large and small. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

Written by Peter Fisher

Head of Network Services