The landline is dead – and we should all be worried about what comes next

telephone
telephone

Soon after Alexander Graham Bell (no relation) patented the telephone in 1876, the Welsh town of Ammanford was born. What had been a cluster of cottages in Carmarthenshire, around 17 miles north of Swansea, became a prosperous mining town, thanks to the discovery of anthracite. In 1909, the town’s first telephone exchange was opened, and quickly became essential to Ammanford’s thriving commerce. Rapid expansion saw the number of manned lines increase from 50 to 250 and, in 1925, Ammanford was chosen by the Post Office as the site of one of 15 ‘automatic exchanges’ in Wales to run 24 hours, to the envy of neighbouring towns. Thanks to the telephone, Ammanford had become a place of importance, connected to the outside world.

Today, the most recent telephone exchange built on Wallasey Road in 1959 is derelict. The mine closed in 1976 and the local authority’s drug and alcohol help service now occupies a prominent site on the high street. ‘Look at the town, it’s completely run down,’ says Irene May Hopkins, 79, the former mayor. We are outside the Post Office, opposite a branch of Lloyds, the last bank in town, where a clerk has just told Irene that it too may be closing. ‘I don’t do internet banking, so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,’ she shrugs.

And soon, like all of Britain, Ammanford is also to lose its analogue telephone network. This follows the decision in 2017 by BT, and the other private companies that operate the network, that landline calls are to be conducted via broadband. This mammoth transition has been named the ‘great digital switchover’.

BT’s ambition was that by December 2025, most people in the UK would no longer use the copper landline network (Public Switched Telephone Network, or PSTN). Instead, calls will be made via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). That deadline has now been pushed back to January 2027 as multiple problems have arisen. BT says the switchover is necessary because the current analogue system is 40 years old (it was last updated in the 1980s), and is becoming increasingly unreliable and ‘cannot be maintained’. They say there has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of PSTN faults reported to Ofcom and a 60 per cent increase in the number of PSTN service hours lost. The parts and suppliers needed to maintain the copper landlines, they say, ‘no longer exist’.

But many people question the wisdom of dismantling a functioning analogue network upon which millions of people rely. In particular, the 1.8 million elderly and infirm people who use a home telecare device connected to a landline. The simple genius of the analogue landline is that it works in the event of a power cut, because it is self-powered. That will no longer be the case with an internet-based telephone. Now, when the power goes down, as it often does in Ammanford, you will have no lights, no internet, no means to cook your supper and no landline to speak to a friend or call an ambulance. And, if you use a telecare pendant (the alarm often worn by the elderly in case of emergencies), that too will be useless.

The pendant activates a call for assistance and is used across hospitals and care homes in the UK
The pendant activates a call for assistance and is used across hospitals and care homes in the UK - Getty

There’s always the mobile phone, of course, but that is to assume that everyone has one, that you can get a signal, and that it is fully charged. Practical inconveniences aside, there is a principle at stake here too. Why should a group of highly profitable private companies force vulnerable people to become dependent on mobiles phones and the internet, while dismantling a perfectly effective long-standing analogue system?

BT says it is no longer forcing the over-70s or those with vulnerabilities to switch if they do not want to. But that was not always the case – and what about those under 70 who don’t want to switch for very valid reasons? Nadine, 63, who is registered blind, lives in the village of Gorslas, about five miles from Ammanford. Two years ago, when she came to renew her contract, she found that if she wanted to keep her landline, her only option was BT. She did not want to switch her landline to VoIP but was told she could not have fibre broadband unless she agreed to switch her phoneline too.

‘So I didn’t have a choice,’ she says. ‘And I now pay £39 a month, which is about £10 more than I used to… I prefer to talk on my landline because I think you get a better quality of communication, you don’t have the breaking up issue which is quite a thing around here.’

Nadine lives in a council bungalow and pays £466 per month in rent. She receives universal credit, which has just increased slightly, but her rent and council tax have also just gone up. Meanwhile Philip Jansen, the chief executive of BT, paid himself £3,089,000 in 2023, while Simon Lowth, the chief financial officer, received £2,039,000, according to company accounts. BT says it is switching off the old copper network to give its customers a better service. But it is also cheaper for BT to install and maintain a fibre network.

Resistance to the digital switchover has been growing, and the plan was paused briefly last year. But for many people it’s too late, as more than 2.5 million BT consumer customers have already been switched to a digital landline. Among those yet to be switched are the more difficult cases in rural areas such as Ammanford, where a huge range of hills looms over the town to the north. Cases such as Jennifer Richards, 83, who lives alone ‘down in a dip’ in the village of Capel Hendre and is not aware of the digital switchover. ‘I’d be stuck without the landline,’ she says. ‘I rely on it more than my mobile because I don’t really have any signal at all… It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.’

Even in the metropolis there is switchover anxiety. ‘All I want is this thing on my wrist and a regular landline,’ says Elizabeth, 89, who lives alone in south-west London and uses a personal alarm. ‘It’s a concern for people my age. It’s frightening for those who don’t use technology. It’s not reassuring if they start fiddling about with the landline.’

