A technology blog for The Economist Group IT team

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Beyond PDF

EContentMag.com has a good summary.
Flash Paper should be the future, it has the potential....
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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Using mobile phones in emergencies

First, the myths. During recent bomb attacks in London (and at other times) the mobile ‘phone network was not shut down. Also, the mobile phones used by terrorists in Madrid to trigger detonation of bombs did so through their alarm function (any timing device would have done).

What could have happened on July 7th in London was that ACCOLC (ACCess Overload Control) was used to restrict access to the mobile network in specific areas. ACCOLC is part of the GSM standard that is used by the majority of mobile phones in Europe. Each handset has at least two ACCOLC classes set in its SIM card. All handsets have class 10 enabled, which allows calls to the emergency services (i.e. 112 or 999 in Europe and 911 in the US). The other class of service that most handsets have is in the range 0-9 and is the same as the last digit of the mobile phone number so that there is an even spread across the classes. Classes 11-14 are reserved for use by staff who may be involved in dealing with emergency incidents. This includes ambulance and fire service personnel as well as the police and armed forces, but also includes local council staff, civil servants and government officials. Other people, such as kidney dialysis patients, can also obtain a high ACCOLC class. Organisations whose staff need to obtain a high ACCOLC class may be able to approve the request themselves or may need to seek approval from the Cabinet Office, depending on the nature of the organisation. Class 15 is reserved for use by network operators (i.e. Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile, 02 and 3).

ACCOLC is normally invoked by the Police Incident Commander (but can be invoked exceptionally by the Cabinet Office). Network operators implement ACCOLC on a cell by cell basis and in most circumstances this would be limited to one or two cells in the immediate vicinity of an incident. (Under normal circumstances any one handset will be able to “see” more than one cell - Ofcom's sitefinder shows the location of base stations in the UK - but will register with the one with the strongest signal.) When ACCOLC is invoked it can be done so to partially allow access to the network for handsets with a class in the range 0-10. If the network is not saturated in the incident area, class 10 can remain enabled and classes 0-9 can be enabled one at a time for a minute or so. This would mean that all handsets could make calls to the emergency services and that at any one time one in ten handsets would be able to make a non-emergency call. To further restrict traffic, classes 0-10 could be completely blocked from the local cell. In this situation the local cell will not allow call set up (which includes SMS messages) from any handset not equipped with an ACCOLC class of 11 or higher.

Use of ACCOLC is reserved for use as a contingency as all emergency service personnel have their own radios and Cabinet Office guidelines warn that
"It is important to remember that invoking ACCOLC is a two-edged sword: non-registered users, who may nonetheless be important to the emergency in question, may not be so easily contactable once ACCOLC is invoked."
It’s also important to remember that it’s the Police Incident Commander or Cabinet Office and not the network operators who invoke ACCOLC. Another point worth noting is that ACCOLC only restricts call setup and that calls already in progress are not affected. Operators could, however, shut down a cell and bring it back up with ACCOLC enabled, but I’m not sure whether this would happen in practice because of the risk of dropping calls being made by emergency service personnel.

BT implements traffic management on the fixed line network by using "call gapping". Exchanges can be set to allow only a percentage of calls to be routed to specific numbers. Most usually this is employed in situations where a large number of calls are being attempted to a number which does not have the capacity to handle them (i.e. if I were to place an advert in the national press offering a free holiday to the fist 100 callers to my home number). BT has a procedure for notifying them of such "events" in advance so that they can manage capacity for other callers without needing to use call gapping, but unforeseen situations do crop up.

Whilst on the subject of emergency calls, another myth is that if your handset is out of range of a cell run by your network operator that you will still be able to make an emergency call if you are within range of a competitor’s cell. This capability is included in the GSM standard, but is not allowed by any or the five UK operators (let me know what happens in Hong Kong and the US). In the early days of GSM, some handsets even displayed "SOS calls only" in these circumstances. The only practical way round this is to buy a roaming SIM marketed for use overseas (such as those provided by oneroam.co.uk) and to pop it into your handset as the need arises. Calls will be expensive, but at least you’ll be able to make one.
There is an article on the BBC today about emergency calls. Apparently there is a e-mail circulating telling people 112 switches to satallite...which of course it doesn't.

Although an orange spokesperson says: "...do not have a signal from your network operator, emergency calls can be made as your phone will automatically detect the next available network."

URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4724101.stm
Yes....I didn't publish that myth, but apparantly some think that if dialling 999 doesn't work, 112 might do. Tosh. Also that Orange spokesperson is wrong on being able to use another network (the only other 1800MHz network in the UK is T-mobile). The BBC article is not clear on whether that comment actually came from Orange, though. I've e-mailed them.
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Friday, July 22, 2005

The Swedes are coming - and bloody fast too!

Be is rolling out 24Mbps broadband in London in the next few months.
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Parasitic Power

Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab is leading a project that will, from June 2006, build and distribute 100 to 200 million hundred dollar laptops (HDLs) to children in the developing world.

