Friday, May 25, 2012

The importance of technology in future European healthcare

Earlier this month the European Commission published Redesigning health in Europe for 2020, the report of the EU Task Force on e-Health (press release here).

The report makes a number of recommendations, many of which reinforce the importance of effective, universally available fixed and mobile connectivity in helping to transform healthcare. Europe faces significant healthcare challenges as a result of changing demographics, but a new approach is needed if technology is to assist:
"Europe is aging, the proportion of the elderly in our countries is increasing, due both to fewer children as well as increased life spans...We know that in healthcare we lag at least 10 years behind virtually every other area in the implementation of IT solutions."
As a consequence of an aging population, healthcare costs continue to increase:
"Healthcare is a constantly growing component of public finances, rising to 9 % of GDP and representing between 6% and 15% of government spending in most EU countries...Adding to this, are the fertility and mortality projections made by Eurostat stating that by 2060 the EU population will be both slightly bigger and considerably older than today. Most critically, the working age contingent – main contributor to the social protection systems – is projected to fall dramatically, whilst the share of elderly (65+) and very old (80+) population is projected to grow...Furthermore, the ongoing economic uncertainty brings into sharp focus the fact that current healthcare models are financially unsustainable. Thus, health systems may have been the pride of European democracies but they have not evolved to respond to the modern environment and are no longer fit for purpose."
Technology can play a critical role but much needs to happen if it is to do so:
"A radical redesign of health is needed to meet these challenges, integrating health and social care services configured around the needs of the patient. Technology can help health systems to respond to these challenges, by delivering greater efficiency, lower costs and better health outcomes. However, healthcare is a decade behind most other sectors in adopting and using information technology tools and much of the innovation is being developed outside the healthcare system."
A key opportunity exists in finding alternatives to expensive hospital care:
"One of the major expenses that dominates health budgets is hospital care which is expensive and not well suited to ongoing managing of chronic disease. Healthcare reforms seek to shift patient care back into homes and the community, redefining pathways for general care and urgent care. eHealth tools such as telemonitoring, remote health services and self monitoring will be important in reducing the burden on hospitals...The health sector has been slow to adopt new communication tools for a variety of institutional, economic and personal reasons. However, patients will increasingly demand that their health professionals and institutions use the same ubiquitous technology they use in everyday life, such as multi-platform apps. In general, new consumer products and services are developed to match the needs and interests of consumers, and framed by their understanding of what is valuable and useful. In contrast, in the health sector, decisions are made around the needs of the system itself and the interests of health professionals...The main benefits from this lever for change will accrue to citizens who will receive support for continuous health treatment and healthy living rather than only interventions."
Prevention is better (and cheaper and more sustainable) than cure it seems. As elsewhere, the greatest benefits will only be realised if everyone is included and able to participate in eHealth:
"Those without the skills, capacity and opportunity to use eHealth risk being further excluded. New ICT tools have the potential to reduce these inequalities but they need to be designed to actively promote and enhance equity. This means ensuring that rural communities have access to services and that products are usable for patients with a diverse range of literacy and technical abilities. Service providers need to be aware that there may be sub-groups of the population that are outside the reach of eHealth tools – those without access to the internet / computers and individuals that choose not to interact intensively with technology. These ‘vulnerable communities’ and their needs need to be accommodated, because if not carefully planned, eHealth could disenfranchise rather than empower. Ensuring such accommodation will be the role of the safeguards built into the system."
A new way of doing things is dependent upon using the available funding in new ways:
"The majority of public funding at EU and national level allocated to eHealth has been invested in centralised, large-scale, top-down solutions. These have failed to address and integrate the user experience sufficiently. The next phase should see investment in tools that citizens can use to support their wellbeing and manage their lives."
Some progress is being made. This news item reports that Denmark, England and Scotland have been pioneers in the use of electronic communication in and across the health and social care sectors, integrating  telehealth into standard patient treatments. There are further examples in this recent speech by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, but there is still a long way to go it seems.

Responses to Ofcom's Everything Everywhere 4G/1800MHz consultation

Ofcom this week published the responses to its consultation on Everything Everywhere's request to deploy LTE and WiMAX services using its 1800MHz spectrum holdings, in advance of the forthcoming auctions of 4G spectrum (as discussed in this previous post).

