Well, hello everyone, I really delighted to welcome you to the TNC's latest "Down the Wire" podcast, and today's topic is an absolute cracker, "The End of the Line: UK ISDNs and PSTNs to be retired". I'm John Waterhouse, CEO of TNC, and I'll be your host for the next 20 minutes; as I'm sure everyone joining knows, TNC is the UK's largest independent network and telecoms strategy and sourcing consultancy, supporting over 300 major UK multinational organisations to help them get the best possible commercial, technical, operational, and contractual results from all of their network and telecoms solutions. So joining us today to share his expertise is our Head of Consulting, Adrian Joyce, Adrian, would you like to say hello to our viewers and listeners?
Hello, yes. Thank you for having me, John.
Well, I'm delighted you're here Adrian, not least because this is a super interesting topic, and having just read your white paper on it, I'm delighted to get your expertise - and I know the topic won't disappoint. And the topic is this: Openreach's analogue network is to be completely switched off by the end of 2025. and in fact, that switch off has already started to happen at a number of test sites, and areas of high fibre availability. I feel like there should be some dramatic music at this point. But in practice, what this means is, it's the beginning of the end of the road for some very, very old, but in fairness, very mature technologies, PSTN and ISDN. You know, these are lines you've got hanging around; in some cases perhaps still the mainstay of your telephony platform, in other cases performing other functions, or possibly even just gathering dust in the corner long since forgotten by everybody, except BT who still merrily sends you a bill every month for them. So this is a big deal. So let's get straight into it, Adrian, what exactly is happening here? We talk about the PSTN switch off, what exactly are we talking about? And why is it happening?
Okay, so I think the key thing is to work backwards. The end date - the end of service date - for all PSTNs, ISDNs and ADSL that's supported by PSTNs, is December 2025. Seems like a long time away you know, we're at the beginning of 22 now, (for those of you watching later in the year, perhaps, so it would appear that we have four years to go, but that isn't very long. It really isn't in terms of the planning, and the strategies that organisations need to put in place. But of most concern, I think, to us at TNC, and in the wider telecoms industry itself, is the amount of orders that the industry will have to process during those four years. It's believed to affect about 16 million lines, so if you were to divide that up - yes, pick a number - if you divide that up by the four years that we've got to go, and that's less than four years now, 4 million a year. That's down to about 330,000 a month, of orders that have to be placed between now and December 25, in order to ensure there's no impact come January 26. A big number.
That is a big number. And why is this happening now? What's triggered this?
Yeah, so basically, it's a commercial decision by Openreach to retire their old technology. So they've got decades old, probably 30/40 years old technology sitting in their Openreach exchanges, that's reaching its end of life. It's no longer supported by the hardware manufacturers. It's inefficient. It's old, there's better technology out there -digital technology - and Openreach have, for a long time striven to modernise their network, quite frankly, because they'll save a lot of money. I'm sure there are other benefits as well, but we all know it comes down to the pounds and pence at the end of the day. Obviously, it's not just beneficial for them, but it's also beneficial for their customers, they'll be able to pass on I'm sure, some of those savings to the market.
I have no doubt whatsoever. Okay, so I get the why, and I hadn't realised the breadth. So when we started off talking PSTN and ISDN, ADSL, as well, so we're talking an even broader scope but look, you've given us what the end date is, presumably, we don't all just wake up on the first of January 2026 and we can't get any dial tone anymore? So presumably, there's some stages we're going to go through between now and then so there's already some test sites up and running. What are those key milestones?
Yeah, so this process - it's gone beyond test sites, it's already begun. So, Openreach have identified more than 200 exchanges, where they have stopped selling any of these services as new, or changes. And a perfect example is my dear mother, who at the age of 84, has at long last decided to get broadband to her house, and it came as a little bit of a shock, even to me as the telecom professional in the family, to find out that her local exchange was one of these 220 exchanges where Openreach no longer sell you DSL services. So, her analogue phone that has been in that house as long as I've been alive, so 48 odd years at least, needed to be replaced with a digital handset, because she was upgrading her line to get broadband and yeah, ADSL or even fibre to FTTC was no longer available, because that test exchange, was one of the exchanges that Openreach have on stop sell. There's a further roughly, another 200 exchanges bringing it up to just short of 400 identified, coming in August 22. So quite a number of exchanges all around the country where you can no longer change your phone line, or order a new PSTN, ISDN, or DSL service. The further impact then will be September 23; and then it will be the entire network, you will no longer be able to order new services. So they will keep running the old services for two years after the stop sell date. So if you still have a PSTN in existence, you've got two years from when that exchange is identified as stop sell, before it's withdrawn for the whole network, as I said, in December 2025. That's it, the PSTN network, the analogue lines, all the copper lines supporting these services will be turned off.
