Does the digital telecom switchover threaten the lives of the most remote old and disabled? (UK, updated)

The UK’s recent preview of winter (which officially starts today), Storm Arwen followed by Storm Barra, was yet another exposure of the downside of the digital telecom switchover. As our UK Readers know, BT Openreach has been aggressively proceeding with the full conversion to VOIP by 2025 and closing the ‘broadband gap’ in rural and remote areas. Connecting them to the internet and more feature-filled VOIP service, including telecare services, has major advantages, especially where mobile service is sketchy or blank. 

Here’s the problem–power outages. According to the Energy Networks Association, 1 million homes and businesses in the northeast of England and Scotland lost power for days after Storms Arwen and Barra in late November, making it the worst storm in 15 years. Many of these homes were in rural villages and isolated areas. Power lines in these areas go down frequently in lesser storms that don’t have 100 mph winds and snow. When the power goes out, the VOIP goes out unless you have backup power. Phone lines no longer have their own power, as in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), equivalent to the US POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service or “copper”).

Add to this BT’s shortage of backup batteries. Digital phone systems in the US are usually installed with a backup battery, which isn’t cheap but sustains about 24 hours of basic voice service. Older models had special ‘brick’ batteries that you ordered from your phone provider that were around $50, newer models are powered by 12 D cell flashlight batteries that at least you can buy at the supermarket. Apparently, BT’s backup units are not only unavailable due to a global shortage, but also cost £85, a substantial charge to a pensioner–unless you live in a ‘not spot’ area without mobile service, in which case it’s free.

No power, no phone, no telecare, no PERS. But plenty of danger to thousands of older isolated adults, plus the frail, alone, and disabled. No connections to friends, carers, and emergency services for days, during a late fall snowstorm which made roads impassable. The storm may be early, but if this is a galloping start, there’s a whole winter to get through.

What about mobile service as a backup? Rural areas are, in bright sunny weather, plagued by spotty service. Supposedly nearly all areas in England have a minimum of 2G service sufficient to call 999. But when the cell phone masts go down, as they did in the storm, and the power to charge the phone is out, the backup is out of commission. One unnamed resident of Grizedale in the Lake District put a molto fino point on it. “It’s embarrassing that a supposedly world-leading country has such a shonky infrastructure. I had full 4G in the mountains of Transylvania a few years ago.”

Ofcom, the regulator, positioned the storms as exceptional. “Even in those circumstances, our rules are clear that there should be protections in place for people to call the emergency services” (999). Rules are one thing, reality another. Judge for yourself as we head into winter. BBC News Hat tip to Editor Emeritus Steve Hards.

Editor’s note for our US Readers: The situation is not that different for us. Nationally, POTS service is deteriorating and not being replaced by providers, forcing changes to VOIP. (I can personally speak to this–20 miles from NYC.) And if you believe that we’re well covered everywhere by cell phone service, you haven’t been to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, much less further west in the area the locals call ‘Pennsyltucky’. That area also skews older–18.2% of state residents are age 65+. The US also has a wide variety of extreme weather–ice storms, blizzards, ‘snow bombs’, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tropical storms.

What are the true costs of analogue care?

With current approaches to Scotland’s social services labelled unsustainable, and health care similarly under pressure, this guest article by Tom Morton of Communicare247 argues that the potential for digital technology to address health and care needs should be realised now, rather than waiting for the limitations and costs of existing analogue solutions to become ever more apparent.

Health and care provision across the globe is under pressure to provide the best in care to a growing population, in the most efficient way possible. Different countries are responding in different ways.

In Scotland, rising demand and costs for public services mean that, “by 2020, the country’s 32 councils will have to spend an extra £700m on top of the £3.1bn per year spent now”, Accounts Commission chairman, Douglas Sinclair told BBC Scotland. He also called current approaches “not sustainable”.

Health is also facing significant financial pressures, with Audit Scotland reporting that Scottish NHS boards will have to make unprecedented savings of £492m in the current final year. Some may not be able to achieve financial balance, as all struggle to meet the needs of a growing and ageing population.

Health and care providers are looking to address these issues by delivering more person-centred services within the citizen’s home. For many this means wider use of telecare or technology enabled care (TEC) to provide remote monitoring, responsive alarms, and round-the-clock support for these individuals.

Telecare is delivering benefits; one report found that widespread, targeted use of telecare could create potential savings of between £3m to £7.8m for a typical council, equating to 7.4% to 19.4% of the total older peoples’ social care budget. Savings for the NHS have also been identified, with reductions in unnecessary hospital admissions and healthcare appointments.

So with such evidence of impact, it is disconcerting to know that only around one in seven of the over 65s have access to telecare services. Such technology could help address many of the issues affecting health and care provision, but it needs investment if it is to make its contribution.

Current analogue approaches are not fit for purpose
[grow_thumb image=”” thumb_width=”125″ /]The UK needs to invest wisely. Currently most telecare systems are reliant on phone landlines – this is called ‘analogue’ telecare. But we need to invest in digital telecare if we want to maintain a society where our senior and vulnerable citizens can be cared for in an acceptable way.

The analogue delivery system is unsustainable due to increasing demands, with often tragic communication failures emerging that could be avoided. Current analogue services already report around 3% of failed call attempts between the home and response services, because they cannot communicate effectively over the new digital telephone network systems. (more…)

Resources dear boy, resources – useful stuff TTA has been sent recently

During this editor’s brief holiday, the interesting reports really piled up, so here is a selection of what look to be the best, including a few that never got blogged previously:

G3ICT & AT&T have published an excellent new report entitled ‘The Internet of things: new promises for persons with disabilities

The European Parliament has produced an extremely useful compendium of articles and statistics on the silver economy: well worth reading (or at least bookmarking for writing that next EIP AHA project proposal).

If like me, use of the ‘Euro’ prefix always brings to mind the Eurosausage episode of Yes Minister, prepare to be pleasantly surprised by this new online database of digital services for carers of older people jointly produced by Eurocarers and the EC’s Joint Research Centre, and hosted by Eurocarers. This offers access to 78 good practices of digital services for older care at home.

Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report is essential reading for anyone working in (more…)