This is how the landline will die

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Enter any ordinary looking building marked “Telephone Exchange” and you will see how the world talks. Inside, the walls are crammed with rows of small plastic blocks. On the one hand, cables connect homes and businesses to the network; on the other, cables connect everyone to the rest of the world.

Since 1891, this impenetrable jungle of messy copper cables has allowed people to dial a single number to connect to anyone anywhere in the world, without the need for a human operator. Cables are the veins of the British public switched telephone network (PSTN), an analog jumble connecting any landline to a vast mesh of wires, submarine cables and satellites, cabinets and street poles. And in three years, most of those lines will go silent.

Thousands of engineers at Openreach are working to replace the UK copper telephone network and take the landline out of business for good. Their deadline? December 31, 2025. From that point on, landlines to any home or business in Britain will only continue to function if they are connected to the Internet.

“The copper network is still the bread and butter of the UK right now. It served us well during the pandemic, we kept everyone connected on this network, ”says James Lilley, director of managed customer migrations at Openreach. “It doesn’t fall off, but it takes more time and effort to keep it at that level.” And this effort quickly becomes too heavy to bear. The necessary equipment no longer being manufactured and the skills necessary for its maintenance no longer being taught, the copper network is running out of time.

When the changeover is over, it will mark the end of the domination of fixed telephone numbers: many will be abandoned, others forgotten. Old handsets will stop working if they cannot connect to digital exchanges and become relics just like the rotary telephone; and some phones will no longer use tone dialing, the musical sound that, since the 1960s, accompanied key presses to dial a phone number.

Across the UK, Openreach handles 192 million kilometers of cable, 110,000 green cabinets and 4.9 million telephone poles and junction boxes. Replacing copper with fiber won’t shrink the network, but Openreach hopes it will make it more profitable in the long run. That’s after an initial cost of £ 12 billion to deploy 1 Gbps to-premises fiber-optic (FTTP) in 20 million premises across the country. Openreach plans to reach 25 million by the end of 2026, and has already rocked 5.5 million. To do this, engineers must go to each exchange, unhook the copper cables and replace them with fiber until they reach 75% coverage. Once they do, they trigger a ‘stop sell’ which means they stop selling products on the copper platform and direct people to upgrade to FTTP at the place.

On October 5, the first real big slice of exchanges will hit the stop-sell barrier – around 1.4 million customers will be forced to trade for the first time when they switch providers or request an upgrade. of their network. This is the first time that this widespread change will occur outside of Openreach’s test sites in Salisbury and Mildenhall.

The challenge, says Lilley, is that engineers have to manage the turnover of people upgrading their services while serving people who are on the old analog telephone network. “We don’t want to run two networks in parallel, we don’t want to build new elements, which are really reliable, and then run an aging copper network alongside. That’s why people will be forcibly pushed into the new system when a nationwide sales shutdown goes into effect from September 2023, affecting 14 million customers who still rely on the PSTN network.


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