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Copper Wire Telecoms

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the withdrawal of copper wire telecommunications networks.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. Sometime ago the Government decided that the copper wire network—the analogue service—would be switched off in about December 2025. I can understand the reasoning behind the decision that the switchover would be industry led. We can see the sense in that, given how the telecommunications market operates these days. We have come some way from the days when everything was held under the General Post Office, which was the responsibility of a Government Minister. Although I understand the logic, I am afraid I have to bring a fairly simple and blunt message to the Minister this morning: it simply is not working.

It is apparent from the communications that I have with the industry and my constituents that the private companies are focusing on what matters to them rather than the needs and wishes of their customers and the communities we are elected to serve. The Government, after having made the decision that the switchover should be led by the industry, now have to step up to the plate, take charge and make sure that it is done properly. We have until the end of 2025 to get this right, but in terms of Government policy and given that there will be a general election in that period, we know that that sort of timescale can pass in the blink of an eye. This matters to people throughout the United Kingdom. It predominantly causes concern in rural communities because, in the switchover from analogue to digital communications, we have been the ones who have constantly been left behind—although I know that there are also urban communities that will be affected.

In Shetland and Orkney, our particular concern is around the resilience of the digital system—the fibre-optic system to which we will be transferred. For people in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, power cuts are significant events because they are so rare. For us they are just part of everyday living, especially in the winter months. Occasionally we suffer catastrophic weather episodes such as we had last December, when parts of Shetland were left without electricity for six days. I am not always Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks’ biggest fan, but it really put in a shift along with council workers, the coastguard and other emergency services. It did a remarkable job in getting people connected back to electricity and making sure that those in the more hard-to-reach parts of Shetland were properly cared for.

Such events are occasional but not unknown. As we all suffer more and more catastrophic weather events in future, we have to assume that there will be a growing pattern of disruption for which the new system, when it is introduced to us, has to be fit for purpose; at the moment, with the lack of battery powered back-up, there simply is not that. Having a telephone line that we can plug in to the socket at the wall is very often the only means of communication left to people in such circumstances.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing a really important debate. One such incident happened in the lakes and the dales and Eden just a week and a half ago when we had serious snowy weather, which locked people in their communities, and many places— the Langdales, Coniston, Eden Valley and so on—lost electricity. During that time, people lost access to digital connectivity because the electricity went down. Having access to analogue and copper wire telephones gives people the opportunity to get care and reach out for help—to not be isolated. Does he agree that the Government need to get a handle on this issue to make sure that isolated communities are not cut off from the communications they will desperately need in these far too frequent extreme weather events?

I absolutely do. By way of illustration, I received an email from a constituent in Walls, in the west side of Shetland, describing what life was like for him, his family and his neighbours during the six-day power outage last year. He said:

“Power was down…Internet was down…Heating was down (Our house has a gas cooker thank goodness)...The roads were impassable to cars for most of that period. 4x4 pick-ups could get through latterly into the week…The local shop was closed because it needed power to price items…Advice from the emergency services was that in the event of an emergency we were to wave down a passing police car. (This rather desperate advice was pretty hopeless, but more hopeless given road condition)…I need to emphasise that during this week an analogue phone with self-powered phone line was THE critical means of external contact with the outside world other than listening to the news on a battery-powered transistor radio.”

I am interested in my right hon. Friend’s point about the passing police car; we have precisely six police officers in the entire vast county of Sutherland. Does he agree that in a constituency such as mine, the distances are so vast and the time it takes for the emergency services—an ambulance, a doctor or whatever—to get to where they need to be is so long that any delay in getting the call through because of what he describes is unacceptable?

It is absolutely unacceptable, because it would be unacceptable to people living in a town or a city, and if it is unacceptable to them, surely it must be unacceptable to those of us who live outside the major conurbations.

Alongside my Scottish Parliament colleagues, I run regular digital forums. They started originally to raise issues relating to the transfer from analogue to digital television—we have been going that long—and they have morphed over the years to deal with concerns about broadband, superfast broadband and mobile connectivity. We held two such sessions in Kirkwall and Lerwick just last month, which representatives from EE, BT, the Scottish Government’s digital team and other mobile companies attended either in person or online, and their inability to answer questions was remarkable. The people in the audience asked fairly basic questions about how the switchover would work and what it would mean for them, but the people on the panel just looked at each other blankly and shrugged. The companies have no proper understanding of the scale of the problem.

Ahead of this debate, we have received a number of briefings. I draw the attention of the House to the one from BT Group, which runs to two sides of A4—that is quite instructive in itself. It is, if I may say so, fairly heavy on assertion and light on evidence to back up the assertions. It explains that the change is inevitable, and we know that the copper network will have to be replaced eventually, but BT says that it

“will provide a better quality, more resilient service for the future.”

Well, it is that question of “more resilient” that I would query; and, again, I see nothing in the briefing that gives me particular comfort.

The briefing does deal with resilience. It says:

“In the event of a power outage, a back-up, resilient solution for Digital Voice will be required to remain connected.”

There’s a blinding statement of the obvious if ever I saw one. It goes on to say:

“We advise customers to use their mobile phone where possible, as the simplest way to remain connected.”

Well, a number of my constituents would love to use a mobile phone to stay connected, but for obvious reasons—which BT has been telling me for the past 20 years are too difficult to solve—they are unable to do so. Very often, getting a mobile signal requires them to go out of their house and down to the bottom of the garden because they will not get a signal inside the house. Doing that in the middle of winter, in the dark in a howling gale—I can tell you because I have done it—is not much fun. The briefing goes on to say:

“They typically have a longer battery life and calls to the emergency services can be made over any mobile network, including over 2G. Our battery back-up unit provides up to four hours of standby time and up to two hours of talk time to keep customers connected during a power outage. This is available free of charge to vulnerable customers and others may purchase one if they wish.”

