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Profit first, safety second – how BT’s new system leaves the vulnerable stranded


IT IS fair to say that we are increasingly governed and controlled by complex systems designed by people who have little interest in our personal welfare and serve other masters. A good recent example would be the debanking scandal where individuals have their accounts closed because of their political beliefs or affiliations, irrespective of the harm and distress it causes them.

Recently I have been subject to a form of detelephoning which took me unawares and now compromises my family’s safety. An innocent call to BT asking for more data for an offspring’s phone culminated in me being led, lamb to the slaughter, to the new world of Digital Voice, of which I had not previously heard.

The sweet-talking BT saleswoman said extra data was no problem and all the family could be signed up for lots of extra data on their mobile phones at no extra cost and, to boot, we could also get a Digital Voice line which would be much clearer with all sorts of nice extras. It was coming anyway, so why not sign up early? I asked how it worked and was told, easy, just plug it into your internet and off you go. What about the landline? Oh, you won’t need that any more. What about a power cut? Easy, just use your mobiles. But we hardly have a signal? There then followed some more sweet talking but I was keen to get off the phone and, being busy, I uncharacteristically fell for the chat and agreed to the contract.

There followed a number of computer-generated emails which later that evening I read in detail. This leapt out at me:

‘If there’s a power cut or your broadband fails you won’t be able to make calls using Digital Voice, including 999 calls. You’ll still be able to use a mobile phone, which should be charged at all times.’

Ouch. Here in the Welsh Marches mobile phone signal is patchy and often non-existent in the house. An hour’s drive through the Marches reveals intermittent and weak coverage, so switching to Digital Voice means a degraded service.

The BT emails reminded us that an order can be cancelled in the first 14 days, so in the morning I phoned up to cancel the entire package and told them to revert to the old system. No problem, they said, it will be done. Four days later the house phone went dead. There followed a long, and interrupted (due to the weak signal) mobile call to BT late at night which ended with being connected to Digital Voice. The following morning I phoned BT to ask what had gone wrong with the reversion to the old contract and was told it wasn’t possible. I had been irrevocably switched to the new system as the old copper line is being discontinued some time in the future.

Last winter our road had a 12-hour power cut. If your mobile phone cannot get a signal you cannot call 999.

As a retired airline pilot I understand the necessity of multiple back-up systems (known as system redundancy) in the event of complex or major failures. A famous example is the case of an Air Canada Boeing 767 which, owing to a combination of technical failures, human and organisational error ran out of fuel at cruising altitude. The back-up systems available to the pilots (who were found blameless) allowed them to land safely at a disused airfield when everything and everyone had failed them. With Digital Voice large swathes of the country will be at the receiving end of a system without redundancy.

With an MSc in Air Safety Management I also understand the necessity of safety systems for nuclear power stations, hospitals, oil refineries, mines and warships etc. All must have multiple back-up systems and a system of accountable safety oversight. Our national security depends on such a system to keep our nuclear deterrent submarines operating. Some things just cannot be allowed to fail.

Our national telephone network is just such a safety system as we all need it to call 999. The old copper phone line has enough electricity in it to power the phone if the mains electricity is cut. That is the safest option for any house. The system wasn’t broken and didn’t need fixing.

The new Digital Voice relies on mains electricity coupled with a broadband connection. Both these have caused me more problems than the telephone line, which has never failed. The mobile phone network is highly unreliable in the countryside and, in any case, needs a mains power supply to keep the battery going. BT said they would provide a back-up battery for Digital Voice at a cost of £88, which would last just one hour after a power cut. I made a fuss so they agreed to pay for it. I would suggest that everyone does this when they are switched to Digital Voice. You could also consider buying a more powerful back-up battery lasting at least a day.

With tens of millions of domestic phone lines there are endless dangers for people who cannot get a mobile signal in a lengthy power cut, not least during weather phenomena such as Storm Arwen. The switch to Digital Voice, due to complete in 2025, has huge unintended, or should I say uncared about, safety consequences for the public. There will be people who cannot use 999 when they need it, with obvious results.

Our emergency services and telephone communications are an entire safety management system for the whole nation and should have been treated as such. The people designing the new Digital Voice system have been asleep at the wheel and failed to install system redundancy. If they were running an airline or other industrial safety critical system they would be called to account for negligence in the event of a disaster. There has been no accountability with the switch to Digital Voice as Ofcom has basically let the telecoms industry do what it wants. As BT explained to the BBC, ‘very few people’ would have no mobile reception and Ofcom did not expect providers to ‘predict and provide solutions for all exceptional circumstances’. Profit first, safety second.

We are being handed a communications system which may be useless in an emergency and will cost the lives of vulnerable people. That is utterly disgraceful. The existing copper telephone line system should be kept open for those who need it.

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Tristram Llewellyn Jones
Tristram Llewellyn Jones
Tristram Llewellyn Jones is a civil liberties campaigner, home educator and retired airline pilot.

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