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MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2003

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2003. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

Dec 2002/Jan 2003 Who Is The Internet For?
February 2003 What Is Your Child Doing On The Net?
March 2003 Who Controls The Internet?
April 2003 Damn That Scam And Spam
May 2003 Welcome To The Blogger
June 2003 E-mail: Convenience Or Curse?
September 2003 Where Do Computers Go To Die?
October 2003 How To Net A Mate
November 2003 3G Or Not 3G?: That Is The Question
December 2003 VoIP: The Small Acronym With Big Implications


In the first of a new series of columns, Roger Darlington - Strategy Adviser at the Communication Workers Union and Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation - asks:

WHO IS THE INTERNET FOR?

The Internet started life in 1969 as the ARPAnet - the network of the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense. It was constructed as a distributed system that would survive a Soviet nuclear attack.[For a history of the Internet click here]

Subsequently the network was extended to American universities and then other academic institutions around the globe. The World Wide Web - arguably the most useful feature of the Net - was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee while he was working at the European Centre for Nuclear Research. [For further information on his development of the Web click here]

So is the Internet really for scientists and academics? Should the Internet be a 'free' space with no regulation of content and no contamination by commercial interests?

The Internet has now become a mass medium and, as such, has to be subject to some laws and regulations. There are now as many children using the Net as adults and they need some guidance and protection. These are themes to which we will return in future columns.

Furthermore I see nothing wrong in people making money out of the Net. The likes of Amazon [click here] and eBay [click here] are terrific services and they deserve to make a profit - although I wish the companies concerned would recognise trade unions.

The Internet started in North America and Europe and these two regions of the world still account for almost two-thirds of all users world-wide. However, I am about to visit India and Nepal on holiday and Internet penetration in these countries is only around 0.7% and 0.2% respectively. [For statistics on Internet penetration throughout the world click here]

How are AIDS victims in South Africa supposed to obtain independent information and access to on-line support groups when Internet access in that country is limited to just 7%? How are Muslim women in Nigeria able to have a cross-community and cross-national dialogue about the sharia or female circumcision when a mere 0.1% of homes there are on-line?

So is the Net really for the economically developed countries? I believe that Net has at least as much to offer to Swaziland as Switzerland and we have to find imaginative ways of cross-subsidizing the costs of Internet access on a global basis.

Since the Internet started in the USA and originally focussed on the academic community, the language of choice has always been English and even now some 70-80% of Web content is still in English. Does that mean that the Internet is really for English readers?

I recently saw the James Bond film "Die Another Day" and read a novel by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. The Warner Brothers' site for the 007 movie is in six languages [click here] , but Coelho's site manages to deploy 14 [click here].

English will always be the premier language on the Internet because it is now the global language, but we should be promoting more multi-language sites and more powerful and effective on-line translation services [for Babel Fish Translation click here].

So - who is the Internet for? In my view, it should be for everyone, regardless of occupation, nation or language, regardless of age, class, or income. This challenge raises a host of issues, some of which will be examined in future columns.

For now, let us start at home.

The British trade union movement owns thousands of national, regional and branch offices located throughout the length and breadth of the nation. In the case of some unions like the CWU, a network of learning centres is being developed.

All of these offices are stuffed full of both Internet-enabled PCs and people who know how to use them. Suppose we threw open these facilities at the evenings and weekends to run low-cost training courses on the use of the Internet, including effective use of e-mail and searching on the Web.

We could show them on-line information sources that would empower and enthuse them and community and newsgroups that would transform their lives.

Part of the training might be use of an interactive program explaining the role and work of unions and part of the package might be introductory membership to the relevant union.

We have six million union members in the UK. If each member approached partner, children and parents, we could potentially reach out to around 30 million citizens, even before we threw the doors open to local communities. Now wouldn't that be something?


Our Internet columnist Roger darlington - Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation for the last three years - poses the disturbing question:

WHAT IS YOUR CHILD DOING ON THE NET?

Most readers have children or have friends with children. The Internet is the first technology where frequently children know more than the adults supposedly supervising them, so just how safe are these youngsters?

Of course, for the overwhelmingly majority of the time that they are on the Net, children are going to have a wonderfully fun experience - contacting existing friends through e-mail, making new friends in chat rooms, playing games on-line, finding educational web sites to help with homework, and much more.

