BT is abandoning its promise to ensure phone users over 70 can keep their landlines and not be forced to switch to controversial new digital lines for 12 months – and is signing them up immediately.
The telecoms giant was forced to delay its initial rollout last year after an investigation by our sister newspaper The Mail on Sunday alerted industry regulator Ofcom to operational failings, including customers not being able to use their phone lines during a power outage.
The relaunch came only after an advisory group agreed to give older homeowners the opportunity to delay installation for 12 months so they could familiarize themselves with the new technology and not feel pressured by the move.
The campaign organization for older people, Silver Voices, was involved in this Digital Voice Advisory Group.
Aaron Comber, from Steyning, Sussex, fears his 75-year-old mother will be isolated if she is forced to move
The switch to traditional copper landlines will be rolled out across the UK at different times over the next year
But now it feels tricked – because after agreeing to the deal, BT is quietly increasing the age at which you can delay installation to 75.
Dennis Reed, director of Silver Voices, said: “We were part of that advisory group and agreed not to object to resuming the rollout as long as the 70-year-olds were looked after during the change.” “We were misled and BT has this Promises broken.”
Although BT is alerting households to the change with cards and letters in the post, emails and text messages, it is leaving it up to customers to put the change on hold.
The new digital phones must be plugged into a power outlet and require a broadband connection to work – using so-called Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology instead of analog signals over copper lines.
Six million adults do not own a cell phone and 1.5 million households do not use the Internet.
Digital Voice requires customers to use a new handset – or an adapter for old phones – that plugs into an internet and power outlet.
If you don’t use the internet, BT says it will send out technicians to adjust the phone lines for free – and provide a new digital handset and adapter free of charge.
For those worried about being stuck in a power outage, BT is charging £85 for power pack batteries – but the company should provide them free of charge to vulnerable customers. Phone users should not notice any change in sound quality.
BT aims to convert 10 million customers to digital over the next two years. Nationwide, the government wants all 29 million households to use digital technology.
BT initially agreed to allow everyone aged 70 and over to delay the switch for a year to give customers time to get used to the technology.
Digital Voice is being rolled out region by region. Around two million households have already made the switch.
In July it focused on the East Midlands and in August began contacting those in Yorkshire and Humberside, giving them a four-week warning that they would be contacted next. Northern Ireland is also in the spotlight.
Homes in the North West and London are due to be contacted this autumn. Customers are initially approached with emails and text messages, along with cards dropped in the mailbox. BT holds regional town hall meetings.
BT has announced the next phase of its Digital Voice transition, which will see it ditch its legacy copper network in favor of broadband phone calls
BT memorably used Maureen Lipman as ‘Beattie’ (pictured) to promote landline services in the 1980s
Jackie Carlton, 70, from Kilham in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was told she and her husband Allan, 71, would be moving in the summer – but no information was given about how they might delay the move as Jackie is classed as vulnerable could be because she has cancer.
The retired librarian says: “The hospital tried to call to make an appointment, but the landline had been converted to digital voice without my knowledge – so nothing got through.” We live in a rural area with power outages and poor cell phone reception, so I rarely use a cell phone. My experience shows that this change puts people’s lives at risk.”
BT says it is “not proactively moving” vulnerable households, but admits the onus is on the customer to ask the telecoms giant for 12 months’ notice.
Questions and answers: What is the change and does it affect me?
Do I need a fast connection?
Internet speeds of just one megabit per second (Mbps) should be sufficient for good digital phone service. And every UK household has the right to demand a download speed of at least 10Mbps.
Will my bills go up?
Customers must pay to use the Internet at home. However, experts assume that providers are likely to offer cheap, simple offers that are similar to pure landline contracts. It is unknown whether customers with older phones will have to purchase a new cell phone or whether they will receive one for free.
What happens if the internet goes down?
If the internet goes down or there is a power outage, digital phone lines stop working. Those who are at risk or do not have a mobile phone should be offered a backup such as a battery, emergency line or mobile phone so that they can still call 999 in an emergency.
What do i have to do?
Nothing yet. Those who only sign landline contracts or don’t have internet will hear from their provider later.
Ruth Comber, 75, from Steyning in West Sussex, said: “As a widow I am completely reliant on my landline. “I have a mobile phone but the reception is so poor where I live that it would be faster for communication to use the pigeon mail. “This change fills me with fear.”
Her son Aaron, 53, a former pub landlord, said: “Anyone in a rural area without mobile phone reception will be completely isolated in the event of a power outage.”
After the change, old phone lines simply fail – and those who are unaware of the change may not realize what has happened until calls stop or they can no longer call.
People who wear health tags or have a home alarm system that is connected to the local fire department are also affected, as these also usually no longer work.
Neville Withers, 84, from Acton, west London, said: “There are many like me with mobility problems. “I have a button on my wrist that I can press in an emergency. The connection is made via a conventional landline to a care center. “If the button fails, it could be a matter of life and death.”
Other telcos involved in the digital rollout include Virgin Media. It has five million customers, including retired psychiatrist Trevor Bailey.
The 73-year-old says: “I’m witnessing a perfectly good landline being switched to a system I don’t want.” “I can’t get Virgin on the phone without it trying to contact me with an ‘expert chatbot’ computer to connect – so it’s hard for me to reach a real person to explain my desire not to move.”
Virgin says it can provide vulnerable customers with phones with eight hours of backup time in the event of a power outage. It also claims that it will offer technical support up to six months before the change – through visits from technicians.
BT says: “We are testing the rollout of Digital Voice to a limited number of broadband customers over 70 who live in urban areas and are ready to switch.” Initial results show that 98 percent of customers are aged between 70 and 74 decided to change.
It said moving to “future-proof fixed lines” was essential as existing technology was “rapidly becoming outdated”.
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