Featured Article : Ofcom Investigates Whether 999 Calls Work (Via VoIP) During Emergencies

Communications regulator Ofcom has opened an investigation to make sure that telecoms providers are complying with rules to ensure that there is always uninterrupted access to 999 calls.

Investigation Into Compliance With General Condition A3.2(b) 

The new investigation will essentially decide whether providers are operating in a way that meets with General Condition A3.2(b), which relates to the General Conditions of Entitlement. These are the regulatory conditions that all providers of electronic communications networks and services must comply with if they want to provide services in the UK. General Condition A3.2(b) says that Regulated Providers “must take all necessary measures to ensure uninterrupted access to Emergency Organisations” (e.g. the relevant public police, fire, ambulance and coastguard services for a locality) as part of any voice Communications Services offered.

History 

As far back as 2007, Ofcom set out its regulations for providers of VoIP services to make sure that people can call ordinary fixed or mobile phones with the objective of contacting the emergency services and that a high level of emergency services access is maintained.

Storms Exposed VoIP Weakness 

Fast forward to storms Arwen and Eunice in the UK in February, where it became apparent that power outages meant that routers went offline, and calls weren’t possible with a broadband-only connection. This is the main weakness of VoIP compared to old-style analogue copper phone lines.

Rollout Paused As A Result 

At the time of the storms, the rollout of BT’s Digital Voice and the move to switch every home phone in the UK to an internet-based connection instead of a traditional copper-wire landline was under way, with the target of switching off the old PTSN by the end of December 2025. The result involved BT announcing in March that it was pausing the digital rollout of Digital Voice switch-overs for customers who didn’t want to move to the new technology straight away and BT setting out new plans for more resilient back-up options.

Consultation and Updated Rules 

In May 2018, Ofcom consulted on guidance on GCA3.2(b), which set out how providers could meet the obligation to ensure uninterrupted access to emergency organisations during a power outage for customers using VoIP technology. This led to the development of a set of principles that providers would need to abide by, which included:

– Being able to offer at least one solution to enable access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour in the event of a power outage in the premises. The solution should be suitable for customers’ needs and should be offered free of charge to those who are at risk as they are dependent on their landline.

– Also, providers were then required to take steps to identify at-risk customers and engage in effective communications to ensure that they understood the risk and the protection solution.

As far back as 2011, Ofcom had proposals relating to the provision of a battery back-up for customers to use to enable calls to emergency services in the event of power outages, with this being something that Ofcom has expected providers to supply since 2018.

The New Investigation 

The reason for Ofcom’s new investigation is to find out whether telecoms providers are complying with rules designed to ensure that people can contact the emergency services at all times. Ofcom is particularly interested in whether VoIP providers are, in fact, offering battery back-ups and whether they are identifying vulnerable customers who need more help. The regulator said that it had decided to launch the new investigation based on the results of consumer research and writing to regulated providers on an informal basis.

First Stage 

Ofcom says that in this first stage of its compliance monitoring programme, it will be gathering information from a range of alternative network providers and VoIP providers to understand what they are doing to ensure that they comply with their obligations. Ofcom says that it will also be engaging with industry to ensure that providers understand their obligations and how they apply to businesses providing Fibre to the Premises services.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

For all its benefits to businesses, VoIP needs a power supply to stay online and, as Ofcom has long emphasised with principles and guidelines, users should be able to at least be able to contact the emergency services when needed using VoIP. This is something that was highlighted by VoIP’s failure to provide emergency access for some customers during February’s storms. It is now a particularly pressing concern, given that the big switchover to digital was due to be completed by the end of 2025 (currently paused), climate change is causing more disruptive severe weather events, and Ofcom’s research has indicated that some providers may not be complying fully with the rules. Providers are now likely to be feeling under pressure which hopefully may galvanize those who may have been lagging to take the matter and their operator’s responsibilities more seriously, and to ensure compliance. There are times when businesses and home users need to contact the emergency services, so the investigation and pressure from Ofcom are in the interest of everyone.

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