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BT reportedly has plans to move all domestic and business phone customers to an IP based network within the next 10 years and is requesting that Ofcom relax its obligations on the company to provide a traditional copper based phone network at the same time. This would allegedly enable BT to focus on supporting a single network infrastructure and invest elsewhere. So, is the UK ready to move to an IP based network or should BT be forced to retain its existing Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) infrastructure?

BT’s argument is that most customers rarely use their landline to make calls now, with most opting to utilise mobiles or VoIP based technology anyway. In order to move with technology and remain competitive, it wants to utilise an IP based network for all landlines rather than the existing PSTN infrastructure that it (and KCOM in the Hull area) are obligated to provide as part of its Universal Service Obligation.

Mark Shurmer, BT’s group director of regulatory affairs, said: “We believe obsolete regulation should be rolled back, rather than clinging on until the last user dies. What we are looking for is a kind of ‘sunset clause’ that will help customers to plan.”

BT’s request is being made as a part of Ofcom’s ‘once in a decade review’ of the communications market and BT argues that deregulation will ‘level the playing field’ amongst providers and ‘over the top’ Internet companies such as Facebook who don’t face the same regulatory burdens. Without the deregulation, BT would be forced to maintain both networks simultaneously – with obvious cost implications.

Reducing the red tape

BT is also requesting a clean-up of duplicated red tape which increases the levels of paperwork and costs for the company.

“Regulation has not kept up with the massive growth in competition and rapid pace of technology change over the last decade, whilst there are many overlaps between British and European laws which could be removed and simplified. Such measures would improve efficiency, stimulate competition, and encourage investment in the UK’s connected future.”

TalkTalk, one of BT’s main competitors, supported its request for a reduction in red tape, but only if Openreach is separated from BT, stating “One of the reasons we think a separate Openreach would be better is it would allow a lot of deregulation.”

However, Ofcom has already stated that it’s looking to adopt a ‘lighter’ approach to regulation, so a forced separation seems unlikely at this stage.

So, is the UK ready to move to IP?

There are a number of points to consider here and at this stage the details haven’t been fully confirmed, but with that in mind…

Firstly, this would be a long term project. BT has stated this is part of a 10 year strategy by which point the market will undoubtedly have moved on significantly in terms of IP technology and changes to our use of phone lines and VoIP. Even today, how many of us currently use our copper based landlines to make regular calls? Or do you tend to opt for mobiles and IP based services such as Skype? With that in mind, perhaps moving to an IP based platform would not be such a bad thing, especially if it really does enable BT to invest money elsewhere, e.g. into broadband as has been hinted.

However, whether by choice or through lack of technical understanding and even economics, some customers using legacy infrastructure will not wish to move to an IP based connection. For them, having to spend more money to have an Internet connection in order to make and receive calls is unlikely to be popular.

With that in mind, even in 10 years’ time, we could still suffer from not-spots or at least poor speeds in some areas. Would this affect the quality or even ability to take advantage of this new voice infrastructure, given the sensitivity of VoIP traffic to jitter and packet loss and the challenges of delivering reliable broadband over long lines? If that’s the case, their suggested further investment into broadband will surely be an essential requirement!

What about the effect on the emergency services? Ofcom already requires that VoIP service providers make available the means for customers to register the physical address of their telephone numbers, although it’s not known how many customers actually do. Therefore the risk of emergency service operators being unable to respond quickly is high. What measures would be required to effectively save lives?

Whilst we understand BT’s intentions to move to a newer technology and applaud its plans for investment into future proof networks and infrastructure, we’re not convinced that it will be plausible to fully remove the existing PSTN infrastructure within the next 10 years and we are doubtful that Ofcom will agree to relax its regulatory obligations. Only time will tell though and we will be watching the progress of this story carefully!

Have your say!

Do you think the UK will be ready to give up its traditional copper based infrastructure by 2025? Do you think it will be plausible to move all customers to IP by that date? Do you think regulatory obligations on BT should be relaxed in order to help it remain competitive? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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