Archive for Connectivity

Tech Tip – Telegram

Telegram describes itself as the fastest messaging app on the market, and uses a unique, distributed network of data centres around the globe so that’s it’s not only a simple, fast, secure messaging service that’s synced across all your devices, but also has added features and an ease of operation that many prefer to WhatsApp.

Everything on Telegram (chats, groups, media, etc.) is encrypted using a combination of 256-bit symmetric AES encryption.  Also, the app has a clean interface, there are no adverts, and Telegram offers powerful photo and video editing tools.

Telegram is available on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store.

Microsoft’s Phone App Challenge to iMessage and FaceTime

Reports from online tech commentators indicate that Microsoft will soon be enhancing its Your Phone app with the ability to make phone calls from a desktop PC, thereby making the app a serious challenger to Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime.

The Your Phone App

Microsoft’s Your Phone desktop App connects your phone to your PC thereby giving you access to your phone’s notifications, photos and texts while working on your PC. Giving the desktop Phone App the details of your phone (Android or Apple, phone number) means that you receive a download link to the ‘Phone Companion’ via SMS text.

Installing the Phone Companion on your mobile enables you to sync your phone with your PC e.g. an Android phone with Windows 10 PC.  This gives instant access to your phone on your PC so that you can reply to texts at your PC and instantly receive photos on your PC that have been taken on the phone.

Making Calls – Challenging Apple’s iCloud Integrations

The addition of being able to dial a number, search your phone contacts and make a call directly from your PC is an important enhancement that could make Microsoft’s Your Phone desktop App a serious challenger to Apple’s iCloud integrations on macOS.

Apple Mac users can currently use these to send messages from their desktop using iMessage and can also make voice and video calls using FaceTime.

‘Use Phone’ Button

The enhanced Your Phone App from Microsoft will include a ‘Use Phone’ button that can send a call back from the PC (microphone and speakers) to the handset,  thereby enabling more privacy and/or shutting out any distracting background noise e.g. keyboard noises and noises from home working.

Who?

A full-feature Your Phone App would most likely be of maximum value to those workers who need to be in front of the desktop for long periods of time with minimal distractions although, arguably, messages and notifications popping up on the screen could be less easy to ignore than if they’d been quietly arriving on the phone in corner.

The Your Phone app could also be of use to workers in a situation where too much obvious interaction with their handset in the workplace is frowned upon and where visual monitoring and supervision is particularly intense.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For Microsoft, this improvement to the Your Phone desktop App, which has been around for some time, gives it much greater potential value to users and gives Microsoft another way to seriously compete with its rival Apple.

For any business users who are typically tied to the PC for most of the time the ability to handle all phone matters on the desktop adds value in terms of convenience, possible time savings, and fewer distractions.

Tech Tip – WiFiAnalyzer

If you’d like to optimise your Wi-Fi signal by being able to quickly analyse Wi-Fi networks directly from your Android device, measure signal strength and identify crowded channels, Wi-Fi Analyzer may be the app for you.

This open-source, free app, which has no-adverts and claims not to collect any personal information, uses as few permissions as possible to perform the analysis and does not require access to the Internet.

WiFiAnalyzer is available from the Google Play store.

BBC to Launch Own ‘Beeb’ Digital Voice Assistant Next Year

The BBC has announced that it will be launching its own digital voice assistant ‘Beeb’ next year to work on all smart speakers, TVs, and mobile devices.

Accents

The new digital (AI) voice assistant, which is being developed by an in-house team, will be trained to have a good understanding of the many different UK regional accents.  This has meant that BBC staff from around the UK have been invited to record their voices to help train the programme.

Competing?

Even though the BBC has not said that ‘Beeb’ will be sold with its own hardware device (smart speaker), as an AI digital voice assistant it will essentially be in broad competition with Amazon, Google and Apple, all of which have already been in the market for some time with their own voice assistants.

That said, in addition to not being released in a bundle with a home smart speakers to compete on the shelves with other general smart speakers, Beeb is different because it has been designed, rather like the iPlayer, as a means to provide easier access to the BBC’s own content, programmes and services.  It is thought that ‘Beeb’, being a BBC product that’s specifically designed with the purpose of accessing BBC content, will mean that it is trusted and used by BBC customers.

