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A Spanner in the Works

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Written by John Cooke Tuesday, 17 April 2012 06:51

Contradictory Government policies are putting in jeopardy economic recovery. In particular, the Government’s localism agenda risks encouraging nimbyism, which runs counter to its other policies on the digital economy, and is harming the UK’s long-term competitiveness.

That’s a shame, because the Government certainly seems to appreciate the importance of digital connectivity: for example here’s what David Cameron said about it just last month. ‘Now the world economy depends on digital communication, a route to market… that is every bit as essential as the canals which once carried the cotton’. Nor is that just the Conservative view: when it comes to the importance of the digital agenda, you’d be hard pushed to find much disagreement in principle between the Tories and their Lib Dem Coalition partners or with Labour.

Mobile telecommunications are a vital part of this connectivity, not least because some 32% of us now access the Internet using a mobile device. And that proportion is set to grow, as smartphones become the norm rather than the exception, and as more of us use tablet computers.

Now, in order to work, mobile devices need a network of base stations (masts) sited near where people want to use their mobiles. And that’s where the problem arises. The problem isn’t the planning rules per se, but rather that some local authorities turn down planning applications for masts when they should be approving them. That isn’t to say that every application should be approved: the industry does get it wrong sometimes. But planning authorities aren’t applying the rules properly. We can say that from the statistics for appeals against refusal of planning consent for mobile masts. Some local authorities also have a policy of not allowing masts on council property. That’s certainly inconsistent with planning guidance. Equally importantly, it’s bad for local communities, which risk missing out on the benefits of mobile connectivity that other areas enjoy.

Those who seem routinely to object to any application for new mobile masts often cite local democracy as their justification for doing so. That may sound fine in principle, but in practice, ‘local democracy’ in these cases often simply means the views of a vociferous, articulate few; while those who thereby suffer most from being deprived of the benefits of a mobile connection are those least likely to engage in the democratic process: those on lower incomes are much more likely to live in a mobile-only household or to access the Internet via a mobile device.

This conflict between the national Government’s digital agenda and the attitude of a few local authorities isn’t new. But the Coalition’s localism agenda is providing more ammunition to the objectors, despite the fact that the new National Planning Policy Framework has a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and is bringing the conflict into sharper focus. At the same time, the importance of having good digital connectivity is growing, as the UK is falling further behind its international competitors, like Japan, South Korea, or Sweden.

Mobile operators do appreciate that sensitive siting and design of masts is important; and while some mobile masts aren’t exactly things of great beauty, some are hardly noticeable while others are no different from other items of street furniture that you see everywhere in modern cities. I like a nice view as much as anybody, but I do sometimes wonder if some of the folk who today object to new infrastructure had been around in the nineteenth century, they’d have opposed the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct (a Grade II listed structure and Scheduled Ancient Monument) or the Clifton Suspension Bridge (Grade I listed structure).

When they do object, and prevent operators providing the infrastructure on which mobile networks rely, that matters to their fellow local residents, who can’t access the services that they want and which are available to others; and it matters to the country as a whole. Or, as David Cameron put it, ‘If our infrastructure is second-rate then our country will be too.’ That says it all, really.

 

John Cooke

 

Save a Life: Use a Mobile

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Written by John Cooke Tuesday, 06 March 2012 06:36

Part of the MOA’s remit, as you may well have already realised if you are reading this on our website, is about health issues relating to the use of mobile phone technology. And a couple of recent reports show how mobile phones save lives and help deliver better healthcare.

One study showed that around 137 more lives are saved per 100,000 patients when emergency services are called from a mobile phone compared to a landline phone. That was based on analysis of emergency responses at two NHS hospitals over a ten year period.

I guess that’s not so surprising. Your mobile lets you phone for an ambulance, in a medical emergency, without having to find a landline. That may not be a problem if the emergency happens at home, but it might well be if you are out and about. And over half a million calls are made to the emergency services on mobile phones every week. Mobiles also allow deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired people to contact the emergency services via SMS text messaging.

Perhaps less immediately obvious is the way that mobiles can improve health outcomes in non-emergency situations and improve efficiency in healthcare systems. But now, a couple of academics from Finland have produced a report highlighting how this is indeed the case.