Four hours of back-up time in a six-day power outage such as we had in Shetland really is not what we need. It concludes:

“For the very small proportion of customers (less than 1%), with insufficient mobile or broadband connectivity to make a call to the emergency services, we will continue to meet our commitments under the Telephony Universal Service Obligation (USO) to ensure they remain connected.”

That is a pretty good idea, but I suspect that many of those 1% of customers live some distance away from the person who wrote that briefing. It is remarkable that, despite the assertion, there is absolutely no indication of how that laudable aim will be met.

I had a much better briefing from Alice Mathewson, the development manager for North Yell Development Council. With Members’ indulgence, I will take a bit of extra time to read this into the record. Alice was at the digital forum in Lerwick, and she wrote:

“As you are aware I asked a direct question about this to all panel members at your digital forum in Lerwick last month, and no one could give any viable response to this. In addition, the lack of awareness from everyone on your panel was both quite telling and very frightening.

Our community is well used to power outages and disruptions caused by storms. However, the storms seen on our island in December 2022, which resulted in some areas being without electricity for four days, have reminded us of our vulnerability and the need to improve our resilience.

Coupled with electricity outage was severe snow and high winds. All communications on and to the island failed, including mobile and landline services, and travel to and within Yell came to a standstill. Whilst luckily there were no fatalities locally, there were a number of near misses particularly among the more vulnerable in our community, and a complete communications black out on the island, including landlines, resulted in difficulties undertaking welfare checks and an inability to put out any form of emergency response request.”

North Yell Development Council is taking this properly seriously. It is setting up a network of community hubs so that there will be places people can go where there will be warmth, food and whatever other support they need, and they will have connectivity through very high frequency radios. The briefing says:

“We intend to put VHF radios in these hubs in order to try and have some form of emergency communication for our communities. This will be limited in its scope and is a step back to a predigital age. However, it is at least some form of solution, which is more than was offered by anyone on your panel. It also will not help communities outwith our island.”

That, I suggest, gives a proper understanding of the scale of the challenge. It is light years away from what we have seen from the telecommunications companies.

There are particular concerns about availability for older people in these communities who rely on telecare services—for instance, pendants that they can press when they are in difficulty. My father, who is now living on his own at 92, has a little box that sits in the corner of the room, and just when it is least expected—at about 6 o’clock at night—a rather bossy voice booms around the room, saying, “Have you taken your pills yet?” These are examples of the ways in which we are able to help people who want to remain in their own home to do so, in communities like the one I represent. Without the availability of these services, we know what will happen. The families who live closer or elsewhere in the country will quietly, one by one, say, “Come on, you can’t continue to live here. You need to move into the town or come and live with us.” In that way, choices expected to be available to people in other communities are taken away from ours, which becomes denuded of people who want to remain there.

Finally, I get a steady trickle of complaints about one particular issue. I cannot yet say that this is a business practice, though it appears it may be, and we need to get to the truth: people tell me that they have had their analogue line switched to a digital line by BT, without being told what was happening and without proper consent being obtained. The undertakings we get from BT are in relation to vulnerable people and all people over 75. As I said, I cannot yet say that this practice is widespread, but I do see a trickle of these complaints coming in; my caseworkers deal with them and it causes me concern.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has been outlining the problems faced by his rural-based constituents, many of which are replicated in parts of Northern Ireland. We managed five or six years ago to negotiate a confidence and supply deal with the previous Government, part of which has resulted in fibre-optic cables being fitted. That means that many people are not suffering the same complaints and delays as they did previously. Perhaps that technology could be rolled out in isolated communities in places like his constituency.

Absolutely. As I said earlier, we know that the copper network is not going to last forever and that a solution has to be obtained. The bottom line is that that requires two things: resource and political determination. The reference to the confidence and supply arrangement is not lost on me in that respect. The resource will doubtless end up as an arm wrestle between the companies and the Treasury. The political determination can come from the Minister. That is absolutely necessary if the Government’s stated end is to be achieved. This can be his moment to shine, and I hope to hear from him that he is prepared and looking forward to stepping up to the challenge.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate. It is an important issue, not just for my constituents and his, but across the country. I am thinking in particular of rural communities but also of the elderly and vulnerable communities that he mentioned.

The United Kingdom has embarked on a transformative journey of departure from traditional copper wire networks that have long underpinned the country’s communication infrastructure. Copper wire has been the backbone of telecommunications and still provides a vital service lifeline for many residents. However, I am conscious that the advent of digital technologies and the exponential growth of data usage have rendered copper wire networks less capable of keeping up with modern needs.

Copper wire networks are limited in bandwidth and data capacity, impeding the ability to deliver high-speed internet and accommodate the data-intensive services demanded by consumers and businesses. I am conscious that the withdrawal of copper wire networks is in line with the UK Government’s commitment to nationwide broadband expansion, and it is a crucial component of the country’s digital strategy, to ensure that remote and underserved areas have access to a reliable, high-speed internet.

Although that transition holds the promise of improved connectivity and technological advancement, it also raises valid concerns that warrant careful consideration and proactive measures. Upgrading the entire infrastructure from copper to fibre-optic cables not only requires substantial investment but it requires meticulous planning. There are cost implications and logistical complexities, and the need for widespread implementation raises concerns about the pace and scope of the transition.

