Scores of pensioners have been left with no way of contacting the outside world as BT’s digital landline switchover continues to be besieged with problems.
Customers have been left with no phone access for days, lifesaving alarms have been made redundant and numbers and area codes have been changed without permission – leaving many vulnerable people with nowhere to turn.
BT are currently in the process of switching all landline phones in Britain’s 29 million homes to digital internet based services, but for many the transition has been far from smooth.
One customer lost the phone number she had used for 50 years after her old copper-wire landline was switched off and a new internet telephone was installed at her home.
Others have reported that life-saving personal alarms, which automatically call for help in the case of an emergency, stop working whenever there are problems with the internet – or stop completely if residents’ numbers are changed.
This is when the change from the old copper network to a new broadband-based connection will take place across the UK
Brenda Rowles lost the phone number that she’s had since she moved into her Hampshire home in December 1970 amid the switchover
BT is adamant that customers should not have to change their phone number as part of its switch to Digital Voice.
In the next couple of years, the Digital Voice programme will move ten million BT customers off traditional copper-wire phone lines to fibre cables that use new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology to make calls.
But Brits have reacted angrily after being plagued with problems during the switchover.
One customer, Debbie Calvert, asked: ‘Why force people to change their landlines to the digital lines when the customer lives in an area where the mobile phone coverage is shockingly bad resulting in the customers being completely cut off when your stupid internet goes down?
‘Taking out the broadband AND ‘landline’ telephone! Customers don’t have reception on their mobiles to ring/text you to report the fault!’
In total 29 million homes must make the change by 2025. Phone numbers should not be affected by the switch, BT says.
Yet grandmother Brenda Rowles, 78, recently lost her phone number she has used for over 50 years after BT cut off her landline and gave her a new number when she asked to cancel her broadband.
Now she is worried her husband, who is in a care home, will not be able to contact her.
Mrs Rowles only discovered her landline had changed when she received a letter from her doctor’s surgery telling her they couldn’t get hold of her.
Gillian Allen, who found calls from family and friends suddenly stopped on October 2 when BT switched her landline to a digital line, also had her number changed.
To fix the issue, BT gave her a new ‘temporary’ number with a different area code, removing the number she’d used for 50 years.
Ms Allen, 69, lives with her brother, Bob, 77, in the village of Nateby, Cumbria, and says: ‘It has been a comedy of errors over the past couple of months — and despite numerous phone calls, the problem was not solved. Instead, it was more confusing by having our phone number changed.’
She adds: ‘Fortunately, we had a mobile phone so we could still communicate with the outside world.
‘We had no intention of using the new landline because people would think we’d moved home.’
Despite having received letters and cards from BT informing them of the changes, Ms Allen was unaware of the date of the switch until calls stopped coming in.
She contacted BT, who told her to pull her phone line out of the traditional socket in the wall and plug it into the computer hub instead.
Baffled by the problem, a BT engineer gave the family a new ‘temporary number’ in November. But Ms Allen did not get her old number back. She says: ‘When I called asking for the old phone number back, BT told me it had been discontinued.’
It was only after Money Mail intervened on her behalf that she got her old number back last week. BT admits that due to ‘technical issues’, Ms Allen’s original number did not ‘port fully’.
It failed to comment on what this means or how many other customers have been affected. A BT spokesman says: ‘We are really sorry for the issues Gillian has experienced.’
Other customers complained of similar problems. Ruth Ridgwell, from Hythe, Kent, said she had been left with ‘someone else’s number’ after the switchover – and added she was not the only person in the area affected.
Customers also report £20 phone adapters being handed out by BT don’t work with their old handsets.
Complaints about the level of help provided by BT suggest it has been woefully inadequate, with many saying they were not aware of the plan at all.
Linda Gardner wrote on social media she had no idea of the change until she read about it in the paper: ‘I had no idea this change was coming. In case I am not alone and you know anyone who relies solely on their BT landline and/or has limited mobile reception, here is the article. Forewarned is forearmed.’
Number’s up: One customer has lost the phone number she has used for 50 years after she was switched to a new internet telephone
Faults: Some customers say their new digital landlines stop working every time the internet goes down in their area
And one 90-year-old said he was left without a landline for more than ten days due to technological issues.
BT’s handling of vulnerable elderly customers during the digital switch has been slammed as ‘absolutely despicable’ by Joss Barnes, who has been helping their elderly uncle.
Dennis Reed, director of Silver Voices, previously told BBC Radio Oxford that many people are ‘concerned about the reliability of a system based only on the internet’ – and slammed the 2025 timetable as ‘ludicrously short’.
He wants the timeline to be re-evaluated: ‘A lot of people don’t know about it yet but those that do are contacting us in large numbers expressing their concerns because they rely on the landline for a whole number of reasons, obviously emergency calls.
‘They’re very concerned about the reliability of having a system based only on the internet. They may not have a good mobile signal in their area. A lot of them have got emergency telecare or pendant alarm systems and not all of those are compatible with the Digital Voice system.
