BT has announced that it will replace traditional landline handsets with a new 'digital' phone, despite calls from campaigners and isolated residents that it will cause an “unnecessary” worry for thousands of the most vulnerable in the North-East.

The changeover, which is expected to come into effect in 2025 from the technology firm, will force all homes online and push every regional homeowner into the digital world.

According to BT, the phone will need to be connected to the internet to make any calls to other devices and will need to be powered by electricity mains.

Read more: These County Durham residents aren't happy about BT axing landlines

Despite the company making the bold claims at the start of last month, the plans to introduce the digital phone in just under three years have been criticised both regionally and nationally – amid concerns that vulnerable households will be left isolated, as well as issues surrounding older members of the public who don’t want to access online services.

Jan Shortt, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention, said: "Those needing to make an emergency call or raise an alarm via a health pendant could be left stranded – and unable to call anyone to ask for life-saving support.

“Policymakers need to take account that of the fact that not everyone is online. Nearly two million over 75s still don’t use the internet, and many cite fear of scams and lack of knowledge as reasons for this.

The Northern Echo: Concerns about what this could mean for the oldest and most vulnerable in society has been made by Age UK and other campaigners.Concerns about what this could mean for the oldest and most vulnerable in society has been made by Age UK and other campaigners.

“But some older people simply don’t want to go online even if they could and indeed had the training.

“What on earth was BT thinking when it decided to bring in such a huge change without properly consulting those who rely on traditional home phone lines the most?”

After initial criticism from campaigners, BT has moved to reassure older customers that the rollout will be slow and landline customers will be supported “every step of the way”.

Read more: BT move to clarify landline concerns from rural and vulnerable residents

The telecoms giant has pledged to contact the customers being upgraded well ahead of time to keep them as informed as possible, making sure their needs are met.

Around six per cent of households – or 1.5 million homes – do not have access to the internet, according to watchdog Ofcom.

And experts fear millions more do not have a mobile phone or do not know how to use one properly.

The Northern Echo: Beyond 2025, there won't be capacity for a traditional landline and all devices will need to be connected to the internet to work.Beyond 2025, there won't be capacity for a traditional landline and all devices will need to be connected to the internet to work.

Ms Shortt added: “BT has no idea that many older people do not want a fancy smartphone or cannot afford one – and rely on their landline as a lifeline. It is wrong to discriminate against those – primarily the elderly – who are not wired up to the internet.”

It's not just the National Pensioners Convention that have expressed their concerns about BT’s future plans. Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK, has said that the ‘digital’ phone idea “creates widespread issues for those that society should be protecting”.

She added: "Given that about half of older people over the age of 75 are not online, this could be a particular problem for our oldest citizens."

Read more: Everything you need to know about BT's landline changes

Openreach, which runs most of the nation's wire and cable infrastructure, has been working with businesses for months to ensure they are ready, and has stressed that protecting vulnerable customers is "an absolute priority".

And the firm is aiming to install ultra-fast full-fibre broadband in 25 million households by the end of 2026, which should provide a more reliable service.

BT's switchover, branded 'Digital Voice', began two years ago, and has so far converted two million landlines.

The Northern Echo: Already, millions of homeowners have been converted to the 'Digital Voice' programme.Already, millions of homeowners have been converted to the 'Digital Voice' programme.

But with an end-of-2025 deadline for switching 29 million home landlines, there are fears that the new system's flaws will be increasingly exposed.

In addition, charity Age UK is fearful the changeover could attract criminals claiming to be involved in the switch.

Caroline Abrahams said: 'We are concerned the changes could make many elderly feel more isolated than they do already. Steps must also be taken to ensure the vulnerable do not become victims of any digital voice scams."

Read more: BT creates 150 new jobs in Newcastle in EE call centre expansion

Under guidelines laid down by Ofcom, BT must ensure customers can contact emergency services in a power cut that lasts more than an hour – something that will need to be ‘ironed out’ by 2025 before the mass roll-out, according to Age UK.  

Ahead of the 2025 deadline, BT has said that customers should not see a price rise due to the change. Those already signed up for internet service will see the landline charge included as part of the total bill – whether they use BT or a competitor.

Those just paying for a landline and not using the internet will be charged separately and not pay more.

The Northern Echo: BT and Openreach have confirmed that they will make the transition as "easy as possible" for those that are vulnerable in society.BT and Openreach have confirmed that they will make the transition as "easy as possible" for those that are vulnerable in society.

A spokesperson for BT said: “We’re rolling this upgrade out in a staggered way. Customers who only have a landline will not be upgraded to Digital Voice until the latter part of 2023 and will not have to take a broadband service unless they want it.

“We’re proud of the support we offer to our vulnerable customers. Since 2018 we’ve been working with alarm and health pendant providers, and many now have a solution which works on the new digital line.

Read more: BT to move 1.3 million customers to 'more expensive' plan - how to opt out

“If a customer is prone to power cuts and has no means of making a call in an emergency, then there are battery packs available which can power your equipment for over an hour. We’ll provide these for free for customers flagged as vulnerable on our system. If any customer has any concerns, they should speak to us, and we’ll find a solution which works for them.

“We have put precautions in place to exclude older or vulnerable customers from the Digital Voice migration while we look into solutions that can help those customers who cannot access or do not want broadband or a mobile phone in their home.”

Keep up to date with all the latest news on our website, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

You can also follow our dedicated County Durham Facebook page for all the latest in the area by clicking here.

For all the top news updates from right across the region straight to your inbox, sign up to our newsletter here.

Have you got a story for us? Contact our newsdesk on or contact 01325 505054