Voice-Activated Future

As a public services broadcaster, the BBC sees ‘Beeb’ as an important step to keep up with the times in what it describes as a “voice-enabled future”.  For example, 20% of British households already use voice assistants (Guardian).

Criticism

Some critics have pointed out that having a single syllable word such as ‘Beeb’ as the wake-word could lead to mistakes being made by the assistant, but the BBC says that ‘Beeb’ is still just a working title.

No More BBC on TuneIn

From the end of September, the BBC’s radio stations will no longer be available through the TuneIn radio app (as used by Alexa) because it has been reported that Amazon will not share information about listeners of BBC stations.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The new digital voice assistant is a way in which the BBC can give its customers a more convenient and modern way to access its content, in the same way that some competitors are using  Netflix uses Amazon voice controls on Fire TVs, and at a time when people are used to using other voice assistants. Also, Beeb is a part of the BBC’s move to push users towards its own products, and crucially, to find out more information about its users.  This has been shown, for example, by the need to sign-up to view programmes on iPlayer, and by the impending removal of BBC stations from TuneIn app over a lack of information-sharing.  The BBC’s own digital assistant will mean that it can have information-gathering systems built-in.  This, in turn, helps the BBC to better target its services and to compete more effectively in the wider marketplace, while at the same time, help it to improve and add value to its public service broadcasting.

London Gets 10 Million New Landline Numbers

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced the introduction of 10 million new 0204 landline numbers for London in a move to keep up with a growing demand fuelled by Broadband connections.

Running Out

There are only 500,000 of the 30 million (020)3, (020)7 and (020)8 numbers left to be handed out and Ofcom says that these remaining numbers are being allocated at a rate of 30,000 each week!

Broadband

In addition to the fact that numbers from the existing groups will be used up within the year, the new numbers have been created to help feed demand for fixed-line broadband.

For example, an ISPreview survey from last year showed that only 14.5% of respondents still used a landline phone service for making most of their calls and 67.2% said they’d get rid of it if the service if it wasn’t still needed by ISPs for home broadband.

It is still very difficult in the UK to avoid paying for line rental as part of a broadband service. This is because most broadband connections are ADSL which requires the use of Openreach phone lines to transmit data.

Full fibre broadband, however, does not require a phone line but it is not widely available, and some providers will still ask you to take a landline as part of the package.

Data Usage

Landlines have been used more in recent times for data.  For example, Ofcom figures show that in 2018, the average household used 240GB of data through fixed broadband, compared to 23GB in 2012.

Landline Calls In Decline

Even though landline calls are in decline, Ofcom says that UK customers still spend 44 billion minutes making landline calls every year.

Growth

Allocating new numbers for London is not new.  For example, the 01 code for London, which lasted from 1958 to 1990 was replaced by 071 (inner London) and 081 (outer), which then became 0171 and 0181 five years later.  In 2000 the inner and outer codes for London were replaced by the number 020 for both.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

London is the commercial centre, as well as the capital of the UK and its continuous growth coupled with the advance of communications technology, has necessitated the addition of several different codes over the years.  With the current speed of allocation of the existing number business and households need news codes soon, and the first blocks of ‘(020) 4’ numbers will be allocated to telecoms providers in the autumn, after which the new numbers will be issued to other customers by the end of next year.

One-Third of Major VPNs Owned By Chinese

A recent survey by VPNpro has revealed that almost one-third of the most popular VPN services are secretly owned by Chinese companies that may be subject to weak privacy laws.

VPN

A ‘Virtual Private Network’ (VPN) is used to keep internet activity private, evade censorship / maintain net neutrality and use public Wi-Fi securely e.g. avoid threats such as ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks.  A VPN achieves this by diverting a user’s traffic via a remote server in order to replace their IP address while offering the user a secure, encrypted connection (like a secure tunnel) between the user’s device and the VPN service.

Based In China

The VPNpro research found that the top 97 VPNs are run by only 23 parent companies and that although 6 of these companies are based in China and offer 29 VPN services between them, information on their parent company is often hidden to users.

Metric Labs Research Last Year

The results of the VPNPro research support the findings of an investigation by Metric Labs last year which found that of the top free VPN (Virtual Private Network) apps in Apple’s App Store and Google Play, more than half are run by companies with Chinese ownership.

What’s The Problem?

