The final call for the traditional telephone exchange

Richard Allwood 3

Richard Allwood, Chief Strategy Officer, Openreach

For more than a century the telephone exchange has formed the backbone of our telecommunications system. A vast array of more than 5,500 mostly nondescript buildings sit unnoticed on city, town or village streets, and quietly link up more than 254 million kilometres of cables and wires – keeping people in the UK connected to each other and the rest of the world.

Since the first telephone exchange was established in London in 1879 with just eight subscribers, these anonymous looking buildings have spread the length and breadth of the UK – from the smallest on the remote Shetland Isle of Papa Stour, with just 14 homes, to the largest in Oldham, Manchester, serving more than 45,000.

But the recent explosive growth in new digital fibre based services means the majority of these iconic communication hubs will soon route their last ever call.

The advent of tiny but powerful microprocessors and glass fibres, thinner than the width of a human hair, only need a tiny fraction of the space taken up by miles of copper wires and bulky racks of switching machinery to run the old copper based phone network or Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN).

This seismic shift means that today we’re able to provide fibre broadband services to the entire country from just 1,000 ‘super digital exchanges’ or Openreach Handover Points (OHPs).

Sadly, this spells the beginning of the end for the remaining 4,600 exchanges used to support traditional copper based phone and broadband voice services. And these copper customers are dwindling fast as people migrate to faster more efficient fibre

Openreach is now consulting with its communication provider (CP) customers – like Sky, Vodafone, TalkTalk and BT, who use our network to connect their own customers – about how to close these ‘legacy’ exchanges over the next decade or so.

This will be a major undertaking with several million services to be migrated, and the importance of ensuring vulnerable customers and the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure providers are protected along the way.  So we’re planning it in stages – with the first 103 exchanges to close by December 2030. These have some of the highest running costs so there’s a clear advantage in targeting them first.  Most of the remaining 4,500 exchanges will likely follow in the early 2030s.

Moving to this new digital world will ultimately benefit everybody - from CPs who will be able to serve their customers from fewer exchanges – helping to save costs through consolidation of equipment and reduced space and power requirements, to millions of end users who will benefit from fibre technology providing speeds up to 10x faster and with up to 80 percent fewer faults than traditional copper-based services.

But getting this done will require strong collaboration across industry, with regulator Ofcom, and government and that’s why this consultation is important as we work together to move the UK to a world class digital service.




Did you know?

·       The Kelvedon Hatch telephone exchange in Essex was home to an underground secret nuclear bunker. Built during the Cold War, it was designed to accommodate government officials and protect them in the event of a nuclear attack.

·       The first automatic telephone exchange, not needing an operator to connect calls, was opened in Epsom, Surrey, in 1912.

·       The ‘Speaking Clock’ was launched in 1936 following the ‘Golden Voice’ competition won by Jane Cain, a telephonist at Victoria telephone exchange in London.

·       The first home of the ‘Speaking Clock’ apparatus was Holborn Telephone Exchange, which is still an operational exchange today.

·       In the early days of telephone exchanges, operators would manually connect calls by inserting cords into jacks on a switchboard, a process known as ‘cord switching’.

·       Portree exchange on the Isle of Skye was the last manual exchange. Operator Mrs Dewar manually connected the last caller in October 1976.

·       The disused Langley Green telephone exchange in Crawley, West Sussex, is now an art gallery space.