Why the analogue to digital switch is good news for businesses

Britain’s analogue landlines have kept the UK well connected for a century, but newer digital technologies, and all of the possibilities that they present, mean it’s time to consign the analogue equipment to the history books
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At the turn of the 20th century, funeral director and inventor Almon Brown Strowger endeavoured to automate the first telephone exchanges, with a vision to avoid operators having to put calls through manually by hand. This idea would eventually become the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), which has supported phone and broadband services in the UK ever since. 

But the way we communicate and transfer data has been undergoing massive change. Since 2010, there has been a huge explosion in the number of smart devices and data, and that trend is set to increase exponentially over the next few years. For example, a report by IDC estimates that by 2025 there will be 55.7bn connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices or ‘things.’ Management consultancy firm Gartner also estimates that, in the same time frame, over 95% of new digital workloads will be deployed on cloud-native platforms – up from 30% in 2021. 

It has been more than five years since BT Group announced that the ageing analogue PSTN technology would be retired by the end of 2025 and all landlines would go digital. This once in a generation upgrade will see the vast majority of homes and businesses provided with a broadband or data line and will allow calls to be made over the top using ‘voice over IP’ (VoIP) technology.

Despite the upcoming change, as recently as 2021, 70% of businesses were still using traditional landlines, and analogue tech like fax machines. 

BT Business is working with its customers to move them from legacy network solutions to a new digital network and helping them find the service that best suits their needs.

“PSTN simply doesn’t provide the infrastructure for the kind of digital services that the UK needs today. It’s expensive, it uses a lot of power and it takes up a lot of space,” says Marc Overton, MD of Division X, part of BT Business. “The brilliant thing, of course, is that at the same time we’re retiring the PSTN, we’re making this massive investment in our fixed and mobile networks, as well as technologies such as IoT. These are built to support the new ways we’re communicating, whether we’re talking about people, devices or machines.” 

The switch over is happening at a time when connectivity has become even more intrinsic to the way we work and live. Just as Strowger’s idea opened the way for an early kind of automation, the next wave of digital automation lies ahead. The combination of digital, all-IP and full fibre optic network investments will open up a “whole bunch” of new opportunities for the modern era, adds Overton, where real-time processing and unified communications are required, video is as important as voice, and high-speed redundant data is needed.

PSTN simply doesn’t provide the infrastructure for the kind of digital services that the UK needs today. It’s expensive, it uses a lot of power and it takes up a lot of space

The PSTN switch off isn’t only about VoIP or mobile, it’s also about ensuring companies have the right solution to match their needs post switch off, especially when many are concerned about the requirement to invest. There is also the opportunity to support businesses by utilising 4G or 5G connectivity instead – in which primary services are replaced with strong data connection.

BT is investing in technologies to help customers as they move away from legacy PSTN endpoints and instead take advantage of smart and instant connections, increased benefits, business continuity, prevention of maintenance issues and loss of connection. After the pandemic, hybrid and remote working are increasingly the default. This Zoomification of the planet put both the power and necessity of digital on display and, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of hybrid workers has leapt from 13% in February 2022 to 24% in May.

But the potential goes far further than running your meetings on Zoom. With the 5G rollout in the UK promising faster, better connectivity for individuals and businesses via public and private networks, forward-looking organisations in all kinds of industries are already reshaping their sectors.

Consider manufacturing; a sector in which maintenance and break/fix issues with equipment has typically traditionally involved frequent onsite visits. Now, employees are able to use ‘digital twins’ – simulated virtual versions of facility operations tied to real analytics – of the factory floor. Once virtualised, the digital models can be worked on by employees in different locations, using VR or AR headsets to view the infrastructure. This is real and operational today, with engineers solving assembly line issues remotely via VR, all connected by 5G. 

Increasing adoption of 5G private networks is a priority for BT. Its work in the broadcast industry, for example, has also demonstrated the powerful benefits that this technology can provide. 

During a Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Saracens and Northampton Saints, multiple matchday cameras were connected via a standalone 5G private network installed at the ground. These cameras’ output then formed part of the live BT Sport coverage of the match in a UK-first; never had key matchday cameras, as part of a customer broadcast, been enabled in this way.

A truism is that the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Just a few months later, BT followed this up by deploying a portable 5G private network, this time in partnership with the BBC, for TV coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham; the first time the technology had been deployed for an event on this scale anywhere in Europe.

This ‘digital vision’ means any location with a modern IP network or 5G connectivity can take advantage of AI to automate laborious surveillance tasks. This AI system is set up as a kind of ‘brain’ that receives real-time image inputs from a slew of cameras or drones. 

Rather than staffing a control room with a whole set of screens, the digital tool can process the images and intelligently spot anomalies. That means that detecting unusual behaviour, like trespassers in areas they shouldn’t be in, can be automated.

Between the lower cost of equipment, networks improving, and better AI, digital initiatives that would have been unmanageably costly or even unimaginable only a decade ago are a reality today, for example, in drone delivery services in remote parts of the world. 

“A truism is that the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” says Overton. “So even with the more outer edge use cases, you’ll find people around the world have industrialised them.”

These kinds of forward-looking use cases are made possible by the upcoming digital switch. The mission of BT’s Division X, launched last year, is to help organisations realise outcomes like these, and reimagine what is possible in their industry.

To get to that point, though, a large part of making these initiatives a reality will require a cultural shift in the mindset of business leaders. This isn’t just future-gazing, it’s what’s here and now, and a digital-first mindset must be fostered and encouraged to spread throughout organisations, and reskilling programmes introduced to plug any gaps in skills.

The pandemic taught businesses that deploying complex digital strategies at rapid speeds is achievable. Moving slowly is not sustainable for businesses in an ultra-competitive world, says Overton. “It’s about talent; it’s about putting the right people in the right roles; it’s about reimagining the business. And I think it’s also about thinking in a more revolutionary way – a different way – to do things rather than slowly improving,” he says.

Businesses at the forefront of digital transformation are now taking a more agile, trial, test and learn approach to discover what their capabilities are, and how they can broaden them, so it’s critical that organisations hold onto their curiosity about what is possible with technology. And in recessionary times, it becomes even more important for organisations to focus on how they can modernise and future-proof, because more efficiency means lower costs, while automation means nimbler, more agile organisations.

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