When Alexander Graham Bell made that first telephone call in Boston on 7 March 1876, it was a development of a technology already in place. The telegraph, introduced in 1837, had already speeded up communication, but now Bell had worked out that there was the potential to transmit several messages along the same wire by using tuned electromagnetic reeds sending and receiving multiple pitches simultaneously. ‘If I can get a mechanism which will make a current of electricity vary in its intensity, as the air varies in density when a sound is passing through it, I can telegraph any sound, even the sound of speech,’ he wrote.

Inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, circa 1910
Inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, circa 1910 - Corbis Historical

If the mobile phone is the defining feature of 21st-century life, Bell’s landline was what made the 20th century, along with the motorcar. It was both practical and romantic – connecting people but also fixing them to a spot. Mid-century courtships involved hours of waiting by the phone, hoping your loved one might call. Long-distance relationships became possible and, with a copper wire landline, the vibrations caused by a human voice on the other side of the ocean were, as if by magic, physically sent vast distances and into the earpiece of your home phone. There is little romance in what the VoIP offers – a digital garbling and repackaging of one sound into another.

The decline of the landline has been wildly accelerated by the rise of messaging apps. Recent research by Uswitch found that young generations in particular rarely make phone calls; a quarter of 18-34-year-olds have, astonishingly, never answered their phone.

Britain is not alone in waving goodbye to the old analogue network. Canada, Sweden, Estonia and many other countries have already done it. But life-threatening problems have been reported in places where insufficient back-up is provided for the vulnerable.

Susan Durrant’s 92-year-old mother was living in Norway when the Norwegian telephone company Telenor switched her mother’s line to VoIP in 2022. ‘It was a disaster for her, and I believe contributed to a deterioration in her already diagnosed Alzheimer’s,’ says Durrant. ‘Her new “digital” phone would stop working for no apparent reason. I couldn’t get hold of her, and I regularly had to ask the neighbours to check on her. To cap it all, the number Telenor had given her had been reallocated from another user. She kept getting calls from a Norwegian college demanding she return kit and equipment to them. She had no idea what all this was about. My mother died two years later in her local care home. I cannot tell you how angry I was with all this.’

For BT and the other companies forging on with the switchover, communicating what is happening to their customers has been, perhaps ironically, one of the biggest challenges. Under pressure from campaigners and Ofcom, BT and the other companies involved paused the operation last year and began a campaign to improve awareness. Two representatives from BT are in Ammanford on the day I visit, as part of a year-long roadshow travelling around the country in an attempt to explain how it will work. Not that anyone I speak to out on the drizzly streets of Ammanford knows they are here; for they are tucked away in the public library, in a back room on the first floor.

I am their first visitor and we briefly chat, but they are nervous and tight-lipped, and refer me to the BT press office. Also present is an officer from the council and a woman who represents Delta, a personal alarm system run by the council, because the switchover will also affect some other services, such as personal alarms, panic buttons, fire and burglar alarms, lifts and railway crossings, many of which will need equipment replacing in order to be compatible with the new VoIP system.

Residents in Ammanford particularly fear the 'switch over' as they are often affected by power cuts
Residents in Ammanford particularly fear the 'switch over' as they are often affected by power cuts - Alamy

Eventually, after an hour, the first member of the public turns up. Geraint Roderick, 79, has come to ask what will happen to his landline in the event of a power cut. ‘I think most people are worried about power cuts,’ he tells me afterwards. ‘I use my landline 90 per cent of the time and power cuts happen a lot round here… They showed me a telephone which is a combined mobile and landline, so that could be a solution. They also say they will give you a battery back-up, free of charge, a month before you change over.’ His other gripe is that once his phone is switched to the new system, he will have to input the local dialling code every time he makes a call.

When the digital switchover first began, there were cases of customers who had their PSTN switched off without being told. One reader of this newspaper, Andrew Smith, was appalled to return from holiday to discover his in-laws had been left without a landline or a care alarm – their existing phone being incompatible with the digital service.

‘My mother-in-law has slight dementia and limited mobility,’ he wrote in a letter. ‘If she falls over, my father-in-law has a bad back so can’t pick her up. They have a monitoring system, and if they fall over, they get a call. But the system goes down the landline, so they wouldn’t be connected.’

When BT switched their landline, the engineer failed to tell them that their old phones would not work and that they needed new VoIP-ready handsets. It took about a month to get their number back up and running.

Separately, a class action worth more than £1.3 billion is currently grinding its way through the courts on behalf of three million customers who were overcharged for their landlines. In 2017, Ofcom found that BT had been increasing its charges for landlines every year since 2009, despite wholesale costs falling. BT agreed to reduce its landline prices by £7 per month, but was not ordered to pay compensation for the eight years of potential overcharging.

Justin Le Patourel, who used to work for Ofcom, decided to launch a collective class action against BT. Now the case has finally reached court, and judgment is due this year. ‘It’s a major transgression,’ he tells me. ‘If you accept that BT has charged excessively, then they need to repay that money, and that hasn’t happened. The problem now is how long this has taken. They need to get on with it.’

