More than a million fax machines, medical and burglar alarms, eftpos terminals and Sky Television set-top boxes may need to be scrapped or modified as Telecom switches to its “next-generation” network to handle phone calls.
Telecom is due to turn off the ageing Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and migrate customers to internet telephony (VoIP) in stages between 2012 and 2020.
It had agreed to switch its first 17,000 customers by the end of this year under a deal agreed with the former government as part of its 2006 industry reforms.
However, the company asked to delay the transition after trials with 150 customers showed a myriad of devices with low-speed modems would not work in the new era of internet telephony.
The request formed part of the fourth variation to its operational separation undertakings which was approved by Communications Minister Steven Joyce earlier this month.
Mr Joyce agreed to scrap the December milestone after Telecom chief executive Paul Reynolds promised to report back on progress in managing the migration by March.
As the agreement stands, Telecom is still required to migrate 15 per cent of customers off the PSTN by the end of next year, and 40 per cent of customers by 2015.
However, the Economic Development Ministry said in a briefing to Mr Joyce that Telecom could ask for a further delay.
The ministry estimated there were more than a million low-speed modems in service, of which about 200,000 were integrated with security and medical alarms.
It said the problem was poorly understood and a solution needed to be found before the “mass deployment” of VoIP could be contemplated.
“It is things like fax machines, medical alarms and Sky de-coders,” Telecom spokesman Ian Bonnar said.
“Pretty fundamentally, if they are on the line, then VoIP isn’t working at the moment.”
He said it was an industry problem.
“Telecom’s preference is always to avoid disruption for our customers and we will be seeking to achieve that.
“The undertakings currently assume the replacement of all PSTN lines with VoIP services, but it may be that for some customers, that isn’t the optimal path.”
Auckland telecommunications company Worldxchange, which provides about 50,000 customers with internet telephony over copper and via fibre in 30 new subdivisions, has encountered the same problem.
Chief technology officer Paul Clarkin said it had decided not to support devices with low-speed modems as “they just do not work 100 per cent of the time”.
He believed Telecom would have to bite that bullet.
Convertors were available for home and medical alarms that could make them work over an internet protocol network, he said.
Sky spokesman Tony O’Brien said VoIP was an issue only for the 6 per cent of Sky customers who ordered movies on-demand.
Its MySkyHDi boxes would communicate via an Ethernet port “eradicating the problem” and Sky was working on a solution for its “legacy boxes”, which make up three-quarters of its installed base. The details were “commercially-sensitive”.
Mr Clarkin said it was inevitable that some phone users would be affected.
“You can’t move Telecom’s entire network into a next-gen world without breaking some eggs. Someone at Telecom needs to make the call that low-speed modems will not be supported in a next-gen world and then everything will flow out of that.”
Given Telecom is obliged to switch 300,000 customers to VoIP by December 2012, Mr Clarkin said it needed to “get out now” and start educating customers. “Telecom Group from a technology perspective probably has its head in the sand.”
An Economic Development Ministry official said Telecom could get around the problem by offering customers the option of a switched-circuit line to their telephone exchange, where their calls would be transferred to the next-gen network, but this could cause other problems and negate some of the benefits of the switch to VoIP.
The next-gen network would end reliance on ageing NEC switching equipment that underpins the PSTN and should put all telecommunications service providers on an equal footing selling phone services.
VoIP requires less bandwidth than switched-circuit phone calls and may pave the way for new “intelligent” phone services.
As well as having a shared phone number for a home phone, family members could each be allocated their own individual number so they could choose, for example, to redirect certain calls to another landline, mobile or to voice mail.