This from Everything Everywhere's response:
"Ofcom has proposed to vary Everything Everywhere's 1800MHz licences to permit the deployment and use of 1800MHz licenses for LTE and WiMAX as soon as possible, concluding that it would be in the interests of consumers and citizens for it to do so. Everything Everywhere strongly agrees with this view and considers that it would be consistent with Ofcom's statutory duties to agree to Everything Everywhere's request...Everything Everywhere therefore wholly supports Ofcom's intended declared intention to vary Everything Everywhere's licences for LTE as soon as possible, which will be to the benefit of consumers and citizens throughout the UK. A failure to do so would not only be inconsistent with Ofcom's legal duties, but would also be of significant detriment to consumers and the wider UK economy."
This from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association response:
"The UK is at serious risk of remaining as a non-participant in the 4G advanced mobile broadband market even as LTE is poised to enter the mainstream by end 2012, which would be most  regrettable, unless LTE network deployment in re-farmed spectrum is allowed. GSA applauds Ofcom's stated policy intention to permit deployments of LTE technology in refarmed spectrum, as requested by Everything Everywhere within their existing 1800 MHz spectrum allocation."
However, this is from Telef√≥nica UK’s response:
"The consequence of granting immediate liberalisation would be the creation of a monopoly provider of 4G national wholesale services for a period of at least 18 months and very likely substantially longer. This is an extraordinary step for a National Regulatory Authority to take, given its duty to promote competition and its stated policy of intervening ex ante to secure a four player 4G national wholesale market.  Any such proposal must raise prima facie competition concerns...we strongly urge Ofcom to reconsult fully and fairly on this matter in its entirety. Everything Everywhere accepts that it will not be ready to launch 4G until the end of this year, so there is plenty of time for Ofcom to consider the issue properly. A proper consultation, undertaken with a full and transparent view of the facts, supported by a rigorous cost-benefit analysis would enable Ofcom to make quicker and more substantial progress on its obligation to undertake an LTE authorisation processes for 900MHz and 1800MHz licences by the end of this year."
And this from Vodafone's response:
"Vodafone strongly believes that a competitive market in 4G services will bring long‐lasting benefits to UK consumers. Having launched these services in a number of other countries we would urge Ofcom to hold a full and fair spectrum auction as soon as possible so that all operators can access the necessary spectrum for 4G. Instead, Ofcom’s current consultation proposes to give an unjustifiable head start to the largest player which could seriously undermine competition in the UK market for many years to promote the interests of effective competition, Ofcom must not vary existing 1800MHz licences until it is satisfied that there are 4 operators holding sufficient cleared spectrum to deploy credible national 4G networks. This is consistent with Ofcom’s stated policy objective in both of its most recent spectrum consultations and would, in practice, require the release of new spectrum via the Combined Auction before any 1800MHz licences are varied. Such an approach would not eliminate the advantage EE has enjoyed from its longer period of spectrum certainty which will have allowed EE greater network planning and deployment time for LTE than any other player.  However, it would broadly equalise the timetable for the launch of LTE services, which was the clear intention of the EC when EE was first created."
Ofcom will publish a statement on the proposed variation as early as possible.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

WiFi vs mobile data networks

A Financial Times article earlier this week (US cable operators to link wireless networks) reported that five of the largest US cable TV operators have agreed to link their WiFi networks together. This will create a nationwide system of more than 50,000 WiFi hotspots across the USA. More information in this press release from Cox Communications, the other four operators involved are Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Each company will add the “CableWiFi” network name to their branded WiFi hotspots, with customers using a single login to access each one.

The FT notes that "this is by far the most extensive tie-up and positions the participating cable companies to step up their battle with traditional telecommunications companies and position WiFi as a more viable alternative to 3G and 4G mobile networks." The article goes on to quote an analyst from Sanford Bernstein as saying "The unique usage characteristics of wireless networks leave the door open for a potentially very disruptive WiFi-first service." My guess is that "unique usage characteristics" refers to the lack of data caps and higher bandwidths that WiFi services offer, albeit that bandwidth is only available in a very localised area. But with 50,000 hotspots to choose from across the USA as a consequence of this development, the next one may not be very far away anyway?