One simple way is the use of text messaging to remind patients to keep their appointments. Some missed appointments are unavoidable, but many are simply the result of people forgetting. There are about five and half million missed appointments in the NHS every year, and rearranging them entails a cost. If text reminders cut missed appointments by only 10 percent, the NHS could probably afford to employ four or five hundred extra nurses.

The use of text messaging allows patients with conditions like diabetes or asthma to report results of home measurements, such as blood glucose levels or peak flow, to their health care providers. That then allows the doctor or nurse to let the patient know if they need to alter the dose of their medicine, or carry on as before, or if they need to visit their physician for a review.

The use of texting by healthcare professionals also makes a difference to success rates in healthy lifestyle programmes or self-management programmes for things like weight-management or smoking cessation. And for those taking a cocktail of medicines, such as patients with HIV, text message reminders about when to take their medication improves compliance with treatment regimes.

None of this sounds very dramatic, and would probably make for a pretty dull episode of ‘Casualty’. But reminding people to turn up for appointments, or helping patients comply with their treatment regimes, can make a huge difference to the health outcomes of those patients and is good for the NHS.

John Cooke

 

 

Mobile Masts, Twitter, and the Victorians

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Written by John Cooke Wednesday, 04 January 2012 10:30

The fascinating BBC Radio Four series, The People’s Post, a history of the Post Office broadcast in the run up to Christmas, described telegraph poles as the ‘mobile phone masts of the 1870s’.

That isn’t just because the electric telegraph – the mechanism for sending telegrams - was the high-tech, high speed communications medium of the age, but also because of some of the opposition faced by the Post Office when extending the system across the country. Edmund Yeats, who was in charge of extending the network, reported that he had to “dissipate the fears of ladies that the telegraph wires would import ‘electric fluids’ into their bedrooms”. That sounds exactly like some of the concerns expressed about mobile phone technology today.

That isn’t to ridicule those with honestly-held concerns about new technology: that’s a common human reaction, and no doubt has the same basis as the caution that stopped our fur-clad ancestors being gobbled up when first they came across a sabre-toothed tiger. However, if my recollection of my undergraduate social history serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure that there is no evidence of Victorians being laid low by ‘electric fluids’; rather that they tended to succumb to such things as typhoid, tuberculosis, childbirth, or being run over by a horse-drawn carriage.

Concern about the alleged health effects of new technology isn’t the only parallel between the Nineteenth century electric telegraph and today’s mobile phone masts. Frank Scudamore, Secretary to the Post Office and Yeats’ boss, reckoned that telegrams of five or six words should be sufficient for most messages that most people would want to send. So it looks as though the art of encapsulating our thoughts in into 140 characters (with spaces) or fewer, as we now do on Twitter, isn’t such a modern idea, but is yet another Victorian era invention.

One thing that has changed, however, is price. Before the Post office took over the electric telegraph system in 1870, it cost the equivalent of £80 in today’s money to send a 10-word telegram. What would the Victorians have made of mobile phone contracts offering unlimited text messaging, I wonder?

John Cooke

 

Four Stone Walls

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Written by John Cooke Wednesday, 28 September 2011 17:58

The cover of a recent issue of Private Eye’ has, under the heading “Tory Plan for the Countryside”, a picture of some rolling farmland, with a sheep saying, “They’ve got a lot of concrete proposals”. This is, of course, a reference to the current debate about reform to the planning system in England, which has generated a bit of controversy. Private Eye’s’ treatment is, as ever, very funny, but it is also, of course, a caricature (That’s the point. Ed.) of a complex debate.

 This debate isn’t, as it is sometimes portrayed, a straight choice between, on the one hand, those who would concrete over England’s green and pleasant land, and, on the other, those who would oppose any development whatsoever, in their back yard or anyone else’s. There are, doubtless, some on both sides of the debate who fall into that category. But that would also be a caricature. The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, which will form the basis of the reformed planning system in England (though not in the rest of the UK), has a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’. And the debate is about what that means, and how to how to protect the environment and the landscape without leaving the countryside as an agricultural theme park.