On the digital switchover, Le Patourel is more sympathetic to BT, saying there is a clear cost benefit to replacing the copper network with fibre which will help customers in the long term. However, he accepts that consumers were not consulted before the decision was made and that there are potentially catastrophic scenarios waiting to happen once the digital switchover is complete. ‘The perfect storm will be in some kind of flood scenario, when both power and mobile masts are down,’ he says. ‘But BT is now obliged to meet the terms of the PSTN charter which it signed up to in December. It includes a useful promise from the largest providers to go the extra mile to ensure telecare devices still function and to go beyond Ofcom’s stipulation that suppliers must provide a minimum of a one-hour battery back-up for the vulnerable. That is a good thing.’

The Government’s PSTN charter of December 2023 consists of five pledges by the main telecom providers to ensure that everyone is fully informed before the switchover takes place. However, one of the main areas where more needs to be done is in the replacement or upgrading of telecare devices. Currently these are reliant on a landline connection. BT and the other providers highlighted this issue, but they are not carrying out the upgrade work themselves. That responsibility falls to healthcare providers such as local authorities, some of whom have been slow to act.

During a debate in Westminster Hall in December last year, the Government revealed it had heard of ‘completely unacceptable’ incidents in which telecare devices had failed to work when activated, prompting ministers at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to put pressure on communications providers ‘to identify all vulnerable customers and make sure that their devices are fully operable’.

BT and the other network providers are now in constant talks with the Government and charities such as Age UK; they say they will not leave anyone unable to contact the emergency services, but they also point out that local authorities need to deal with the matter of telecare devices with greater urgency as the deadline approaches.

Rob Orr, chief operating officer of Virgin Media, says councils and telecare companies need to ‘step up’ so that the elderly and vulnerable are not left at risk. ‘Since this switchover programme started, we have made repeated efforts to inform local authorities and telecare companies of our plans,’ he wrote in a letter to The

Telegraph in December. ‘While some have been forthcoming and collaborative, often engagement is too slow or doesn’t occur at all. Only a tenth of local authorities contacted do engage ahead of migrations and this number is even less for telecare companies.’

The challenge for local authorities is that many of them are already struggling to make ends meet. Southwark Council, which is responsible for 55,000 social housing homes and 21 sheltered accommodation units in south London, estimated the digital switchover would cost roughly £7 million.

TechUK, a trade association working to raise public awareness of the digital switchover, insists that: ‘Individuals who don’t have access to broadband don’t need to worry. Phone companies are working on solutions to keep all customers connected and will be in touch.’

But what is the cost of the digital switchover? ‘Communications providers will not charge their customers more to move their landline phone service to digital,’ a spokesperson for TechUK says. Asked whether there is evidence that the public wants the switchover to happen, the spokesperson replied: ‘This programme is driven by one of necessity.’

Later, TechUK sent a fuller response by email, acknowledging that there had been no public consultation: ‘It will not be possible for the public to be given a choice on whether to keep the PSTN. That is because the transition to digital telephone lines is deemed essential due to rising faults of the current analogue system. The skills shortage of engineers able to maintain the network, as well as difficulties in sourcing the parts that hold it up, is also a worldwide issue.’

A DSIT spokesman pointed out that VoIP calls only use a tiny amount of bandwidth, so would work even with the weakest broadband. But still, surely there is a case for maintaining both networks in parallel, to keep a back-up in the event of a power outage or a national cyber attack?

In November 2023, following the inaugural AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park, the National Cyber Security Centre concluded that, ‘Artificial intelligence (AI) will almost certainly increase the volume and heighten the impact of cyber attacks over the next two years.’ Critical infrastructure is under threat in almost every country, but especially in Britain, according to a recent report by the Security Intelligence blog. The UK was the most targeted country in Europe, which is already the region most impacted by cyber incidents, it says.

But a spokesman for the DSIT says it is obliging network providers to ensure the new network will be immune from such an attack. ‘The UK has one of the toughest telecoms cybersecurity regimes in the world and we have strong regulations in place to make sure providers meet required security standards.’

The pressure to digitalise is everywhere, from schools to banking to buying train tickets or paying our bills – keep up or lose out. Yes, the copper wire landline telephone is a product of the past. But in replacing our analogue systems with digital ones, are we sure we are making an improvement? Has digital radio proved better than FM? Are computerised cars, which many mechanics are unable to repair, really superior?

Back in Ammanford, there is a sense of general resignation. ‘You don’t get any real choice these days, do you?’ says Nadine. This is a place used to being overlooked, forgotten. Only 54 per cent of Carmarthenshire has full-fibre broadband, and it will take years for that number to approach 100 per cent, if indeed ever. Money is being spent by the Government to improve matters, with the launch of the £5 billion Project Gigabit, which aims to bring high speed internet to out-of-the-way rural households by 2030. But, in the meantime, what they have got here in Ammanford is a very strong sense of community.

As one resident, Angela, puts it: ‘If you call an ambulance it takes 20 hours to arrive anyway. So round here, if anything goes wrong, you’re much better off calling your neighbour.’