Archive for Connectivity

5G Mobile Network is 450% Faster Than 4G in Tests

Tests by Ookla, the developer of Speedtest.net, are reported to have shown that the new 5G mobile network is 450% faster than 4G.

Speed

According to the Speedtest.net website, the results of the testing of 5G in 29 UK cities during Q3 of 2019 generally show download speeds as being 450-475% faster than those on all mobile technologies combined, and that the 5G download speed in Northern Ireland showed a 618.3% improvement due to the fact that mean mobile download speeds on all technologies are slower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the U.K.

The tests also revealed that mean 5G download speeds are uniformly high across the U.K., with only 6 Mbps difference between the fastest country (England) and the slowest (Northern Ireland).

Availability

Speedtest.net says that mobile operators have embraced 5G across the UK this year.  For example, 5G is now commercially available in 22 English cities such as London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Wolverhampton.

5G is also now available in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Paisley in Scotland, in Belfast in Northern Ireland, and in Cardiff, Llandudno and Penarth in Wales.

Rankings

In terms of ranking operators in terms of their 5G download speed in the UK during Q3 2019, Speedtest.net put EE in first place, O2 in second and Vodafone in third place.

No Three

The Speedtest.net results and analysis didn’t include Three because they currently only offer 5G broadband in certain districts of London and their 5G has not yet been launched.

Three announced earlier this year, however, 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.

Upload Speeds Not As Impressive

The test results showed, however, that 5G upload speeds, although good, were not quite as impressive as the download speeds with percentage increases ranging from 38.5% to 110% faster.

Safety Concerns

One issue not covered by the testing was the safety fears surrounding 5G. For example, 5G uses 3 Spectrum bands, low-band spectrum (LTE), mid-band spectrum, and what some believe to be the potentially dangerous mmWave high-frequency spectrum.

The mmWave spectrum, however, is still not close to the kind of ionising wavelengths that can cause damage to DNA and mmWave will mostly be deployed in a spectrum that suffers from high reflection rates – 24 to 29GHz.  This should mean that any absorption by the body will be confined to the surface layers of the skin rather than the deeper tissue that is reached by lower frequency radiation.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Ofcom is due to auction additional spectrum for 5G in the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz bands in spring 2020 and this should help fuel the further expansion of the 5G networks.  This is likely to be good news for businesses who have been waiting for the speed benefits that 5G can bring, for example in improving file sharing and other communication capabilities.

Although the rollout is currently only confined to major UK cities, which will, of course, favour businesses in those areas, it is good news that 5G has been achieving consistent speeds in its deployments around the world, thereby improving on one of the challenges of 4G.

Different operators look set to take different approaches to their 5G rollouts and offerings, and greater 5G availability will provide a boost to the sales of new generation mobile handsets in the UK where many people and businesses have been holding back on purchasing the latest 5G models until they could reap the benefits of having a much more established 5G network in place.

Amazon Echo and Google Home ‘Smart Spies’

Berlin-based Security Research Labs (SRL) discovered possible hacking flaws in Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home speakers and installed their own voice applications to demonstrate hacks on both device platforms that turned the assistants into ‘Smart Spies’.

What Happened?

Research by SRL led to the discovery of two possible hacking scenarios that apply to both Amazon Alexa and Google Home which can enable a hacker to phish for sensitive information in voice content (vishing) and eavesdrop on users.

Knowing that some of the apps offered for use with Amazon Echo and Google Home devices are made by third parties with the intention of extending the capability of the speakers, SRL was then able to create its voice apps designed to demonstrate both hacks on both device platforms. Once approved by both device platforms, the apps were shown to successfully compromise the data privacy of users by using certain ‘Skills and actions’ to both request and collect personal data including user passwords by eavesdropping on users after they believed the smart speaker has stopped listening.

Amazon and Google Told

SRL’s results and the details of the vulnerabilities were then shared with Amazon and Google through a responsible disclosure process. Google has since announced that it has removed SRL’s actions and is putting in place mechanisms to stop something similar happening in future.  Amazon has also said that it has blocked the Skill inserted by SRL and has also put in preventative mechanisms of the future.

What Did SRL’s Apps Do?

The apps that enabled the ‘Smart Spy’ hacks took advantage of the “fallback intent”, in a voice app (the bit that says I’m sorry, I did not understand that. Can you please repeat it?”), the built-in stop intent which reacts to the user saying “stop” (by changing the functionality of that command after the apps were accepted), and leveraged a quirk in  Alexa’s and Google’s Text-to-Speech engine that allows inserting long pauses in the speech output.

Examples of how this was put to work included:

  • Requesting the user’s password through a simple back-end change by creating a password phishing Skill/Action. For example, a seemingly innocent application was created such as a horoscope.  When the user asked for it, they were given a false error message e.g. “it’s not available in your country”.  This triggered a minute’s silence which led to the user being told “An important security update is available for your device. Please say start update followed by your password.” Anything the user said after “start” was sent to the hacker, in this case, thankfully, SRL.
  • Faking the Stop Intent to allow eavesdropping on users. For example, when a user gave a ‘stop’ command and heard the ‘Goodbye’ message, the app was able to continue to secretly run and to pick up on certain trigger words like “I” or words indicating that personal information was about to follow, i.e. “email”, “password” or “address”. The subsequent recording was then transcribed and sent back to SRL.

Not The First Time

This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about the spying potential of home smart speakers.  For example, back in May 2018, A US woman reported that a private home conversation had been recorded by her Amazon’s voice assistant, and then sent it to a random phone contact who happened to be her husband’s employee. Also, as far back as 2016, US researchers found that they could hide commands in white noise played over loudspeakers and through YouTube videos in order to get smart devices to turn on flight mode or open a website. The researchers also found that they could embed commands directly into recordings of music or spoken text.