‘So there’s a whole range of concerns and we think it’s going far too fast and far too far at this stage. I mean, 2025 is a ludicrously short timetable. It’s a timetable which has been agreed for commercial considerations rather than the security of older and vulnerable people.
‘If it’s a question of choice, and a lot of people might be quite happy and rely on mobiles, have good mobile signal in their area, they might be quite happy to have an internet-based system as a backup to that. But they’re forcing people to do this, or the intention is that they will force people to transfer over to Digital Voice by 2025.’
It’s an issue that plagues many frustrated Britons, and now a new report has revealed the UK areas with the fastest and slowest broadband
Stan Bibby is one of many other BT customers who has contacted us with similar technology glitches. He says: ‘When you purchase the £20 adapters, they do not work with many older handsets — well, certainly not with mine.
‘I could still get a dialling tone and phone out after the digital switch, but my phone no longer rang when I received an incoming call.’
The switch is not only affecting phone calls — it’s detrimental to older people’s independence.
Another reader wrote in about her elderly mother’s struggles to manage on her own, adding: ‘This new technology only adds to the confusion.
‘It is deeply frustrating for her because she is totally capable but needs to rely on a younger generation to handle the unnecessary change.
‘I am also with BT and was told the old system has run its course. Nonsense! BT replaced my copper phone wires only a couple of years ago, and I think they could be good for at least another 50 years.’
One elderly BT customer suddenly found her landline stopped working amidst the switchover – a potentially life-threatening situation as she relies on an emergency fob around her neck that automatically calls for help if she needs it.
The firm told her it would take them a week to send someone out to sort out the issue.
Yet even BT engineers struggle to solve problems for customers who need help with the switch.
Marnie Simmans, 85, a retired United Nations secretary from Reigate, Surrey, was forced to switch to Digital Voice just over a year ago — only weeks before BT had to halt its rollout due to shortcomings in the service.
The widow, whose husband, Albert, a former electronics engineer, died four years ago, says: ‘I was sent a new digital phone in the post with instructions on how to set it up.
‘I refused to do it as I did not want to be switched over — so BT arranged for an engineer to come out and do it. Unfortunately, he seemed to struggle, too — and the phone now switches off when the internet goes down.
‘It has stopped working half a dozen times over the past year.’ Marnie says her new phone service is much less reliable than it was.
She adds: ‘I cannot understand how BT can get away with this. Surely, we should be working to improve services — not make them worse.’
Last year, regulator Ofcom raised concerns over the programme, warning BT did not have enough measures in place to support vulnerable customers in a power cut if they needed to call 999 because digital phones must be plugged into an electricity socket to work, and do not function in a power cut.
Big switch: In the next couple of years, the Digital Voice programme will move ten million customers off traditional copper wire phone lines to internet fibre cables
Vulnerable households need to ensure they have an alternative in place, such as a mobile phone or an emergency battery pack to plug in for the landline phone.
The telecoms giant suspended the rollout until last summer, when it put additional measures in place.
BT has started offering ‘free’ £85 battery packs to those most in need if there is a power cut so they do not lose contact. But batteries will not help if the internet itself also goes down because the phone relies on the digital connection.
Concerned customers can demand a ‘free’ £80 hybrid phone that uses mobile phone signals rather than the internet. But it won’t help people such as Marnie who live in areas with ‘patchy’ or no mobile phone signal.
Retired police officer Sandra Wrench, of Kempston, Bedfordshire, says BT’s advice for vulnerable people to call on family or friends if they need help with the switch is not realistic.
‘As a police officer, I learned there are a huge number of elderly people without any support,’ she says. ‘It does not matter how many times BT emails or contacts them by post — a huge number will be confused by the switch and not realise that on a set date they could be cut off from the outside world.
It is ridiculous — why can’t BT leave landlines in place for the vulnerable and just change them as required with a visit.’
Laurence Walterson, 90, got in touch as a concerned BT customer who lives alone and has hearing and visual problems.
He says: ‘My daughter spent hours on her mobile phone trying to get hold of BT staff to help me with the digital change — with frequent promises to call back not materialising.
‘I was left for 11 days without a landline. So much for BT’s protocol of getting vulnerable people’s problems resolved within 48 hours.’
The telecoms giant suggests that if there is a power cut or their broadband goes down, ‘customers should use their mobile as an alternative, if able’.
When asked about vulnerable people without family or friends able to help, BT says: ‘We encourage customers with any issues, questions or concerns to get in touch.’
The rollout of Digital Voice started in the capital in the autumn, but Ron Rensham, from Congleton, Cheshire, warns that if his experience is anything to go by, Londoners can also expect disruption.
‘Despite not living in a remote area and wanting to embrace the technology, it has been a shambles,’ he says.
‘After more than a year of BT engineers struggling to install broadband and phone upgrades, I now wonder how on earth BT will be able to hit its two-year roll-out target.
‘It seems to be ploughing ahead with the plans irrespective of the consequences to the customer.’
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