What the UK can learn from the rest of the world when it comes to the shift to IP

A woman giving a talk in front of colleagues inside a room filled with computer screens showing a map of the world

From 2025, Openreach will switch off its analogue public switched telephone network (PSTN) infrastructure, with every phone line in the UK migrating to the digital successor. Organisations of all sizes across the UK will need to prepare for this migration and ensure they’ve upgraded their communications systems to Internet Protocol (IP), or voice over IP (VoIP), technologies as part of a comprehensive digitisation initiative.

Although 2025 might seem a fair distance away, businesses won’t be able to purchase traditional landline contracts nor PSTN-enabled devices – like legacy phones or fax machines – from September 2023. Making such significant changes on a short timescale might seem daunting, but the UK is just one of many countries making the switch. In some pockets around the world, the migration has already been completed. Indeed, there’s a lot UK businesses can learn from their neighbours to ensure the digital switchover goes without a hitch.

The countries ahead of the curve

The digital switchover is happening across the world at a rapid pace. This is because the analogue network is losing relevance, and the demands of modern businesses require state-of-the-art infrastructure. Switching over to an IP communications system can, for example, give businesses the flexibility to issue devices to hybrid workers, and allow businesses to connect applications with collaboration and videoconferencing facilities, with the cloud reinforcing everything. This is why countries in all corners of the globe have embarked on this transition.

The Netherlands has already completed the switchover, as has Estonia, which is known for staying ahead of the technological curve. In 2017, Estonia’s incumbent infrastructure company Telia switched off its copper-based network following a three-year process, with 300 phone stations replaced with VoIP phone stations, and 130 smaller stations closed permanently. The Netherlands, which began the process in 2006, finally completed its migration in 2021.

A host of other European countries have also started this process. Spain had switched over 80% of its copper networks to the digital successor by 2020, with Portugal completing 60%, according to Wik Consult. This is in addition to the likes of France, Poland and Sweden, which are well on their way to making the switch. In Asia, Singapore’s infrastructure company, Singtel, completely switched off its copper network in 2020, while Japan aims to do so by 2024. Openreach in the UK, by contrast, only began terminating copper wire-based PSTN in 2020, with 2% switched over at the time.

Learning the lessons of PSTN switchover

Telenor, in Norway, learned during its copper network switch-off that constant engagement with stakeholders was crucial, according to management consultancy Arthur Little. While some businesses questioned the value of the change, this enforced digital transformation, strong communications ultimately sold the manifold benefits of IP systems. This won’t be a problem in the UK, at least, with BT already putting a comprehensive range of IP products and services in place that aim to make the migration frictionless, while letting organisations unlock the full capabilities of digital systems.

Italy’s Telecom Italia, meanwhile, has learned that cooperation with its main competitor was paramount. Liaising with investors, too, helped to carve up the market in such a way that its failing migration programme, first announced in 2017, was able to restart with a new framework and impetus in 2021.

Jersey Telecom was also among the first operators to switch off its copper networks, starting its radical transformation project in 2012 and completing the migration away from the final elements of copper lines by the end of 2019. Its key learnings include the importance of giving plenty of notice and regular communication to organisations everywhere. The copper switchover was also handled in conjunction with migration to full-fibre broadband, which gave businesses a boost and a reason to attract investment and staff.

How UK organisations can set an example

Despite progress moving at different rates globally, there are parallels that can be drawn between different countries. To begin with, the PSTN switchover usually coincides with the rollout of full-fibre broadband, as was the case in Jersey. Regions that have completed the switch early have therefore been able to offer superior services. The UK, by contrast, has been lagging behind on both fronts. Early buy-in to the PSTN switch, however, means more time to plan for how to make the most of not just IP communications, but the inevitable step up to full-fibre broadband, and how this can fuel wider digital transformation efforts.

Once these countries have overcome the respective regulatory hurdles, which vary between regulatory regimes, there are a number of common painpoints that need addressing. First, there are the migration constraints, with significant levels of planning, communication and logistics to overcome in any large-scale project such as this. For businesses, close coordination is required between IT teams and stakeholders – ranging from employees to external suppliers – to ensure upgrading devices and workflows take into account the implications for all parties.

Ramping up communications around the switch to IP-based systems both internally and among suppliers and customers, can help businesses gain a competitive advantage, too. Just as some countries have been able to benefit reputationally from making the switch early, so organisations in the UK can earn a reputational boost for doing the same. Businesses actively exploring their options also have a plethora of options to choose from that are already on the market, including BT’s range of IP-compatible hardware as well as platforms like BT Cloud Work. Organisations in the UK are spoilt for choice and can begin selling the benefits of the technology to staff as well as partners once their plans are set in motion. This not only lets organisations set an example within their own circles but among competitors and investors too.

The UK hasn’t been as quick to the punch as neighbouring countries in leading the migration away from PSTN and towards modern digital infrastructure. But the advantage has been the option to follow international counterparts and take into account their successes and challenges. By examining these examples, the business landscape as a whole can come to learn the full implications of the PSTN switch-off, so UK PLC can successfully see off any hurdles and maximise the benefits of digital infrastructure in 2025 and beyond.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Features Editor

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is the Features Editor for ITPro, CloudPro and ChannelPro. He oversees the commissioning and publication of in-depth and long-form features across all three sites, including opinion articles and case studies. He also occasionally contributes his thoughts to the IT Pro Podcast, and writes content for the Business Briefing. Keumars joined IT Pro as a staff writer in April 2018. He specialises in the public sector but writes across a breadth of core topics including cyber security and cloud computing.