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An independent view on the digital phone switchover

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What are the risks of operating analogue equipment over a digital network? Now work is well underway on the digital phone switchover, it’s important everyone involved in delivering telecare services is aware of the key facts – and that these are not seen as simply a commercial message.

We’ve been talking about the digital phone switchover here at Appello for many years now. But, as a digital telecare supplier, you may wonder how impartial our recommendations are!

Earlier this year, we put together a round-up of information, concerns and advice from a range of independent sources to highlight the main points for housing providers. As we reach the end of 2023 and look ahead to 2024, we’ve amended this to include the most recent updates.

The next 12-18 months will be significant for our industry as more areas are moved onto the digital phone network ahead of the final deadline in 2025. This is reflected in the latest advice from the Government and telecoms industry, which have both ramped up their messaging on the subject over the last year.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of the essential information, covering:

– What does the Government say about the move to digital telecare?

– Guidance from other government bodies

– Updates from the telecoms industry

– Advice on digital telecare from industry bodies

– Data on the impact of the digital switch

– Opportunities of digital telecare for housing providers

This has been taken from papers, reports, research and resources provided by independent, non-commercial organisations, with links to the sources so you can do some more reading as required.

What does the Government say about the move to digital telecare?

Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan – The Department of Health & Social Care

The first update to the Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan was published in August 2023. This tracks progress so far, with information on the ongoing work by the telecare and telecommunications sectors to reduce risks when switching over telecare users to digital telephone lines.

“It is important that action continues to be progressed to ensure risks are mitigated ahead of the December 2025 deadline for the telecommunications industry-led public switched telephone network (PSTN) switch-off… Telecare service providers will also wish to assess their telecare users’ analogue equipment for digital compatibility, contacting their equipment supplier for the latest verifiable information on reliability, and having a plan to react if a telecare service user’s equipment does not work reliably when switched over.”
Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan, August 2023 update

The Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan was published at the end of 2022 by the Department of Health & Social Care. It’s described by the Housing LIN as “the only comprehensive up to date account of what is happening on the analogue to digital phone switchover and how this is linked to the telecare sector”.

The paper provides summary information on the impact of digital on traditional telecare, with an action plan to deal with this.

“At the moment, many vulnerable telecare users are at risk… That’s because telecare is still mainly provided through analogue equipment and these devices may not be digitally compatible or perform as reliably as they do now on digital networks. The need to mitigate this risk is urgent… Telecare service providers should act now with other telecare and telecommunications sector stakeholders to make sure people who use their services – our vulnerable citizens – are protected and prepared for the future.”
Ministerial Forward from The Lord Markham CBE, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Care

House of Commons briefing

A briefing on the digital telephone switchover was published in July 2023. This is primarily aimed at consumers but flags the importance of contingency measures in the event of a power cut, which is particularly relevant for telecare services.

“Unlike traditional landlines, digital phone lines will not work in a power cut without a backup power source. Ofcom requires providers to take measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency services including during a power cut. This could include, for example, a battery supply or mobile phone.”
Digital Telephone Switchover – Research Briefing

Guidance from other government bodies

Scottish Government

The Digital Telecare Playbook was updated in 2023. This is a comprehensive resource published and managed by the Digital Health & Care Directorate and The Digital Office for Scottish Local Government. It is designed to “explore the stepping stones to achieve a digital transition through three phases: Discovery, Planning and Implementation”.

A National Briefing document was released in 2020 and additional information for telecare service providers has included a Digital Telecare Roadmap, which draws on the experiences of other countries who have already made the transition to digital services.

“Inaction on switching to digital telecare could lead to dangerous failures of essential services and will put the support given to vulnerable individuals at risk… Telecare service providers should view costs as a necessary and effective investment which will support the effectiveness of future care services. It is essential we are aligned with the migrations and timescales being pursued by the telecommunications industry.”
National Briefing Document, Digital Office Scotland

Welsh Government – Llywodraeth Cymru

TEC Cymru, funded by the Welsh Government and Aneurin Bevan University, is supporting Welsh telecare service providers to ensure the safe migration to digital.

The aim is to be a “100% digital telecare nation by the end of 2025”. To achieve this, there are a number of resources aimed at raising awareness and providing practical guidance, such as a pre-migration toolkit.

“The switch over has already begun… Already the digital migration is affecting connectivity, and in some cases the functionality of in-home telecare alarms.”
Digital Migration, TEC Cymru

Local Government Association

The LGA has provided several resources within its Digital Switchover Hub, including a toolkit for commissioners and a digital switchover checklist.