However, allowing young children to surf the Net without guidance or supervision is equivalent to letting them freely browse in a large book store that has sections providing hard porn magazines, race hate propaganda and all sorts of bizarre and disturbing material. Allowing them to use chat rooms or instant messaging without protection is similar to letting them visit parks on their own where there are adult strangers interested in meeting children.

You would not expose your child to such risks in the real world, but you may not be so aware of the dangers - and the action to take - in cyberspace.

The first set of dangers arises from the enormously diverse range of content on the Web.

Children may find offensive content, such as adult pornography or racist propaganda, or receive unwanted spam promoting pornography or scams. Depending on the age, maturity, and cultural background of the child, other material - such as sites celebrating the bizarre or murderous or promoting religious cults or pro-bulimia views- may cause upset or even fear [for examples click here].

What can you do?

Link: Home Office advice on safe surfing click here
Kidsmart safety site click here

More serious problems can occur with the use of chat rooms by children. Paedophiles deliberately target children in some chat rooms and 'groom' them over a period of time to obtain personal information and then physical access to the child with a view to physical abuse.

Girls in their early teens are particularly vulnerable to the idea of meeting a 'friend' whom they believe from on-line chat to be a boy of a similar age.

What advice should you give to your child? Tell them:

Links:
Internet Crime Forum report "Chatwise, Streetwise" click here
Home Office advice on chat rooms click here
Chat Danger site click here

Finally, on a more positive note, many children have gone beyond being mere consumers to become creators of their own web sites, either alone or in conjunction with friends at their school or a community group.

The organisation Childnet International runs a global competition each year to identify and make awards to some of the best such sites and many of the sites they identify are truly outstanding. Maybe you could help your youngster to make a start in this direction?

Link: Childnet International awards click here


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington asks a question which must have crossed the mind of many Net users:

WHO CONTROLS THE INTERNET?

We are frequently told that the Internet is a new kind of communications medium that is not - and cannot - be controlled by anyone, whether individuals, corporations or governments.

This is, of course, nonsense. Somebody has to be running the Internet, otherwise it would not be possible for some 600M users (at the last count) to be able to communicate almost instantaneously to every country of the world at every second of the day.

But certainly control of the Net is a much more complex and complicated matter than in the case of a newspaper or magazine or a radio or television station.

In fact, there are three main bodies that currently control the global Internet:

Of course, hardly any Internet users have actually heard of these bodies and only a tiny, tiny fraction has any chance of influencing them. Overwhelmingly they are made up of representatives of powerful corporations, mostly American-owned.

In 2000, ICANN held direct elections for almost half its board of directors, theoretically allowing anyone in the world with an e-mail address to vote. The election was a sham and it has now abandoned this method of choosing some of its directors.

In the November/December 2002 issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine [click here], Zoe Baird - President of the Markle Foundation - wrote: "International institutions engaged in Internet governance will have to confront three significant challenges if they are to achieve legitimacy: increasing participation by developing countries, providing access to non-profit organisations and ensuring democratic accountability".

She is absolutely right and international trade unions should be allying with other civil society organisations to make this a reality.

For the individual Internet user, however, this is all pretty esoteric stuff.

At a more practical level, where does he or she go if one finds child pornography or race hate material on the Net, for advice on how to block access by children to pornographic content, what to do if one's credit card details have been misused on-line, how to respond when you have been defamed on a Web site, how to act when your copyrighted article or music has been used without permission?

In the UK, the only relevant body is the Internet Watch Foundation [click here] and that only has the narrow remit of criminal content. For about 18 months, Home Office officials and industry representatives have been discussing the idea of some kind of 'one stop shop' for Internet consumer problems but, at a time when Ministers are fond of emphasizing that Internet time is shorter than chronological time, progress is glacially slow.

The Internet raises major social, economic and ultimately ethical issues: How can we make the Net accessible to all, regardless of income or disability? How can we extend broadband to all parts of the country? How much free speech should be allowed when individuals can be defamed and ethnic groups can be insulted? What is the impact on children of using chat rooms and on-line gaming?

We have nowhere to debate and discuss these issues. In China - where I have spoken on Internet regulation - they take these matters very seriously and have formed the Internet Society of China [click here]. But this is a country where democratic values are at best embryonic and we ought to be able to do much better.

In short: we need to democratise existing global institutions to empower civic society and we need to create new institutions to empower local consumers. Preferably before the number of Internet users hits one billion.