So just to be absolutely clear what that what this means and not just for your mother, but for anybody else listening, any PSTNs, ISDNs, ADSLs, FTTCs, you've still got hanging around on the 31st of December 2025, irrespective of their value, importance, etc. to your organisation, that service is not going to be active on the first of January 26 - no? yes?
That is largely correct, so certainly PSTNs and ISDNs - yes, absolutely. They're gone, they're dead, they're dormant, the line will not work. They'll be disconnected at the exchange, there will be no voltage coming down the line to support your analogue phone - so they're gone. FTTC is a little bit more nuanced, so the fibre rollout of FTTP is the principal replacement for FTTC, and for DSL, however, there will be some places where it's just not economic for Openreach to place fibre out to premises. So if you think of the very rural areas of the country, they're not going to put fibre down miles of country lanes to serve a couple of farmhouses in those circumstances. So the capacity the target is 75% of an exchange before it becomes a stop cell exchange, 75% fibre availability - there will be some sites where the copper will still be used, but it will only be used for fibre to the cabinet - SoGEA, it's now called where you don't have the PSTN on the copper, but the copper still supports a DSL-type service. So yeah, principally, for the vast majority of us, it's off, but there will be some exceptions on FTTC that will run across it. That's my understanding. I've read a lot of documentation. There is a little bit of confusion over that, and it may be subject to changes as time goes by.
Okay, that makes sense. That makes sense. But reversing back from that sort of hard stop date, you're talking about September 23 for a stop sell. I guess that's already becoming a pretty big milestone for a lot of organisations because if you're using PSTN, ISDN, ADSL services in anger as it were, i.e. these aren't just things you're still paying a bill for but you're not using, but you're actually using the service, presumably, at that point where you can't buy any more of it, you need to have your alternative solution ready to go, even if not to migrate all the legacy services, because anything new you need, you're going to have to provision another way. So that's a pretty big milestone already.
Yeah, and it's not far away.
Okay. I was going to say, that's 18 months away.
So I mean, if you think about the traditional customers that we help John, how many of them are regularly placing PSTN and ISDN orders these days? It's not a great deal, the majority of them will be replacing these services, so if they get a greenfield site, they'll be putting something new in. So it's a troublesome date, it's not far away, but I think the impact of that is less concerning for me for our customers, than actually the switch off date. I think I'm much more concerned by that, because as you alluded to at the top of this call, the problem is the things you don't know, or the things that are slightly obscure, hidden from view, and I think that's where the bigger problems are going to be encountered, and also where the solutions aren't straightforward. So replacing a PSTN to a satellite trade counter, relatively straightforward, because you've probably got SIP in your network already, and it's just about extending that out to that individual satellite site - you've probably got SIP, or you know, you could easily plan SIP into a headquarters or a large site - but it's the nuances, it's those small hidden elements that I'm concerned by.
So I was going to say, I'm delighted, you sort of took us down that path, because one of the things one might think listening to this is, ah, I don't need to worry about it, my telephony platform is already on SIP, or we've moved to Teams, or whatever it is, we're all in the cloud now, why do I care about PSTN, or ISDN being switched off? But what you're saying is, okay, there probably aren't that many organisations sat out there, still running their whole mission critical telephony, off a load of ISDN2s, but what there quite possibly are, is a load of organisations sat out there who've got some of the services doing something.
Yeah, and they're obscure, in the industry we often talk about lift lines, alarm lines, and these can be painful to change, painful to find. They don't generate usage. If you think about a lift alarm line, it's only ever used when the lift gets stuck, but lift hasn't been stuck for five years - maybe Otis or Kone have come in tested it, who knows? Maybe they haven't, but that that line is really hard to find. Who's paying for it? Is it coming through the lift company? Is it coming through the maintenance company? Is it coming through your facilities team? Is it coming through IT? It's obscure and hidden, but you tend to know that you've got lift lines, you tend to know you've got alarm lines, but it's the more nuanced things that we've looked at, that are either unknown, or really hard to get into the nuts and bolts of. So if you think about car parks security, or door security, where you press a buzzer, is that connected to a PSTN? And again, where's it been built? Who's looking after it? Who knows how to operate it? These are the things that are going to become more painful to deal with and perhaps harder to replace, because as you say, you've probably already got some SIP - if you haven't done it in your current organisation, you've done it in a previous one - the telcos are all incentivized to try and sell you SIP services, they'll happily do it. When you look at what's out there to replace water metres or traffic light systems, particularly in areas that don't get cellular connectivit, it's really limited and really difficult. So as a water company, do you have to dig out your your pumps and your metres that are six foot under the ground, and connected to a massive piece of infrastructure and think about how you are going to replace that? These are the things that are difficult, they're obscure, and will take a lot of time.