The worry about VPN services being based in China is that China not only tightly controls access to the Internet from within the country, but has clamped down on VPN services, and many of the free VPN services with links to China, for example, offer little or no privacy protection and no user support.  Weak privacy laws in China, coupled with strong state control could mean that data held by VPN providers could be accessed and could enable governments or other organisations to identify users and their activity online, thereby putting human rights activists, privacy advocates, investigative journalists, whistle-blowers, and anyone criticising the state in danger.  For other users of China-based VPN services, it could also simply mean that they could more easily be subject to a range of privacy and security risks such as having their personal data stolen to be used in other criminal activity or could even be subject to industrial espionage.

China, Russia, Pakistan and other states whose activities are causing concerns to Western governments all appear to be less trusted when it comes to hosting VPN services or redirecting Internet traffic through their countries.  For example, in February this year, US Senators Marco Rubio (Republican) and Ron Wyden (Democrat) asked the Department of Homeland Security to investigate governmental employees’ use of VPNs because of concerns that many VPNs that use foreign servers to redirect traffic through China and Russia could intercept sensitive US data.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The reason for using a VPN is to ensure privacy and security in communications so it’s a little worrying that some of the top VPN services are based in countries that have weaker privacy laws than the UK and are known for strong state control of communications.

Fears about security and privacy of our data and communications have been heightened by reports of Russia’s interference in the last US election and the UK referendum, and by the current poor relations between the Trump administration (which the UK has intelligence links with) and warnings about possible espionage, privacy and security threats from the use of equipment from Chinese communications company Huawei in western communications infrastructure.   Also, in the UK, there is a need by businesses and organisations to remain GDPR compliant, part of which involves ensuring that personal data is stored on servers based in places that can ensure privacy and security.

It appears, therefore, that for businesses and organisations seeking VPN services, some more desk research needs to be done to ensure that those services have all the signs of offering the highest possible levels of security and privacy i.e. opting for a trusted paid-for service that isn’t owned by or a subsidiary of a company in a state that has weak privacy laws.

Opting Out of People Reviewing Your Alexa Recordings

Amazon has now added an opt-out option for manual review of voice recordings and their associated transcripts taken through Amazon’s Alexa but it has not stopped the practice of taking voice recordings to help develop new Alexa features.

Opt-Out Toggle

The opt-out toggle can be found in the ‘Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa’ section of your privacy settings, which you will have to sign-in to Amazon to be able to see.  This section contains a “Help Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features” section with a toggle switch to the right-hand side of it and moving the toggle from the default ‘yes’ to the ‘no’ position will stop humans reviewing your voice recordings.

Echo owners can see the transcript and hear what Alexa has recorded of their voices by visiting the ‘Review Voice History’ of the privacy section.

Why Take Recordings?

Amazon argues that training its Alexa digital voice assistant using recordings from a diverse range of customers can help to ensure that Alexa works well for all users, and those voice recordings may be used to help develop new features.

Why Manually Review?

Amazon says that manually reviewing recordings and transcripts is another method that the company uses to help improve their services, and that only “an extremely small fraction” of the voice recordings taken are manually reviewed.

Google and Apple Have Stopped

Google has recently been forced to stop the practice of manually reviewing its auto snippets (in Europe) by the Hamburg data protection authority, which threatened to use Article 66 powers of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to stop Google from doing so.  This followed a leak of more than 1,000 recordings to the Belgian news site VRT by a contractor working as a Dutch language reviewer.  It has been reported that VRT was even able to identify some of the people in the recorded clips.

Apple has also stopped the practice of manual, human reviewing of recordings and transcripts taken via Siri after a (Guardian) report revealed that contractors used by Apple had heard private medical information and even recordings of people having sex in the clips.  This was thought to be the result of the digital assistant mistaking another word for its wake word.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you have an Amazon Echo and you visit the ‘Review Voice History’ section of your privacy page, you may be very surprised to see just how many recordings have been taken, and the dates, times, and what has been said could even be a source of problems to those who have been recorded.  Even though we understand that AI/Machine Learning technology needs training in order to improve its recognition of and response to our questions, the fact that mistakes with wake words could lead to sensitive discussions being recorded and listened to by third-party contractors, and that voices could even be identified from those recordings highlights a real threat to privacy and security, and a trade-off that many users may not be prepared to accept.

It’s a shame that mistakes and legal threats were the catalysts for stopping Google and Apple from using manual reviewing, and it is surprising that in the light of their cases, Amazon is not stopping the practice as a default altogether but is merely including an opt-out toggle switch deep within the Privacy section of its platform.