In this country we did the digital TV transition very well. Led by industry, it worked exceptionally brilliantly. I should also point out, however, that in my constituency there are those who do not subscribe to internet or satellite TV. A substantial number of coastal communities only get access to 15 Freeview channels, rather than the plethora that many others do, because they rely on a relay, rather than a direct, transmitter. All of a sudden, the service where people can pick up a phone and dial anywhere in the world is going to change. We should therefore be mindful of not having a worse service for our constituents who, for whatever reason, choose not to have broadband services, but still want to have that connection around the world.

As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has discussed, bridging the digital divide and preventing communities from being left behind is an important task, not only for Government but for Ofcom and the telecommunication companies. I am aware that making the transition is an industry-led initiative and not directly Government policy. As I have pointed out, I fully understand why not only BT but other internet companies have decided that that is the way forward, and I do think they have been listening. However, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, we have seen an increasing number of storms and longer power outages, and it is those lengthy power cuts that really worry people. Indeed, right now, the recommendation to vulnerable communities or vulnerable people is to make sure they have a back-up analogue phone that they can plug into the socket in case of those sorts of issues, particularly as more and more people use electronically charged phones. It is therefore concerning to see how quickly we are approaching the industry’s self-imposed deadline on the transition.

I am conscious, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will know, how much mobile phone coverage has expanded since 2010—it is extraordinary. The number of transmitters has increased, and the Government have made it easier to put them up. I am not aware of the specific issue in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, but I can imagine. We talk a lot about how many places in the country have access, but I expect that there are several of us who represent those who do not have quite the same level of access, and we still want to see a fair deal for our constituents.

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister challenge Ofcom about its maps of coverage? I am conscious that Ofcom says parts of my constituency are covered by a variety of servers but, thinking out loud, the Deben peninsula, Sutton, Shottisham and areas like that suffered in the storms, were cut off and people could not do things such as phone for an ambulance and similar unless somebody was able to get into a tractor and drive through the floods to go somewhere where they could get a signal. It is those sorts of real-day issues that I know the Government are concerned about. That is why I hope their discussions with Ofcom and Openreach are ongoing, in order to think that through.

I appreciate that we will be discussing rural broadband later today, although I will be in the Treasury Committee so cannot join the debate. The same issue with Ofcom and access to a mobile signal is pertinent, with more and more people wanting to use the internet, so the same request will be made again. Indeed, there is a debate tomorrow about the merger of Vodafone and Three. I strongly say that that presents a real opportunity for significant investment in more transmitters around the country. I am concerned about the suggestion that Three being part of the Hutchison Whampoa empire is somehow dangerous to our country. Far from it—they are the same people who own Felixstowe port, Superdrug and Greene King and provide electricity for at least a third of the country. As we move forward and think about our infrastructure, I know the Government continue to keep security uppermost. They took the action a few years ago when they decided to remove a certain supplier—Huawei—from an amount of the infrastructure in this country. Nevertheless, we need to tread with confidence as we move forward.

Can my right hon. Friend the Minister update us on what has happened elsewhere in Europe with the copper switch-off, which is under way in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and if we can learn lessons for those final communities that are quite hard to reach in that regard? It would be good to get some clarity. Different years have been given for when the switch-off will happen—the end of 2025 was one example, and more recently I have seen Openreach talking about 2027. It would be useful to get an update on exactly where we are on that. For what it is worth, I think we should even consider asking for it to be pushed back until 2030, but I accept that Ofcom issued guidance a few years ago. I do not know if that has been updated; it issued advice initially in 2018. However, I give credit to BT and its Digital Voice migration. It has listened: it paused the Digital Voice migration for a year, and in particular it looked at how it will support people with a particular telecare device, to which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred. People who have only landlines today are people of a certain age and customers who have no mobile signal, but that comes back to my earlier point: I am afraid that we cannot just trust the maps put out by Ofcom.

On the power situation referred to by the right hon. Gentleman, an hour is simply not enough. Okay, we might get something with four hours, but we need to work that through and consider how we could have community hubs or similar. Parts of Scotland are much bigger geographically, but the constituency I represent is about 300 square miles in size. Our district council is the largest by population, stretching from Felixstowe to Lowestoft, so as a rural part of Suffolk we are pretty extensive. I hope that some further work can be done there.

I appreciate that the number of people who do not have an internet connection is becoming lower and lower, but the percentages mean that that is still hundreds of thousands of people. The Government have made it a requirement that people can get an internet-based line without having to take a package, but we need to ensure that costs do not escalate so that that is prohibitive for people who still want the security of a landline.

I hoped and assumed to some extent that Ofcom had sorted this out a few years ago. Some of the issues the country has faced and the bodycheck caused by covid have knocked back some infrastructure projects and other transitions that we need to undertake, but it is important not just for BT and Openreach but for Ofcom and the Government to listen carefully on consumer protection and seek assurances that nobody will be left behind. It is not just about trying to get everybody on broadband; it is about ensuring that people have confidence in a lifeline when they pick up the phone if they need help or if they suffer the isolation of not being able to have a phone call. We must ensure that is guaranteed not only now, but for generations to come.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate, because letters from BT about the switchover have already started landing in North Shropshire and, as one might imagine, a number of people are concerned about it.

