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The government has suggested that the UK’s copper telephone network could be switched off in the coming years.

The government has suggested that the UK’s copper telephone network could be switched off in the coming years.

The idea was proposed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in an official consultation document.

DCMS believes that switching off copper could encourage operators to invest to increase coverage of non-copper networks and replace the ‘last mile’ of copper networks from the cabinet to the home.

BT is currently building a fast fibre broadband network for residential customers but its new cables only reach as far as the street cabinet. For the final leg to people’s front doors, most homes are still connected using copper.

However DCMS acknowledges that before switching off any networks, the government would need to ensure that it would not leave anyone cut off from communications services.

The switch off date would also need to be sufficiently far in the future to ensure it does not act as a disincentive to planned investments.

Public consultation on proposals

The department is seeking views to help form a new ‘digital communications infrastructure strategy’. A public consultation was launched last week and is due to close on 1 October.

The strategy, which is due to be published in December, will include policy proposals for internet, television and telephone networks from 2020.

DCMS is particularly interested in opinions on the role of government, possible future demand and developments, reforms to the regulatory framework, and details about the type and scale of private investment required.

“Digital communications infrastructure has reached a point where its importance is (at least) on a par with more traditional infrastructures such as transport and energy”, the document said.

This importance means that communications infrastructure requires more strategic planning, according to DCMS.

The document highlights predictions that mobile data traffic will grow by over half every year until 2018 as an illustration of the need to meet rapidly growing demand.

DCMS sets out three scenarios for future demand from 2025 onwards: that demand for fast internet is relatively modest, that it will have risen but be ‘uneven’ and limited, and finally that it is at the higher end of predictions or even exceeds them.

In the final scenario, fixed lines will only be retained for broadband connectivity and copper will be phased out.

Reaction

techUK, an industry organisation representing the UK technology sector, called for the government to ensure that the UK is “home to the development of the associated technologies, application and services” which will rely on communications infrastructure.

For example the government should support research and innovation and the development of ‘world class home grown talent’, it said.

The body’s associate director Raj Sivalingam said that the government should ensure that its and Ofcom’s policies are properly coordinated with industry, as it is ultimately the conduit for implementing any changes.

techUK said the government should assume that the increase in demand on data networks will “be substantial into the foreseeable future”. It added that the introduction of new applications such as driverless cars “will mean that low and ultra low latency will increase in significance.”

However cloud and networking firm Exponential-e was less impressed by the proposals. The firm’s chief technologist Steven Harrison said that the focus should be on universal access to high broadband speeds over switching off the copper network.

He said: “For the UK to remain competitive, digital plumbing is essential for every home and business. Suggestions of switching-off the copper telephone network are skirting around the real issue; providing universal access to high-quality, high-speed broadband across all areas of the country. 

“For the regulator to specify specific technologies or transmission mediums is a step in the wrong direction…the regulator’s focus should remain firmly on the services that need to be delivered in 2020 and operators should be free to select the technology that makes most sense – which in some areas could be fibre, wireless or copper.”