Why copper phone lines are vanishing across the UK

Why copper phone lines are vanishing across the UK

It’s been almost 150 years since our Victorian ancestors worked out how to transmit the sound of people’s voices along copper phone lines.

Since then, the humble landline has been a lifeline for people throughout the UK.

As recently as the 1990s, it was hard to imagine a world without a landline, and this became particularly true when dial-up internet arrived.

This quickly evolved into ADSL connectivity, often referred to by ISPs as standard broadband.

However, the internet tends to give with one hand and take with the other.

Demand for faster connectivity led to innovations like Fibre to the Cabinet and Fibre to the Premises broadband offers, which use fibre optic cables to distribute data instead of phone lines.

Increasingly, that data includes Voice over IP services like Skype and Zoom.

At the same time, mobile phones have become so ubiquitous that we’re rarely short of ways to talk to each other.

And encrypted communications platforms like WhatsApp have seen conversations evolve from voice to data, and from words to emoji.

The landline was becoming obsolete in many homes, even before its status as a necessary platform for broadband was weakened by the launch of SOGEA connections back in April.

SOGEA allows broadband services to be delivered in isolation down a fibre cable, and ISPs like Sky and TalkTalk almost immediately began providing internet without a phone line.

It’s no coincidence that SOGEA was rolled out by Openreach – the same company responsible for maintaining the UK’s copper phone lines.

Increasingly, that’s a job Openreach doesn’t want to do any more.

Coppers on the beat

In an age of full fibre connectivity and SOGEA services, phone lines resemble an anachronism.

They’re also poor at transmitting data, with realistic maximum speeds of 11Mbps download and 1Mbps upload over ADSL connections.

That’s just about enough to keep a small household connected to Netflix and Steam, but it’s hopeless for uploading large files, or immersive gaming platforms like Dota 2.

Around the world, telecommunications companies are switching customers from ADSL to fibre services as fast as they can.

Cities from Hull to Melbourne are effectively fibre-only now.

Openreach’s enthusiasm for replacing copper phone lines is twofold. Firstly, it makes no economic sense to maintain two largely incompatible data transfer systems at the same time.

Secondly, it’s under pressure from the UK Government and the devolved administrations to roll out fibre connectivity as quickly as possible, so consumers can replace ADSL with full fibre.

With Boris Johnson’s gigabit pledges at the last general election ringing in their ears, Openreach was set the target of dismantling our remaining copper phone network by December 2025.

That was always ambitious, and a year of on-off lockdowns has restricted the telecommunications industry’s ability to install new hardware, killing the 2025 deadline altogether.

Even so, Openreach’s plans to abolish the copper-based PSTN phone network continue apace.

Last month, it announced 51 new exchange locations where PSTN will be usurped by FTTP, from Armagh and Broxburn to Thamesmead and Wythenshawe.

Once 75 per cent of premises in an area served by an exchange can receive fibre connectivity, the copper switch-off tends to take place around three years later.

An estimated three million premises are already covered by FTTP or full-fibre broadband deals, and this number is expected to increase by another 1.5 million by next Spring.

The ambition is to reach 20 million premises later this decade, finally condemning our Victorian phone network to the history books.

In an age when gigabit broadband is the default aspiration for every household, it’s unlikely to be missed.

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