We have discussed the topic at length. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) covered some of the points that I will make. The plans to remove copper wiring from landline telephone networks are problematic, mainly because of the contingency plans in place when there is a power cut. We all accept that analogue phone lines have reached the end of their serviceable lives: repairs are difficult and expensive, and the whole network is becoming difficult to maintain. We need to bring the telephone network into the 21st century, so moving to a digital system that offers better connection with higher sound quality seems like a good solution. However, as we have discussed, the problem with anything digital is that when we get into a rural area, we need a good plan B—and probably a plan C—for when things go wrong. We are all extremely concerned about the issue of power cuts, which are obviously not as bad as they are for an island community, but they still pose serious threats, even in places such as North Shropshire. In bad weather they occur frequently, and they regularly span longer than just a few hours. Storm Arwen in 2021, shortly before I became an MP, left some of my constituents without power for six days. It is an issue for all rural areas as well as those island communities.

As we have discussed, voice over internet technology requires a power connection. If people are cut off from a power source, they cannot contact anyone, including the emergency services. The official plan B is to have a battery back-up. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland pointed out, a battery back-up lasts only for a few hours, which is not long enough for a number of different events in an average winter, and certainly not long enough for some of the more extreme weather that we experience once every few years.

The other back-up plan is a mobile phone. Obviously, a solar-powered pack can be used to charge a mobile phone and keep it going through the worst power outages, but—and I think the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal covered this—lots of people in rural areas do not have a reliable mobile signal. Ofcom has said that 13% of the land area in North Shropshire is made up of partial notspots, so many residents do not have a choice of mobile provider if they want a signal at home. Ofcom also says that 3% of the UK cannot access a 4G signal at all.

I, too, have real concerns about the Ofcom maps. The lived experience of my constituents is that they often do not have any kind of signal indoors, even in places where Ofcom thinks they do, and that, if they do have a signal, it can be intermittent. For example, no one in my house received the emergency test signal that was sent to people’s mobile phones last year, yet we are technically in a good 4G area with indoor coverage from a number of providers. Because my husband has a home phone and a personal phone, he has two different providers, and we did not get an emergency test signal on either of them, so we know that those maps are unreliable.

To go slightly off topic, a mobile phone that functions at home but not at work is not a huge amount of use. There is an issue about the importance of being able to get a signal from all providers in all areas. I shall come on to that in a second.

Ofcom has said that landline providers have to continue to provide people with access to a telephone line even in the event of a power cut, but if people cannot prove that they do not have a mobile signal, how will that happen? I cannot prove to Ofcom that I do not have a mobile signal, because its maps say that I do. On occasion I do, but often I do not. I am worried about how residents in that situation will prove that they need an alternative back-up.

The shared rural network is supposed to address the problem of a poor mobile signal. It has promised to deliver a 4G signal from at least one mobile provider to 95% of the UK by 2025. The important thing is that we are talking about the 5% that is not included in that promise. It is supposed to be a partnership between mobile operators and the Government to fund masts so that they can be upgraded or built in areas that receive poor coverage. That is welcome: we want more investment in mast infrastructure. Having done some work on the issue, however, I am concerned about some of the things that I have been told by mobile operators. The three mobile operators that are not EE, which is BT’s mobile operator, have told me that EE has offered them exorbitant rates to share mobile masts, so those masts have been essentially cut off from them. The three other network operators are upgrading their existing masts and in some instances building new ones. Those will have shared equipment on them, but they will not have EE’s equipment.

The roll-out will continue to be patchy, and it will still cause people a number of issues about which network to choose and whether the service will function both at home and at work. It would be much more effective to have legislation that required the operators to share their equipment at a reasonable rate or which allowed customers to roam between providers, as they do for their emergency signal. At the moment, people cannot roam to make a call to a friend or relative, as they may well want to do during a power cut, but they can roam to call the emergency services. We need to look at that technology and expand it further.

Ofcom reports that only 45% of indoor premises receive a signal from all mobile operators but that 96% receive a signal from at least one. In my experience, that is not true, but still we are talking about the 4% of people who do not receive a signal indoors. If someone who has no signal has fallen over and needs to make a call in an emergency, they will not be helped.

Overall, the most important thing is that we need to address this mobile coverage problem. We need to bear in mind, if there is a big power outage in the area, that the mast carrying the mobile signal may well be out of power too, so it is not a fail-safe back-up to a copper line when there is a six-day power outage, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland described.

I would like to raise the issue of telecare devices, most of which historically have used copper wire technology. I have been reassured that there will be a proper roll-out and they will be upgraded as appropriate, but I wonder whether the Minister could provide us with any detail of how that is being tested, just to give some reassurance to my constituents who are concerned about whether they can continue to use those devices.

I want to touch on access to broadband. In North Shropshire, we are—I hope—lucky to be at the forefront of the Project Gigabit roll-out and, again, we are grateful for that. Project Gigabit plans to reach 9,000 of the 12,000 hard-to-reach properties in my constituency. Again, that is great, but it is the 3,000 properties that will not have a decent broadband service that we continue to be concerned about.

Rural communities are already disadvantaged regarding communication possibilities. We need to ensure that when we switch from the outdated copper wire technology, we have a robust back-up plan for those people who will be without power potentially for days on end. If someone cannot call an emergency service, they really are living in the dark ages compared with the rest of the country. Someone in my constituency might have to wait seven, 10 or 11 hours for an ambulance if they fall over and break their hip. That is assuming they have a functioning phone signal and call as soon as the problem occurs. If they cannot get in touch with anybody and have to attract the attention of a neighbour living many hundreds of yards away—just to summon help in the first place—they are in a pretty dire situation. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us that we have properly thought-through plan B and plan C back-up plans to ensure that my constituents are safe should a big power cut occur.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). The majority of people probably have no idea about this subject—certainly no idea of the implications for them. For me, this is a debate about resilience, about what we do when things do not work as they should and about back-up plans. When dealing with climate change, unexpected power outages and extreme weather, we need back-up plans. If we did a quick poll in the room of how many people have 10 litres of water, three days’ supply of food and a torch with back-up batteries in their house, we would probably all fall short, but that is what we need. We also need a phone signal and to be able to contact people.

