Press release

New measures to better protect vulnerable customers agreed with Telecoms firms

UK phone providers have agreed a number of new measures to protect vulnerable customers as phone lines are upgraded to a new digital network.

  • UK phone providers agree new measures to protect vulnerable customers when upgrading phone lines to a new digital network
  • Technology Secretary asks all providers not to force people to switch over until enhanced protections are in place  
  • The agreement also means that vulnerable households have better access to emergency services during power outages

The most vulnerable people across England will be better protected following agreement with the telecoms industry to introduce new measures when upgrading phone lines to a digital network, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, announced today (Monday 18 December).  

After becoming aware of serious incidents, the Technology Secretary convened a meeting with the UK’s leading telecoms providers, including Sky, BT, VMO2 and TalkTalk, to discuss urgent mitigations to reduce the likelihood of further incidents, protecting those including the elderly. 

Telecoms providers have now signed a Charter committing to concrete measures to protect vulnerable households, particularly those using personal alarms, known as telecare, which offer remote support to elderly, disabled, and vulnerable people – with many located in rural and isolated areas. The move represents a positive step by industry to make sure safety continues to be at the heart of the nationwide switchover and provides reassurance to vulnerable households.   

Phone providers have been upgrading household landlines to digital technology which uses an internet connection, to deliver a modern network which is secure, efficient, and fit for the future. However, the Secretary of State was recently made aware of serious incidents involving telecare users having their devices fail when trying to use them after the upgrade process. 

Though these incidents are confined to a small number of providers, the Technology Secretary has worked with telecoms bosses to ensure robust protections are in place. Under the Charter, all providers have agreed to not forcibly move customers onto the new network unless they are fully confident they will be protected.  

At a meeting with providers and Ofcom on Thursday afternoon (14 December), the Technology Secretary said that protection of vulnerable consumers must be at the heart of efforts.  

Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said:  

It is absolutely right that the most vulnerable people in our society should feel safe, secure and have complete confidence in the services provided to them.   

That’s why I have brought our biggest network providers and industry regulator to the table, agreeing a cast iron set of principles to reassure people and put their minds at ease.  

The recent issues families have had to endure are unacceptable and today’s agreements will help to protect consumers in future.

Other commitments agreed include: 

  • Providers will conduct additional checks on customers who have already been forcibly migrated to ensure they do not have telecare devices the provider was unaware of, and if they do, to ensure suitable support is provided.  
  • No telecare users will be migrated to digital landline services without the provider, customer, or telecare company confirming they have a compatible and functioning telecare solution in place. 
  • Providers will be required to work to provide back-up solutions that go beyond regulator Ofcom’s minimum of one hour of continued, uninterrupted access to emergency services in the event of a power outage.  
  • They will collectively work with Ofcom and the UK government to agree a shared definition of ‘vulnerable people’ for this transition, so it is no longer dependent on the company and establishes an industry wide standard.  

Government will also continue to work with the telecare sector to reduce risk for users during the digital transition.

Telecoms Minister, Sir John Whittingdale, said:  

These commitments are a promise to the most vulnerable people in our society – we will leave no stone unturned in making your safety and security the number one priority for our telephone providers. 

When people need help, they should have every confidence that the services provided to them will get them the assistance they need, and I am clear that recent failings must never happen again.   

It is important we have a telecoms networks fit for the modern age and it’s right the technology is updated to keep pace with the demand we place on it, but in modernising the network providers must also work closely with customers to understand their needs, particularly the most vulnerable customers.

The Technology Secretary and I are united in this mission and will keep the pressure on network providers to ensure they are making good on these commitments.

In November 2017, BT announced its intention to retire its analogue telephone networks such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) by the end of 2025. The industry will upgrade landline services to new digital technology using an internet connection, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Digital Voice or All-IP telephony.  

For the vast majority of consumers and businesses, this change has been and will continue to be straightforward. Nobody will have to lose their landline service because of this change, as there are still options for a ‘landline only’ service should a customer not wish to purchase a general internet connection. Telecoms companies will continue to be bound by the same regulatory obligations as they are today, and this Charter will further strengthen protections for vulnerable consumers.  

The upgrade of the UK’s telephone lines is not a government programme and does not result from a government decision or policy, and therefore specific questions about how the upgrade programme might affect individuals should be directed service providers.  

Further Information

Read a copy of the charter signed today.

More information on Ofcom’s suggest actions to identify and support Telecare users.

Published 18 December 2023