The end of the ISDN telephone network: What is the truth?

There has been much discussion in the telecoms industry about the announcement that BT intend to switch off the existing ISDN telecoms infrastructure. The date that has been given for this is 2025. This may seem some way off but the effects are being felt now. So what is the truth behind the switch off and how will it affect consumers, both business and domestic?

The core UK network has been based around data connections for many years, the rapid change over the last few years with the roll out of ‘Superfast’ broadband, has resulted in a decline in ISDN connections as more and more organisations have moved to replacement IP products commonly known as VOIP.

As the market place has matured so has the reliability of IP voice products until it’s now commonly accepted that you would not reinstall ISDN if your business moved premises but would instead move to a managed VOIP service.

It’s also true to say that over the last few years the concerns with regard to security  and quality have eased with the end result that organisations in general are now far more open to cloud services. SME’s have primarily driven the take up of VOIP as they have benefitted from reduced costs, increased functionality and greater flexibility.

The tipping point of the number of IP circuits being installed compared to ISDN/legacy connections was reached in 2015 when the number of IP connections leapt ahead of ISDN.

What this means in practice is that investment into the legacy telephony network was being reduced a number of years ago. Some analysts believe that this has resulted in an increasingly unreliable legacy network. The other significant factor is a gap in knowledge, the older Openreach engineers, trained on ISDN, are retiring, thus the required skillsets and experience are diminishing making maintenance more difficult and costly.

It is these two factors that are having a direct impact on the legacy telephony network: lack of investment resulting in a general running down of the network allied with engineering skill sets not been replicated as the legacy technology becomes less popular.

So the reality is that although the official ‘switch off’ is still some 7 years away the reality that organisations should be most concerned about is the likely increasing unreliability of the legacy network.

When do I need to change my phone lines?

Many organisations have jumped to upgrade to ‘superfast’ broadband but have not considered how that same connection could be used to carry voice traffic at the same time. Voice comparatively needs far less bandwidth to function than is required by data. This means that if the ‘superfast’ broadband  was changed to a managed/converged broadband the same circuit will be able to support both voice and data.

The greater functionality and often lower cost of an IP telephony service has already persuaded organisations to move away from legacy services. This will often mean that you will need to change your telephony equipment to a solution capable of working with IP. This shouldn’t be seen as a negative but as an opportunity to rethink how you’re operating.

A recent study* concluded that 77% of traditional telephone systems have been in place for over 20 years, and virtually all of them are more than 10 years old. The ability to support this aging equipment will diminish as the skill sets of workers evolve into IP. The figures suggest that many organisations are operating with equipment that can no longer be adequately supported.

An opportunity?

Organisations should be considering the integration of their landline telephony with their mobiles/devices to provide a single communication platform. Staff can be fully mobile, able to work anywhere and receive calls from clients as the networks become merged. The mobile and telephony network will both be based upon IP technology enabling a level of integration previously unavailable.

If you’re a domestic user already using ‘superfast’ fibre broadband then you won’t need to do anything as you’ve already made the transformation to an IP connection. Your landline will be changed to a cloud based number and you may have to invest in an IP telephony convertor which should be relatively inexpensive, but that will be the extent of the change.

Don’t Do’s

Do not sign long term contract for your current telephony services and this also applies to mobile contracts. This will severely limit your ability to change when the time arises.

Some telecoms providers are actively signing clients up to legacy lines for up to 5 years, this should be avoided at all costs.

Take advice and ideally ask for recommendations from other business users, don’t choose someone you’ve never heard of – research before you choose.

Consider the amalgamation of IT and Telecoms, cloud services make this a sensible option, the days of separate IT & Telecoms providers are numbered.

Call to action

The demise of the legacy telephone network will change how we all work, the advent of 5G probably around the same time – 2025 – is likely to sound the death knell for landline based broadband as we move towards even more data consumption from mobile phones.

The truth is that the legacy lines are not going to be ‘switched off’ at ‘anytime’ and 2025 should be treated as a headline date. But if you are still functioning with either ISDN or analogue lines the probability is that you will see a deterioration in service and it is that fact that should encourage you to explore IP options sooner rather than later.

Russell Marriott

Managing Director

Eastern Voice & Data

November 2018

*OVUM PSTN Migration