This story is a reminder that although smart speakers and the AI behind them bring many benefits, attention needs to be paid, as it does by all companies to privacy and security when dealing with what can be very personal data.

Goodbye Skype for Business, Hello Teams

Microsoft has announced that Skype for Business Online will be giving way to ‘Teams’, with support for Skype for Business already ended on 31 July 2021, and all new Microsoft 365 customers due to get Microsoft Teams by default from 1 September 2019.

What Is Teams?

Introduced back in November 2016, ‘Teams’ is a platform designed to help collaborative working and combines features such as workplace chat, meetings, notes, and attachments. Described by Microsoft as a “complete chat and online meetings solution”, it normally integrates with the company’s Office 365 subscription office productivity suite, and Teams is widely considered to be Microsoft’s answer to ‘Slack’.

Slack is a popular, multi-channel collaborative working hub that offers chat channels with companies and businesses you regularly work with, direct voice or video calls and screen-sharing, integrated drag-and-drop file sharing, and an App Directory with over 1,500 apps that can be integrated into Slack.

Back in July 2018, Microsoft introduced a free, basic features version of Teams which did not require an Office 365 account, in order to increase user numbers and tempt users away from Slack.

According to Microsoft figures announced in July, Teams now has 13 million users which are more than Slack’s 10 million users.  Microsoft is keen to promote Teams as a new communications tool rather than just an upgrade to Skype for Business.

End of Skype For Business
Microsoft originally announced at the end of 2017 that Teams was set to replace Skype for Business as Microsoft’s primary client for intelligent communications in Office 365.

With this in mind, Microsoft ended support for Skype for Business at the end of July, will be giving all new 365 customers Teams by default from 1 September and has said that current Skype for Business Online customers won’t notice any change in service in the meantime.

Migration and Interoperability

Microsoft has announced investment and interoperability that will ensure a painless migration to Teams for Skype for Business Online.  For example, from the first quarter of 2020 customers on both platforms will be able to communicate via calls and text chats, DynamicE911 will work in Teams, and Teams also includes contact centre integration and compliance recording solutions.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Microsoft is succeeding in challenging and overtaking its competitor Slack in the business collaborative working communications tools market.  Brand reach and power coupled with a free version, and now compulsory migration for existing and default for new users has seen Teams reach the point where, as planned by Microsoft more than two years ago, it can ably replace Skype for Business.

It appears that Microsoft is making efforts and investing to ensure that the migration is as smooth for (and attractive to) existing Skype business customers as possible and that the voice and video capabilities, cognitive and data services and insights that Teams offers should add value that could translate into advantages and extra efficiencies for users.

5G At No Extra Cost Says Three

Mobile operator Three has announced that new and existing customers with compatible handsets will be able to get 5G at no extra cost(s) when its 5G service is launched later this year.

5G Offer

Three says that when its 5G service goes live later this year, starting with 25 UK towns and cities, it will be able to offer unlimited data with no limit on speed for the same price it currently charges for its 4G tariffs (£22 per month). As well as offering 5G to existing customers at no extra costs Three will offer will include 5G as standard for new contracts.

Price War

In what looks likely to be an initial price war, Three’s price and unlimited data speed appears to stand up quite well against competition from Vodafone’s Sim-only tariff (£23 a month with a 2 Mbps limit, and £30 a month full-speed 5G), and EE’s sim-only 5G at £32 a month with a 20GB data download cap.

Criticised By Ofcom

Three has, however, recently been criticised by the regulator Ofcom over its practice of not automatically cutting its customers’ monthly charge at the end of their contract’s lock-in period.  According to Ofcom, this means that subscribers will effectively be overpaying rather than getting a great new deal unless they proactively change to another deal.

Three’s Advantage

Three has an advantage over its 3 big UK operator competitors because Three holds more “blocks” of 5G spectrum (3.4 to 3.8GHz band) than each of them, thereby getting potential speed, capacity, and performance benefits.  This apparently uneven split of the major blocks of the available 5G spectrum among the big operators is one of the issues that has been criticised recently by Telefónica UK boss Mark Evans.