“The digital switchover is fast approaching and will impact on a whole range of vital services, including in adult social care. Our survey shows that unless action is taken now to support councils to help their residents and suppliers with this change, we face the prospect of serious disruption to people’s lives, including most urgently those who use personal devices such as alarms and fall detectors to stay safe in their own homes.”
Cllr Mark Hawthorne, LGA Digital Connectivity Spokesperson

Updates from the telecoms industry – the digital switchover and telecare

Network operators (such as Openreach and Virgin) and network providers (such as BT, Virgin, Sky) have been clear from the outset about the potential impact the digital switchover will have on services currently using analogue, such as traditional telecare.

“The telecommunications industry and Ofcom recommend that all communications devices connected to telephone networks – including telecare alarms – should be digital because of the risk that signals from analogue devices could be corrupted or lost over a digital network.”
Department of Health & Social Care

Information from Openreach

The important message from Openreach during 2023 has been that the digital phone switchover is already underway and the upgrade can happen from now onwards, tackling the perception that changes will not take effect until the end of 2025.

 “On Dec 31 2025 all telephone lines maintained by Openreach on behalf of BT Group that don’t use a router will be switched off. Between now and then, all 690 Communications Providers (Telephone/Broadband suppliers/ISP) served by Openreach, must move all of their customers from the old exchange equipment to the new digital fibre network. They will all do this independently. Each affected customer will be contacted by their own Communications Provider and given a date for this change. This can be anytime between now and the end of 2025.”
UK Analogue to Digital Switchover – Openreach presentation at Appello webinar

The Openreach telecare industry factsheet highlights potential issues with moving to digital phone lines, including the requirement of a battery back-up and the fact that “many telecare devices are 20 years old and will need to be upgraded to digital compatible devices”.

“Because the telecare industry provides such a vital service, it’s crucial that the migration to digital phone lines is managed effectively and all stakeholders understand the challenges involved.”
Telecare Industry Factsheet, Openreach

Openreach has also commented on the significance of its national ‘stop sell’ of analogue services, which was implemented in September 2023.

“As part of this whole process, we’re now taking the significant step of ending the sale of new analogue services across the UK. That means from today, when customers sign up for a new contract – or when they switch, upgrade or re-grade their service via their provider – they’ll be moved onto a new digital line rather than an analogue one.”
Upgrading the UK to Digital Phone Lines, Openreach

The message from BT

“Breaking away from aging technologies and legacy protocols is about modernising the UK. It’s about switching over to the future-proof, internet-based networks that will connect people, businesses and public services for the next century. And with the outdated, legacy hardware no longer fit for purpose, the time to act is now… To minimise disruption, customers need to get ahead now.”
The road to 2025: Why the industry must navigate the digital switchover together

Updates from the telecoms industry (published on UK Telehealthcare hub)

“If you… use telecare equipment I would urge you to ask your provider to come and test at TalkTalk. The more testing information we have the better. Please remember that just because it works on one network doesn’t guarantee it will work on TalkTalk.”
Phil Cain, Industry and Vendor Liaison, TalkTalk

 “Virgin Media has a programme in place to decommission the old Telephone Switches (sometimes referred to as Telephone Exchanges) in our network and migrate the customers whose landlines are connected to those switches. This work is happening now and will be ongoing until the end of 2025. We work on multiple Telephone Switches at once and we have dates by which they need to have all the customers migrated away from them. It is important to note that migrations will be happening before the dates shown on the lists… and these dates may change.”

Advice on digital telecare from industry bodies  

TSA, the TEC industry body

The TSA has provided much information on the digital shift and is now working with the government on a number of areas identified in the Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan.

“This (digital) shift has urgent implications for the technology enabled care (TEC) sector and the millions of people who rely on telecare in the UK. The transition has begun already with many telecom exchanges having converted over to fully digital… Action and careful planning needs to begin now so that telecare and social alarm service reliability and safety is not compromised: that lives are not put at risk.”
The Digital Shift, TSA

Housing LIN, a network bringing together housing, health and social care professionals

“It’s important that we don’t underestimate the time it can take to embed change and technology into our services. With the digital switchover looming, professionals across the housing with care spectrum must lead from the top and encourage colleagues to understand the benefits of technology and the service transformation it can achieve.”
Jeremy Porteus, CEO at the Housing LIN

UK Telehealthcare, the Telecare, Telehealth and TECS Hub for Health and Care Professionals, Service Users and Carers