Well, I know one of the things which we are going to talk about, but it's sort of the perfect segue from here, is understanding that environment. I mean, we've done a podcast on the very topic of auditing and cleansing estates and understanding what's out there, and presumably, I myself know of several organisations, I'm sure you know of even more organisations, you know, who've got these kinds of bills coming in for 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000 PSTN lines, no idea what they're doing. No idea where half of them have been delivered? And the fear, of course, is that they're pull cords in sheltered accommodation, they're connected to traffic lights, they're connected to..., they're the backup circuit for a burglar alarm - who actually knows and how the devil does one work out what those things are? Pretty challenging, right?
Yeah. And I think part of the problem is, if you were paying, you know, £12 or £15 a month for that line, it was really low priority to look into it. I don't know what that line is, but it's only 12 pounds...
...because the cost of fixing it is more than the cost of keeping it.
Yeah. So many years ago, in a previous life, I helped look after one of the big four banks' ATM networks, and just trying to understand that portfolio was a full time job for several people across different organisations across the bank, across the management company that I was looking after, across the telco, across the security company that fed the cash machines, no one - surprisingly, not the bank, or the security company - no one had the full 100% view of what that estate looked like. And we were still looking at addresses - several years after the likes of Safeway had been procured by Morrison's and done away with - Safeway sites, on a BP garage that, now when you looked on Google Maps, was now an Esso garage that had, I don't know, M&S or Tescos in there. So was the ATM still with this bank?
Is this how you you managed to have a Securicor van arrive at your house twice a week delivering cash? Anyway, we'll move on from that. Okay, so I'm starting to get a good feel for the magnitude of the challenge here. So it sounds like, most people listening to this podcast, most of the organisations they work with or work for, are going to be impacted in some way by this. What should they be doing? Presumably Step One is find out what the exposure is, and try and get across that view of what services are deployed, what the inventories look like, etc., etc.? Is that the first step?
Absolutely, you've got to know what's out there, you've got to understand the special use cases. Again for many years in IT we've talked about shadow IT, you've got parts of the organisation buying services that you, in IT, and I talk as if our audience are all IT -but you may not know what's out there, it may be Facilities that you need to go and talk to, you might need to think about staff car parks - how do you get into those? How did you get into your buildings? How are those machines connected to your network? So there's lots of areas to explore, you know, it would be very simplistic to go, "Oh, I've got some legacy voice services from BT, I'll go and ask BT to help me audit those services - that in itself can be painful and long-winded process. You know, to talk about the Safeways example, we've done railway stations where we've helped audit some of the TOCs to understand what they've got there. And there's lines where they don't know where they are, they've got a bill and as you said earlier, is it connected to a pull cord for the disabled toilet? They don't know; so there's a lot of work to be done. But you've also got to broaden that out to other parts of the business that may be paying for these services, and also don't have this information, don't appreciate it. We did a recent audit, whereby we were getting contacted by one of the telcos saying, "We'd like to help you and the customer with this transition", but we couldn't match up what that telco was telling us with the audit that we were doing, you couldn't marry up where it was coming from. So that was something that the telco believed the organisation were paying for, that was a legacy service that was going to be affected on it. But yeah, in the period of time that we and that organisation were looking at it, we couldn't work out what it was. Now, maybe as you say, it was on a site that was decommissioned years ago, and it's just been happily or unhappily billing in the background - and of course, John in our role we unfortunately see a lot of that wastage and we work to try and secure the savings against that in terms of ceasing services that should be ceased - but equally, it could be a site that that just isn't on on the radar, or a service that isn't on the radar, that is critical and gets turned off January 26th and then you've got a problem.
