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14 Jan 2024

Averting impending disasters or issues

Fit to Switch Stand: A74

Copper wire has underpinned the UK’s telecommunications for over a century. It has kept emergency services, hospitals, schools, businesses and people connected and, until now, the vast majority of phone calls in the UK have been handled by the copper-based public switched telephone network (PSTN).

The PSTN is an analogue system which connects people using specific phone numbers but has become outdated and difficult to maintain. As such, the PSTN is scheduled to be switched-off in December 2025, with a nationwide stop sell now in place to prevent the ordering of new analogue services.

Last week, Comms Business launched Fit To Switch to media to explain to other sectors the implications of the impending switch-off and to help raise awareness of the options businesses have as they migrate away from the PSTN.

Unaware of impending issues

Mat Swift, publisher of Comms Business and co-founder of Fit To Switch, said, “The big reason why we’re here today is that a large proportion of the population is unaware of the impending issues if their networks aren’t upgraded correctly. The government, Ofcom, and Openreach – who owns the network – are not going to raise awareness of these issues through national campaigns such as through TV, press, or otherwise. People in the industry are very aware that this is the case.

“That is crazy when you consider that business continuity is at risk. And, if you look at some of the scenarios that need to be examined, possibly lives as well. We at Comms Business, and our owner, the Mark Allen Group, have therefore set up Fit To Switch as well as a website resource for all to access and find out more about what they need to do.

“We aim to raise awareness to businesses of the potential risks in a language that suits them and, if necessary, put them in touch with the telecoms industry professionals who can help. In the absence of a centralised approach, the telecoms industry has decided to support Fit To Switch as a collaborative industry initiative to help businesses across the UK understand the importance of acting now to prepare for the switch-off. Together we can avert any impending disasters or issues.”

The event included a panel discussion (pictured below) with Fit To Switch National Champions and supporting organisations to illustrate why the telecoms industry is collaborating to help businesses migrate to all-IP solutions ahead of the PSTN withdrawal.

Sara Sheikh, head of product management, Gamma, explained, “One of the reasons Gamma joined Fit To Switch was there just seemed to be a complete lack of awareness about this issue. We knew, in 2017, this is going to happen and it’s going to have a massive impact on people.

“People needed solutions, so we built these amazing solutions to help people transition and we thought it was going to get a massive adoption straightaway. Everyone knows it’s happening, and everyone will want this amazing solution that we’ve constructed. And then nothing happened. For us, that was a real wake up call. We started asking: why isn’t everyone talking about this? Why isn’t everyone thinking about this?”

Sheikh pointed to Gamma’s own research that found a third of businesses have no idea this is happening. Of the two thirds that did know, only 75 per cent had a migration plan, and those plans were at various stages, so there was disparity within that 75 per cent.

She added, “The message is clearly not hitting home and we could talk about how the government should be pushing this or how there should be one concrete message. But there’s not. So it felt important for Gamma to join a campaign where we could speak to people and not have it sound like a sales pitch. Fit To Switch gives us this place to speak to people about how this isn’t just an important topic, it is an existential issue. It’s about survival, and businesses need to be adopting these new technologies.”

A switch-on

Dale Parkinson, managing director, connectivity, Giacom, agreed there is a pressing

need to spread awareness and emphasised this must now also lead to action. He said, “We work with 5,500 partners. And those technology resellers sell a variety of technology products, which we buy from the vendors, such as Microsoft, Vodafone, and BT Wholesale. And you’d be surprised how much awareness there is in that community. It’s not as great as we might imagine, which is pretty astonishing when we started to inform our own channel partners back in 2018.

“For us, we have this idea of it being a switch-on and that’s about us stopping the tirade of information and starting to take some action. There are nine and a half million assets or services that we need to transform in the next two years. We’re not going to get that by just educating partners. You have to take some action. Fit To Switch is an opportunity for likeminded organisations to come together and start doing something about the challenge.”

Simon Horton, vice president of sales, Sangoma, explained his company sees its role a little differently to Gamma and Giacom as it is a manufacturer as well as provider of cloud services. The withdrawal of PSTN services, he explained, provides “the opportunity to enable businesses to move away from legacy phone systems towards unified comms-enabled systems”.