That ‘Private Eye’ cover used a photo of what you might describe as an unspoilt rural idyll. But it, like much of our landscape, isn’t entirely ‘natural’, but bears the imprint of mankind. It’s been thus since we stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled down. Those picturesque dry stone walls aren’t the result of glacial erosion or whatever: somebody built them. Or take the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, the UK’s largest protected wetland, and with the status of a national park. Beautiful, yes: naturally-occurring, no. The Broads are the result of the flooding of peat excavations that began in Roman times and lasted until the Middle Ages. Then there’s the RSPB nature reserve at Loch Gruinart. Now that’s what I call idyllic. But it is a partially-artificial landscape, managed now for wildlife, but using sea defences that date back 200 years to when land was first reclaimed for farming. It’s not actually in England, but it illustrates the point.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m against unfettered development, and would certainly agree that anyone who suggested a major development of four and five bedroom executive homes at Gruinart should probably be locked up. But I digress. What I meant to say was that, as it happens, the mobile network operators have all signed a Joint Accord with the Association of National Park Authorities, and Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, designed to protect the special qualities of our finest landscapes while making the best possible provision for telecommunication services for the people who live there. The Joint Accord is on our website.

The debate about sustainable development is about striking a balance between the need to protect the environment and the needs of people. As the lyric in Capercaillie’s 'Four Stone Walls’ goes, “though we love our scenery, wouldn't we just love somewhere to stay?” It’s not a song that’s in any way pro-business or pro development – listen to the lyrics in full if you don’t believe me, and get an earful of Karen Matheson’s incomparable vocals as a bonus. But it is a reminder that, in the debate about planning, we do need to balance the needs of reasonable environmental protection and the needs of ordinary folk, who want jobs, homes, and services.

 

You Don’t Miss What You’ve Never Had

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Written by John Cooke Wednesday, 31 August 2011 08:34

You don’t miss what you’ve never had. That’s something I learnt some years ago when I discovered that I needed glasses. Standing and looking at the departures board at a railway station one day, I realised the friend standing next to me could read it perfectly well, whereas to me, it was indistinct. I needed to get much closer before I could see which platform our train was from. Up until then, I’d just thought that the world looked fuzzy to everybody at a distance. I didn’t miss not being able to see that well, because I’d never been able to, and so I hadn’t known I was missing anything.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I read that one local authority had decided not to allow any mobile phone masts to be built on council property. That decision seems out of line with the relevant national planning guidance, which encourages local authorities to help find ’potential [telecoms] sites by making suitable local authority owned property available to users and by encouraging others to do the same with their property.’

I don’t mention this example because I want to talk about the minutiae of planning guidance. Rather, I think the council is just plain wrong. Well with my job, I’m bound to say that, aren’t I? But let me explain why.

In its impact assessment, the council said that the effect of its policy would be ‘neutral’, i.e. they’d be no better off than they were before, but no worse off either. Think about that for a minute. That would be like saying that if I hadn’t had my eyes tested and got some glasses, I’d be no worse off than I was before. Only in a very narrow sense would that be true; but missing out on being able to see stuff properly at a distance doesn’t seem like a ‘neutral’ outcome to me.

Not so long ago, we didn’t have mobile telecommunications at all. Today, they are ubiquitous, and vitally important to individuals, to communities, to businesses, and to the wider economy. Connecting to the Internet via a mobile device allows people to access a wide range of central and local government services; to do research for a school project or apply to university; to manage their bank account and pay bills; to apply for a job; or to buy groceries. It’s true that we used to manage without being able to do these things: then again, people used to manage without central heating, cars, electric lights, or antibiotics.

So if that council had been around in about 2,500 BC, I wonder if they’d have said that they’d happily stick with flint tools, and that opting not to use these new fangled metal ones would have a ‘neutral’ effect, and that they’d be no worse off. Well, as any anthropologist will tell you, societies that adapt to changing circumstances tend to prosper, while those that stuck with stone axes in the Bronze Age were toast.

 

I Think, Therefore I Am

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Written by John Cooke Tuesday, 29 March 2011 17:47

Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, is probably best known for coining the phrase “I think, therefore I am”. “And what’s this to do with mobile phones?” I hear you ask. The answer is that, as well as being a philosopher, Descartes is also widely regarded as having played an important role in developing what we now call the scientific method. That’s particularly important for understanding the debate around mobiles and health, which is a major focus for us here at the MOA.

