The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) has partnered with Disability Rights UK and Silver Voices to shed light on the 95 per cent of over-65s and vulnerable individuals that could suffer from the national landline copper line switch off.

In opposition to the planned Switch Off, Silver Voices has been leading a national petition calling to review the timetable for phasing out traditional landlines, and push this back from next year to 2030. Through the partnership, the DPA and Disability Rights UK will join forces to support the petition and raise awareness for the millions set to be impacted, and call for a national publicity campaign from telephony providers.

Due to a lack of communication around the switchover, individuals often lack resources or knowledge about the transition to a digital landline, or the ability to delay switching their service. This has raised safety and ethical concerns for the partnered organisations who are calling for greater awareness of the issue.

In response, at the end of 2023, UK Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan asked ‘all providers not to force people to switch over until enhanced protections are in place.’

One of the commitments that addresses this, shared by Donelan, is that no vulnerable user should be migrated to digital landline services without the provider, customer or telecare company confirming they have a compatible and functioning telecare solution in place.  However, the partners have highlighted that many customers are not aware of the need to inform their telephone provider of their age or health conditions, and that lists of such customers are not up to date, which will leave many disabled and older people vulnerable if the digital switchover is not done well.

The partnered organisations highlight a general lack of awareness around the landline switchover, especially against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis causing affordability issues to buy new phones and equipment.  This is alongside a lack of digital literacy, particularly among older individuals, to set up routers.

Elizabeth Anderson, CEO of the Digital Poverty Alliance, said:

“There are 1.8 million vulnerable and elderly customers relying on essential landline services in the UK for basic needs such as medical telecare, or reaching family members in a power cut. If major landline providers go ahead and switch off these networks, these vulnerable people could end up more isolated, lacking access to technology, digital skills and connectivity to switch to a digital or mobile device.

There needs to be greater communication around the switchover and fuller guidance widely shared from the telecom providers to ensure millions aren’t left disconnected. It is imperative that government, industry and wider society recognise the dangers of taking away services such as traditional landlines. Many aren’t aware that digital phones won’t work in a power cut now, and until everyone has universal access, emergency coverage and the skills to set up new services, we are concerned that millions could be disadvantaged.”

The DPA also warned of a wider connectivity issue for those in rural areas that may not have mobile signals to reach critical emergency services in times of urgent need, as well as the behavioural change needed for those who aren’t regular users of mobile phones needing to keep these charged and ready.

Disability Rights UK has suggested that government and regulatory bodies must call for further action to help protect vulnerable citizens against rising and pass over costs of the digital landline switch.

Dennis Reed, Director of Silver Voices said:

“Politicians must get to grips with what is happening to thousands of vulnerable customers as a result of this rushed and under-publicised infrastructure upheaval. Older people are having their traditional landlines switched off, without permission, and replaced with an inferior digital system which places their personal safety at risk. There are serious unanswered concerns about personal alarm systems not working and the inability to make emergency calls when there is an extended power cut or internet outage. The current timetable to complete the switchover by 2025 is completely unrealistic if vulnerable customers are to be protected and Silver Voices is calling for the Government to insist that the timetable be extended by at least five years.”

Kamran Mallick, Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK, commented:

“People broadly aren’t aware of this issue and the telecoms providers don’t advertise the immediate impacts of the switchover. What’s worse is that a lot of these switchovers happen during a contract renewal without being clearly stated. When I contacted BT to reduce my broadband costs, BT turned off the copper landline and sent a new router without letting me know the landline had been turned off. Companies like BT should be the ones being proactive in this instance, and we must also see more from government and regulators to protect citizens against rising costs and hidden switchovers.”