I will briefly digress to address the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) about the Vodafone-Three merger. She talked about the areas in which Three is already involved. When she mentioned it was the same people who are in charge of x, y, and z, she did not say they are the same people who have close links to the Chinese Community party. There is a real naivety to think that all is fine and that we can hand over critical infrastructure in this manner, but that debate takes place tomorrow.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) set out well the reasons why the switchover is happening and the advantages it will bring to do with better signal, clearer calls and lower energy use. That is fantastic, but we need to ensure that everything works as it should when the switchover takes place.

With new telephone lines working via the internet, all landline users will first need a broadband line, which not everybody has. Traditional telephone lines are run largely by Openreach and Virgin, private sector organisations that have taken the decision to retire these networks. Communication providers such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk are moving their customers over to fibre lines by December 2025. In fact, I believe Virgin hopes to have its customers moved over before then. The Government have said this change is industry led, but in practice it is a bit more complicated. The complexity of the current broadband market means there are more than 600 providers with 600 different processes, each managing the change in their own way. That could leave the consumer vulnerable, and certainly in a position where information is not properly communicated to them.

Analogue lines, of course, have back-up power, so they can work without an independent power supply if a property is affected by a local power cut. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the issues with his rural island constituency. I appreciate that power outages are far more common there, but even in urban constituencies and in cities, we do have power outages; more than that, wi-fi goes down regularly. Over the past week, the wi-fi in my house went down six times—that I am aware of—and twice while I was in the middle of a meeting. That was really problematic, and it would certainly be problematic for a vulnerable person who has fallen over. Although I understand the specific reasons why the right hon. Member brought this debate, the issue is not specific to rural constituencies.

Currently, personal alarms and fall detectors operate over the analogue network. It is estimated that around 1.7 million people in the UK use such devices, and they will be at risk if we do not get this switchover right. How will a personal care device work on a digital line if there is a power cut or the wi-fi is down? Those are more common occurrences than the Minister might like to admit. Upgrading those devices to the digital network—changing them so they can operate—is also going to be extremely costly, considering the number of people using them.

The Government have said that the change is industry led, possibly to wash their hands of it. Local authorities, which are often concerned with the care of vulnerable individuals, have been given no financial support for this change. Where will the money to upgrade those devices come from? There is also a lack of information, particularly from service providers. Despite that, I do not believe there are any plans for a national awareness campaign, by either Government or Ofcom—maybe the Minister can tell me otherwise. That is something we need to consider.

On top of that, there is also the potential for this switchover to create opportunities for criminals to target vulnerable constituents. There may be a potential increase in criminality through the selling of devices at inflated prices, selling vulnerable individuals new broadband packages that they may not use when all they use is a phone line, or perhaps charging for unnecessary work in their properties. We all need to be aware of those possibilities.

In summary, what is it we need? We need clear information—a campaign from Government to let people know what is happening. The timescale for this switchover has to be stretched. December 2025 will come up on us very quickly. From what we have heard this morning, many things clearly have not been considered. We need a back-up plan for when the internet goes down, and not just for when there are power cuts, because the internet often goes down even without power cuts. We need to know what specific interventions will take place in rural areas. Finally, returning to my initial point on resilience, we need to think more carefully about how we all consider our own resilience. Do we have the means to cope with extreme weather? We will be getting more of it.

It is always a delight to see you in your seat, Mr Mundell, chairing our proceedings with such grace and elegance. It is a great delight to commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on getting this debate today. We have campaigned together on many issues over the years, not least on the death penalty around the world. I am always a bit worried about his constituency, because there seem to be so many murders in Shetland of late. I am sure it is good that the BBC is making so much programming in Shetland, but honestly, virtually everybody on the peninsula must have been subject to murder, involved in a murder, or interviewed by the police at some point—I do realise it is fictional.

The right hon. Gentleman made some very good points and I will come on to them in a moment.

It is good to have the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) here with us, who made some very important points. She referred to the debate tomorrow on the potential merger between Vodafone and Three. I will also not be there, because I shall be at Glenys Kinnock’s funeral. The Minister will have a different shadow tomorrow; my place will be taken admirably by another Chris from the shadow Front Bench, also from south Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans). I somewhat disagree with the points that the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal made, but anyway, those will be elucidated tomorrow.

It was good to hear from the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), who referred to notspots, which I think she said covered 13% of her constituency, and the fact that 3% of people in the UK have no 4G signal. We are also 51st in the world for 5G signal. We are all aware that there are quite a lot of issues in terms of mobile and internet connectivity that apply to large sections of the United Kingdom. Somehow, we have not really managed to seize this with the energy that some other countries have managed.

I apologise to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), because I meant to mention her point about mobile signals indoors. I think any of us who have tried to have a mobile phone call on the parliamentary estate will know that mobile signals indoors are temperamental at least. Older buildings can be difficult, because of the thickness of the walls. Modern buildings can make it difficult for mobile signals too, because of the amount of steel on the outside of them. Having a mobile signal outside does not necessarily mean there is a mobile signal inside.

I will come on to that point about the difference between inside and outside, which certainly applies to homes in the Rhondda. The point was also made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) was saying that the signal on the parliamentary estate was temperamental or that the MPs were—maybe it is a bit of both. The hon. Lady made other good points about the potential for criminality. This is not a point that I have heard elsewhere. The Minister may want to refer to it later.

