What does the big PSTN switch-off mean for your business?

In December 2020, Openreach started the process of retiring its old public switched telephone network (PSTN) and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services. These are the services which were, in the old analogue world, used to carry voice and data services for businesses. Now that everything is going digital and all communications – including voice – will be IP-based, there is no need to keep running these aging networks running.

Openreach began the process in December 2020 by turning off PSTN and ISDN in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and another 116 exchanges are due to be closed by the middle of 2021. The entire UK network will be shut down by 2025.

This may sound like some time away, but it will soon be here and by then, all businesses will have had to move to digital services.

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What is the PSTN switch-off and why is it happening?

Quite simply, this is happening because there is no use or demand for the old circuits anymore. Most organisations are already moving to leased lines or fibre-based broadband services that offer much greater speed and bandwidth, which businesses need to accommodate their increased use of online services and the cloud. Many are also adopting digital voice services – also hosted in the cloud – that provide greater scalability and flexibility. These services are also much more cost-efficient.

Consequently, there is no need to keep the PSTN and ISDN services running. Some time ago, Openreach set 2025 as the date by which it would turn these networks off. But that will take time and the process started at the end of 2020.

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Why do I need to think about it now?

Although it might seem to be some way off yet, 2025 will soon be here and as exchanges are switched off, businesses in those areas will be compelled to switch to a digital alternative. As already noted, 116 areas will already be turned off by June 2021.  Also, certain services, such as caller identification and barring, won’t be made available on the old networks after September 2023. After that date, no new ISDN or PSTN services will be sold. In practice, that’s already happening.

Rather than rush into a choice of broadband and digital voice services, it’s better to make a considered decision and switch over well in advance. Doing this will make sure you have the right service for your needs. It also makes good business sense, as it will almost certainly save you money right away – and give you the opportunity to plan ahead and future-proof your investment.

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What are my options?

There is plenty of choice in terms of the kind of connection you can choose, and basically it comes down to how much bandwidth you need (now and in the future) and your budget. A dedicated leased line service will give you up to 1Gbps in both directions, so if you need to send as much as you need to receive, this is a good option.

As it is a dedicated line, you can always be sure of getting the full speed and service levels will be high. As a result, it may cost a little more than fibre broadband options.

There are two types of fibre broadband – fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), and fibre to the premises (FTTP). The former is often referred to as “super-fast”, the latter as “ultra-fast’. FTTC will give you up to 80bps download speeds, whereas FTTP will give you as much as 300Mbps.

However, while there will be a normally be little or no charge to install FTTC, getting an FTTP service up and running may be expensive – as would a leased line. In both cases, you would need to have the line installed directly to your premises. FTTP might already be in-place if you are on a recently-constructed industrial estates or a new office building. If you are not, you will need to pau for the work to be done.

In some locations, G.fast broadband services, which provide a halfway house between FTTC and FTTP, are also available. These require no extra cabling but will be subject to contention, as are all broadband services.

You can run data and voice services across all of these connections. It is really just a question of balancing your current and future requirements against your budget.

When it comes to digital voice services, there are plenty of options from companies that are already well-established, such as Gamma and Vonage. BT also offers hosted voice options.

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Why would I need these kinds of services?

Our hunger for more bandwidth seems to be insatiable. Most businesses were already using more cloud-based services when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and now that they have more people working at home more often, they have accelerated their adoptions of cloud services.

Increased use of video conferencing and collaborative tools, such as Zoom or Teams, has also boosted demand for bandwidth. Security is a major concern and businesses have been putting additional measures in place to ensure connections are fully protected at all times. That’s added to the bandwidth requirement too.

The pandemic has also brought the importance of having a water-tight backup and disaster recovery plan in place in to sharp relief. That’s also a service that most businesses are now placing into the public cloud.

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What should I do about making changes?

If you still use a “traditional” phone line and make and take calls on analogue phones (which is what you’d be doing on PSTN), or an ISDN line for data connectivity, you should talk to your trusted comms or IT supplier about hosted voice or voice over IP (VoIP) services and an alternative digital connection. You’ll will have broadband already, and this may be sufficient to support VoIP and digital services. But if you are still using the ISDN line (a lot of organisations do still have them but are no longer using them), you will almost certainly need to get a faster connection.

The most important thing is not to hold back on researching your options. You should try to assess what’s available and plan your transition to the IP-only world as soon as possible.

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