Link: ITU Workshop on Internet Governance click here


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington shares your anger:

DAMN THAT SCAM AND SPAM

Have you ever had an e-mail that:

If you have never had such an e-mail, you are not connected to the Internet. Such communications are scam or spam or both. They are the bane of Internet users' lives and they threaten to slow down the Net and render it less effective.

As far as scams are concerned, the golden rule is, if something seems too good to be true, it is almost certainly a ruse. Recipients of such e-mails should never respond, even to express anger or opposition. This simply indicates that one's e-mail address is valid and active which, in itself, is useful information to criminals.

The West African Organised Crime Section (WAOCS) of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) [click here] leads the opposition to the so-called '419 scam', named after the section of the Nigerian penal code that prohibits it, but individuals receiving approaches should report the details to the fraud squad of their local police force.

Spam is unsolicited e-mail (the colloquial term spam comes from a well-known Monty Python sketch). Most spam is not of itself illegal - although some of it might become illegal in some jurisdictions quite soon. The problem with spam is that, because it so cheap for the spammer, there is so much of it - slowing down the Internet - and much of it is unwanted, time-wasting and even offensive (especially where the promotion of pornography is concerned).

It is estimated that spam now accounts for almost 10% of all e-mail in the UK, almost 40% of e-mail in the USA, and some 80% of e-mail received by Hotmail accounts. Worldwide some 10 billion spam e-mails are sent every day.

Many Internet users wonder how their address has been acquired by those issuing such e-mail. In fact, there are all sorts of technical means and software to search out or create e-mail addresses, even before we ourselves reveal that address by issuing e-mail or accessing web sites. This is particularly a problem for someone using a well-known e-mail facility like Hotmail or someone who has used the same e-mail address for some time. Therefore one option for minimising this type of mail - although it is certainly not a convenient one - is to change one's e-mail address.

In both Europe and the USA, there is such growing concern about the volume and nature of spam that there are now serious efforts to make it illegal to send such communications without either the option to opt out or a requirement to opt in to receiving such material (similar to arrangements that we have for the off-line equivalent which is direct mail, often known as junk mail).

In May 2002, the European Parliament voted to protect European Internet users from spam by adopting a directive, making it illegal to send unsolicited e-mail, text message or other similar advertisements to individuals with whom companies do not have a pre-existing business relationship [for analysis of the EU Directive click here]. Meanwhile, here in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority [click here] has decided that in Britain bulk e-mail should either require the permission of the recipient or be clearly marked as 'unsolicited', although it is unclear how these requirements will be enforced and, in any event, most spam originates from the USA.

Since all legal measures will take time and will only be partially effective, there are some technical measures which one can take to minimise (but not stop totally) this problem. One can express concern to one's Internet service provider (ISP) and ask what arrangements the ISP has in place to block or minimise spam. Furthermore one can purchase anti-spam software or, at no cost, make appropriate settings to Microsoft Outlook. Microsoft's own answer to spam is that we pay to send e-mail - but hopefully that will be a non-starter.

Links:
Fuller discussion of scams click here
Fuller discussions of spam click here


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington introduces you to the newest hot feature of the Net

WELCOME TO THE BLOGGER

Currently one of the 'hottest' new features of the Internet is the weblog or blog. This is like an electronic diary, but differs from a paper diary in two major respects. First, it is accessible in real time all the time by every Internet user in the world. Second, it can be linked to any other information on the Net.

When I first started my personal Web site almost four years ago, I thought that soon most Internet users would have their own site. After all, one of the coolest features of the Net is that you can be your own publisher at negligible cost with a potential world-wide readership in the hundred of millions.

But it hasn't happened. Very few Web users have their own Web site. Why not?

There are technical obstacles - it takes time to learn HTML (hypertext markup language) if you want total control, although packages like Dreamweaver make creation of material very easy. Also few people have the enthusiasm or the stamina to ensure that a site is regularly up-dated and indexed with interesting material.

Blogging - the technique of running a blog - overcomes these problems.

Blogs use a standard software which is downloadable free of charge. This software makes the publication of text as simple as typing a Word document. Content-wise all that is required is a few sentences every few days, linked to material one has already accessed or seen on the Web.

It is no surprise therefore that blogs are blossoming. They are easy to create and compulsive to read.

The most commonly used blogging software is called Blogger [click here], but other options include Movable Type [click here], Radio Userland [click here] and pMachine [click here].

