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Progress Update

A digital future for TEC: Where are we up to?

13 March 2018

 

Steve Sadler, TSA’s technology strategist has been busy working with telecoms and TEC leaders to develop a clear plan around the analogue to digital shift for the TEC sector. Read his blog to find out what’s been achieved so far. (You can also watch a video update here.)


Don’t get me wrong, I love my ‘voice-activated homehub’ [I leave you to guess which!]. It is well designed, and I love the easy way I can ask for my favourite music, until now! Perhaps a mysterious time period has expired, but suddenly I only get ‘samples’ of my favourite tracks and need to register for a premium service or Spotify, or both. It hadn’t been a great day so far, and I couldn’t face the admin involved, so I found myself back at the hi-fi turntable with a vinyl copy of ‘Wish You Were Here’, noting that I can even sing along to the jumps and crackles! I also recalled a chat with an audio expert who had persuaded me of the inherently better quality that (non-scratched) vinyl offers over CD, and certainly over MP3 music formats.

 

So, I was falling quickly into a grumpy-old-guy view of life – analogue was great, what is so good about the digital stuff? My time with the music was limited (I was working anyway, honest), as I had to jump onto a webex call with several colleagues. The crystal clear digital voices of the web call and the shared screen images reminded me of the huge digital upsides, and hopefully left me in a better place to pen an update on the analogue to digital discussions.

 

It doesn’t seem long ago that we gathered at ITEC 2017 conference, tackling lots of challenging topics, and yet suddenly the talk is of the October 2018 conference and its content. Where did that four months go? Okay, the Christmas break and my daughter’s 21st were delightful distractions, but the rest of my time was dominated by queries and working sessions relating to the digital shift of telecommunications and the potential impact on telecare, new service opportunities, new technology options and, of course, standards.

 

A quick reminder of the story so far. After lots of consultation during 2017, TSA published a White Paper at ITEC (www.tsa-voice.org.uk/digital-shift). Hopefully everyone now knows that telecommunications providers are shifting their infrastructure to IP (‘internet protocol’) over the coming years. BT, for example, has committed to a late 2018 start and 2025 finish, Virgin Media has a similar programme and details of other provider plans will presumably follow. This digital shift brings considerable changes to the communications networks, along with new challenges and potential failure modes.

 

One of the hottest discussions of recent months, and perhaps the biggest surprise for most people is that traditional voice phone calls will be withdrawn, to be replaced by IP voice connections through ‘router’ devices. We are staying close to Ofcom and the telecoms providers, by engaging with the ‘ALL-IP’ working groups, to understand and hopefully help manage the impact of this change. One Ofcom group is grappling with ‘999’ calls – how do you make an emergency call if your home loses mains power, and your phone connects via an internet router that isn’t powered? In our world of TEC (and Telecare in particular) we have raised a similar concern that traditional alarm products also rely on a phone line connection for both alarm data and voice, and battery-backup of the alarm device in isolation wouldn’t solve this problem. Other industries are affected of course, including security and fire alarms, fax machines and even bank payment terminals, so it’s good to see the right brains round the table working through the problems and solutions.

 

Most other recent queries can be grouped as communication issues: Will the analogue voice-band protocols work in all cases when converted and transmitted over IP-networks? What form should new IP alarm protocols take? How will reliability of IP systems be assured? It is worth noting that BT are offering a great deal of help here, in the form of test facilities (Spring 2018), that should enable different alarms and monitoring centre products to be connected over multiple communications provider networks, to allow both older analogue products and newer IP systems to be tested. Hopefully, other comms providers will offer something similar, or coordinate with BT on this initiative. I’m sure that test results will make for important reading later in the year. Watch this space for updates.

 

I would also remind Telecare service providers of the TSA & BT request for information on phone lines, so that consumer requests for migration to IP can be alerted early by BT, and referred back to service providers for consideration of any impact. I do recommend that services engage and provide the information, as we may need this option if test results are less than positive.

 

We have been tracking other [international] experiences of the shift to IP, for example in Sweden, Australia and Germany. Here, a consistent feature has been the incorporation of cellular communication channels as alternative or back-up to landline connections. With this in mind, we are currently capturing guidance material on how to use SIM-enabled cellular communications reliably. More news on this in the coming weeks.

 

It’s important, of course, that we raise questions around the potential impact of a ‘digital shift’, test where we can, and provide smart design solutions to address new failure modes. However, the White Paper also highlighted the incremental health and care benefits that could derive from digital TEC services. You will no doubt have seen some of the press relating to new solutions that exploit wearable devices, internet of things, voice activation, data analytics, AI and cloud hosting, to name but a few. Interest is growing, and we need these novel solutions to feature in our TEC roadmaps. But we also need to see the complementary work on information security and the system design to underpin reliable and high-availability life-critical services operating over IP-networks. So, we are seeking examples of successful service and system solutions for ITEC2018, where suppliers are working through the digital challenges. Also, check-out the Innovate UK initiative and new funding in this area (https://apply-for-innovation-funding.service.gov.uk/competition/110/overview).

 

We can’t leave these topics without mention of TSA standards activity. TEC services are currently the focus of CEN activity, where Technical Committee 431 is pursuing an EU-wide standard for alarm services. The standard is still in development and will likely be seen later in 2018, and we can already recognise a good fit with the TSA Quality Standards Framework. Related work is also underway on the technical front through BSI and Cenelec committees, where everything from IP alarm protocols to digital system design is under scrutiny. It is important that we help suppliers (of both services and technology) to contribute to this standards development activity, and TSA is re-invigorating Advisory Groups to this effect. Invitations to April/May meetings will soon be circulated, or please email paul.finch@tsa-voice.org.uk to register your interest.

 

I would appreciate your feedback on any of these topics, or your thoughts on other priority topics that need attention. Please send your ideas and feedback to steve.sadler@tsa-voice.org.uk

 

 

Read a quick summary of TSA’s digital shift progress here.