Previously published articles and blogs by Digital Telecare for Scottish Local Government have explored the urgency behind and drivers for the transition to digital telecare. Faced with a complex IT transformation project, which at its core is the transition to digital telecare, it’s understandable that some telecare service providers including: local authorities, health and social care partnerships and housing associations might be asking themselves if it is really necessary.
In this blog, we’ll explore the option of continuing to deliver telecare through analogue technology both pre and post-digital switchover and the medium and long-term implications for this approach. This will enable an informed comparison to be made with the different options for transitioning to digital telecare.
CHANGE IS HAPPENING NOW
Telecare service providers won’t need to wait until 2025 to begin to experience the impacts of the transition to digital telephony, and even a service who decided to maintain their analogue solution would find themselves needing to react to some of these changes.
Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services are often used to connect Alarm Receiving Centres to the telephone network. These ISDN services are also being withdrawn and in some cases this has already happened. The standard technology solution to replace ISDN is a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) solution. However, as these are IP based, they too are not compatible with legacy analogue telecare.
New housing developments are now being constructed fully digital, with fibre-based services rather than copper lines. This causes a number of challenges for delivering an analogue telecare service.
In some instances, the router is located in a hall cupboard – useful for keeping unsightly boxes and cables tucked away, but not an ideal location for an alarm unit! This either requires a reliance on the pendant, or additional disruption to the citizen while cabling is installed to allow the alarm to be placed elsewhere.
Recently, in another example in North Lanarkshire, the telecare service user's router also had no suitable port to connect an analogue alarm device. In cases where a fixed-point alarm device was the only option, this would then require either the user or the telecare service provider to be willing and able to replace the router.
Now in both examples above, a Global System for Mobile (GSM) alarm which operates over mobile networks is an obvious solution, and wouldn’t require the alarm to be placed anywhere near the router. Firstly, this is reliant on there being suitable mobile network coverage which can’t always be guaranteed and secondly on the telecare service provider having a stock of GSM devices. This is a point we will return to a few times in this article as it is likely that continuing to deliver telecare services through analogue devices would necessitate the use of at least some GSM devices.
The telecommunications industry are already starting to prepare for the switchover to digital. In some regions we’ve seen analogue telecare devices fail for users. This isn’t limited to specific telecommunication providers with users using a range of suppliers being impacted. There are a number of ways of getting round this issue. Again, switching to a GSM device may side-step the issue if, given the provisos listed above, this an option.
In some cases a work-around can be found through trial and error, though this is often resource intensive, and is not a permanent solution. Requiring the user to change their telephony package could initially appear to offer a third, if particularly unpalatable solution, but ultimately this isn’t actually viable. Firstly, changing isn’t always or even often, a simple proposition when telephone services are now often tied into broader entertainment and broadband packages. Secondly, and more importantly, this wouldn’t be guaranteed to resolve the issue, and so risks causing significant inconvenience to the user for potentially no material gain.
THE GRADUAL TRANSITION OF EXCHANGES
It’s now been well publicised that from September 2023 no-one in the UK will be able to purchase a new analogue telephone package which is known as a ‘national stop-sell’. However, in areas where Openreach have determined that 75% of citizens or higher already have the potential for a digital connection, earlier stop-sells are being introduced with the first coming into effect in Scotland in June 2021.
A challenge all telecare service providers will face with this approach is not knowing if any of their users have changed to a digital package, and if they have, whether their alarm is still operational. This likely to only become apparent when an attempt to use it is made. We’ll explore how to deal with this in the following section where we explore in greater detail how to deliver analogue telecare in a digital world.
None of these challenges are exclusive to services wishing to retain their analogue systems, and will be experienced irrespective of a service’s plans to transition to digital or not. However, this also demonstrates that ALL services will need to react prior to 2025. Staff resource will need to be dedicated to resolving these issues now, and planning not to transition will not avoid this.
2025 AND THE SWITCH-OFF
If we now fast-forward to 2025 and the day after all exchanges are switched to digital, what do things look like? Have all analogue devices immediately stopped working?
Absolutely not, just as challenges won’t patiently wait until 2025 to present themselves, so too is the case that there is unlikely to be a wide-scale failure of all analogue devices overnight. There are however immediate considerations which would need to be addressed.
INCREASED CALL-FAILURE RATES
While not necessarily a cliff-edge calamity, it’s also highly likely that following the transition to digital telephony services continuing to utilise analogue devices will experience an increased call failure-rate due to distortions introduced to the Dual-Tone Multi-Frequency (DTMF) signalling by the conversion from analogue to digital and back again.
Ofcom have confirmed that the migration in the UK will impact a range of areas including telecare provision as these “rely on some attributes of the PSTN that may not be fully replicated in VoIP-based” , and that analogue “DTMF tone transfer will be affected in ways that may make some security and care alarms malfunction”.
Analogue devices are able to draw power from the phone lines enabling the device to keep working even during a power cut. This won’t be the case after the transition to digital phone lines, and certainly isn’t the case for routers which any landline connected alarm would rely on. If using landline connected units, rather than GSM devices which have an internal battery, this would leave a telecare service provider with either installing a uninterruptable power supply (UPS) to enable the continued delivery of service even during a power cut or they will need to advise clients that support cannot be provided in the event of a power cut.
A UPS costs between £50 and several hundred pounds, dependent on the power and uptime required. On top of this, a telecare service provider would also need to factor in the resource implications for installing these, and the citizen reaction to having another (potentially large) box put into their home.
Again, this isn’t an exclusively analogue issue, and would also be experienced by services using digital alarms using a fixed broadband connection.
Moving beyond 2025, retaining analogue devices won’t be a long-term solution. While in the short to medium term suppliers are still likely to offer and support existing analogue products, as existing stocks are run down it is very likely that most, if not all, will eventually transition to offering exclusively digital solutions. Indeed one of the main motivating factors for telecare service providers avoiding the transition to digital – the increased cost of digital devices compared to their analogue counterparts – is likely to be a major motivating factor for suppliers to make the transition.
As their focus turns more to their digital offerings, so too will support for analogue products be withdrawn, leaving telecare service providers still utilising them, increasingly isolated when it comes to resolving issues.
This blog has thus far been focused on maintaining business as usual, or at least something as close to it as possible. Innovation is possible with analogue technology, as the FarrPoint Call Handling Reports, commissioned by COSLA, amply demonstrated. As it has been shown, it would take a not inconsiderable amount of resource and effort to maintain business as usual, and this would directly impact on a telecare service providers ability to innovate and develop.
What this blog has demonstrated is that it will be possible to maintain an analogue solution even after the transition to digital telephony, at least for the short-to-mid-term. Not only that, but it is also likely that, again in the short-to-mid-term, this could be delivered cheaper than a transition to digital telecare.
Despite this, it has also be shown that this simply isn’t a long-term or permanent solution. Analogue is a burning platform and eventually, baring asteroid or other mass extinction event in the meantime, all services will eventually have to transition to digital.
This means that long-term a telecare service provider who initially continues to utilise analogue technology will still be faced with the cost of transitioning to digital telecare. This makes the time, finances and resources spent maintaining an obsolete platform seem more of an additional cost than any real saving. Not only that, but when the possibilities and innovations that digital telecare offers are considered, it seems increasingly hard to justify focusing on maintaining business as usual, when that time could be spent preparing a resilient, innovative service which can meet the demands of the future.
If you are a telecare service provider including: local authority, health and social care partnership and housing associations and have not started your journey to digital telecare yet, please get in touch.
Digital Telecare for Scottish Local Government