A parallel development in the UK is BSkyB's acquisition in January 2011 of The Cloud:
"Sky will shortly launch its public Wi-Fi service, powered by The Cloud. This will provide Sky Broadband Unlimited customers with free access to more than 10,000 hotspots across the UK. Available in venues such as Caffe Nero, Pizza Express and Wagamama, Sky customers will enjoy seamless and convenient access to public WiFi. This will prove particularly valuable for customers who access Sky content on the go, with high quality wireless delivering an even better experience for Sky Go and Sky’s other video-rich applications."
This related press release from The Cloud shows there is a very strong appetite to use hotspots:
"19 April 2012: The ubiquity of public WiFi use is revealed today, after new research from Sky Broadband finds that an estimated 5 million Brits have used a public hotspot in the past day. Released to mark the launch of Sky Broadband’s free and unlimited WiFi service, “WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud”, the research finds that nearly a quarter of us (24%) have used public WiFi in the past week and 41% in the past month."
It was recently announced that "Greene King, one of the biggest pub retailers in the UK, has signed a deal with WiFi provider The Cloud to bring free WiFi access to all of its pubs, restaurants and hotels, including the Hungry Horse and Loch Fyne brands Рcovering up to 2,400 venues around the UK...The Cloud now has over 10,000 hotspots around the UK. An estimated 4m people every day pass through The Cloud network by visiting one of its partners, including major outlets like Pizza Express, Caffè Nero, Eat, Pret A Manger and Wagamama, as well as First Great Western trains and Network Rail stations."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Cambridge white space technology trial conclusions

Some interesting findings from the recent trial of white space technologies in Cambridge. From the backgrounder to the trial:
"Governments create rules designating how radio frequencies can be used and, over the years, have assigned radio and television stations to certain blocks or “channels” of frequency in the spectrum. Limitations in transmission technology and the high costs to cover rural populations have led to gaps in the TV broadcasting bands. For decades, the hiss of “white noise” was familiar to anyone tuning a television from one channel to another — traversing the empty “white spaces” between TV broadcast frequencies. This situation remains today. While some white spaces in the TV band are dedicated for uses such as radio-frequency telescopes, other spaces lie vacant. On the other hand, the radio spectrum used by mobile phones and other wireless communications devices is becoming overpopulated. Growth in demand for applications, such as TV streaming, internet access, voice calling, music services and video downloads, are overloading the spectrum used by wireless communications devices."
Which is where the opportunity resides - making use of the spectrum between broadcast frequencies for a range of applications in a managed way so as not to interfere with TV reception. From the same background document:
"TV white spaces networks — wireless networks built to use TV frequencies — work in much the same way as conventional Wi-Fi, but because the signals travel over longer distances and better penetrate walls and other obstacles than those in the current Wi-Fi frequencies, they require fewer access points to serve multiple square kilometres with a strong, reliable signal. The use of TV white spaces has the potential to help close the broadband performance gap between cities and the countryside...It helps in more densely populated areas too. TV white spaces spectrum is less impacted by obstructions such as masonry and concrete walls. This greatly improves the flexibility, range and effectiveness of wireless networks, allowing TV white spaces networks to serve users across a wider area."
The report of the trial includes the following key findings:
  • TV white spaces spectrum can be used for a range of applications, from improving rural broadband connections to machine-to-machine applications.
  • There is significant TV white space capacity, depending on the power requirements and regional variations, which could be shared with new broadband devices.
  • Geolocation databases potentially provide a reliable and responsive way to control frequency use by the TV white spaces radio devices.
  • The basestations were carefully commissioned by Arqiva to prevent interference and no complaints arose from activities in the Trial. Houses in the areas around the basestations were provided with contact details in case they encountered any reception problems and none were reported.
The report makes a number of recommendations, including that administrations should:
  • Recognise the potential contribution which TV white spaces and database enabled spectrum access can make to improving spectrum efficiency and to mitigating the spectrum shortage.
  • Within the EU, implement the recommendations of the RadioSpectrum Policy Program (RSPP), especially those regarding white spaces, without undue delay. The Trial has demonstrated that TV white space devices can co-exist with established services. Given the use of a correctly designed geolocation database (or databases) to enable TV white space spectrum access, any changes arising from the evolution of market requirements and technology advances can also be accommodated.
The technology's characteristics enable flexibility in terms of coverage and throughput; white space networks can:
" off coverage for increased throughput. For example, in remote rural areas where user density is low, it might be desirable to enhance coverage at the expense of throughput...The key attraction of TV white spaces in this application is the enhanced range which lower frequencies enable (compared to the higher frequency bands traditionally used for wireless broadband access). This extended range translates into fewer basestations being required to cover a given area and, hence, lower coverage costs. An additional advantage of licence-exempt access, which can be enabled through the use of geolocation databases, is that rural communities would be free to provide their own wireless networks."
Geolocation is "the key to securing flexible, dynamic and cost-effective spectrum access":
"Protection of existing licensed services is a prerequisite for the use of the white spaces. Essentially, TV white space devices need to know which frequencies are available for them to use and at what power levels. This information is provided through a geolocation database. The database provides a list of white space channels with corresponding transmission power limits for a device at a given antenna location, height and configuration. It may also indicate the duration for which the frequencies can be used and, hence, when the database would need to be consulted again. This dynamic approach to spectrum access allows it to be shared effectively and enables the framework to evolve with changing technologies and market requirements. By preventing disruption to the licensed services, the database facilitates use of the spectrum on a licence exempt basis, lowering the barriers to the introduction of new technologies and applications."
A summary of the technical findings from the trial is also available.

