How hard will it be to replace all our copper phone lines?

phone lines at sunset

Thursday, 14 November, 2019

Invented by a Scot in 1875, and making its British debut the following year, the telephone has been one of this country’s greatest contributions to the world.

By the end of the 1870s, there were telephone exchanges across England and Scotland, while the phone’s inventor Alexander Graham Bell also pioneered the use of copper in phone systems.

The first long-distance phone call across a copper line took place in 1884. And remarkably, we’re still using broadly similar technology to make and receive phone calls 135 years later.

That’s because the UK has extensive legacy hardware, some of which can trace its origins back to the Victorian era.

That would be fine if we still used our phone lines exclusively for voice calls. However, another British invention – the World Wide Web – rather changed things.

Today, copper phone lines don’t just carry voice data. They convey digital information, powering everything from Netflix and Google to Minecraft and Twitter.

And unfortunately, copper is not a great conductor of digital bits and bytes.

The long-term ambition of internet service providers (ISPs) and the UK Government is to replace every copper cable in our telephone system with more data-friendly fibre cabling.

But how realistic is this?

It’s a fair cop

Last month, full-fibre broadband specialist CityFibre proposed an industry-wide consultation to discuss how the UK can rid itself of copper phone lines.

In doing so, they acknowledged the unreasonable burden currently being placed on Openreach to do this single-handedly.

As the infrastructure offshoot of former monopoly holder BT, Openreach is responsible for all telecommunications hardware other than proprietary systems like Virgin Media’s.

Openreach has been working hard to replace copper cables extending from domestic dwellings to the nearest telephone exchange cabinets with superior fibre ones.

The former is known as Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC), while the latter is known as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP).

FTTP can transfer data in a fraction of the time FTTC would need, making it much more suitable for homes where people are Skyping, streaming and surfing – often all at once.

However, Openreach still has a huge amount of copper phone lines to replace.

It effectively needs to dismantle 135 years of legacy infrastructure, from the Shetland Isles to the Scilly Isles.

How long am I likely to have to wait?

If you live in an urban area, there may already be local FTTP services provided by private companies.

Alongside CityFibre, other companies developing their own FTTP networks include Virgin Media, Gigaclear and Hyperoptic.

It’s also worth remembering KCOM holds a monopoly on landline and cable services across East Yorkshire.

Openreach has already replaced millions of miles of copper cabling, giving millions of homes access to FTTP connectivity in the process.

For everyone else, the race is on to see if Openreach can renew their lines before full fibre cable companies come to town, and before 5G becomes a viable home broadband option.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!