Copper withdrawal symptoms: fibre roll-out leaves some behind
The roll-out of fibre and wireless broadband to replace the copper network across the country has been warmly welcomed by most households, but it’s not been good news for everyone.
The roll-out of fibre and wireless broadband to replace the copper network across the country has been warmly welcomed by most households. Faster, more stable broadband allows us to easily work from home as well as stream, game and connect. By the end of the year, 87% of New Zealanders will have access to fibre.
But it’s not been good news for everyone.
The Commerce Commission has criticised telecommunications providers for their actions during the early days of the roll-out. These included pressuring some consumers to change to new technologies when they didn’t need to, giving misleading information and not doing enough to ensure those without digital skills could continue to communicate with the outside world.
While codes have been put in place to remedy this, we have been contacted by some older New Zealanders who remain angry, confused and in some cases traumatised by the changes.
What is changing?
Chorus is phasing out the old copper network in areas where fibre is available. This means the traditional landline phone network is on its way out, as are ADSL and VDSL internet because they run through the copper wires too.
Once you have fibre connected, if you still want a home phone with your same phone number, instead of plugging into the wall phone jack (to connect with the copper network), your phone plugs into an internet modem.
At the same time as copper is being withdrawn, the old analogue network which connects voice calls over the copper lines is also being shut down where more modern alternatives are available. This is called the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and is run by Spark. The technology involved is reaching the end of its life and Spark is taking it down as more alternative technologies become available.
In addition, some providers, such as Vodafone, have decided now is the time to stop selling traditional landlines and move their existing customers on to new technologies.
Like telco companies around the world, New Zealand’s providers are replacing PSTN with Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which means your phone service is delivered alongside your internet connection.
If you have an old home phone connected to the copper network, once PSTN is removed, you will have to change to an alternative phone service. If you use ADSL or VDSL internet and you want to keep it, you may have to switch providers too, as Spark will stop providing copper broadband to its customers in those areas where the PSTN is being switched off – but it said that’s only if there is an alternative technology available that suits the household’s needs.
“They pushed people off copper”
Angela Murton’s elderly mum, Christine, lives alone in Lower Hutt. Christine’s telco company told her she had to go onto a new plan due to the removal of copper, but she was told it would be cheaper than what she was currently paying. So the family acquiesced.
When they realised the new system meant her mother had no way to contact anyone in a power cut, the company provided Christine with a cellphone. The problem was, Christine didn’t know how to use it.
“She doesn’t understand what a wireless phone is or a modem – she was really distressed,” Angela said.
After a lot of bouncing to and fro with the telco, the family was eventually able to register Christine as a vulnerable consumer. Therefore she was able to keep her copper line – but with a new phone number.
Angela said the whole saga has been extremely stressful.
“This wireless thing was pushed onto her. They pushed people off copper and assumed people know how to use the internet or mobile.”
Consumer NZ members and supporters have shared similar stories. One woman told us how her Northland-based mother was moved onto fibre but there was a major power cut not long after and she had no way of contacting her family. “I doubt she would ever have agreed to us installing internet if she knew she would lose her landline copper option.”
A Manawatu senior citizen told us: “They were tricky – they phoned and said it would be cheaper to get rid of copper – which captured my attention, but the result has been terrible. We have very bad mobile reception and if there’s a power cut, we have no communication. I feel frustrated to the point where I feel pushed into a place where I don’t have the energy to deal with this again. I am sick of going around and around in circles.”
We heard from several other people who told us about stressed elderly family members who are losing contact with their friends and family as they struggle to cope with new technology.
Age Concern said it has also received a lot of calls and emails from anxious members. Its Wellington branch Chief Executive, Stephen Opie, said: “One caller we spoke to even called this elder abuse – that’s how strongly she felt.”
Opie said the situation is further compounded by the difficult societal changes older people are having to adapt to.