So, just on that. So I guess, two immediate questions spring to mind. I guess, let's just think about the commercials for a second, pesumably, this isn't dreadful commercial news, insofar as, there's potentially a cost one must spend to do this discovery, whether it's, use the third party organisation or get a contractor on board, or devote somebody internal's time to it, (although, you know, generally, internal people have already got a day job, etc.), but there's a discovery cost in there. But presumably beyond that, the new services - quite possibly, what you're going to uncover is legacy services which you can get rid of which saves money - but presumably to some extent, even where you do identify you need a replacement service, that replacement service is potentially cheaper and better than the existing service. So potentially this isn't - I was thinking about a parallel with something like the millennium bug, and God knows, its a long time since we've all heard that, - but that was a pure cost 'out'. We had a service, we had to pay someone to come and fix it. It was just a element of expenditure. Here, there's potentially a good commercial story, right? Because, yes, we've potentially got to pay to remediate this and go and do that discovery, but potentially, the end case costs are lower than the current costs? Yeah certainly, definitely an opportunity for OpEX savings. You know, SIP is a great example of replacing hundreds of PSTN, ISDN lines with fewer SIP channels, and you save money, the channels themselves are cheap, and they often come with Inclusive calls. Plus, they have the benefit of better resilience, better guidance of traffic in incident scenarios. So it's definitely a benefit from that. I think I would just caveat it slightly with the potential for some hardware expenditure. So you take your car park entry barrier machine that's connected to a PSTN, well, do we now need a new car park barrier? Or do you just need a new car park barrier, keypad and microphone? Or is it just a little adapter that you need on on that device, and some engineering time? So there's undoubtedly going to be some of these use cases where there's some expenditure. And that may range again, if we think about the utilities business that have some of these lines underground, connected, or part of a piece of infrastructure, and could be some quite meaty costs, but I imagine they're fewer and farther, in terms of the number of devices out there. The majority of these things are more simplistic and therefore easier to replace, and thus yes there should be longer term benefits to replacing them. Plus, you have to! Well, there is that yeah, as well. Yes, that's right. I suppose I was just trying to sweeten the pill slightly. You do have to do this, whether you like it or not, and you're going to have to find time, etc. but hey! Potentially, it's not necessarily a terrible commercial.
I think the other thing that you just made me rethink about is, the longer you leave this, the harder it's going to be.
Right. So yeah, so that was going to be my final question, because I'm conscious of time. You know, you talk about the sort of the big risk being that end date, but presumably, people can't sit around say, "Great, I reckon I'll budget six months for it. So I need to get started on the first of July 2025", because chances are its going to take longer than than you think - Number one, but - I think you're about to give us some words of wisdom around timings - while presumably this is something we need to think about much more quickly.
Yeah, it's urgent. If you don't do it today, when are you going to do it? Because the longer you leave it, the closer you will be with everyone else who decides to leave it to that end date, and we're not just talking about the capability of the telecoms industry to take on board millions of orders in the last year. But also again, back to your alarm cord, your car park entry, your smart metre, whatever it might be. Have you got that new kit available? The adapters? The digital piece of equipment? Have you got the manpower to go out and install all of these things? Are you relying on a third party, but it's also just had a massive order by Transport for London to go and do the same for them? The longer list - you've got this fixed date at the end, and the longer people take - the more you're pushing to do in that final period. We've also, unfortunately, at the moment got this thing called COVID, we've got Brexit, we've got worldwide chip shortages. We've got shipping delays due to not enough containers. If you're trying to secure some of this product from China that's reliant on chips, that has to go on a shipping container that gets stuck in Calais, or Amsterdam, Rotterdam or somewhere? Yeah, it's difficult. Most of this is going to be pretty straightforward, but get on with it now. Even the audit piece of work at the beginning of this, it can be really painful, it can take many months to actually do this, get it right. And you're still left, you're still left with these outliers, where you're going, "I just don't know what these five / six / ten lines are!" And at some point I guess you're going to have to take a risk on them and find out what happens when they get turned off and be ready to, to react at that point.
Yeah, I think what you're saying makes absolutely sense. You know, yes, you could leave it but the longer you leave it, the bigger the risk that you won't be able to remediate in time, or more likely, the cost of remediating will go up and up and up. You know, if you tried to do the audit in half the time that you should have left for it, you're going to have to pay two people to do it not one, or four people not two, or you can't do it with internal resources, now you need to get contractors and, you know, these contractor day rates are going up because everyone else wants contractors too, it sounds very much like the message is what needs to be done is clea - our strong recommendation is people will get on with it.
A great call to action to end on Adrian! We are a couple of minutes over, so we are going to draw it to a close, but as always - fascinating. This is a great topic, no doubt we'll come back to it, where we'll be using even more strident language and high pitched voices to say you really should be getting on with it now. But yeah...
I just leave with one point. We have got some documentation on our website under the Insight part of our website, a sort of white paper type article. Within that paper was brilliant article, I wrote it, you edited it, John, but there's also a link to to Openreach. Openreach have got, you know, credit to them, they've got some really interesting papers on individual industry sectors. So alarm lines, care lines, lift lines, things of that nature, so, very specific industry knowledge. However, some of that is a bit scary reading when you read that there aren't mitigations to some of those services. So yeah, a call to arms - get on with it.
Yeah. That sounds good, sounds good. And thanks for pointing out those resources. That'd be really useful. Yeah, well, to everyone listening, thank you very much. As always, please do let us know any questions you may have about this or any other network and telecoms topic. As Adrian rightly said, go hit the website, networkcollective.co.uk to read more about this or any other topic. Of course, you can follow us on the usual social channels. We look forward to talking with you again soon.