One of the biggest problems with this debate is that the vast majority of people in this country would have absolutely no idea what we are talking about. In fact, I would guess that of the 650 MPs, barely 10% would know what we are talking about. That is a potential problem, because if the public does not know what we are talking about, there is a danger for other people to exploit that lack of understanding and knowledge. Several Members have referred to the fact that this is primarily an industry-led, rather than Government-led, project. They are quite right, but the Government have a significant responsibility in this area. Towards the end of my speech, I will come on to a few things that I think the Government may want to look at.

There are real, legitimate concerns. PSTN—if 650 MPs were asked to say what that acronym stood for, my guess is that we would be lucky if 10 of them knew the answer—stands for public switched telephone network, and I only know that because I am reading it out.

The complete lack of public understanding of the issue is significant. The industry is extremely diverse, with roughly 650 providers in England alone, let alone the rest of the UK. As has already been referred to, BT has decided to delay its digital voice roll-out, and instead of a national roll-out by the end of December 2025 there will be a region-by-region roll-out, which adds a degree of complexity to any kind of national understanding of this issue. Indeed, I would argue that there is even less clarity about what is happening now than there was back in 2022.

As has already been said, some devices rely on PSTN. Security alarms are one. I would guess that quite a few MPs have security alarms. I wonder how many of those alarms are reliant on PSTN; I have no idea.

I will just highlight that point by drawing on personal experience. New security alarms do not rely on the copper network, for that reason, but they are reliant on a mobile signal, so if there is no mobile signal, they will not work.

Indeed. That is a point I will come on to again later.

The hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to telecare devices, with 1.7 million people in the UK relying on them. I am not quite sure what percentage of those devices are still on PSTN, but I would guess that it is a pretty high. One of the problems that plagues the debates on this issue is that we do not have reliable data and statistics, so the Government should try to ensure that we do.

A significant number of traffic lights rely on PSTN. There was a time in Russia when people in the Russian Federation thought that a red light meant that they should drive very fast, which was a bit of a problem. Then there was a problem because all the traffic lights in Russia went off at 10 o’clock at night, which led to other problems. I do not know whether the British Government know how many British traffic lights rely on PSTN, but maybe the Minister will be able to enlighten us later.

Then there is closed circuit television, or CCTV. There is a wide variety of different systems of CCTV up and down the country. Many of those systems will now have transitioned, but some have not.

I feel very old-fashioned in saying this, but fax machines are another thing. I saw a fax machine a couple of weeks ago in a hospital, and it is extraordinary that some of our public institutions still rely on fax machines because other forms of data interoperability simply do not exist.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) made it a mission to get rid of fax machines from the NHS, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree that fax is still the single most secure way to communicate information, partly because of its ancient technology.

Indeed. However, I would argue that relying on legacy systems is dangerous for our public institutions, because we have to pay a lot of money to keep and maintain them, and they do not have a great deal of resilience. Of course we also know that if someone sends a handwritten letter, that may be more reliable than some other forms of communication. Anyway, the point is well made that we still have fax machines. Therefore, there is a wide variety of areas where we need to take cognisance of the impending danger if we go too fast down the route that we are discussing this morning.

Ofcom has also identified a series of different vulnerabilities—people who are more vulnerable than others in relation to age, disability, physical and mental health, and income. One of my biggest concerns as shadow Minister with responsibility for digital is that 18% of poorer homes in the UK have no internet to home at all—18%. That is a problem for levelling up; it is a problem when it comes to diversifying the economy; it is a problem in rural areas; it is a problem in inner-city areas; and there are problems in relation to buildings where it is difficult to get wayleaves. A whole series of issues combine to create a real, long-term problem for some of the most vulnerable families in the country. Some 7% of Welsh adults have no internet to home at all, so relying on VoIP to deliver emergency services with PSTN gone is problematic.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has faced emergency situations in various storms, and I think this debate partly stems from that experience. Of course, the law requires phone services to take all necessary measures to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations, including during a power cut. That remains the case for VoIP services, which is why Ofcom provided guidance in 2018 on how service providers should do that. Virgin Media, for instance, will provide an emergency back-up line that relies on a battery-operated box in such circumstances. However, the way that all the service providers in the UK are meeting that responsibility remains unclear, which is why Ofcom started a monitoring programme in July 2022. It would be good to hear from Ofcom on how well that is proceeding.

In May 2022, the Electronic Communications Resilience and Response Group published a post-incident report after the storms in 2021-22. It was rather, I would say, blasé. It seemed to suggest that we could now cope better and that there would be greater resilience in future, but I think the points already made by several Members were very well made. In December 2022, Ofcom produced its “Connected Nations” report, which similarly suggested that we had learnt a lot of lessons from the storms, but I am not convinced that we are in a strong enough place.

I fully accept that, as a couple of hon. Members have said, there are significant advantages to transitioning. First, the copper wire is not going to last forever. Secondly, there is an affordability issue for the for the operators—keeping two systems going is more expensive. I would like every home in the land to have at least a superfast broadband connection. We were aware during covid in particular that many children were unable to do their homework because they basically relied on a mobile phone for their internet connection, and I do not think that will really work for the future.

Other countries have been much more assertive, aggressive and determined to transition. The Netherlands and Estonia have completed the process. Singapore completed it in 2020. Japan will complete it by next year. Spain had already done 80% by 2020, and Portugal had done 60% by 2020. By contrast, the UK managed only 2% by 2020. We are laggards in this. I am not going to excoriate the Minister for being slow and tardy—I see he is waggling his head in a sort of Eeyore way—but I am going to make this point to him: Estonia took three years to do it. Estonia is a much smaller country, so perhaps it was simpler to do it there. The Netherlands took 15 years. One could argue that we are going too fast to be able to ensure that we have met all the problems.