“Technology moves fast and many older people are getting left behind. Banks started by removing cheques, which opened the floodgates to them taking away other services older people relied on.
“Now they think they can’t have a copper landline any more. If we put ourselves in the shoes of an older person, we can see how all this change can cause significant stress and anxiety.”
The telco industry
Spark spokesperson Samantha Smith said the company is very conscious that the transition off the PSTN might be unsettling and confusing for some of its customers, “but the reality is that this technology won’t work for much longer, so providers need to support customers through the transition before it can no longer be relied on”.
If you change to fibre or fixed wireless and your phone is connected to your modem, it means that if there’s a power cut, your phone goes down along with your internet. On copper, landlines could keep working for a while in the event of a power cut – but only corded phones, as portable ones need a power source.
Telecommunications companies are encouraging people worried about this to have a charged cellphone available. According to the Commerce Commission, 99.8% of the population are covered by mobile networks.
In August last year, the Commerce Commission wrote an open letter to the telecommunications industry and other stakeholders. It outlined its serious concerns about how the retailers, including Spark and Vodafone, were communicating the withdrawal of copper and PSTN to customers.
The letter said the retailers were providing information that was incomplete, confusing or misleading, due to the companies seeking to retain customers and attract new ones. It said some consumers were being pressured to move quickly to alternative services on the basis of copper or PSTN withdrawal, when in some cases neither of those services were being withdrawn – and in some cases people were signing up to higher-priced services that they didn’t need.
Spark’s Samantha Smith admits that with such a large customer base, sometimes errors are made in the execution of its programme. It is encouraging confused or concerned Spark customers impacted by the PSTN shutdown to call its customer support team on 0800 733 799.
“It’s also worth noting that there are some really basic mobile phones in the market which operate similarly to a home phone, with cradles and can be kept plugged in,” she said. “For those with mobile coverage at home, a basic mobile phone can be a great alternative to a landline or can be used as a backup during a power cut.”
The Telecommunications Forum (TCF) represents the industry. Its Chief Executive, Paul Brislen, admits some salespeople got a bit carried away when the new technologies were introduced.
“There is a transition period and there are always issues,” he said. “Those on the fringes, geographically or societally, are most at risk and the most vulnerable, and it’s important we look after them and support them.”
The TCF has been working with the providers to establish two voluntary codes. These require the retailers to provide accurate information and other services for vulnerable consumers.
Brislen said this means retailers won’t be able to cajole customers into moving to a new technology on the basis that copper might be going in the next 10 years. And they have to explain to the customer all the options available to them, even if it is from another provider. This includes remaining on copper if it is available.
The TCF and the Commerce Commission have also just released a copper withdrawal fact sheet and will be going around the country to talk to concerned people about what’s happening and to dispel some of the rumours.
Rachael Coyle, the Commerce Commission’s head of telecommunications, said: “We are aware these changes can be overwhelming for some. While the copper network has served us well, this transition to newer technology is necessary to future-proof New Zealand and ensure Kiwis have access to the best possible connectivity.”
Chorus spokesperson Steve Pettigrew said the industry is now doing better at explaining the changes and giving consumers the information they need to make an informed decision.
“It’s important to remember that fibre connections mean you can still have a home phone with your existing phone number.”
TCF’s Paul Brislen is hopeful those worried will realise how much better fibre is for the country.
“People forget what it was like when the kids all came home from school and the internet collapsed. And before that, dial-up! Waiting while video loaded during dial-up was exhausting.
“Customers demanded more, and today the service is world class. During lockdown we had seven adults in my house hammering the fibre connection with streaming TV, work, schoolwork, entertainment – and it didn’t skip a beat. That’s why we are doing all of this.”
How to make a complaint
If you want to make a complaint about your phone or internet service, you should first try to resolve the issue with your provider. You can also make a formal complaint in writing. If that doesn't work, you can take your issue to the Telecommunications Disputes Resolution scheme.
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