The scientific method has four steps. The first involves observation and description of a phenomenon; second, it requires the formulation of a hypothesis to explain that phenomenon; third, the hypothesis is used to predict the existence of other phenomena or the results of new observations; and fourth, it involves the performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters, and properly performed experiments.

It’s that last bit that I want to talk about, i.e. the fact that for a hypothesis to be ‘proved’, or at least generally accepted, it has to be backed up by repeated experimental evidence that supports it. On our website, we cite the fact that a large number of studies over more than two decades have not shown any adverse health effects from mobile phone use. We don’t disguise that, from time to time, some individual studies don’t fit that pattern. But a single study doesn’t actually prove very much: to get scientific consensus requires repeated experiments showing similar results. That’s because there are several reasons -some of which would stump the brightest and most diligent researchers - why an individual study might produce an anomalous result. They include: errors in collecting or observing data; ‘confounding factors’, e.g. if you are trying to tell if something causes cancer, but lots of the people in your study are heavy smokers; and sheer chance. That’s why you need to look at the aggregate of as many studies as possible to get an accurate picture, not just take one or two in isolation.

That doesn’t mean that we should simply dismiss out of hand every study that doesn’t fit that picture. For one thing, that would be to ignore the concerns of normal, sensible, people, some of whom do worry about potential health effects of the technology. It would also be bad science. That’s why the industry continues to fund – at arm’s length – further independent research into this area. For now, though, the scientific consensus remains reassuring.

 

Prediction is Always Difficult, Particularly About The Future

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Written by John Cooke Monday, 14 February 2011 21:25

“Prediction”, said the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, “is always difficult, particularly about the future”. I’ve often remembered those words when reading the latest report about the next ‘big thing’ in technology; not just because they are amusing, but also because Bohr was a pretty brainy guy.

So, despite the fact that we talk on our website about how many people use a laptop and dongle or a smartphone to access the Internet, I’ve tended to be just a wee bit cautious when seeing predictions about how quickly mobile would replace fixed as the Internet connection of choice. However, despite that caution, it turns out that the future has already arrived!

According to the market intelligence firm, IDC, in the last quarter of 2010, shipments of smartphones exceeded shipments of PCs for the first time – the numbers were 100.9 million and 92.1 million respectively. Added to that, tablet devices – which have mobile Internet connections - are taking an ever-larger larger share of the PC market. These are worldwide numbers, obviously, but trends in UK technology usage are not hugely out of line with the global picture.

It shouldn’t actually be so surprising that mobile rather than fixed connections are becoming the main way to access the Internet. For one thing, mobile devices allow us to access web-based services quickly and conveniently. There’s also a parallel in how many of us nowadays use our mobile phone as our primary means of making calls, even when we are at home or in the office and could use a landline if we wanted to.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that mobile is the only way to connect to the Internet. Far from it: fixed and mobile connections are complementary, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, particularly when we are simply looking for some information, we’ll increasingly be reaching for a small hand-held device, rather than logging onto a desktop PC.

 

 

Localism Bill

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Friday, 24 December 2010 10:18

The long-awaited and much anticipated Localism Bill has now been published, giving some more insight into the Government's agenda of devolving power away from the centre to local communities.

It will be interesting to see how ministers intend to reconcile the need for investment in and development of infrastructure, particularly mobile communications infrastructure, with their policy of giving local people much greater say in the development that occurs in their neighbourhoods.

It remains the case that, while the users of the UK's 80 million plus mobile connections want and expect to be able to use their devices anywhere and everywhere, a number of people don't want to have a phone mast – i.e., the infrastructure needed to allow their mobile services to operate – nearby. The Localism Bill will need to find a way to enable people to be fully engaged in the planning process, while facilitating appropriate development, which is vital, both economically and socially.

In a recent debate in the Lords, the Government set out its agenda for delivering high speed broadband networks, for the benefit of communities across the UK. This will undoubtedly include mobile broadband networks. How that objective will be delivered in the new planning system is not yet clear.

Going back to the Bill, while the detail of neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders will take some time to develop, what is already clear is that they could introduce a fundamental shift in how developers engage with local communities. Pre-application engagement will become increasingly important in getting community support for developments. In fact, the mobile operators have over a decade of experience of consulting with communities and other stakeholders at the pre-application stage, so there may be some useful lessons that other sectors can gain from the operators' experience.

