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BT and rivals told to stop forcing digital landlines on elderly after safety incidents

bt
bt

BT and other telecoms giants have been ordered to stop forcing digital phone lines on the elderly after power and internet outages left pensioners stranded.

Michelle Donelan, the Technology Secretary, demanded action from telecoms companies after a number of “serious incidents” where pensioners’ “telecare” devices - personal alarms designed to be activated in a health emergency or after a fall - failed because of digital landlines.

On Monday, BT and Virgin Media both confirmed they were pausing the roll-out of their digital phone lines in response.

An estimated 1.8 million people in the UK rely on telecare alarms to call for urgent medical help. The alarm buttons, which are usually worn around the neck or on the wrist, automatically call a response centre when pressed through the wearer’s landline. Operators can then check if a person needs help and send someone if necessary.

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While telecare systems can work with digital landlines, the fact that the phone line makes calls online means it will fail if there is a power cut or internet coverage drops out. By contrast, copper phone lines typically continue to work even during power cuts.

Last week, John Whittingdale, the Minister for Digital Infrastructure, told MPs the government had been alerted to “serious incidents” of telecare devices failing “despite the assurances that we were given by communications operators”.

Officials met with technology companies including BT, Virgin Media O2, TalkTalk and Sky last week following the reports.

Providers have now signed up to a charter to protect the vulnerable, including the disabled and the very old, who rely on personal alarms. People will not be switched to digital phone lines without thorough checks to ensure their medical devices will continue to work.

Ms Donelan said: “The recent issues families have had to endure are unacceptable and today’s agreements will help to protect consumers in future.”

On Monday, BT said it would be temporarily freezing its rollout of digital phone lines for all “non-voluntary” switches of elderly and disabled customers who use telecare devices.

Customers will not be switched “until they tell us they are ready,” the former state monopoly said. BT said it would only move the customer once it had confirmed their healthcare devices work on the new system.

BT said the serious incident involving telecare devices did not occur on its network.

A Virgin Media spokesman said: “In line with the agreed commitments, we have paused switchovers as we review our processes to further support consumers, building on the range of measures that we already have in place.”

The latest issues come after elderly people were left unable to dial 999 during storms last year, which caused an internet blackout impacting digital phone lines.

BT agreed to pause its digital landline rollout in response, with consumer boss Marc Allera admitting the need for “sharper focus” following Storms Arwen and Eunice. However, it subsequently restarted its efforts.

The Telegraph has been campaigning for a re-think of the “big switch”, which involves ripping out miles of copper telephone wire, amid concerns from readers that it will leave elderly people at risk of being cut off in emergencies.

BT and other providers want to switch millions of UK homes from traditional landlines to digital home phones that work using internet signals by December 2025.

All 29 million UK households will ultimately be expected to make the change, which has been pushed for by the industry rather than the government. BT is responsible for switching 10 million lines and is understood to have already moved 2 million.

Telecom companies are already expected to ensure that vulnerable customers moving onto digital landlines have a back-up phone in case of a power cut, as well as devices that can work via battery power.

However, campaigners have warned that the switch is being made too quickly, creating risks for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

In September, Silver Voices, the senior citizens charity, withdrew its support for the switch to digital calls, arguing not enough was being done to protect those over the age of 70.

At the time, the charity said: “The deadline of 2025 for the removal of all copper landlines is untenable as the measures to support vulnerable customers have still not been developed.

“There is no reason why the two systems should not work in parallel for at least five years, so that everyone continues to have access to a reliable landline.”

Lucy Baker, of BT’s consumer division, said: “For those who use telecare, we will only switch them to digital voice where we, the telecare provider or the customer can confirm their service is compatible and functions using a digital landline.

“Customers who are unsure or who have told us that they have a telecare device which isn’t compatible with a digital landline will not be switched until they tell us they’re ready.”