Great Asby has had the benefit of a full fibre broadband service since 2016. BT Openreach provided this state-of-the-art service at a fairly early stage since the type of landline connection in the village made it impossible for them to provide internet connectivity over the conventional telephone network. Little Asby currently relies upon a wide area wireless system supplied by Voneus for its broadband service.
However, both Great Asby and Little Asby have long suffered from little or no mobile phone coverage and remain, in the current jargon, a ‘Not-Spot’.
The Roll-Out of Digital Voice (aka the PSTN Switch-Off)
Whilst full fibre (FttP ) connectivity is primarily seen as providing much improved internet speeds (anything up to 1Gbps if you are willing to pay) it is also capable of handling voice and text calls. Indeed it is the ideal vehicle for delivering this capability, which is referred to as ‘Digital Voice’; both by BT Retail and by Zen.
The roll-out of Digital Voice (DV) started in 2015. BT Openreach have set themselves the target of having DV as the sole means of making landline calls by the end of 2025. This would allow them to abandon the old copper wire based PSTN which they regard as an obsolete technology. Consequently they have been encouraging, and often insisting that those customers who already have a full fibre connection be switched over to DV. In doing so, those customers lose access to their traditional copper landline; their telephone number being transferred to the new DV service.
This Which? article provides some useful, plain English information on the Digital Voice roll out.
Problems with Digital Voice
It is becoming increasingly obvious that DV, whilst having a number of technical benefits for both BT and customers wishing still to have a landline, brings with it a number of problems.
- You need an internet connection.
If you have no desire to have an internet connection, then BT have indicated that you could be supplied with a special broadband connection dedicated to voice calls only. OFCOM has received a commitment from BT that this will not cost the customer more.
- Devices reliant upon the PSTN other than telephone handsets
Many devices in the home, and business, need a telephone network to function. These include burglar alarms, credit card machines, and most critically telecare devices (e.g. personal alarms). In many cases the providers of this equipment, and BT themselves, are still running tests and trials in order to determine whether these will continue to operate over DV.
- Power cuts
The old landline telephone system (the PSTN) has the advantage of being able to supply power to analogue telephone handsets. In the event of a power cut you can still make calls e.g. to the emergency services. This is not possible with Digital Voice as the equipment (Openreach modem, your router and digital telephone) all require a power source.
BT’s primary solution to this has been to advise people to use their mobile phones.
BT have finally recognised that these issues represent a serious problem for the rollout of Digital Voice; more so in rural areas where power outages tend to be more common and mobile coverage often patchy or non-existent. In April 2022 they decided to pause the roll out (see this statement from the CEO of BT’s consumer division.)
Some local research
Local resident, Noel Taylor, has been researching Asby’s lack of mobile phone coverage, and presented his findings to a Parish Council meeting on 7 July 2022. He highlighted two documents:
- “Mobile Phone Coverage (Not-Spots)” (March 2021)
A report of Noel’s efforts to elicit information on likely improvements to coverage in the parish, including the on-going “Shared Rural Network” (SRN) project.
- ”Rural mobile coverage in the UK: Not-spots and partial not-spots” (April 2022)
A government document describing the need for improved mobile phone coverage in rural areas. It outlines past initiatives in this area (e.g. the Mobile Infrastructure Project, which had been due to provide a new mast on The Mask) and the current SRN scheme. SRN is a jointly funded project by the UK Government and the four mobile operators (EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone).
There are a number of ways of using your broadband connection to send and receive mobile calls and texts. The simplest, and cheapest (and usually free) way is to use a system called ‘WiFi Calling’. This allows a smartphone to use your in-home WiFi to route calls/texts over the internet. Whether you are able use it depends upon your model of mobile phone, and the mobile network that you use. For more details click one of the following links:
Most modern telephone handsets are digital cordless devices (otherwise known as DECT devices). However, if you still have an old corded handset you can simply plug it into any BT phone socket in your house and use it instead.
(Note: analogue handsets are still available and only cost from £10 or so.)
No; at least not yet.
It was never the case that you had to switch immediately, although BT rather implied otherwise. (Zen customers have always been given the option to switch or not.). However, once you have switched you cannot switch back.
At some point the conventional PSTN infrastructure will be abandoned. BT Openreach have always given themselves the deadline of December 2025 for this to happen. However they have more recently recognised that there are significant issues to be resolved. This in itself could delay full implementation.
It has to be said that BT Openreach do not have a good track record on meeting their targets e.g. the roll out of Full Fibre is way behind originally envisaged schedules.
In terms of providing alternative mobile coverage, again past initiatives have failed to live up to expectations. For example, the Mobile Infrastructure Project, announced in 2011, was due to result in 575 new masts. When the project was abandoned in 2016 only 75 new masts had been approved.
However, one reason for the move to DV is the aging nature of the hardware that makes up the PSTN. If, for example, the kit at Appleby exchange were to fail and replacements were not available then customers may be forced to switch at that point.
You may already have a backup battery on your ONT (the white box on the wall which connects to the fibre cable). This was designed to keep your broadband connection live for around 1 hour. However your telephone is probably connected into your router so both these devices also need to be powered in order to make calls. One option is to buy a small UPS (uninterruptible power supply) – essentially a unit containing a back up battery pack that is permanently plugged into one of your power sockets ready to take over in the event of a power cut. A model of UPS that could run all three devices for a few hours costs in the region of £100.
The organisation setup to oversee the implementation of this scheme has a website to keep people informed of its progress. It contains a map identifying areas that would benefit from improved coverage. Unfortunately the map is not sufficiently detailed to identify whether Asby will benefit. When asked specifically if this will be the case the SRN organisation have been unable to say.
The process of identifying areas to benefit has been based upon analysis of coverage data from the four network operators, combined into a single database. It can be examined via the OFCOM Coverage Checker. At the end of the day the network operators themselves will determine where the masts are to be built, information which they are extremely reluctant to divulge (despite the fact that the SRN project is based upon the idea that all this new infrastructure will be shared between the four operators).
Essentially a not spot has no mobile reception, a partial not spot has some reception from at least one of the network operators, but not all. For this purpose coverage is defined as the ability to receive 4G signals outdoors.
Some of the more elevated parts of the parish are able to obtain mobile phone signals from at least one network operator i.e. they are in a partial not spot. Lower down in the valley reception is all but none existent. Consequently many of us regard ourselves as living in a not spot. However, the OFCOM Coverage Checker shows just about the whole of the parish as being capable of 4G reception outdoors from at least one operator. Therefore we are regarded as being in a partial not spot. It should be noted that even the SRN organisation themselves admit that the computer modelling underlying the OFCOM database is not very good at allowing for local topography (i.e. it tends to forget about the hills!).
Fear not, this may be good news. The government document of June 2022, cited above, states that most of the investment earmarked for North West England is to go into addressing partial not spot areas.