Telecare Soapbox: Thousands of telecare users potentially at risk

Fred Reardon, an independent consultant writes about a life-threatening issue.

At the end of last week I received a letter from my broadband provider Sky [UK entertainment and communications services provider] to inform me of the new and improved network for Sky broadband and that they would be upgrading my service on the 2/2/2010 and that there would be a loss of service for a short time approx 25 minutes. I read through the letter to see what this would mean for me. At the very end of the letter the last paragraph was headed:

Social Alarm and Telecare service
If you have a remotely monitored social alarm service or Telecare services which uses your telephone line, you should contact us straight away.

As I have a Lifeline installed with telecare I contacted Sky. I was informed that as I had a social alarm they could not upgrade my service as it was not compatible and that my alarm would not work, therefore they would make a note that I have opted out of the upgrade. However, they have found that for some reason people have been opted back in and written to again if this should happen, and they acknowledge this is an inconvenience, but could I call them again and that would ensure that my service was not upgraded.

My concern is that telecare clients with Sky [and other such VOIP-based providers] may not understand the implications if they do not inform them. This is an important issue that the TSA, as the industry organisation for standards, should be campaigning about.

More specifically, my concerns are:
1. These letters will be sent to vulnerable and elderly people who may not understand the implications if they do not contact Sky.
2. The letter has detailed information and the reference to social alarms is the last paragraph and may be ignored.
3. Sky does not recognise or understand the seriousness of not being able to use your alarm, which can result in a life threatening situation not being responded to.
4. There should be a coordinated approach to the publicity, through the control centres who monitor the alarms. All clients would need to be contacted to make them aware of the situation if they are a Sky user with a BT line.

As someone who has delivered and installed alarms and telecare into vulnerable and elderly peoples homes, and how it changes their lives giving them independence and confidence, I am extremely worried that the service and technology will not work when it is most needed and that people will be left helpless with no knowledge of why, and how it could have been avoided. And there will be negative reports of the technology at a time when we as an industry are working hard to raise the profile and increase the number of vulnerable people who can benefit from telecare and telehealth.

Fred Reardon
Fred Reardon Telecare Consultancy Ltd

Categories: Soapbox.


  1. James Batchelor, Alertacall

    Sky is a problem and it will get worse

    Hi Fred,

    You are right – there are some serious problems with our alternative telephony providers and I suspect it’s all going to get worse.

    The first problem is not voice over IP as such – it’s shabby, or price pressured, implementation of it by some of the alternative providers. For those that don’t know how it works (and I’m not pretending that I do in any detail), many telephony providers are now using internet protocol to carry phone calls from the exchange and back to their own networks. Some companies have their own equipment in the exchanges and send phone calls from their customers back to their own networks using a single internet connection, a bit like the broadband connection you might have at home. This means that the more customers they take on in any given area, the more phone calls they have to squeeze down that single connection and the more calls they can squeeze down that one connection, the lower their running costs.

    So how do they squeeze more calls down it? They lose some of the call quality using a thing called “lossy compression”, in a similar way that Mp3 does for music. Some of the call quality (data) is lost but it’s done in a way that a human being doesn’t really notice a lot of difference – if any at all. If it isn’t done carefully, even though a human might not be able to hear any difference, a machine can.

    This can cause havoc because signal tones (special noises) which are used to control alarm equipment, although played down the phone line correctly, get distorted and don’t come out the same the other end. Imagine you were shouting Feeeeeeee down the phone. If some of your call data was getting lost through too much compression – it might sound like Veeeeeeeeee at the other end! Or, imagine if your home were the telephone exchange and you had 20 people in your home all using Skype to make calls. Do you think your broadband would be up to it? Probably not. You’d notice a degradation in call quality as Skype tries its best to turn down the quality on the individual calls. Carrying voice over internet is full of quirks anyway without intentionally pushing connections to their limits and limiting call quality.

    BT have their own voice over IP network called BT21CN network, but they’ve done a good job and most, if not all, signal tones are carried really well by it. Lots of alarm receiving centres are having significant problems with TalkTalk at the moment who, I think, are using compression on one direction of the phone conversation – from the network to client. So when you send a signal tone to a piece of equipment in a client’s home, that signal isn’t understood by the equipment because it’s got distorted in some way. This is extremely difficult to overcome and will pose a problem to most equipment. (Please note I have no evidence that TalkTalk’s issue is compression related, but I was looking into this the other day and that’s the impression I got.)

    This problem can also co-exist with other problems just generally to do with poor network configuration. For example Sky’s presentation of Caller-ID does not appear consistent across all telephone exchanges. By that I mean that a Sky user can make a call and their Caller-ID will sometimes be unavailable to the recipient. If the monitoring centre is relying solely on Caller-ID as a means of identifying the end-user, this could obviously be problematic, although it would be unusual (I hope) if a monitoring centre were relying on Caller-ID.

    There are other funny issues on Sky too. It’s worth writing to the management of these companies and I hope the TSA has already done so for its members.

    I would like to be proved wrong, but my thoughts are that until co-ordinated pressure is applied to these companies – one which poses a threat to their brands (and share prices) – for example, a nice big piece in a national newspaper or two – and some coverage on Watchdog, BBC News, etc., they will have little incentive to fix the problems. Their business models are about acquiring large volumes of customers, mainly from BT, and they are interested in the low hanging fruit. There are millions of customers to go after who are not going to be affected by these problems and the ones that are can stay where they are. So lucky BT will be left with the older customers who tend to spend less on calls.

    I agree completely Fred, that it is wrong that these issues are not brought more fully to the attention of people moving their phone services to these providers but actually, I am not sure the providers themselves will care so long as they are adequately disclaimed – which they are.

    James Batchelor

    Alertacall Ltd

  2. David Parker

    Telemedical and alarm services at odds with VoIP provision

    An interesting thread. It is correct that in many cases the VoIP service providers have not considered the impact on the non-voice applications that are already deployed, telemedicine/health alert and alarm being one of them.

    The growth of VoIP and SIP trunking services is driven mainly by Voice telephony and integrated IP services. It is clear that modem connectivity and in many cases also fax provision become poor or inoperable when changing from the traditional copper/circuit switched telephony service to an IP based one.

    In the USA the carriers are already moving towards a time plan for ceasing circuit switching and in the UK by default the growth of intergrated IP services by companies such as Sky and Talk Talk means we are on the same track. The company I work for NSG specialises in niche technology solutions and was indeed a pioneer of voice over data. We know very well the trade offs and have working solutions for modem and fax applications using any type of IP service.

    In the USA the availability and low cost of 3G and 4G data plans means that there is a move towards cellular wireless that completely negates the need for a copper telephone lines. NSG is already playing in this sector. I am very keen to explore the markets in UK and Europe as a whole because I feel that our existing experience Sateside can bring solutions to the type of problems described in this thread. I would be pleased to be contacted on this matter.

    David Parker

    NSG Datacom International

  3. Dan Isom

    UK Sky problems: security alarms

    I run a security and fire alarm company in Hampshire in the UK. We are allready having major problems caused by intruder alarms that signal to the receivers in the monitoring centre by pstn lines. This signalling method dials the monitoring centre, sends the message including customer ID / chip number, followed by a handshake to end the message. Sky’s network will lose this handshake, causing the alarm to dial out over and over again. They looking in to the fault !!

    Dan Isom
    century 21 security
    dan [at] c21s [dot] co [dot] uk

    [Dan, thaks for the heads up on that. Please post again if it gets resolved. Ed Steve]