These laptops will have Wi-Fi built-in and will use a mesh network to link through to a connection to the Internet, thus removing the issue of flaky or non-existent Internet connectivity in the developing world. For power he proposes that wind up is an option, but I was most taken by the idea of parasitic power. The action of typing on the keyboard will power the device. If it works that's really neat (unless the kids want to watch DVDs!).

This month's editorial in Technology Review has a good overview. There's also a hard copy floating round the office in London. The executive squirrel (yes, really) article is also worth reading.
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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Broadband over Powerlines: Is it coming soon to a wall socket near you?

There's been a lot of talk over the past couple of years about the potential for delivering Internet access over the electric lines that run to your (and everyone else's) home. There have been a few pilot programs, and now CenterPoint Energy in Houston is testing a powerline broadband service that provides high speed data, video and voice services (faster than the typical cable modem service) over power lines. The networking possibilities extend even further; CenterPoint says this technology could enable any device that has a power plug to communicate with any other powered device. Could this be the broadband solution that rural users have been waiting for? Read more about it here:http://www.wxpnews.com/rd/rd.cfm?id=050719TI-BoP
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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Play Coldplay

You may remember an earlier post about how the cover of X&Y had a geeky twist to it. Now you can create your own cover here.

The Economist
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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hey whats on TV?....well that depends on your angle.

All I can say is this will end alot of changing channels between what I want and my wife.

Won't you need a bigger living room (or at least a new sofa)?
And what about the sound ? Presumably one person has to use headphones
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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Relax, Steve

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Chartreuse 11 July 2005

Last week, another publication day was marked by very significant events, but not those we knew about. It was not the G8 Summit at Gleneagles that drew the attention, it was the eerie silence that followed reports of a power surge in the underground. As the information kept coming, in dribs and drabs, a lot of calm and business as usual prevailed. Our BCP plan was set in motion, just in case, all through landlines as mobiles were jammed with the load of calls.

In all this, it was communications that played the most part, from friends and colleagues around the globe who not only asked after our well being but also provided us with information that was more revealing and more quickly available than what was shown on the BBC. Witness accounts talking on CNN and European channels, tourists in the street who called home, foreign journalists who were mere passers by and got caught up in the whole thing were those that gave the first account, unedited, yet in a sober and very responsible manner. Outside the offices people had already started walking home as the transport system was paralysed, many buying a pair of trainers as high heels were not ideal for the long trek home. In all this, the things that worked well was the technology put in place to help the people cope with the situation. Mobile phone networks set aside, it was the pictures and videos of the mobile phones that showed us what it was like on those tube carriages. Faster than the news wires could respond it was live satlinks that beamed the news around the world.

The heroes of it all, the doctors and paramedics and passers by who went to help relied on modern communications to co-ordinate their efforts. It was a prime example, albeit in terrible circumstances of the correct use of technology to save lives. On the other hand, it was perhaps the same technology that may have been deployed to create the carnage. As with all the things man made, it was the user who made the difference.

It was the openness of systems which was exploited to co-ordinate an appalling attack on innocent people. It was the same openness that kept the information flowing so that we were not kept in the dark. Whatever security measures we employ in the future in order to make terrorism impossible, we have to allow the same technology which will restrict and annul such actions to also function as a cohesive device between cultures. The old fashioned and many times quoted slogan, “no one knows you are a dog on the internet”, should remind us all that no division should be made between different cultures, religions and modi vivendi because a group of sick people hijack our hard earned freedoms which allow them to express themselves as much as anyone else.

On Sunday, a few hundred yards from the Tower, the day of tribute for those who gave everything to keep Britain free during the last world war was under way. Some of the people honoured were disposing bombs that were designed to explode while being disarmed. They are a wonderful example of how much the persons using a technology are those that make the difference, and when technology fails, it is up to the human wit and courage to tackle the most dangerous of situations. Today, it is up to us, the servants of technology to help make redundant mindless fanaticism and prove that technology and all its applications should be according to the Wikipedia model of respect and collaboration indiscriminately, rather than destruction. It is up to the masters of technology, those who shape its future, those who make decisions about it, to make sure that freedom is its foundation and primary constituent.

NB: This was originally intended for "To Computing Heroes" but I had to substitute it with what you read there yesterday instead.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Microsoft's Anti-Spyware Sells Out
A few weeks ago, the nastyware from Claria, called Gator, was flagged and removed by Microsoft's anti-spyware program. But now that the two companies are in buyout talks, suddenly an updated version of the Microsoft program is programmed to "ignore" those spyware apps by default. And let's face it, who changes the defaults? It's just another example of Microsoft selling out. Didn't we learn this lesson long ago? One company, controlling everything, just isn't good for users.
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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Who Are You?

Regardless of your view on the recently renewed UK National Identity Card debate, you might enjoy an animated presentation in support of the 'SayNO2ID' position. Note: This is a once in a lifetime opporturnity to see a dancing Charles Clark and David Blunkett!
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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Say it ain't so Bill:

I still have a hard time believing this, after fighting spyware at home and in the office this just pisses me off.

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