What should we do? First, I think we should pause this process now. We should take stock. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal made the good point that we should learn lessons from other countries. We should find out how Estonia managed to do it in three years, how Singapore managed to do it by 2020, and what resilience programming they have. How do they make sure that, if there is a power cut—in particular, one that lasts more than a couple of hours—how do they make sure that people are safe and protected? I do not want that pause to be endless; six months is enough, but I think we should take stock and the Government should come back to us with a clear plan of how we can move forward.

Secondly, we need to identify vulnerable customers and communities, because this does not play out equally in every part of the country. Thirdly—this point has been made by several hon. Members—we really need to improve mobile connectivity. I repeated that point at least 20 times as an MP, but in the words of Browning:

“Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!”

Ofcom says there is full connectivity in the town of Porth where I live in the Rhondda, both indoors and outdoors. That is a complete and utter fiction; I cannot get a mobile signal inside my house, other than through VoIP, and that is not just the case in my house, but in nearly every other house in Porth. Ofcom needs to go back to the drawing board and start again on providing accurate information on mobile connectivity.

We must also do more on enabling shared networks and shared masts. It took us far too long to get the electronic communications code through, and I understand that it still has not been fully implemented, though maybe the Government will be able to update us on that. I worry that it does not quite do the trick for enabling mobile connectivity in the rural areas we are talking about. In the Rhondda, sheep can be seen from virtually every house if one looks carefully enough, so we feel rural; though it is quite a dense community mostly living in the valley floor. We in the valleys community share with many other rural areas across the whole country the same anxieties about being able to develop economically, socially and culturally, and to take part in the full opportunities that a digital world offers when we cannot have reliable mobile connectivity.

Since I might not see you again in the Chair before Christmas, Mr Mundell, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Thank you, that is gratefully received. I call the Minister, and remind him that we want to leave a few minutes at the end for Mr Carmichael to wind up.

I share the pleasure of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant), in seeing you in the Chair this morning, Mr Mundell. Let me start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate on a very important issue, and I am grateful to all those who have contributed and made some important points. The debate has ranged far and wide; we have encompassed the subject of the debate taking place this afternoon in this place, and indeed the debate in the Chamber tomorrow afternoon. This has been a good rehearsal of some of the issues.

This country is on a journey towards a digital economy. The Government have set an ambition that we should be one of the most technologically advanced economies in the world, and we are transitioning very rapidly away from the old analogue past through the roll-out of gigabit broadband. Indeed, I suspect that this afternoon the Government will be pressed to go further on that. We are making real progress, and we will report the latest figures for Project Gigabit on Friday morning. I was delighted to visit the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) not long ago, when we peered into a broadband cabinet in Orford.

As we move towards the most modern technology, we leave behind the infrastructure of the past, which includes the eventual closure of the analogue telephone network. The Opposition spokesman pointed out that it is perhaps not universally known as the PSTN, but it is a term that people will become more familiar with. It represents ageing technology—the first automated exchange was invented in the late 19th century, and the analogue network as we know it has existed since the 1980s. It has done a great job for us, but it is not fit for purpose today. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain: spare parts are difficult to find, the number of outages is increasing and the engineers who work on it are retiring. Not moving away from that to a more modern, resilient network would in itself create risk. The question is how we accomplish the change in a way that is secure, efficient and protects those who still rely on the PSTN network for connectivity. It is vital for Government, industry and Ofcom to work together to make sure the transition is achieved successfully.

As has been recognised by several speakers, the process was decided and initiated by the telecoms industry. The Government did not ask it to do so, nor have they determined the timelines or parameters for the switch-off. However, as the hon. Member for Rhondda points out, the Government have a responsibility to ensure the protection of all citizens, so they and Ofcom are working together to monitor the progress of the migration.

We have a particular interest in the groups in society who rely on their landline the most and might find it difficult to migrate to a new technology. They will include elderly citizens, people with mental or physical impairments or those who suffer from other vulnerabilities. We looked for very strong assurances that the needs of those people would be recognised and protected during any migration that took place.

Despite the assurances that we were given by communications operators, we have recently become aware of serious incidents of telecare users finding that their devices have failed when trying to activate them. That is completely unacceptable. The safety of vulnerable people has to be our top priority. As soon as we learned of those incidents, the Secretary of State and I met the relevant communication provider and requested that it carry out an urgent investigation to identify all vulnerable customers and make sure that their devices are fully operable.

In addition, we have asked the companies to pause forced migrations from PSTN networks and have asked Ofcom what more it can do to monitor the migration process. We have invited all communications providers to attend a roundtable tomorrow to ask them to sign up to a charter of commitments to protect vulnerable consumers through the transition. That will cover the need to protect vulnerable consumers—particularly telecare users—as well as the need to go further than Ofcom guidance on power resilience for the most vulnerable consumers and to agree a cross-sector definition of vulnerability.

I have also had meetings in the last 24 hours with Ministers from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to discuss what more can be done to protect vulnerable consumers and to facilitate data sharing between local authorities, telecoms firms and telecare providers so that we can locate every single one of the people reliant on those devices.

The Minister might want to speak to the devolved Administrations as well, because many of those responsibilities are devolved.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we will do that. Existing telecare devices already in the system need to be digitally compatible, and we are talking urgently to the Department of Health and Social Care about that. I take his point that we need to make sure that all four nations of the UK receive the same information and can give the same assurances.

