Obsolete phone line exchanges could become EV charging points

Landline phone exchanges are becoming relics, just as a new cabling issue arises on our streets.

Thursday, 14 March, 2024

When the history books are written on the early 21st century, they won’t paint a hugely positive picture of economic policies, lockdown management or attitudes towards opposing viewpoints.

They will, however, acknowledge the breakneck pace of technological progress, which has swept away long-established concepts and infrastructure with remarkable ease.

Scheduled TV has been supplanted by live on-demand streaming. Incompatible cables have been legislated into USB-C ubiquity. And full fibre broadband has transformed internet connectivity.

It’s also transformed the physical means by which internet coverage is piped into our homes, rendering old technologies like pavement exchanges obsolete.

Those exchanges are the green or grey boxes where fibre optic cables used to stop, before being converted to slower phone lines extending to individual homes.

This is a delivery platform rather obviously known as Fibre to the Cabinet.

The nature of full fibre broadband (Fibre to the Home) means thousands of these phone line exchanges are becoming redundant, as Openreach turn off traditional phone and FTTC connections.

At the same time, there is a growing problem regarding charging electric vehicles, especially in households which don’t have the luxury of private off-street parking.

A pilot scheme now underway by BT is aiming to repurpose redundant phone line exchanges as EV charging points.

But how would this work in practice?

Exchange and mart

Because phone line exchanges have power running to them, there is obvious potential to redeploy these increasingly redundant utility exchanges for something we urgently need.

Regardless of your opinions on EVs themselves, or government plans to force up their market share, it’s undeniable that on-street parking precludes overnight charging.

Even if EV charging cables were long enough to stretch across pavements, through gardens and into (open) windows, they’d be an unsightly and impractical trip hazard.

Given the fact EV charging at public machines can now cost more than a tank of petrol, home (or near-home) charging is essential to avoid pricing residents without driveways out of the market.

BT has attempted to resolve this issue by creating EV charging stations from repurposed street cabinets that once housed broadband and telephone cables.

As with all things EV-related, this scheme has been revised, delayed and downgraded from BT’s more ambitious original plans.

Another similarity with all things EV-related is the headline-grabbing nature of BT’s plan to convert or upgrade up to two thirds of the 90,000 street cabinets currently dotting the UK.

Like lampposts and pylons, you don’t realise how many street cabinets there actually are until you look for them.

Sounds great. When can I use them?

As mentioned above, rollout is going to be slower than the initial headlines suggested.

BT is already several months behind in its plans, which were originally scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland but have now been relocated to East Lothian, just outside Edinburgh.

It will take a long time for this scheme to move from the trial phase to public access, while the EVs among Openreach’s fleet of 28,000 vehicles will initially receive priority access.

It’s also important to remember that not all pavement boxes will be converted, because many are still needed for full fibre connections.

Of the rest, some will be too far from the road or situated on junctions/roundabouts. Charging speeds will be relatively slow, and residents might still object to cables littering their streets.

Limitations and exclusions aside, there are obvious benefits in repurposing redundant street furniture with a new role that could improve people’s mobility.

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!