The term 'weblog' was first used in 1997. Then, in 1999, a San Francisco-based company called Pyra Labs released Blogger, free software that soon became ubiquitous among the blogging community. This enables anyone to build their own blog, provided you have a title, a user name and a password.

The dreadful events of 11 September 2001 led to a desire for many Net users to want to express their feelings and blogs were an obvious forum. Then, in February 2003, Google gave the 'official' stamp of approval to blogging by buying up Pyra.

Whereas the first Gulf War was the breakthrough of real-time satellite television (like CNN), the second Gulf War was the breakthrough of the Internet as a medium for both receiving and commenting upon breaking news - and the reason is blogging.

Some of the media representatives embedded in the coalition forces ran their own blogs, although one of CNN's correspondents Kevin Sites was told by the company to stop this practice. Some citizens 'on the ground' offered their experiences and views to the world, the most famous for a time being a Baghdad man who used the codename Salam Pax [click here].

In the world of bloggers (called the "blogosphere"), this practice is known as "warblogging". One of the best examples is The Command Post [click here] which, within a week, brought 120 correspondents together into a 'collective weblog'.

Like newsgroups (which use the Usenet system) or community groups (which are hosted by companies like AOL and MSN), weblogs have created communities on the Net. People with similar interests link to one another, make comments on each other's material, and use each other's news feeds.

The exchange of news feed items uses a standard XML (extensible markup language) file called Really Simple Syndication (RSS). This is a format for exchanging new items on news sites and weblogs in a speedy and simple manner.

There are now thousands of RSS news feeds and, if one pulls them altogether, one has a new kind of search engine - one that provides a real-time insight into the content of tens of thousands of weblogs. One example is called Feedster.

Nobody knows how many blogs are out there now, but currently the best estimates start at around 750,000. This number is starting to include some politicians. In the USA, the infamous Senator Gary Hart has one. While here, in Britain, Labour MP Tom Watson has started one: click here.

Starting to use blogs is like starting to use the Web. You probably want to have some sort of portal and you want one or two favourite locations from which you can then follow the links. Look for the blog of someone you know or someone with a similar professional or personal interest.

As a portal to the world of blogs, I recommend a British site about the digital media called mbites: click here

For an initial favourite, let me recommend the blog of a Dutch trade union official and Internet enthusiast who is a friend of mine, Oskar van Rijswijk: click here

Be warned - I'm even thinking of starting a blog myself [I have now done so: click here].


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington finds that not everyone loves the Net.

E-MAIL: CONVENIENCE OR CURSE?


Like most readers, I have used e-mail for years and regard it as an integral part of my life. However, I was recently on a group trip to St Petersburg [for an account click here] and most of the 60+ year olds on the tour could not understand why anyone would want to use something as strange and impersonal as e-mail when one could send a letter or make a telephone call.

This made me ponder. Perhaps we should pull back a little and remind ourselves of the many benefits of e-mail, while acknowledging some of the undoubted problems with its use.

So, why is e-mail so useful?

For all these advantages, if we are honest, e-mail does have some drawbacks.

We all have to find our own ways of balancing these advantages and disadvantages. Above all, it is important not to be come a slave to e-mail and to have allocated times for dealing with it.

Organisations too have to work out how to maintain a sense of balance. Some companies are now designating one day a week when colleagues should talk rather than e-mail.

Already the mobile equivalent of e-mail - texting - is massive. Many people who would never bother to send a postcard from their holiday destination are happy to text away from the beach or the bar.

The arrival of 3G mobile [for the UK's first such service click here] means that Net connection on the move is going to become easier, faster, and (eventually) cheaper. Then you will have e-mail everywhere all the time - unless you control it.

For all the problems of e-mail, I would not be without it. It has made the world smaller and friendlier.

However, I would like us to make it less prosaic and a little cheerier. I am not looking for more use of emoticons [for the longest list of emoticons in the world click here]. But, as a start, we could make the subject title wittier, so that people actually want to open the e-mail and do so with a smile. Give it a try.

Link: A Beginner's Guide To Effective E-Mail click here


We all use computers, but probably few of us have paused to ask the question posed by our monthly columnist Roger Darlington:

WHERE DO COMPUTERS GO TO DIE?