Consumers can feel confident about the migration only if they understand how the change will impact on them. They need to know what additional support is available to them. That is particularly important for vulnerable consumers. Although the PSTN network is due to be switched off in full by 2025, the approach to migrate customers off the network varies from one provider to another.

Turning to the issue that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised in his opening contribution, network resilience is of particular importance. Telecom is vital critical national infrastructure, and that is never more true than when it is providing a literal lifeline to vulnerable citizens. That is why we have always placed such emphasis on network security and resilience, and why we introduced the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021. We published the UK Government resilience framework in December 2022, and the Deputy Prime Minister recently issued the first update to it.

With the PSTN network switch-off, it is vital that operators continue to prioritise resilience and make special arrangements for their vulnerable customers. The power sector takes important action to protect its customers and to ensure that the correct support is given to the most vulnerable customers during power disruptions, including those who are disabled and reliant on electric power devices. Electricity distribution network operators are obliged to maintain a priority services register.

Separately, since 2018 Ofcom has issued guidance to operators to ensure the sector remains resilient to all risks that may affect services. It states that, in the event of a power outage, providers should have at least one telecoms solution available that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour. The solution should be suitable for customers’ needs and should be offered free of charge to those who are at risk. In line with that guidance, fixed-line providers offer back-up battery equipment for the required one-hour minimum, and in many cases battery back-up lasts much longer.

Several Members raised the concern that one hour is insufficient. Obviously, we face more violent weather events and potentially greater power outages, so we will keep that under review, and we are asking Ofcom to look at it again. We have never suffered a nationwide loss of power services, and major outages are still quite rare. If we experience a network outage, there are strong response mechanisms in place across all the operators to ensure services can be restored as quickly as possible. Where telecoms services have experienced disruptions, generally caused by severe weather, typically they resume immediately on power restoration.

Distribution network operators are also required to liaise with local authorities, strategic co-ordinating groups and local resilience forums and partnerships, to share information about vulnerable customers and provide welfare support by working together, but we recognise that we need to do more. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to Ofcom last year to request a wider review of telecoms resilience, and to ask whether more can be done to improve the sector’s power resilience. Ofcom has provided new resilience guidelines for communications providers on the measures they are expected to take in relation to the resilience of their networks, as part of their security duties under the 2021 Act. That includes specific measures for electrical power back-up required in fixed-line networks.

The Ofcom consultation on resilience guidance was published last week and is due to close on 1 March. It proposes updating the resilience guidance, including ensuring that networks are designed to avoid or reduce single points of failure; ensuring key infrastructure points have automatic failover functionality built in so that traffic is immediately diverted to another device or site when equipment fails; and setting out the processes, tools and training that should be considered to support the resilience requirements. Throughout the consultation, Ofcom is also inviting stakeholder input on the question of mobile resilience, asking what services consumers should be able to expect during a power outage and what a more cost-effective solution may look like.

It is important to recognise that power resilience is not just important in the context of the withdrawal of the copper network; it is essential to the functioning of all communications networks, including the mobile phone network. Comment has been made about the fact that mobile coverage is still not as great as we would like it to be. The wireless infrastructure strategy sets out a route to extending mobile coverage, and the shared rural network is helping to deliver that. I recognise the complaints that Ofcom’s assessment of the current mobile network coverage does not match the everyday experience of most hon. Members—including myself, I might say. We have asked Ofcom to look at that urgently to try to improve the accuracy of existing mobile coverage statistics. We will continue to prioritise power resilience issues for fixed and mobile networks across the country, working closely with the industry and the power sector. The Government are continuing to work with Ofcom to understand what may be considered appropriate and proportionate as an outcome of the consultation.

It is important that we have telecoms networks that are fit for the modern age. It is right that the technology that underpins the network is updated both now and in future, so that it can keep pace with all the demand that we place on it—from the digital economy, to social connections and contacting the emergency services. It is important that the network is fit for purpose, secure and resilient. In modernising the network, it is also important that communications providers work closely with their customers—especially the most vulnerable—to understand their needs.

It is right that the industry should seek to switch off the PSTN but, in doing so, companies should ensure that the transition is secure and efficient, and that they protect those who rely on the PSTN for their connectivity. As I have said, we remain extremely concerned that some of the understanding and assurance that we had about the protections being put in place appear not to have been fully delivered. For that reason, the Government are acting urgently to consult both Ofcom and all the communications providers to put in place absolute assurances, so that we can guarantee to the public that the transition will be conducted safely.

I thank you for your chairship, Mr Mundell, and all those who have taken part in what has been an even wider-ranging debate than I had anticipated. I might have anticipated that discussion would stray into terms of mobile phone networks and the rest, but not that we would get as far as talking about fax machines and traffic lights. I think I can say that, of all the possible difficulties that will arise, the operation of traffic lights concerns people in Orkney and Shetland less than others.

I thank the Minister for his full and detailed response. This has turned out to be a more timely opportunity to ventilate the issues than we had anticipated. When he goes to his roundtable tomorrow, I hope that he will impress upon the operators to whom he is speaking that vulnerability is a question not just of age or medical condition; occasionally, it is also a consequence of geography. I hope that he will make the point that this transfer—inevitable as it may be—is not good enough for anyone until it is good enough for everyone. If we get that understood by the industry, I hope that eventually we will achieve the laudable ends that the Government and the operators themselves identify of a modern, fit-for-purpose communications network.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the withdrawal of copper wire telecommunications networks.

Sitting suspended.