Friday, May 18, 2012

UK super-connected cities update

I last reported on the UK initiative to deliver ultrafast broadband to cities in December 2011 (see this previous post), and there have been a number of developments since.

The Autumn 2011 Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer (press release here) set out the Government's plans for further investment in broadband infrastructure, alongside new investments in roads and railways. These included the establishment of a new urban broadband fund:
"The Government will invest £100 million to create up to ten ‘super-connected cities’ across the UK, with 80-100 megabits per second broadband and city-wide high-speed mobile connectivity. There will be a particular focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and strategic employment zones to support economic growth. Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and London will all receive support from this fund, and a UK-wide competition will decide up to six further cities that will also receive funding."
Further detail became available on 20 December 2011, with the announcement by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that fourteen UK cities were eligible to become one of the ten super-connected cities. These included the four capitals listed above, the eight core cities (the largest and most economically important English cities outside of London) and the UK cities that have more than 150,000 dwellings: Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. From the related guidance on submitting proposals for funding:
“…a new £100 million Urban Broadband Fund (UBF) that will create up to ten super-connected cities across the UK with 80-100Mbps (megabits per second) broadband connectivity…The first winning cities will be announced at Budget 2012 (21 March 2012). Supporting this initiative, BT and Virgin Media have committed to strengthening their networks in the winning cities. Cities participating in this scheme should aim to maximise the availability of broadband at 80-100Mbps and city-wide high-speed wireless connectivity and will have detailed plans to drive take-up from residents and businesses – all with a particular focus on SMEs and strategic employment zones to support economic growth.”
The initiative is to contribute to the Government's target to have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015, so follows the same timescale, but focused on delivering connectivity above 80Mbps rather than above 24Mbps (the Government's definition of superfast broadband). The guidance's glossary defines such 80+Mbps connectivity as "ultrafast broadband"; proposals should address the following:
  • The stimulation of private sector investment, including exploring public sector partnering arrangements with the private sector;
  • Broadband infill where commercial service providers do not deliver and have no plans to do so, building on the investment to be supported from the Government’s £530 million funding for superfast broadband;
  • New broadband networks to deliver ultrafast broadband where the market will not deliver, particularly targeting SMEs;
  • Extending high-speed wireless connectivity, for instance by the provision of public wi-fi. A number of business models are being offered for this and cities should consider which would deliver best value for money for them;
  • Assisting in the creation of new small and medium enterprises with good potential for growth using the enhanced broadband connectivity (for instance, by reducing administrative burdens and other barriers), including community enterprises and third-sector initiatives as well as private sector start-ups.
In common with the funding already made available, funding can only be used for capital projects such as:
  • Funding infill in broadband white areas not expected to be covered by commercial suppliers;
  • Delivering ultra-fast connectivity for businesses, Enterprise Zones and strategic employment zones;
  • Procuring infrastructure to deliver high-speed wireless connectivity.
DCMS announced the ten successful cities on 21st March 2012 as part of the 2012 Budget announcements: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds & Bradford (in a joint proposal), Newcastle and Manchester along with the four UK capital cities. From the full Budget 2012 statement (which also included details of funding for improved mobile connectivity):
“By 2015 this will deliver ultrafast broadband coverage to 1.7 million households and 200,000 businesses in high growth areas as well as high-speed wireless broadband for three million residents. The Government will  also provide an additional £50 million to fund a second wave of ten smaller superconnected cities.”
According to the original guidance document, the first ten super-connected cities have until 1st July 2012 to develop and submit more detailed procurement and delivery plans to Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). Further information on the process for identifying the second wave of ten smaller cities was announced by DCMS on 4th May 2012: To be able to bid for the fund cities must have a Royal Charter and more than 45,000 homes and businesses, or more than 35,000 homes and businesses in Northern Ireland, for more detail see the eligibility criteria which accompanied the announcement.