When I was a boy, I saw one of those black and white films on television in which explorers in darkest Africa discover a secret valley where aged elephants go to die. Of course, this provided an enormous stock of valuable ivory and so the explorers saw the location as a kind of 'El Dorado'.

Staying with this image, one can view old or broken computers as kind of white elephants. So, where do PCs go to die? This is not an academic question. According to Gartner Dataquest, an American research firm, the world computer industry shipped its one billionth PC in 2002 and another billion are expected to be built in the next six years.

The problem of surplus PCs is part of a bigger issue described by the European Commission as Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (amusingly abbreviated as WEEE), known less pedantically in the USA as e-waste, and dubbed by some environmentalists as techno trash. The relentless advance of technology and our consumerist wish for the latest gizmo mean more and more obsolescence and waste.

The UK alone produces one million tonnes a year and this is set to double by 2010. White goods - things like microwaves - contribute 43% of this figure, while IT - including computers - is the next largest component at 39%. Consumer electronics - predominantly televisions - is next on the list at 8%.

So where does all this material go and what is done with it?

Much of it goes into landfills, further spoiling and even endangering our environment. At its worst, it is shipped out to impoverished communities in countries like China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Singapore. Here it is broken up to recover component materials of steel, aluminium, copper, plastic and gold.

This is hazardous work. Wires are burned in the open air, creating toxic fumes, to free the metals from their plastic surrounds; computer monitors are broken up by hand to extract tiny amounts of copper; circuit boards are melted over coal grills to release valuable chips but also toxic vapours; leftover plastics are either burned, creating piles of contaminated ash, or dumped into rivers or canals, polluting the water. The people who do this dirty and dangerous work typically receive less than £1 a day for it.

European nations have now signed a total ban on toxic waste exports, although some European waste still seems to be sent to India and Pakistan. But the USA refuses to sign the ban.

Meanwhile the European Parliament has adopted a WEEE Directive and a related measure called "the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment" (RoHS). These ban untreated e-waste from landfills, bans most hazardous materials from electronic goods, sets recovery and recycling targets for e-waste, and, most crucially, shifts the onus of waste disposal to the producers of these goods in a process called Individual Producer Responsibility (IPR).

So the focus is very much on recovery and recycling, but ultimately we might see a shift to redesign, making greater use of more resource-friendly and reusable components.

However, it would be good to think that at least some of those PCs no longer wanted in the rich West could be refurbished and redistributed to less privileged communities in the developing world.

World Computer Exchange (WCE) is an educational non-profit organisation in the USA focused on helping the world's poorest youth to bridge the disturbing global divides in information, technology and understanding. WCE does this by keeping donated Pentiums, Power Macs, and Laptops out of landfills and giving them new life connecting youth to the Internet in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In more localised schemes, it is possible to redistribute computers unwanted by businesses to local schools or community centres.

Of course, a really radical approach to the problem of computer obsolescence would be to rethink totally the role of the PC, making it a relatively 'dumb' terminal - requiring less frequent replacement - by putting much more of the intelligence and power in the network. This was model envisaged by Larry Ellison, the maverick head of Oracle, when he talked of the 'network computer' in the mid 1990s. But it will never happen.

Links:
"The High Tech Trashing Of Asia" click here
The current version of the European Directive on WEEE click here
The current version of the European Directive on RoHs click here
World Computer Exchange click here
"Just Say No To E-Waste" click here
Tools For Schools click here
Computer Aid International click here
US Computer Takeback Campaign click here
Electronics Recycler's Pledge of True Stewardship click here
Cartridges4Charity click here


Whether you want a mate or a date, you would be amazed who you can meet on-line, writes our Internet columnist Roger Darlington

HOW TO NET A MATE

I recently took out to lunch in London a young American woman called Emily who - together with her partner - was making her first trip outside the United States. Although I had never met her, I already knew more about Emily than most people I've known for decades and appreciated that for instance we shared strong criticisms of the Bush administration.

How come? Diligent readers of this column may remember a piece I wrote for the May issue of "Review" concerning the growing phenomenon of blogging [click here]. At the end of that piece, I said that I was even thinking of starting a blog myself - and I did. As a result, I have been in contact with others bloggers around the world, including Emily who runs a fascinating blog from Portland in Oregon.

Several of my friends have used the Net to seek meaningful relationships and, in at least one case, the impact has been life transforming.

