Rural communities across Scotland are at risk from major changes taking place in the telephone network, Scottish and UK ministers have been told.

The warning comes from Consumer Scotland which is concerned a switch over from traditional to digital technology will mean people in more remote areas may face disruption to their service, especially during power cuts in storms when they could even see their phones cut off.

Being cut off could mean people may not to able to make an emergency call, the watchdog warned.

The changes are taking place as the current landline system is reaching the end of its life and needs to be upgraded meaning the phone network will move from using analogue to digital technology.

In a letter to Julia Lopez, the UK minister for science, innovation and technology, Consumer Scotland chief executive Sam Ghibaldan noted that while the migration for most households will be straightforward, "there are risks for consumers and we have identified disproportionate risks for consumers in Scotland, particularly those living in remote rural areas."

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He stated that "one area of particular concern" is that the new digital landlines will only work in a power cut if there is a battery backup.

"The impacts of Storms Gerrit, Henk, Isha and Jocelyn earlier this year were severe, with tens of thousands of properties losing power in some storms, often for extended periods of time," he said.

"More winter storms, including disproportionately more severe storms, are predicted in future by the Met Office. These extreme weather events and the impact that they can have on infrastructure means that power cuts and disruption to communications could become more commonplace."

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He added: "Our report shows greater potential risk to consumers in rural Scotland due to a combination of factors including higher levels of landline dependency, poorer mobile signal and a larger number of power cuts of a longer duration than the UK average.

"As a result, more consumers in rural areas of Scotland could be vulnerable due to the migration, with a risk that they would not be able to make an emergency phone call in the event of a power cut without adequate battery backup provision.

"Some storms may also result in transport links and mobile phone coverage being disrupted, as well as energy supplies. Given the role of mobile phones as a backup calling option, such cascading impacts are of concern."

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By the end of 2025, most people currently using a traditional landline will be moved to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology – which uses a broadband internet connection.

Unlike traditional corded analogue phones, a digital phone will only work in a power cut if it has a battery backup. This will result in an increased reliance on the mobile phone network as an alternative means of making calls during any power cut.

However, people in remote rural parts of Scotland are more likely to rely on their landline for calls, experience more long lasting and frequent power cuts and also experience poorer mobile signal coverage.

They are also more likely than consumers in urban areas to have additional devices such as healthcare alarms attached to their landline.

Some consumers may still rely on traditional networks for services or additional devices such as door entry or CCTV systems or fax machines.

Consumers who are 65 years and older and those with low levels of digital literacy are also more vulnerable to the effects of the digital switchover, according to the watchdog.

Mr Ghibaldan urged Ms Lopez to launch a national campaign targeting groups who have a high dependency on their landline and low awareness of the migration to allow them to prepare properly for the changeover.

He wrote: “Consumer Scotland recommends the UK Government initiates a national campaign to improve information available to consumers with a focus on groups who have a high dependency on their landline and low awareness of the migration.”

Consumer Scotland has also written to Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack and the Scottish Government’s minister for small business, innovation, tourism and trade Richard Lochhead to raise awareness of the issue and emphasise the need to ensure co-ordinated action across governments.

An analysis of research by Consumer Scotland found a higher proportion of people in rural Scotland are likely to be vulnerable to the effects of the switchover to VoIP than in other parts of Scotland or the UK as a whole.

This is due to a number of factors including:

• People in rural areas are more likely to rely on their landline for calls with 69% of households in accessible rural and 78% of households in remote rural Scotland using a landline for making calls. This compares to 62% in Scotland as a whole and 59% across the UK

• A lower percentage of respondents in accessible rural and remote rural areas in Scotland report being able to make a call from a mobile phone from anywhere in their house (63% and 58% respectively) compared to respondents in Scotland and the UK as a whole (81% and 84% respectively)

• People in rural areas are more likely to experience power cuts and these power cuts tend to be of longer duration. 87% of consumers in accessible rural parts of Scotland, and 96% of consumers in remote rural areas reported having experienced a power cut in the past two years, compared to 67% of respondents in Scotland and 64% of respondents in the UK

• People in remote rural parts of Scotland are around twice as likely as those elsewhere in the country to have additional devices attached to their landline, with all respondents in rural parts of Scotland considering their additional devices to be important. Additional devices include care alarms, door entry or CCTV systems or fax machines.

The report warns that power cuts are also likely to increase in the coming years.

"In general, climate change projections suggest observed climate trends will continue to intensify in the future, including an increased risk of flood, drought, and extreme weather events.

"The Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-2024: strategic environmental assessment notes that infrastructure in Scotland is exposed to a range of climatic hazards, including these extreme weather events," it states.

"More winter storms, including disproportionately more severe storms, and smaller scale convective summer storm activity is also projected to increase over the UK in the future.

"The increase in these extreme weather events and the impact that they can have on infrastructure means that power cuts and disruption to communications could become more commonplace."

Established under the Consumer Scotland Act 2020, Consumer Scotland is a Non-Ministerial Office, independent from government and accountable to the Scottish Parliament.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The decision to switch off the analogue landline network has been taken by the telecoms industry, but we continue to engage with operators and providers to ensure customers are protected and better informed throughout this process.

“We have taken decisive action to get telecoms companies to agree to new measures to further protect vulnerable customers throughout the digital transition – including stopping telecare users from being switched to a digital network until they have a compatible solution in place.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said:  “The Scottish Government is committed to supporting better connectivity for rural and island communities and our targeted investment is extending reliable broadband and mobile coverage to our rural areas. This will support the transition from traditional landlines to Voice over Internet Protocol technology.

“Responsibility for the UK’s telecommunications network is reserved to the UK Government. We call on them to ensure that communities are properly informed about the forthcoming changes to the telecoms network, giving homes and businesses across Scotland and the UK ample time to prepare. We stand ready to support the delivery of such a campaign within Scotland if required.”