Mayors express grave concerns about impact of digital switchover on residents

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Public Switched Telephone Network
Public Switched Telephone Network

NDY Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, has joined other Mayors from across the country in expressing grave concerns about the impact of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) retirement, also known as the digital switchover, on vulnerable people.

Together with the Mayors of the Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, North of Tyne and West of England, he is now calling on the Government to take responsibility at a national level and ensure proper support for those affected.

The PSTN is the dedicated legacy telephony network that connects calls via physical, copper phone lines. It is being decommissioned in the UK, by December 2025, at which point landline telephone services will switch to a fully digital network. This means phone calls will be carried over the internet.

Unlike the move to digital TV, which was Government-led, the withdrawal of the PSTN is industry-led, as the network is privately owned. The programme is necessary because the current analogue technology is outdated, inefficient, and unsustainable. For most people the switchover is easy, but not for everybody.

Vulnerable and older people who rely on telecare call buttons and pendant alarms at home and in care homes, and people who use landlines to call relatives or 999 services, are being left at risk. Some vulnerable telecare users are being switched over to digital services, without the necessary checks to ensure that these lifeline devices still operate effectively or being supplied with digital back-ups.

Operators of telecare equipment and supported housing providers have reported significant costs associated with upgrading equipment to ensure compatibility. Without additional funding, telecare service providers will have to consider introducing charges, or downgrading services, with negative impacts for vulnerable people.

The Government has said that the upgrades are “not part of a government programme and do[es] not result from a government decision or policy”. The Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure has confirmed the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will not be providing funding to local authorities to meet the cost of replacing or upgrading telecare devices, despite extraordinary pressures on local government finances and the risk to life if the issue remains unresolved.

Ofcom recently announced a new investigation into an individual telecoms company and how it is “identifying, protecting and supporting vulnerable customers and ensuring uninterrupted access to emergency organisations”.

In a letter to the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, sent on 21 March 2024, Andy Burnham jointly with the Mayors of Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, North of Tyne and West of England calls for Government to take responsibility for this at a national level. The requests include the development and implementation of a National Action Plan agreed between industry and Government to ensure that the estimated 1.8 million people with telecare support are safely migrated.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) supports the need for the switchover. Organisations throughout the region are working with telecommunications providers and the telecare industry to try to enable an effective transition