Opinion: Navigating the BT PSTN Switch-Off in critical calling for healthcare

The deadline for the BT PSTN switch-off is looming for NHS organisations. Richard Evans, CTO of Cinos, highlights for Infotec the urgency for NHS Trusts to plan ahead of this digital transition so that their organisation’s critical communications are secure and disruptions to their services are averted.

Change is inevitable. As technology evolves so do the infrastructural frameworks that underpin communication networks. One such transformation on the horizon is the BT Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) switch-off scheduled for 2025.

phone, pencil, pencils

Photo by AJEL

The digital transformation from the legacy PTSN means communication channels are no longer delivered over a physical copper cable and instead connectivity is delivered over an IP network with Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) services. 

While this transition heralds a new era of digital connectivity, it presents significant challenges for customers requiring critical calling services, many of whom are reliant on trusty old legacy PSTN technologies to ensure that calls are always available.

Critical communications

NHS Acute Trusts and Hospitals stand at the forefront of this challenge. Among their most critical communication tools are the ‘red phones’, analogue devices connected to local PSTN lines dedicated for ‘crash’ calls during emergencies. These play a pivotal role in ensuring swift and efficient communication during critical situations, ranging from medical emergencies to security breaches and disaster management.

However, with the impending PSTN switch-off, the continuity of these vital communication channels hangs in the balance. The transition from analogue systems to digital alternatives poses certain risks and obstacles for healthcare organisations. First and foremost, a system that has been in place for a long time is suddenly being forced to change. One of the primary concerns is the potential disruption to essential communication channels during emergencies, which could jeopardise patient care and safety.

Turning point for communications infrastructure

There’s a comfort factor with legacy PSTN services, which are tried and tested and have been used for decades to deliver these services. However, the switch-off can be a positive turning point for healthcare organisations looking to reassess their communication infrastructure and embrace the digital transformation opportunities that lie ahead. By upgrading their phone systems, NHS Trusts and hospitals can access a range of benefits and capabilities that can significantly enhance their operations and patient care outcomes.

We’ve seen concerns around responsibility and accountability. Some organisations facing the switch-off will ask who is responsible for the PSTN service, how likely is it that there will be issues and if there are, whose is responsible for fixing it? SIP services can often be resold by third-party providers, introducing an extra layer to the process in a situation which needs swift answers and full ownership of the problem.

Whatever the ‘new’ solution, the migration process itself presents challenges for organisations. This requires meticulous planning, seamless execution, and robust solutions to mitigate risks and minimise downtime. Any interruption in communication could have dire consequences, underscoring the critical importance of a smooth transition strategy.

Single solution provider

It is important to consult with a trusted SIP service provider, where there’s no reliance on third parties. A single end-to-end solution provider from the red phone handset to the PTSN will ensure uninterrupted service and minimal disruption for healthcare organisations.

Digital connectivity offers many benefits above and beyond traditional PSTN services. While cost often gets the focus, it is resiliency benefits that are often missed. With legacy fixed line services, direct dial in (DDI) numbers are typically tied to the wire itself, without any intelligence to adapt to any issues or problems. However, as SIP is an IP-based service, it’s able to re-route traffic when connectivity issues strike. In practical terms, this means the days of workmen taking out a cable and with it the phone calls become a thing of the past, with SIP the traffic simply re-routes.

In essence, the BT PSTN switch-off presents a formidable challenge for trusts and hospitals who need to deliver ‘red phones’ functionality. It’s important that trusts look to reliable platforms for their calls and this often means a single provider solution that ensures uninterrupted service and minimal disruption for healthcare organisations.

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