There are 27 cities eligible for this second wave: Aberdeen, Brighton & Hove, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Coventry, Derby, Dundee, Exeter, Gloucester, Kingston upon Hull, Leicester, Londonderry / Derry, Newport, Norwich, Oxford, Perth, Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Preston, Salford, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Swansea, Wolverhampton and York. The winning cities will be announced in the Autumn Statement later this year and cities unsuccessful in the first round will not be eligible to apply for this second fund.

Funding for the second wave is only available for the financial year 2013/14 and so all projects must draw down and complete delivery within that year. Commentary from the BBC here and ISP Review here; detailed bidding guidance for the second wave was to be available on the DCMS web site by 18th May 2012 (today) but as far as I can see it isn't available yet; presumably this guidance will not differ hugely from that published in support of the first wave.

It will be interesting to see how this latest UK initiative supports the ambitions set out in this speech made by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, the day before the latest DCMS announcement.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Everything Everywhere - 4G developments

Everything Everywhere has been particularly active in recent months in relation to raising the profile of 4G mobile broadband services.

In March 2012, Ofcom published a consultation (which was extended to close on 8th May 2012) on varying the company's 1800MHz spectrum licenses to allow it to be used to deploy LTE and WiMAX technologies (BBC coverage here). This was in recognition of the widespread and growing demand for mobile broadband services in the UK. Ofcom does not consider that "any material risk of distortion to competition will arise" through allowing Everything Everywhere to deploy services in this way, which would make it the first and only entity capable of providing LTE/WiMAX services on a national basis until the conclusion of Ofcom's forthcoming auctions of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum. Ofcom expect this spectrum to be available across most of the UK towards the end of 2013.

At the end of April 2012, Everything Everywhere launched its 4GBritain campaign (press release here) to "increase awareness of the consumer and business benefits that faster, more reliable fourth generation mobile services will bring to the UK". The website provides "a place for people, businesses and organisations to say why they are enthusiastic about it coming to the UK"; clearly such testimonies will also support Everything Everywhere's request to Ofcom to deploy 4G services now in advance of the forthcoming auction. The campaign is supported by a report commissioned from Capital Economics on the impact and benefits of 4G technology in the UK (BBC coverage here).

A few days later, Everything Everywhere launched the UK’s first live 4G trial in Cumbria to test network performance ahead of potential further roll out by the end of the year, subject to regulatory approval (coverage from ISP Review here). However, according to the BBC, other operators already unhappy with Ofcom's spectrum auction proposals object to what they see as the company being given an unfair head-start.

Ofcom is due to make its decision in June 2012. It will be interesting to monitor how well the eventual roll-out of 4G services in the UK supports the Government's strategy to have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. Any delays to the auction process could significantly impede the extent to which 4G can support this ambition and cause the UK to lag even further behind countries where 4G services are already available.

LSE/Convergys study: Costs and Benefits of Superfast Broadband in the UK

Some interesting insights in a recent study by the London School of Economics (LSE), commissioned by Convergys Smart Revenue Solutions, on the costs and benefits of superfast broadband in the UK (commentary from the BBC here and ISP Review here).