Horton added, “It’s not one-size-fits-all, as far as we’re concerned. Some businesses might want to go straight to cloud, but there are other options. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve got a bunch of people around me that have been in the industry for a similar amount of time. We know how to make this stuff work. We’ve got to get the message out to the Channel and to the end users that we can fix their stuff. We can offer them choice.”

Getting migrations going

Joe Sheppard, head of marketing, CSL Group, explained his company has joined Fit To Switch as time is running out to complete all migrations in time for the switch-off. He said, “From our point of view, our customers have been receiving information from us for five or six years. We’ve been working with Openreach and sharing upgrade options. But people don’t really believe it’s happening because they’re saying their phones are still working, so they’re not worried about it and say they‘ll wait until the end.

“But if we wait any longer, there won‘t be enough time to do it, there won‘t be enough engineers, and there won‘t be enough equipment. We can do everything we can to get ready and we’re all sat here with solutions that work, have been tested, and are successful. But there’s so much more we need to do to get these migrations going.”

Dr. Lucy Green, CEO and founder of Larato, discussed research Larato has carried out looking at how channel companies in each region can play a role in helping combined authorities to meet their digital objectives.

Focusing on helping businesses to migrate to all-IP solutions at a regional level, Green explained, can be a much more effective way at reaching businesses in time for the switch-off deadline.

She said, “If you empower small businesses by helping them to work with their local experts, you stand a better chance of meeting those digital objectives. This takes you away from a national agenda to a local agenda, which can be a little bit more personal. As an industry, if we could pull together and try to facilitate this regional approach, this could have legs.”

Real benefits for SMEs

Julien Parven, director of Daisy Partner Business, added, “Those 9.3 million PSTN lines that need to be migrated, when we break that down a little bit further, that is associated to 2.22 million UK SMEs. As an industry, we need this message to reach across that audience and that is incredibly difficult.

“Fit To Switch is important as we’ve been talking about this message, and pushing this message for a considerable amount of time. We have a vehicle of our own – Keeping Britain Working – but we feel that, given that we’ve now got two years until this deadline, as a community

we’ve got an obligation and a responsibility to UK SMEs to help them do something now.”

Parven emphasised the reality that this transition is a good thing for businesses across the UK. He said, “For the businesses who are sitting there with legacy technology, or with estates that they don’t understand and services that are not being used but are being paid for. Businesses can unlock that wasted revenue and reinvest it into accelerating their own digital transformation. If the government or the regulator can support us [with Fit To Switch], we can lay down a real foundational benefit for the UK SME market.”

Understanding your risks

Sue Michaelwaite, solutions manager, 8x8, pointed out some businesses do not even realise they are using the PSTN and will need to examine their existing solutions.

She said, “Communications in the cloud can deliver improved collaboration, productivity, and analytics. But what we find is that, when we go to do this, there is so much legacy stuff that businesses do not know they have. And, at this point, this needs to be pushed forward. 2025 is not long away and, if you do not understand everything you have got, you don’t understand your risks.

“We look after healthcare organisations and care homes, for example, and if we say: how does your alarm line work? They just say: it’s on the internet. They don’t see the potential problem because they don’t understand the technology that was put in years ago. They pay the alarm provider a service fee every year, but they don’t know what it’s running on. You must know your risks, and that means every business must do a risk assessment at minimum.”

Lee Turner, Comms Council UK member and head of industry engagement and regulatory affairs at Gamma, explained trade associations such as Comms Council UK are joining the Fit To Switch campaign due to concern over how little time is left to find solutions to complex use cases.

He said, “When this project was kicked off back in 2018, we asked Openreach to look at the most complicated cases first. We said: if you look at complicated business, CNI [critical national infrastructure], and vulnerable customers, if we got all that worked out, then the easy stuff was just going to be easy. They decided to instead go for the mass market, and to throw lines into houses. That means today, we still haven’t addressed some of those issues, and they could have been done back in 2018.”

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