Telcos including BT, Virgin Media forced to pause switching vulnerable people to digital landlines after emergency call failures
BT, Virgin Media and other telecoms firms were called to meet with technology secretary Michelle Donelan and to sign a charter promising to protect at-risk households during the digital rollout.
The government has set a deadline of December 2024 to switch off analogue landlines.
But digital phone lines are less resilient than their analogue counterparts, being subject to increased service disruptions, for instance during power cuts caused by storms.
Analogue copper-based phone lines generally continue to function during power cuts.
The lines may also be incompatible with some “telecare” devices, also known as panic buttons, which allow vulnerable people to call for help in an emergency.
Minister for digital infrastructure John Whittingdale last week informed parliament of “serious incidents” of telecare devices becoming inoperable during emergencies.
Following the report telecoms firms including Sky, BT, Virgin Media O2 and TalkTalk pledged not to switch households without ensuring such medical devices would continue to work.
They also agreed to do further checks on those who have already been switched to see whether telecare devices were in use that they were not aware of.
“The recent issues families have had to endure are unacceptable, and today’s agreements will help to protect consumers in future,” Donelan said.
Critics said the move did to little to protect the vulnerable.
Dennis Reed, the director of campaign group Silver Voices, told the Guardian that BT had paused its rollout last year after reports of elderly people being unable to dial 999 during power outages caused by major storms, but then resumed it again although “nothing had changed”.
He urged the government to extend the analogue switch-off deadline by at least five years.
BT said it has taken steps to protect telecare users and other vulnerable people dependent on landlines during power outages, such as supplying battery back-up units and hybrid phones that have a built-in battery and can switch to a mobile network when needed.
The company said the “serious issues” had not affected its customers.
“Over the past week, we’ve been informed about incidents involving telecare users from another communications provider who had been switched to a digital landline,” the firm said in a statement.
But the company emphasised that it was “critically important that we manage customer migrations from old to new as quickly and smoothly as possible”.
Virgin Media said it has “paused switchovers as we review our processes to further support consumers”.