“Going forward it is imperative that commissioners, procurement teams and TECS providers ensure that equipment purchased between now and 2025 is compatible with the All-IP programme and suppliers need to ensure due diligence in guiding their customers through this process.”
Rabbits in the digital headlights, Gerry Allmark, UK Telehealthcare

NICC, UK Interoperability Standards – the technical forum for the UK communications sector

“Anyone that is intent on finding reasons to keep their analogue-only solutions in place, contrary to expert advice, rather than accepting and embracing change, will clearly be doing so for short-term financial reasons, and will be doing so despite offering an inferior service to their competitors and potentially putting their customers at unnecessary risk.”
Advice quoted in TSA testing guidance

Data on the impact of the digital switch

With the work on the digital switchover in progress, we’re already seeing how this is affecting analogue telecare services. Research shows an increase in the rate of first-time call failures, while independent testing on analogue telecare devices to date has shown a significant variance in reliability when operating over a digital network.

TSA

“It is known that there is a variation in performance of analogue devices across communications providers’ digital networks…. The results of these tests show there are a significant proportion (of TEC devices) that either function intermittently – or not at all. The testing also highlighted that, whilst some networks achieved a high rate of connection success across a wide range of devices, others did not fare so well.”
The urgent need to test analogue devices on digital lines, TSA

Digital Office Scotland

“There has been an increase in reports from service providers across Scotland to highlight a range of issues relating to the analogue to digital migration. The view of network operators (Openreach & Virgin) and communications providers (BT, Virgin, Sky) is that call failure rates for tone-based analogue communication will continue to steadily increase as the UK’s network infrastructure transitions to digital.”
The revolution will not be analogue, Digital Office Scotland

Research commissioned by Department of Health & Social Care

“Around half of providers and suppliers have already experienced issues with their existing telecare service because of the digital shift… Quoted failure rates across all service users were typically around 5%. However, the failure rate reported varied significantly; the lowest figure was 2.3% and one supplier reported seeing a failure rate of 30% for connections from older grouped scheme telecare equipment. For comparison, recent TSA Commissioner Guidance quotes a failure rate of 2.3% to 3.6% for alarm devices using analogue technology.”
Farrpoint, Digital Shift Report

The experience of other countries

“Analogue telecare equipment cannot be guaranteed to operate safely and reliably over digital telephone lines and with digital migrations underway across the country, some services are reporting a rise in the number of failed calls. Evidence from countries who have already made the transition to digital telecare suggests… there will be an increased rate of call failures from analogue telecare equipment due to distortion in the analogue signalling.”
National Briefing Document, Digital Telecare for Scottish Local Government

Opportunities of digital telecare for housing providers

The digital switchover makes the move to digital telecare a necessity but it’s also important to recognise digital technology offers many benefits for both your organisation and your customers.

Better-quality services

“Switching to digital telecare can offer better-quality services tailored to meet each service user’s specific needs. When technology is embedded seamlessly into care and support services, it can be transformative, supporting people to live happy and fulfilled lives in their homes and communities. There are significant benefits to be gained from the ability to distil meaningful information from digital data, and use it to design more personalised services and achieve greater efficiency, better outcomes and closer integration between telecare and telehealth applications.”
Telecare Stakeholder Action Plan, Department of Health & Social Care

Meet the demands of the future

“All services will eventually have to transition to digital. This makes the time, finances and resources spent maintaining an obsolete platform seem more of an additional cost than any real saving… When the possibilities and innovations that digital telecare offers are considered, it seems increasingly hard to justify focusing on maintaining business as usual, when that time could be spent preparing a resilient, innovative service which can meet the demands of the future.”
Is the transition to digital telecare really necessary? Digital Office Scotland

The value of data

“There is also the chance to transform services which could potentially improve services and lower care costs in the longer term… The opportunity to gather and use data from digital solutions is the key difference. Data can increase the focus on prevention, increase personalised care assessment and planning, inform social care commissioning and drive continuous improvement of the service.”
Digital Switchover Toolkit for Commissioners, Local Government Association

Conclusion – the time to act is now

This blog post provides a snapshot of the concerns and advice being voiced by independent sources, such as government and industry bodies.

Of course, we’d love to tell you about our warden call systems and dispersed alarms – we’re proud of our innovation and track record within the industry.

But, as the digital network continues to be rolled out across the UK, we want to stress that the emphasis on digital telecare is more than simply a commercial message. The bottom line is that the digital switchover puts analogue telecare at risk and upgrading to digital is the best way to ensure the continued safety of these essential services for the people who rely on them.

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