Ofcom Monitors UK Internet Phone Providers Over 999 Concerns – ISPreview.co.uk

Ofcom has today opened a new monitoring programme, which will pay special attention to checking whether internet phone providers, such as those offered by dedicated Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and broadband providers (ISP), are ensuring the availability of access to emergency services (999) during power cuts.
The United Kingdom is, like much of the rest of Europe, rapidly moving to withdraw its legacy of older copper-based phone lines (e.g. Openreach expects to withdraw the old PSTN platform by December 2025). The change reflects the unavoidable move toward pure Internet Protocol (IP) based networks, as well as the new generation of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband infrastructure.
The fact that very few people today make much use of their landline phone (most prefer mobile, VoIP and internet messaging) is another reason for the shift. But as this transition occurs – not just at BT, but across multiple ISP and phone providers – a growing number of people are also beginning to realise that the old copper phone services did have one advantage – being powered by the exchange meant they continued to work during power cuts.
By comparison, pure IP based, and full fibre networks are dependent upon a working broadband router and Optical Network Terminal (ONT) in order to deliver the phone service, which naturally runs into a problem during power cuts – this can be particularly problematic if you live in an area with poor or no mobile signal.
The regulator requires that such phone providers “must take all necessary measures to ensure uninterrupted access” to the emergency services (i.e. police, fire, ambulance and coastguard). Since the end of 2018, Ofcom’s “expectation” on this front has been to “recommend only providing battery backup or other protection facilities to vulnerable consumers” (here).
However, such battery systems only need to be good enough to work for a minimum of 1 hour, and there are concerns that not all network operators are either providing such solutions or doing an effective job of identifying “vulnerable” customers (to be fair, this is a tricky thing to get right and adds costs). Ofcom will now be keeping a much closer eye on all this (here), which in our view is something that should have started in 2018/19.
Ofcom’s Statement
Calls made over broadband using VoIP-based technology will not function in a power cut unless additional solutions are in place, as the broadband equipment at the premise requires mains power to work.
Ofcom rules state that providers must still offer a way for landline-dependent customers to contact the emergency services, and they should take steps to identify who these customers are and offer them a suitable solution. We also provided guidance to industry on how they can ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations during a power outage for customers using digital voice technology.
In the first stage of our monitoring programme, Ofcom will gather information from a range of alternative network providers and VoIP providers. This will help us understand what they are doing to ensure that they comply with their obligations. We will also be engaging with industry to ensure that providers understand their obligations and how they apply to businesses providing Fibre to the Premises services.
Naturally, the greatest responsibility here must fall on the provider of your physical broadband line, since it is their kit that needs to stay active during a power cut in order for IP based phone services to function. But end-users can also purchase their own battery backup solutions, independent of an ISP (Solutions for Battery Backup of Fibre Broadband and VoIP Phone), if they so desire.
At present, BT seems to be the only major operator to be acting on such concerns, as evidenced by their decision to pause the rollout of their new Digital Voice system earlier this year (here). However, such issues are a problem for most broadband and phone providers, so it’s wrong to focus purely on BT. But equally, there may be limits to what can be done on this front.
It’s also important to recognise that serious power outages, lasting days or weeks, would simply be too expensive for providers to cover with a battery system and may sometimes impact the operator too (i.e. having a battery may not help during extreme cases). Like it or not, it won’t be possible to completely replicate the kind of security that the old legacy phone service provided, but then 4G mobile coverage is expected to reach 95% by 2025.
The other question mark is over what happens when customers have more than one line, possibly with different providers. Some installations could become an ugly mess of wires and batteries.
UPDATE 12th July 2022
Ofcom’s focus above is clearly on landline replacement services, which is something they do confirm, but we’ve been informed that ‘Over The Top’ (OTT) style VoIP / SIP providers (e.g. those that might not sell any physical hardware products, be they battery or handsets etc.) might still be caught if they meet the definition of a Publicly Available Telephone Service (PATS).
The regulator said the rules apply to all providers of a Publicly Available Telephone Service (PATS) and all providers of a Public Electronic Communications Network (PECN) over which a PATS is provided. But how far this will actually impact OTT providers is still a little unclear, as Ofcom intend to monitor compliance on a case-by-cases basis.