The report recognises the benefits of broadband but notes these are difficult to quantify:
"Because it is so new, so far there is little evidence of effects specific to it and no evidence yet of long-term or large-scale effects...there appear to be causal connections between broadband deployment and the growth of the market economy, although the direction of causation is not always clear."
On the challenge of bridging the digital divide:
"Low Internet take-up among older age groups limits the rate at which society can be said to be “fully wired”: no matter how widespread high-speed coverage may be, approaching 100% take-up is likely to take another 15 years...Benefits accrue most easily to early adopters. People who might benefit most from new applications in their own homes (for example, the elderly or disabled) are likely to be later adopters and to need the most support to realise the benefits. So even where there is an overall social benefit, it may come at the cost of (at least temporarily) increasing inequality."
The report suggests that UK broadband strategy should focus on coverage over speed in the first instance, as the UK is "far from deriving all the benefits available from basic broadband". The Government's commitment to ensure universal 2Mbps availability by 2015 is "on course":
"Widespread provision at lower speeds should be given preference over partial provision at higher speeds, and problems which result from difficulties in adapting to rapid change are not likely to be solved by even more and faster change...there is a strong case for governments (in various OECD countries) to subsidise the deployment of basic or fast broadband to households not reached by the market. However, the case becomes progressively weaker as the provision of higher speeds to all households is considered. Fundamental to this conclusion is the view that most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant."
Thus the demand case for superfast broadband is not yet clear:
"Early adopters have been prepared to pay a small premium for superfast broadband. However, though they have changed how much they use some existing applications, they have not as yet found any compelling new applications. Mass take-up might depend on large-scale adoption of Internet video for entertainment, with innovative pricing plans that would appeal to potential new users, such as special offers for off-peak entertainment."
Similarly, the key benefit of superfast broadband at the moment seems to be doing the same things faster rather than new things:
"...most superfast broadband users were satisfied with their change to superfast broadband (despite the extra expense) and reported improved Internet experiences, including more responsive browsing. These users had increased their streaming of high definition and standard definition television programmes and films, and, to some extent, their video calling, file sharing and online gaming; however, the nature of their online activity had not yet changed fundamentally."
I think this concept of "innovative pricing plans" is the underpinning rationale for Convergys commissioning the study: Convergys Smart Revenue Solutions provides "best of breed billing and customer care products, which are embedded with real-time intelligence". The report suggests that new forms of charging and billing provide a means to reduce costs and drive up revenues from subscribers, helping service providers to deliver a return on the significant investment needed to build new broadband networks and also potentially attracting new Internet users, helping to bridge the digital divide.

An interesting footnote illustrates the bandwidth requirements of streaming, which currently seems the key driver behind takeup of superfast services:
"If MPEG-4 coding is used, high definition and standard definition television require downlink speeds of about 10 Mb/s and 2 Mb/s (respectively) for streaming, and 10 gigabytes and 2 gigabytes (respectively) might be downloaded during the viewing of an entire full length film. Superfast broadband is needed for these applications only if there are multiple simultaneous viewings per household, the uplink is used heavily (perhaps for high quality video), or fast broadband falls well below its intended downlink speed (perhaps because of poor wiring, or the use of WiFi, inside the house).
My personal view is that this is a chicken and egg situation. New applications that can exploit the additional bandwidth superfast broadband provides will emerge as takeup increases. The growth of social networking provides a parallel: this occurred not only as a consequence of increased bandwidth as first generation broadband became available, but also as a result the move from a pay-as-you-go model (dial-up) to flat-rate always on connections, as these support interaction with social networking sites far more effectively.

I agree with the report's assertions that the demand case for superfast broadband is not yet clear. However, upgrading connection bandwidths from, say, 5Mbps via ADSL to 30Mbps or faster services represents a fundamental step-change which will unleash in time a similarly new set of applications and services as takeup grows to the point where the business cases for these become viable.

We just need to be patient in the meantime.

Friday, May 11, 2012

UK & EU Internet safety developments

There have been a number of developments in UK and EU Internet safety policy in recent weeks.

On 18th April 2012, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into how safe children are online published its report. This follows on from the commitments made by ISPs in response to the recommendations set out in Letting Children be Children, the report of an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood (also known as the Bailey Review), published by the Department for Education  in June 2011.