Peter (at this point, I switch to fictitious names) is a professional man in his late 20s. His technical skills are stronger than his chat up lines but, in any event, his job takes him all around the country and he has neither the time nor the opportunity to meet many young, single women. So he joined an on-line dating agency.

Mary is a single attractive woman in her early 40s who has had several relationships. She leads a busy life career-wise and certainly has no desire to cruise bars looking for guys who just might share her interests. She has used several Internet dating agencies and met many interesting men as a result.

Paul is in his late 30s and has recently come out of a painful divorce. The idea of dating again was, in many respects, an uncomfortable one. He recognised that he had a fair bit of emotional baggage and that meeting someone who understood him and shared his interests was not going to be easy.

He joined an Internet agency and eventually struck up an on-line friendship with a woman living at the other end of the country whom he who would never have met in the physical world. They got to know each other well through the Internet and phone calls before actually meeting and they now live together at what was her place.

Peter, Paul and Mary (I know!) are just the tip of the iceberg when it come to on-line friendships and dating. All sorts of specialist web sites are now being set up.

For instance, if you are a young Muslim who accepts the notion of arranged marriages but does not want to leave the choice entirely to your parents, there are web sites focused precisely on this situation. Such sites enable customers to specify what branch of Islam and what cultural beliefs and practices any potential partner should follow.

Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to finding a friend or date on-line.

The main benefits are access to a far wider range of possibilities than is possible by going to parties or bars and the opportunity to establish in advance whether you share important interests.

The principal disadvantage is the risk of emotional hurt if the person one meets is not like the image they created on-line - plus the (remote) possibility that the person may be threatening or abusive.

So, the normal rules apply. Spend some time learning about someone on-line before meeting in the 'real' world and, if in any doubt, meet in a public place and even take along a friend.

Children are much less inhibited than adults in making friends on-line but, of course, they are much more vulnerable too. Many children use chat rooms and sadly some paedophiles enter chat rooms, adopt a false persona, and seek to win children's friendships through a process know as 'grooming'.

So, if you are a parent with a child who uses the Internet, the rules you must insist upon are:

Links:
Dating Direct click here
Face Party click here
Make Friends Online click here
Love @ Lycos click here
Muslim Marriages click here


Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington tackles a question that would have challenged Hamlet.

3G OR NOT 3G? - THAT IS THE QUESTION

For a few weeks in the spring of 2000, some of the brightest business brains in Britain went bonkers. The result was that, between them, five companies paid a total of £22.5B in an auction for third generation (3G) mobile licences.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was delighted and promptly used this unexpected munificence to reduce the national debt. However, ever since then, analysts have wondered how it would be possible for these services to generate the sort of revenues and profits that would make such investments remotely credible.

Jump forward three or so years and where are we?

Only one of the networks - the appropriately named 3 [click here] - is operating and it is struggling to reach its proclaimed target of a million customers by the year end. Many of its customers have been attracted by its ultra-competitive prices for basic voice services rather than by its more advanced features.

Meanwhile one of 3's shareholders, the Dutch telecoms group KPN, is being sued by its main shareholder Hutchison Whampoa in a dispute over the Dutch company's unwillingness to provide further funding.

None of the other four 3G licence holders has announced firm launch plans. Meanwhile two of them - mmo2 and T-Mobile [click here] - have substantially written down the value of their investment.

So, what is the future for 3G?

I recently visited 3's offices in central London and got to play with an NEC e606 clam-shell 3G phone [click here]. The technology is, of course, in its infancy, but it is already clear that an exciting range of new services is on the way.

One service - using a version of GPS - tells you where you are or where you want to be and where to find the nearest cash point, cinema or whatever. Using the same service, you can send a friend a map and directions for a meeting or social event.

3G phones can act as a picture phone or a video phone and you can send the picture or the video to relatives or friends. You can download short video clips of weather information, news reports, sports events or music. There are full-colour high-resolution games.

What I really look forward to - and it will come - is broadband access to the Web while on the move.

But the 3G licence holders do face some formidable hurdles.

The first set is technical. 3 has struggled with battery and handset problems. Roll-out of nationwide coverage will be costly and slow because the network requires many more masts than existing mobile networks. Then there are international problems, since three different technical standards are operating worldwide.

The next set of problems revolve around services which can compete in some respects with 3G but at lower cost. Using GPRS technology (known as 2.5G), existing mobile operators can provide similar services - such as shorter, less resolution video clips - for more competitive prices. Then, if one is not on the move, increasingly Wi-Fi can provide a fast and economically priced service.