All of this is important because there’s a lot of talk about power cuts and end-user battery backup above, which obviously goes well beyond what most OTT VoIP/SIP providers deliver (software/virtual only). But if Ofcom were to start requiring that they offer battery backup solutions to customers too, then this raises a question mark over how – in a sea of hundreds of different router, handset and ONT combinations (with different power requirements by different broadband ISPs) – such operators can deliver a rules-compliant solution.
However, we understand that the regulator will consider issues of technical feasibility when deciding such things, as well as whether it’s within the provider’s reasonable control to take the measures set out in their guidance.
A large (ish) battery bank on a maintenance charge with multiple dc-dc converters for the router, ONT and possibly the phone is the solution, not that any isp would ever consider supplying that, so homebrew it is…it’ll probably last longer than the street and exchange backup.
Simple, buy a cheap £7.50 basic mobile phone. No sim card or contract required to ring 999.
A few key exchanges have diesel generate sets but most exchanges no longer have them. They rely o tr batteries in the even of a power cut and can move a mobile generator oi if the power cut will be for an extended time but that only works for isolated power cuts
They used to have and probably still do a two stage cut off system. Stage 1 was ordinary residential users would be cut off. Stage to would be most businesses and non essential users are cut off
The aim of the above being to conserve power for essential services
I don’t understand the fuss about 999 calls. Are they just after tracking you? Why does it matter where you call from. Why must there be an address associated with the phone number? The only reason I can think is so they can punish people who abuse it.
it’s for sending an ambulance or fire engine etc to your registered address.
Imagine if you call 999, but get cut off, or faint or are a hostage or
Meritez yeah I get that part, but we all have mobiles so what happens if you’re in a car crash and you call 999 from your mobile and you get cut off? they arrive at your house? I mean I guess they can probably see the tower you are using but that could be kilometers out.
It’s why if you accidentally dial 999 or a child does you shouldn’t hang up but continue and apologise for the mistake, otherwise they may send police around to check everything is OK.
Although given they don’t even respond to most crimes nowadays perhaps they won’t bother…
I think you might be arguing about a different issue from the one above. The above is concerned with those deemed “vulnerable”, who may – for one reason or another – depend upon their fixed line phone (i.e. mobile might not work).
The article seems to infer that mobile phones will continue to work during widespread power outages however that would depend on every base station mast having an uninterruptible power supply. I very much doubt if the mobile phone companies have equipped many of their sites in such a way and perhaps Ofcom should investigate whether doing so would be a solution to the emergency services problem of an all IP network.
Unless someone was an adult during the 1970’s they will not remember what it is like to have nationwide rolling power cuts day after day over an extended period. Of course in those days all landlines continued to work during cuts due to large battery sets in exchanges backed up in most cases by a generator. Also if you were out and about there were many pay phones dotted around which also continued to work as the mechanisms were mechanical and the only use of mains electricity was to power the light bulb above your head in the box.
When I’ve had power cuts the mobile phone signal has also vanished roughly 10-15 minutes in, and then it seems to take a while for the phone networks to re appear again .
Due to a spate of powercuts in the not to distant past Ive got an old school corded landline phone plugged in as that still works when the power is off and with it the mobile phone network is down as well.
I can also remember the 1970s and the rolling power cuts, and wiring up a diasy chain of DC bulbs across the phone line to give some backup lighting in the house. You needed to keep the power draw sensible but it was better than nothing. Extra bonus was that the lights flashed if the phone was ringing. Worked a treat.
Seems like we haven’t progressed very far,doesn’t it.
Simple, buy a cheap £7.50 basic mobile phone. No sim card or contract required to ring 999
I suspect that a SIM card is actually required otherwise the phone wouldn’t be registered with a network? But the SIM would not need any credit, and it could place the 999 or 112 call onto any available network.
That’s only good for short outages. In rural areas power outages can be much longer than the mobile phone’s battery lasts for. EG storm Arwen left parts of Scotland without power for 6 days this last winter. Once all the mobile phone batteries in the community went flat that was it, no communication. That’s why BT has paused the roll out as referenced in this article.
Power outages of a few hours are fine. I live in a rural area and have FTTP with VoIP POTS service. Our power supply is all overhead distribution on wooden poles of some vintage, so outages occur more often than normal. I purchased a Cyber Power UPS, and it does keep the BT Hub and ONT going for a couple of hours, but that’s it, it’s down to mobile after that. However if we get an outage of more than a day, there is no mains supply to recharge mobile phones, and then we’re soon isolated.
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