By way of context for the new parliamentary report, the previous Bailey Review included the following recommendations in relation to protecting children from inappropriate and harmful content online:
"Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet: To provide a consistent level of protection across all media, as a matter of urgency, the internet industry should ensure that customers must make an active choice over what sort of content they want to allow their children to access. To facilitate this, the internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls, with Government regulation if voluntary action is not forthcoming within a reasonable timescale. In addition, those providing content which is age-restricted, whether by law or company policy, should seek robust means of age verification as well as making it easy for parents to block underage access. ACTION: Internet industry and providers"
The Bailey Review went on to explain this active choice further:
"There has been much discussion about whether or not filters should be activated by default, with users only being able to access adult material if they take the trouble to remove the filters. We note, however, that Professor Tanya Byron concluded that this “could lull some parents into a false sense of security…[as they would] need do nothing more to help their children go online safely” (Byron, 2008). But we are also aware that Professor Byron recommended that the Government should consider a requirement for content filters on new home computers to be switched on by default if other approaches were failing to have an impact on the number and frequency of children coming across harmful or inappropriate content. 
We believe that it is now time for a new approach. Specifically, we would like to see industry agreeing across the board that when a new device or service is purchased or contract entered into, customers would be asked to make an active choice about whether filters should be switched off or on: they would be given the opportunity to choose to activate the solution immediately, whether it be network-level filtering by an ISP or pre-installed software on a new laptop. We believe that this will substantially increase the take-up and awareness of these tools and, consequently, reduce the amount of online adult material accessed by children."
The Bailey Review also recommended that the work being undertaken by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) on age verification should "proceed without delay", stating that the industry "has the wherewithal to find a solution" and that the Government should consider regulation in this area if voluntary action is not forthcoming quickly".

In October 2011, industry responded to the Bailey Review with the launch by BT, TaltTalk, Virgin Media and Sky of a new code of practice on parental controls. This further described the concept of active choice thus:
“…new customers will be presented with a enforced choice whether or not to use the tools provided by their ISP (whether network, router or PC-based controls - “Controls”) to filter access to the internet at the point of purchase or installation/activation of the internet service (“Active Choice”). The introduction of Active Choice will empower parents, drive increased general awareness and communicate more widely the issues and concerns outlined in the Bailey Review...we are committed to making it easier for those parents who do wish to use Controls to make an Active Choice whether or not to use Controls on their account. Many parents may choose not to apply Controls for a range of reasons, such as trusting their children or opting to supervise them in other ways, but we believe that providing an Active Choice to parents and carers is likely to improve the take up of Controls.”
This enforced, active choice will be in place by October 2012 and will be provided free of charge. The code of practice also noted that "ISPs currently offer a range of Controls, and there is agreement, that no one type of Control offers a perfect solution", and that the signatories would work with "an independent body to conduct an annual review and public report on the take-up of and effectiveness of parental controls and our compliance with the Code."

However, the report of the recent parliamentary inquiry makes a stronger recommendation, that adult content should be blocked by default at network (rather than device) level:
"Many feel that device-level filters are no longer offering sufficient protection for children online. Only a minority of parents use these filters and this number is falling. An explosion in the number of internet-enabled devices makes the process of individual device protection even more arduous...It would be difficult and wrong to propose mandatory government censorship of internet pornography but clearly a new approach is required. A network-level “Opt-In” system, maintained by ISPs, that delivered a clean internet feed to customers as standard but allowed them to choose to receive adult content, would preserve consumer choice but provide an additional content barrier that protected children from accessing age inappropriate material. This model would emulate the system already used by most major UK mobile phone companies, where access to adult content is blocked until an age verification check is conducted by the network operator, and could use the filtering technology already operating in all schools and on some public Wi-Fi hubs."
The inquiry's report describes active choice as a "step in the right direction" but suggests that it "will do little to address the underlying problem of inadequate filtering unless a more energetic approach is taken with implementation plans." It also acknowledges the complexity of implementing such an opt-in model:
"Several key design and implementation issues would need to be addressed, including a workable age-verification interface and the need to design a granular permissioning system so that households can maintain different levels of access for different family members."
But that said:
"There is currently no evidence that an Opt-In model would add substantial cost or slow down internet access speeds and the main objections to the proposal appear to be ideological. We find it perverse that companies who apply an adult content block for their customers accessing the internet via a mobile device would argue against introducing a similar system for their fixed broadband customers."
Regional broadband consortia and local authorities have a wealth of experience in providing safe online  environments for children in schools, and I would venture that the task is much more complex and difficult than is suggested by the extracts from the parliamentary inquiry report above. Which isn't to say that this issue should be left on the "too difficult" pile, just that technical solutions are not as straightforward as might first appear. The same applies to age verification online. There are no silver bullets in these areas, nor are there ever likely to be: these are not issues that can ever be completely "fixed" as technologies will continue to change and develop. Continuing the drive to educate both children and parents in online safety remains crucial, to help avoid any complacency in this area. The 2008 Byron Review drew a useful analogy between Internet safety and the dangers of water:
"Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe – this isn’t just about a top-down approach. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim."
Still very appropriate today I think. The parliamentary report echoes the Bailey Review's recommendation that industry self-regulation is to be preferred - "The Panel believes that ISPs working together will deliver a more effective Opt-In system on a self-regulated basis and that government regulation of the internet should always be done with the lightest touch." However, "given the strength of the ideological resistance to introducing this change, we believe that the Government should seek backstop legal provisions to intervene should industry progress prove inadequate."

