As the 2025 deadline to switch off the copper telephone wires that form the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN grows ever closer, Kevin Quillien from tech firm Krucial maps out what this means for the emergency services.
PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) has been central to communication across a host of industries and services for decades, transferring voice and other data across copper wires around the country. It is also the basis for numerous other products, including ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), which uses that same copper infrastructure.
In 2017 BT announced that by 31 December 2025 all telephone lines will be switched off, meaning phone sockets will stop working, leaving only BT master sockets that are used to provide broadband.
The move towards all-IP (all internet-protocol) will result in a significant inventory of equipment needing upgraded to support the new, and incompatible, infrastructure.
As the deadline approaches, organisations ranging from utilities to local authorities and emergency services are having to find alternatives to PSTN that can ensure a smooth transition of services.
What does the switch off mean for emergency services?
Many of the devices and services connected by PSTN and ISDN were designed for these communications bearers. Interfaces, protocols and even operational processes were developed to work with and around their capabilities.
Telecoms companies are required by Ofcom to take all steps possible to ensure no interruption to access to emergency organisations for customers, even during a power cut, but several relevant alert devices will be affected, including:
- Telecare devices
- Security alarms
- Panic alarms
- Health pendants
- Paging systems
- Telecoms systems including switchboards.
Any device that plugs into standard telephone sockets will stop working – so having a robust, resilient communications infrastructure in place before the 2025 deadline is critical. Those working in blue light services need to be aware of the change coming due to the changes impacting devices that may often alert them to incidents.
For example, a personal alarm which uses PSTN infrastructure could no longer be operational when triggered after the switch off – so steps must be taken to future proof any such device or ensure that a replacement compatible with a new protocol is in place.
What are the alternatives?
There are several factors to consider when looking at alternatives to PSTN. First, resilience. With increasing extreme weather, relying on just one communication service, whether fibre or cellular, is a risk. It is important to seek a solution which allows for any legacy information or operations based on PSTN to be migrated over to a new service with as little disruption as possible.
It is also an opportunity to do things better – cloud computing, improved analytics and more resilient communications can all help organisations reach strategic goals more easily than with old ways of working. And finally, it is a chance to consider a solution with multiple communications protocols and power sources to provide a safety net, as well as the opportunity to solidify connectivity across different locations regardless of existing infrastructure.
Taking a hybrid approach
Reliance on full fibre (fibre to the premises – FTTP) cannot be assumed as it won’t reach many areas of the country particularly in more remote locations for many years. In the many areas where FTTP is yet to be rolled out, organisations should look to other resilient alternatives. A suite of digital replacements to cover data and voice could be required – and hybridisation could be the best way to make that happen.
Hybrid communications refers to a solution which can utilise multiple communications methods known as backhauls. Stitching together terrestrial and satellite in a totally seamless way means being able to reap the performance and reach of the combined services, plus obtain key backhaul resilience which is going to be key for emergency services and those devices which alert them.
Terrestrial networks are built around populations – and cellular towers aren’t viable If there aren’t enough mobile users around, while fibre and other cabled networks struggle to reach many areas of the country. Satellite offers near total coverage, regardless of terrestrial infrastructure, and so data can be moved from anywhere, any time – even in extreme weather conditions.
An audit of the telephony estate should be top of the priority list to understand what devices rely on PSTN at present – and which will need an alternative solution. How many connections are there? How many are redundant? Is sourcing decentralised, resulting in complex, inefficient contracts? All of these are key questions to ask. As part of an audit of existing contracts, it’s also important to understand who is responsible for each to be confident that all are considered.
Emergency services should ultimately look to understand from stakeholders what alternatives are planned to guarantee that alarms and other triggers will still be communicated with them post switch-off. While the switch-off may seem like a headache, there are alternative technologies out there, such as Krucial CONNECT, offering a resilient alternative that can even expand on current capabilities.
Case study: ultra-resilient communications for fire and rescue services
Let’s take one example of a use case in the fire and rescue service. If a fire and rescue service leverages multiple terrestrial bearers for mission-critical communications including analogue PSTN and ISDN, the switch off will cause an important loss in capability across the country.
It is important to find a replacement solution that can meet several important criteria: resilience and performance comparable to those previous analogue services, and the scalability to be rolled out across the country. By leveraging a technology like Krucial Connect, the dual-satellite capability means using two non-terrestrial communications services that don’t require expensive wiring to and from every site in question at great expense.
Potentially life-saving communications can be sent and received regardless of conditions, and poor cellular connectivity is mitigated.
This article originally appeared in the June 2023 print edition of Emergency Services Times.