Planning is still seen by many to be a barrier. However, a fully functioning planning system should be an enabler to good development, with the support of all stakeholders, including developers, local communities and local authorities. Whether the changes contained in the Localism Bill are able to deliver this is something that all interested stakeholders are keen to discover. 

Stuart Eke

 

Not Just Teenage Kicks

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Written by John Cooke Friday, 17 December 2010 09:18

In my last blog, I said that the mobile is now a vital tool letting people access essential services. You’ll also see that we say elsewhere on the website that mobile telecommunications are vital for economic competitiveness and in promoting social inclusion. Well, we would say that, wouldn’t we? But it happens to be true. And a couple of recent reports provide some further illustrations of the benefits of mobile connectivity.

First, a survey for the e-Learning Foundation and the TES revealed that a fifth of teachers think it ‘essential’ for children to be able to surf the web to be able to do their homework properly, while 61% think it ‘advisable’. Since many families access the Internet using mobile broadband - over 4 million people do so via a laptop and dongle - and as younger people are more likely to use mobiles for web and data access than older internet users generally, that’s a lot of homework benefitting from mobile networks.

Second, and this time on a different issue and from outside the UK, ‘The Lancet’ reported a study showing that that just sending a text message to Kenyan HIV patients, reminding them to take their drugs, significantly improved their treatment. The study authors conclude that mobile phones might be effective tools to improve patient outcome in resource-limited settings. Now, Kenya is outside our remit, but this example illustrates a wider point.

That point is that mobile telecommunications can help improve education and healthcare, and aren’t just there so that my daughter can text her friends to tell them she’s just downloaded the latest video of ‘The Wanted’. Come to think of it, that in itself would be helping the UK economy, since DCMS reckons that the creative industries contribute a whacking 6.2% of the UK’s Gross Value Added. Not all of that is the music industry, of course. And none of the groups she listens to are anywhere near as good as ‘The Undertones’ or ‘Runrig’. But that’s just my opinion.

 John Cooke

 

Wall Street, Spartacus, and Mobile Phones

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Written by John Cooke Monday, 27 September 2010 11:36

Welcome to the first blog on our redesigned website, which, we hope, will make it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for – and be informative and, occasionally, maybe even entertaining.

Talking of entertainment, have you yet seen ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ with Michael Douglas? His character, Gordon Gekko, is released from prison, and is given back his possessions, one of which is a mobile phone the size of a house brick. It’s not just the size of phones that have changed since the original ‘Wall Street’ film was released, back in 1987, of course, but also the fact that back then, having such a gadget marked out the owner as rich. Now, of course, the mobile, as well as being smaller, is ubiquitous. 

In fact, according Ofcom, 14% of all UK households now rely solely on a mobile phone (compared to just 7% that are fixed-line only) and this rises to 26% in the DE socio-economic group. Younger households also tend to rely more than older ones on mobiles instead of fixed landlines. Maybe that isn’t so surprising. Lower-income sections of the population are more likely to use a pay-as-you-go mobile in order to avoid signing up to a contract that commits them to a regular monthly spend.

The mobile isn’t just for social use, either. It’s now how a vital tool that lets many people do telephone banking, or get a reminder for their GP or dental appointment, or find a job, or access a whole host of essential services. It’s no longer the status symbol of the hotshot financier. Times certainly have changed in the last 25 years.

As for Michael Douglas, he’s a fine actor, though I prefer his dad, Kirk…but you try contriving a link to mobile telephony from ‘Spartacus’ or ‘The Vikings’.

John Cooke

 

Mobile Operators Association

The Mobile Operators Association (MOA) represents the four UK mobile network operators – EE (the company that runs EE, Orange & T-Mobile in the UK), O2, Three, and Vodafone – on radio frequency (RF) health and safety, and related town planning issues associated with the use of mobile phone technology.

The Economy and Society

Mobile telecommunications are vital for the UK’s economic competitiveness and in promoting social inclusion. There are now 89.9 million mobile subscriptions in the UK. In early 2015 61% of UK adults used their mobile phones for internet access. Tablet ownership is 54% of UK households, increasing from 44% in Q1 2014.