Finally, the inquiry's recommendations include the following:
  • ISPs should be tasked with rolling out single account network filters for domestic broadband customers that can provide one click filtering for all devices connected to a home internet connection within 12 months.
  • The Government should launch a formal consultation on the introduction of an Opt-In content filtering system for all internet accounts in the UK. The most effective way to reduce overall development cost and create the most flexible solution would be for ISPs to work together to develop a self-regulated solution.
  • Public Wi-Fi provision should also be filtered in this way otherwise home-based controls will be easily circumvented.
A consultation based on the inquiry's recommendations is expected to be launched in the next few weeks. It is interesting to compare these developments with the recommendations set out in the EU's Strategy for A Better Internet For Children (related press release here), part of the Safer Internet Programme and published earlier this month. This encompasses a range of issues, focussing on providing more and better online content for children and young people as well as measures to keep them safe online. It also highlights the importance of common approaches across Europe, to facilitate better alerting and takedown mechanisms and support a digital single market. Schools are acknowledged as being central to teaching safe behaviours online: "Schools are best placed for reaching the majority of children, regardless of age, income or background, as well as other key recipients of internet safety messages, such as teachers and (indirectly) parents."

The strategy makes some specific recommendations in relation to age verification and protecting children from inappropriate and harmful content:
"The Commission...intends to propose in 2012 a pan-European framework for electronic authentication that will enable the use of personal attributes (age in particular) to ensure compliance with the age provisions of the proposed data protection regulation...Industry should...ensure the availability of parental controls that are simple to configure, are user friendly and accessible for all on all internet-enabled devices available in Europe. The tools should be efficient on any type of device and for any type of content, including user-generated content."
Another recommendation focusses on rating and labelling content:
"One of the risks children face online is seeing inappropriate content (such as pornography or violent content). The ambition is to have a generally applicable, transparent, and consistent approach to age rating and content classification EU-wide, for a variety of content/services (including online games, apps and educational and other cultural content) and to explore innovative solutions (e.g. rating by users or automated rating). The system should provide parents with understandable age categories, while recognising that the same content may be rated as appropriate for different age categories in different countries. This approach should be used consistently across sectors, thus addressing the discrepancies in the implementation of current systems for the different media in order to benefit market competition...Industry should...establish an EU approach to age rating and content classification applicable across services as described above, building on the success of existing initiatives such as PEGI (and) look into how these systems could be made interpretable by parental controls."
This recognition of the importance (and difficulty) of age rating and classification of online content is important I think. Finally, the EU strategy expresses a similar preference for self-regulation, suggesting that regulatory intervention will simply not be as effective:
"Ongoing effective industry self-regulation for the protection and empowerment of young people, with the appropriate benchmarks and independent monitoring systems in place, is needed to build trust in a sustainable and accountable governance model that could bring more flexible, timely and market-appropriate solutions than any regulatory initiatives."
It will be interesting to continue to compare developments at UK and EU level, commentary from the BBC states that more details of the EU's proposals are expected to be published at the end of May, and are likely to coincide with the government's consultation on the recommendations of the recent independent parliamentary inquiry.