Manual Review Opt-Out

After the controversy over the manual, human reviewing of recordings and transcripts taken via the voice assistants of Google, Apple and Amazon, Google and Apple had to stop the practice and Amazon has now added an opt-out option for manual review of voice recordings and their associated transcripts taken through Alexa.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Digital Voice Assistants have become a popular feature in many home and home-business settings because they provide many value-adding functions in personal organisation, as an information point and for entertainment and leisure.  It is good news that SRL has discovered these possible hacking flaws before real hackers did (earning SRL some good PR in the process), but it also highlights a real risk to privacy and security that could be posed by these devices by determined hackers using relatively basic programming skills.

Users need to be aware of the listening potential of these devices, and of the possibility of malicious apps being operated through them.  Amazon and Google may also need to pay more attention to the reviewing of third party apps and of the Skills and Actions made available in their voice app stores in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening and to close all loopholes as soon as they are discovered.

New Law To Advance Fast Broadband Roll-Out Announced

Amendments to the UK’s Electronic Communications Code will give broadband operators compulsory rights to install their apparatus on another person’s property, thereby getting around the problem of landlords not responding to requests for access to blocks of flats and apartments.

The Challenge

The challenge that has prompted the government to seek changes to the current legislation has been a claim by broadband operators that 40% of their requests for access to blocks of flats and apartments have routinely received no response. This has been blamed for slowing down the UK government’s plans to deliver the target of national full-fibre coverage by 2025 and develop the kind of digital infrastructure that could boost growth and boost productivity.

The Law

Prior to 2017, the UK law that applied to relations between landlords and telecoms operators in respect installing and maintaining electronic communications apparatus on land and buildings was the Telecommunications Code in the Telecommunications Act 1984 (amended by the Communications Act 2003). This Telecommunications Code has now been replaced by the new Electronic Communications Code (as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017). The new code means that a broadband operator can now apply for compulsory rights to install apparatus on another person’s property.

It is thought this change to the law will mean that an extra 3,000 (estimated) residential buildings (flats and apartments) per year can now have modern broadband installed.

Rural Challenge

The government still faces a considerable challenge in getting more rural areas connected in order to meet its broadband and mobile network roll-out targets, and there is currently a digital divide between urban and rural areas of the UK.  The government has recently announced, however, that £5bn new funding will be made available to bring gigabit-capable broadband to harder-to-reach, rural parts of the UK as well as a change in planning rules to help the roll-out of 5G.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Now that operators don’t have to wait for responses from landlords, this could make the chance of the government meeting its broadband targets a little more likely and could help boost the economy.

Broadband is an essential service for business and despite this positive change in the law, many UK business owners still know that broadband services in the UK can sometimes be patchy and often expensive, while ‘Which?’ research shows that the UK ranks only 31st in the world for average broadband speeds. Those businesses in rural areas are also finding themselves facing the challenge of a growing digital divide between rural and urban that is adversely affecting their competitiveness.

Even with this change in the law, being able to meet the target of national full-fibre coverage by 2025 is a big ask and it is estimated that the UK may only have 7% full-fibre coverage by 2020.

Digital ‘Pressure’ For Accountants

A report by IT company Prism Solutions has highlighted how traditional accountancy firms are having to change rapidly to meet challenges such as Cloud computing, GDPR and HMRC pressing quickly ahead with ‘Making Tax Digital’ (MTD).

MTD

According to the report, the whole accountancy profession is now on the verge of an evolutionary change and accountancy firms will need to develop into digital practices in order to compete and survive.

One of the key change drivers and challenges for accountancy firms is HMRC’s ongoing ‘Making Tax Digital’(MTD) initiative which has been designed to eradicate paper from the tax filing process and to make the UK tax system more effective, efficient and easier for taxpayers to use.

The fact that an estimated 1.2 million businesses are subject to the MTD VAT rules (for VAT periods starting on or after 1 April 2019 or 1 October 2019 for organisations which are more complex), must now keep VAT records in a digital format and submit their VAT returns to HMRC using MTD compatible software (yet can’t do so using HMRC’s website) means that they are turning to accountancy firms to submit the returns on their behalf.  This leaves accountancy firms with new challenges such as having to adapt quickly to a different type of interaction with their clients who are looking for accountants to be experts on the digital process and to provide instant service and issue resolution. Accountancy firms are also facing possible problems if HMRC doesn’t do enough to communicate MTD to relevant businesses.

Always On

The Prism Solutions report highlights how accountancy clients now expect technology to be ‘always on’ 24/7 and that the ability of an accountancy firms’ productivity to be able to connect with their clients in real-time, and offer access to real-time data that’s always on is an important way in which they can deliver an exceptional client experience.

Other Challenges

The Prism report also notes that, just as Cloud computing, GDPR, and MTD are already having an impact on accountancy, other emerging challenges to the profession include the development of AI technologies, blockchain and crypto-currencies.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Having to digitise accounts is providing challenges to both businesses and accountancy firms and looks set to change aspects of the relationship between the two.  Accountancy firms are realising that embracing all forms of ‘digital’ is a key enabler to enhancing productivity, and that becoming part of the digital revolution with their clients will enable them to not just offer a better service, but also to grow as they take advantage of new revenue-generating opportunities and position themselves as the go-to adviser for their clients.

As well as expecting ‘always-on’ service and digital expertise from accountancy firms, business customers will still want to use their accountants as a source of business advice for business planning, strategy, and market development (for example), and getting better at using digitisation to do this could be another way in which accountants could keep delivering value to businesses.

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.