Technology

PSTN switch-off threatens access to adult social care services

London’s chief digital officer (CDO) has raised alarm over the impact of the copper switch-off on adult social care and other vital local government services, warning over its impact to vulnerable people and the rising costs being borne by local authorities.

In 2017, telecommunications providers announced their plans to switch off the UK’s old copper telephony network (known as the Public Switched Telephone Network, or PSTN) and upgrade it to a fully digital service that operates over the internet protocol (IP) via a fibre-based network.

The industry-led process to switch off the privately owned network is due be completed by the end of 2025, but a briefing paper from London CDO Theo Blackwell – seen by Computer Weekly – has highlighted a number of concerns with the effort.

This includes the increasing cost of the switch over to local councils, which Blackwell said will only increase without financial support from central government or telecoms providers, as well as the impact on households and public services that are still heavily reliant on PSTN services.

In particular, Blackwell has flagged the impact of the switch-off on the telecare aspects of the adult social care system, as well as a range of “legacy services” in London’s wider social housing estate.

Examples of systems reliant on the current copper networks include lifts, building entry systems, fire and door alarms, burglar alarms, a range of medical equipment, various utilities monitoring devices, and school security systems.

“The biggest source of concern for local authorities is telecare users who are dependent on telecare services that would alert the local authority if they fell or got into any form of trouble at home and needed attention,” Blackwell told Computer Weekly. “It’s an absolutely vital service for people to live independently.”

Complex challenges

Blackwell added that the switch-off has created complex challenges for local authorities and telcos in relation to these users, as it entails understanding where they are, which specific services they are using, and contacting them to enter their home and replace the kit.

“There are many points of failure in in that process,” he said, further highlighting the high cost and difficulty of creating data-sharing agreements between companies and local authorities due to the obvious sensitivity of sharing data about vulnerable people, but which he says is necessary to get the switch completed.

“This is the most complex data sharing challenge faced by local authorities at the moment, where local authorities have to sign data sharing agreements with potentially hundreds of connection providers.”

Blackwell added, however, that many data sharing agreements are being held up because of a lack of awareness. “Information governance departments are going, ‘Who is this firm, asking for the names and addresses of all the vulnerable people in our borough?’ You don’t give that information away willy nilly,” he said.

“That logjam of data sharing requires much greater coordination between the central government, Ofcom and others.”

According to the government’s PSTN Charter from December 2023, which committed seven leading telecoms companies to protecting vulnerable consumers through the transition process, it’s “working with the telecare industry and with local authorities to encourage information sharing about customers and residents with communication providers to help identify customers who may need additional support” – although further detail is scant.

Blackwell, however, said the agreement “doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to resolving the complexity of the issue”.

Insufficient oversight

He further claimed that both Ofcom and government “have been absent from the detail of what copper switch-off actually means in practice – they have not provided sufficient oversight to the telecommunications industry to safeguard vulnerable people.

“It’s another massive government infrastructure failure, and most worryingly, it could result in the deaths of vulnerable people if something goes wrong in this complex process,” said Blackwell.

Regarding the issues around adult social care services, an Ofcom spokesperson said that “migrations of customers where a telecare device is connected to the PSTN can be particularly complex because some telecare devices will not readily work on an IP-based voice service.

“As the telecare devices are supplied and installed by organisations separate to the telecoms provider, the telecoms provider may not know that a customer has a telecare device, whether that device is definitely compatible, and does not have the authority or responsibility to change the device if it is incompatible,” they said.

The spokesperson added that the regulator has been clear that it expects providers to take all reasonable steps to ensure telecare users are not put at risk during the switch-off: “Our expectations are set out in our Future of Fixed Telecoms policy statement from 2019, and we regularly remind providers of these expectations during the course of our monitoring programme,” they said. “Ofcom has been working with stakeholders, including local authorities, the healthcare sector and telecare providers to raise awareness of these issues and the need to ensure their telecare devices are compatible with IP systems for a number of years now.”

Ofcom said it does not have oversight of how many local authorities have signed the data sharing agreements with providers.

A spokesperson said “the decision to retire the PSTN is one taken by industry, and as such, any deadlines and meeting them are a matter for industry. Ofcom is closely monitoring the migration to IP, and our objective is to minimise any undue disruption or harm to customers.”

Mounting costs

According to the briefing note, sent from Blackwell to local government officers throughout London, the cost of upgrading telecare services for social care users living at home – just one aspect of the overall change – is estimated by the Greater London Authority (GLA) to be £31m. It also estimated 63,000 people will be affected by this change alone.

“This is just the beginning, as total costs are likely to increase,” he wrote. “In supported housing (which also must be assessed for needs before further upgrades can be planned); social housing, such as door entry systems and lift alarms; and other services areas, where assessments indicate the nature of the change needed.

“A high-level indication of costs over the next two years from one inner London borough with a large amount of social housing indicates total costs of up to an estimated £8m (covering adult social care and social housing).”

Overall, Blackwell estimated that local authorities in London could be hit with a bill of between £45m and £70m for the upgrades, noting that money spent on the switch-off would ultimately take away resources from adult social care and other council services.

On top of mounting costs and the threat to key services that rely on copper telephony, Blackwell added that the government’s hands-off approach to the switch-off – whereby industry has been left to drive communication efforts with the public – has led to widespread confusion about the changes and associated costs.

Citing a Which? survey that revealed 74% of consumers with copper landline connections were unaware of the impending migration, Blackwell noted that despite the low-level awareness, there are currently no plans for a national awareness campaign by the government or industry regulator Ofcom.

The note ends with a number of “recommendations for a better approach”, which includes the government delivering a high-level awareness campaign via Ofcom; a more joined-up approach from Whitehall to seize the opportunities of new digital technology integrations presented by the switch; and reconsidering the phasing of the process to spread costs on local taxpayers more evenly.

Blackwell also recommended the creation of a “modernisation fund”. “Telecommunications companies benefit from the savings associated with the switch-off, while costs are borne by local taxpayers, organisations and customers,” he said. “To promote more coherent change, a central fund should have been established, funded by telecommunications companies, to support the expansion of new services – particularly across local public services and the NHS.”

Computer Weekly contacted the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) about all of the concerns raised by Blackwell. This included questions about the progress of the data sharing agreements; their views on the copper switch-off deadline; and any potential plans to launch national awareness campaigns.

DSIT specifically was also asked about further central government funding to help local authorities deal with the increasing costs of the copper switch-off.

“The current copper landline network is an ageing technology, and so the telecoms industry has decided to upgrade to a modern, more secure network,” said a DSIT spokesperson. “Individual telecoms firms are running their own bespoke comms campaigns to raise awareness in the specific areas where this switchover is taking place.

“It is vital that vulnerable people are protected through the transition process, which is why government has written to all local authorities to ask them to prioritise data sharing with telecoms companies so adequate support can be put in place where needed,” they said. “We continue to work closely with industry and local authorities, taking action to ensure vulnerable people receive support through the transition.”

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