Consultation

Mr Evans has called for a more balanced approach by Ofcom in order to help the sector to invest and meet the UK’s digital connectivity demands. In addition to criticising the uneven split of 5G spectrum, Mr Evans has also pointed out that other countries have already acted to reduce spectrum defragmentation whereas operators in the UK are still awaiting the results of the consultation.

Health Concerns

One other challenge that mobile operators face in the introduction of 5G is concern over possible health risks. 5G uses higher frequency (electromagnetic radiation) radio waves than earlier mobile networks so that more devices can access the internet at the same time with faster speeds. Part of the permitted 5G spectrum actually falls within the microwave band. These higher frequency waves (mmWave high-frequency spectrum), however, travel relatively short distances.  This means that, in order to achieve the right levels of speed and connectivity in urban areas, more transmitter masts closer to the ground will be needed.  This has led to concerns that 5G frequencies may have the potential to damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

5G represents a great opportunity for business.  Its increased speed and lower latency allow the downloading of films and games in seconds and watching them without any buffering, and this kind of speed will allow all kinds of new opportunities for presentation media e.g. in advertising, on social media and on websites.

Many different types of businesses could benefit from improved connectivity with remote workers or with salespeople in remote areas.

Also, the news from an O2 forecast is that 5G could deliver time savings that could bring £6 billion a year in productivity savings in the UK and that 5G-enabled tools and smart items could save UK householders £450 a year in food, council and fuel bills.

Safety, however, is a major concern for all businesses, but even though 5G will use a higher frequency, there is no compelling evidence to date to show that it would pose new health risks to users.  In the UK, it will be some time before 5G networks are up and running to any significant level, and this means that there should be time for research to be conducted in areas where 5G use is at a more advanced stage.

For UK industry mobile operators, there is also an issue still to sort out over the fragmentation of spectrum blocks and how this will affect the market, competitors, customers, and 5G connectivity across the country.  The results of the consultation may provide some guidance and help.

London Underground To Get 4G Next Year

Transport for London (TfL) has announced that from March 2020, 4G rollout will begin across the London Underground network, thereby allowing customers, for the first time, to check emails and travel information, use social media, and stream music and video uninterrupted.

First Section

The first section of the network to get a trial of full mobile connectivity within station platforms, tunnels, ticket halls and corridors from March 2020 will be the eastern half of the Jubilee line (between Westminster and Canning Town).  This will help to remove one of the most high-profile mobile ‘not-spots’ in the UK, and to fulfil an important ambition of Mayor Khan to improve digital connectivity in public spaces, stations and right across London’s transport network.

Although free Wi-Fi is already offered by TfL within more than 260 Wi-Fi-enabled London Underground stations and on TfL Rail services, the trialling of 2G, 3G and 4G mobile services along this first section will mark the beginning of a push to boost digital connectivity across London and to tackle the city’s main areas of poor connectivity.  TfL also hopes that the trial work on connecting this first section of the Underground will also give TfL and mobile operators valuable experience of delivering mobile connectivity there ahead of awarding a concession to deliver mobile coverage across the whole underground network, starting from summer 2020.

What’s Been The Problem?

One of the main reasons why mobile connectivity in the London Underground network has been challenging is because of the many old and narrow tunnels, which weren’t built to allow space to install mobile connectivity equipment, and have twists that can make it more difficult for signals to pass through them. The fact that there are now 24-hour tube services may also prove to be a challenge to any engineering staff who need access to the tunnels.

Benefits

The benefits of having mobile (4G) connectivity across the London Underground will include potentially boosting the capital’s productivity and improving the experience of those living and working in and visiting London.

Work

It is estimated that the work to provide connections across the London Underground network could involve the use of over 1,200 miles of cabling. It has been reported that the engineers working on the project will work weeknight shifts in order to minimise any disruption to passengers.

What Will This Mean For Your Business?

The London Underground handles an estimated 5 million passenger journeys per day, and the fact that the network has suffered from a lack of connectivity may have come at a huge cost to businesses over the years as workers can’t receive travel updates and suffer frequent delays, and working people have been simply unavailable and essentially cut-off while travelling through one of the world’s leading modern capital cities. The connectivity work, beginning in key areas from March 2020 should improve the productivity of London and of businesses based there, as well as improving the experience of those living and working in London.

For mobile networks, this represents a significant business opportunity as, once the equipment installed, they will be able to pay the private operator for access to that network. TfL will also benefit from adding connectivity infrastructure by receiving a cut of the profits.