Above all, 3G does not yet have compelling content, still less a killer application. But more attractive content is coming: news, star interviews, sports clips, music clips, video wallpaper, comedy clips, video trailers. Expect to see next the offer of adult pornography protected by a pin code system, followed by controversy because some under18s find a way round this system.

Furthermore it is not possible to predict how people will use a new technology (who would have forecast the attraction of texting?) and no doubt exciting new applications will evolve. Location-based services and the delivery of public services may be very successful.

In short then, 3G networks have a mountain to climb before those who invested in them will see any sort of decent return, but in time 3G will probably achieve a ubiquity and utility greater than most can currently imagine.

Many new technical developments have been the subject of early cynicism or ridicule, but historically the gap between mockery and mass take-up has often proved to be astonishingly quick.

So 3G does have a future, but it will take some years and strong nerves before it succeeds. Whether all five players will survive is another matter, with the first in the field (3) probably the most likely to be taken over.


New year, new technology, new challenge - our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explains all.

VoIP - THE SMALL ACRONYM WITH BIG IMPLICATIONS

Ever since the Internet 'took off' as a data network - for sending e-mail and browsing web sites - companies have been exploring the option of putting voice traffic onto the Net or other networks deploying the same technical specifications. Since the Internet uses particular protocols (known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol or TCP/IP), this development is called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

VoIP has been around for years, but it is now starting to have a major impact on the thinking and planning of telcos like BT - and for good reason.

For business customers, in the past, IP telephony has been plagued by doubts over line quality by end users and concerns about relying on one network (instead of deploying dedicated voice and data networks). However, these problems are now diminishing, as a result of improved technology and greater investment in in-house systems. The major remaining problem is the much greater cost of handsets.

For most domestic customers, VoIP currently means using a pair of lightweight headphones with a PC to make and receive calls at nil cost even if these calls - as is usually the case - are international. However, it is already possible to make VoIP calls over a traditional analogue telephone provided one has a special adaptor connected to an ASDL or cable broadband service.

In future, residential customers will obtain VoIP packaged as a standard item with their broadband provision.

In a number of countries, VoIP has already taken off and Britain cannot be far behind. Examples include:

A report by the Yankee Group, released in October 2003, states that 83% of European operators surveyed by the group are expected to be offering VoIP services within two to three years. The main reasons given are more cost-effectiveness, ability to bundle voice and data services, and provision of more compelling broadband services.

The switch to VoIP will further diminish the core revenues of traditional telcos like BT - already being hit by a combination of ferocious competition, excess capacity and tough regulation. VoIP customers will not pay by calls made, but instead pay a flat-rate charge for unlimited calls along the current model for broadband Internet.

Consequently the whole basis on which tariff structures have traditionally rested could be swept away. Already there are tariff options which are not based on numbers of calls (such as BT Together). Within five years, telco customers will not buy lines or calls at all, but packages and bandwidth.

This will have enormous implications for how telcos market their products and account for their revenues. It will also affect regulatory controls, since market share will no longer be measurable by call volumes.

At this early stage, we can only speculate about the impact on staffing, but it seems likely that over time VoIP will have a significant impact on staff numbers, skill levels, and workplace locations.

For Connect members, the move to VoIP has to be seen in the context of BT's moves to what it calls "the 21 century network" and is more generically known throughout telcos as "next generation networks". BT aims to cut operating expenditure on its network by 30-40% in five years, representing an annual saving of some £1B by 2008.

Key aspects of this new network have still to be decided, notably where the intelligence should reside and how open the network should be. The main purposes of the new network, however, are to reduce the complexity and rigidity of the system so that new services can be provided quickly and flexibly. A good example will be the provision of broadband on demand or what is now being called 'liquid broadband'.

The 21st century network will have fewer exchanges and buildings and lower levels of network staffing. Therefore there will be staffing reductions and relocation and reskilling of many of the staff who remain. It will represent the largest technology/staffing challenge for the company, its staff and its unions since the days of the introduction of System X exchanges and the Customer Services System (CSS).

Links:
My guide to VoIP click here
Wikipedia page on VoIP click here
OECD paper on VoIP click here
Federal Communications Commission Panel on VoIP click here
Vonage - The Broadband Phone Company click here
MediaRing VoIP service click here


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