Your landline is changing – if you still want it

Other than having had their dials replaced with keypads some years ago, the standard landline telephones that we all still have in our homes have changed little since Alexander Graham Bell’s day. True, they’re mostly cordless now, and you can change the ringtone, but the underlying technology is the same.

The way you use your landline will soon change

But not for much longer. Britain’s network of ancient copper wires connecting the telephone exchanges to those green cabinets on the corner of your street and thence to your house is being phased out. It has already disappeared from several trial areas and within about four years it will be gone completely – and with it the landline you know.

Openreach, the broadband division of BT, has just announced that 86 more exchanges will soon be upgraded, affecting some half a million people. The areas involved include several around Leeds as well as Withernsea on the East Riding coast – and while that is welcome news, it brings limitations to the use of your landline that you should know about.

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The new system routes ordinary voice calls away from the copper wires of the old Public Switched Telephone Network and on to the internet. You can make or receive calls in the normal way, but your connection will be subject to power being available. If the electricity goes out, so will your phone.

That has never happened in Britain before. Wired landline phones have traditionally taken their power from the line itself, which is separate to the regular mains supply, and they usually remain functional even during a power cut. The internet, as we have all discovered at one time or other, does not.

For that reason, phone operators are being made to come up with workaround solutions so that in an emergency, we can still call the emergency services. These might include battery-operated backup packs being installed in your home.

And it’s not only phones that will be affected by the changes. Some burglar alarms, traffic lights, cash machines and railway signals rely on the old copper wires and all will have to be re-engineered for the digital age.

Their operators have had years of notice, though. And many offices have long since switched to internet-based landlines – as anyone who works in one will have discovered when there’s a power failure.

Many of us, however, will be wondering whether we still need a landline at all. A survey earlier this year found that 40 per cent of us have stopped using them, and that nearly half of under-25s don’t even own one.

The decommissioning of the copper network will indeed be another nail in the coffin. Landline-free broadband is already available to homes serviced by fibre-optic cable all the way to the front door, and within a few more years, fixed phones will come to be seen as optional extras. BT already offers broadband-only packages to most customers, although it’s currently a marketing tactic rather than a technical necessity.

If you still rely on your landline, the good news is that the changes will require no expense and little inconvenience on your part. The adjustments will take place mostly at the telephone exchange, and there will be no need to buy a new handset.

If, on the other hand, you would like to seize the moment and cut off your landline right now – perhaps to stem the flow of junk calls that come your way – you can do so in two minutes flat by simply unplugging the base unit from the wall. Your broadband will be unaffected; you just need to tell the people you still will want to hear from to call your mobile instead.

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