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By Chris Vallance
Technology reporter, BBC News
UK phone companies have paused making vulnerable customers switch to digital landlines following “serious incidents” where telecare devices stopped working.
Nearly two million people are thought to use such equipment, which can be used to summon help in an emergency.
Digital landlines can fail in some circumstances, such as a power cut.
Phone providers have signed up to a charter under which people can only be moved from an analogue to a digital line if there is no impact on telecare.
The UK is in the process of switching to digital landlines – a process which mostly involves equipment at exchanges, rather than in people’s homes, being changed.
Telecoms companies and Ofcom, the industry watchdog, have published information on what the changeover will mean but it has been met with concern by some reliant on their analogue landline.
After becoming aware of recent serious incidents in which telecare devices failed, Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan met with telecoms firms, including Sky, BT, Virgin Media O2 and TalkTalk.
The companies have agreed a new charter in which they commit not to switch customers to a digital network unless they are confident they can be protected.
Ms Donelan said phone firms had “agreed that the right thing to do is to temporarily pause all non-voluntary, managed migrations to a digital landline where there is any risk that a customer’s telecare service will not continue to work”.
The phone companies also committed to:
Additional checks on customers who have already been switched to ensure they do not have telecare device the phone company was not aware of
Not change users to a digital landline without confirmation that a compatible telecare solution is in place
“The recent issues families have had to endure are unacceptable and [the] agreements will help to protect consumers in future”, Ms Donelan said.
Phone providers said part of the problem is that they do not always know who has a telecare device, and elderly, vulnerable customers may not know that the switch is happening.
They would like local authorities and telecare firms to share data they hold on who has a device. They have also asked that all telecare firms could test their devices so they know if they will work post the change over.
BT has taken steps to protect telecare and other vulnerable users dependent on a landline during a power outage, such as supplying battery back-up units and hybrid phones that can switch to a mobile network and have a built-in battery.
But the firm was keen to stress the “serious issues” hadn’t hit 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”, Lucy Baker, a director at BT Consumer, said in a blog post.
Last year, BT paused the switch to digital, after some elderly people were unable to dial 999 because of power outages caused by major storms.
A Virgin Media spokesperson said: “We look forward to discussing in more detail how local authorities and telecare providers can better work with the industry to help identify and support those who are vulnerable or need additional assistance”.
“In line with the agreed commitments, we have paused switchovers as we review our processes to further support consumers, building on the range of measures that we already have in place.”
TalkTalk uses a different system which means very few customers will need to be switched.
SOURCE: BBC NEWS