A need to replace ageing telecommunications equipment will alter telephone services for many rural households, but only if fibre is available.
The public-switched telephone network (PSTN), owned by Chorus but operated by Spark, is a network of switches that connect landline calls – the traditional telephone system – from one person to another.
The system uses Chorus-managed copper lines but the PSTN system uses technology that now needs replacing.
Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) chief executive Craig Young says services can be replaced with voice over internet protocol (VoIP), a similar service using copper wire but delivered in a different way.
Under this system the continuity of telephone services relies on electricity to the handsets, whereas under PSTN services still operated during electricity outages provided supply was maintained to telephone exchanges.
As Chorus extends its fibre network it plans to start turning off the copper network, which the Commerce Commission granted approval for in 2020 and included protection for consumers.
It can only happen if there is fibre available.
The fibre roll out has not yet reached rural areas and a Chorus spokesperson says there is no timetable for turning off the copper network in rural areas.
“Chorus will continue to maintain and manage its copper network,” the spokesperson says.
Completing the shift for 375,000 copper connections, both urban and rural, will take several years,” the spokesperson says.
The intention has always been to transfer customers onto a fibre network, and since a pandemic-disrupted trial started in March last year, 8000 have switched from copper to fibre.
“Chorus started building the fibre broadband network with the knowledge that once it was complete and customers could connect to fibre, it would be able to start turning off the copper network,” a statement from Chorus says.
Young says one of the commission’s requirements is that consumers must be advised of changes six months in advance.
He advises rural consumers to be aware of the changes and to carefully consider options offered by telecommunication companies which could include VoIP.
“They shouldn’t be forced onto mobile or fixed wireless if there is a copper wire service up to the house.”
If a health issue demands a telephone service must be available 24 hours a day, Young says there is technology available which will ensure telecommunication services can be maintained if electricity supply is disrupted.
A Spark spokesperson says the PSTN network was built in the 1980s and is now nearing the end of its life.
“Its components have not been manufactured since 2003 and the people with the skills needed to maintain it are getting harder to find,” Sparks spokesperson said.
“The reality is that this old technology will not work for much longer and we need to retire it and move all our customers to more modern technologies like voice over fixed wireless broadband or voice over fibre broadband where available.”
In 2020 Spark began moving its customers area by area onto newer alternatives but will not move customers off the PSTN where there is no alternative option currently available.
“We are investigating alternatives to determine how we manage these migrations in the future,” they said.
“Customers can still have a landline phone, it just won’t operate over the copper lines anymore.”