Can you hear me? How greater wifi access can empower the disconnected

  1. Solution to disrupted calls could be seamless wifi overlap
  2. Most of UK connected, but quality variable
  3. U.S. study reports that urban poverty and 'neighborhood' affect connectivity

Wifi-calling has been rolled out across the United States and United Kingdom as a way to connect people in rural areas and those in urban “not spots.” But many don’t know it exists, and people in rural areas still struggle to get any internet connection at all.

The great divide between city life and rural living, supposedly obliterated by contemporary connectivity, is a myth that ignores the great disparity in effective networks.

When Chris Walsh wants to use his cellphone to call from his home in Leeds in England, he has three options: lean out of the living room window, brave the weather outside, or make a call on WhatsApp. But his parents are in their sixties and not so comfortable with the latter, the 30-year-old business development manager says. The app is “not on their radar.”

“You want to have a proper chin-wag with them  … that can be pretty difficult when you don’t have any phone signal,” Walsh says during a (successful) phone interview with WikiTribune.

Walsh moved into his flat in rural Chapel Allerton, North Leeds, in northern England, last year. He says he can’t get any phone signal from his bed or sofa. “I’ll very often leave my house and then get a million text messages saying that you’ve missed calls from all these different people.”

He is just one of the many people living in modern cities with signal “not spots,” [as opposed to hot-spots] facing the same problems as people in rural areas where broadband infrastructure is inadequate. A “not spot” is an area that has little or no mobile coverage by any operator; they can be anywhere, from skyscraper offices to old houses with thick walls.

There’s something that could help Walsh avoid dozens of missed calls: wifi-calling.

As part of a global technological revolution, making calls is now possible for residents of areas with poor cellular coverage but an  internet connection. People living outside of cities, in remote or sparsely-populated areas, don’t enjoy the internet or phone connectivity privileges of city dwellers, so even wifi-calling might not be an option.

A photo of a telecommunications mast in Grange Park, Wetherby, West Yorkshire
A telecommunications mast in Grange Park, Wetherby, West Yorkshire. Photo by: Mtaylor848 via Wikimedia Commons

 Half the world still without internet

While more than half the world population worldwide now lives in cities, 3.4 billion people remain in rural areas, according to United Nations research. In the UK, where 90 percent of households have internet access, according to the Office of National Statistics, 17 percent of the population lives in rural areas, such as villages, hamlets (smaller than a village), or sparse areas.

The divide between connectivity in urban and rural areas in Britain has been called the “internet apartheid” (The Guardian).

Dr Lorna Philip, a senior lecturer and head of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland says there is a “marked divide” between rural and urban areas when it comes to internet access. But, says Philip, whose work specializes in rural communities, it is the quality and speed of internet access that is the real difference, not the mere fact of its existence. She says 95 percent of the population has adequate internet access, but the “final few” is still struggling. “Despite massive sums of public money going in to improve infrastructure, this has not been set up to include everybody.”

“If you can’t use the internet, you’re excluded from a lot of things you want to do.”

In the U.S., a 2015 study by the Brookings Institution found that one in four residents in rural areas had no broadband service. But the U.S. problem seems to be part rural isolation and part urban poverty: as researcher Adie Tomer told, “You can see a cycle of economic hurdles that certain folks need to overcome.” The study found that nearly a quarter of Americans lived in low-subscription neighborhoods where over half of the households have no broadband connection.

In developing countries, the number of remote citizens can be high, with India and China unsurprisingly hosting the largest rural populations (UN). Meanwhile, nearly half of the world’s population is without internet access (Wikipedia).

Better times are coming

In Britain, better connectivity is on its way for all, courtesy of a universal service obligation (USO) that aims to give everyone a decent broadband connection.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), that is introducing the USO, told WikiTribune in an email that it will “give everyone the legal right to broadband speeds of high speed broadband of at least 10 Mbps by 2020.”

The average broadband download speed across the UK was 16.5 Mbps in 2017, a report from consumer and telecoms analyst found. This is less than the average across Europe (Wikipedia).

The 2017 Digital Economy Act is also paving the way for any household or business to request a minimum speed. The department says it aims to “ensure that no-one is left behind.”

A spokesperson from the DCMS toldWikiTribune via email:

“We have reached more than 4.5 million extra homes and businesses who would otherwise have been left behind — but we know more needs to be done. We are reaching thousands more homes and businesses across the UK every single week, and we expect the programme will take superfast speeds to around another 2 per cent of the UK by 2020.

“We have implemented major changes to planning laws and made it cheaper and easier for industry to roll out masts, but the mobile companies now need to act fast on these reforms and deliver better coverage across the UK, particularly in rural areas.”

Increasing customer awareness about wifi-calling is on the DCMS to-do list. “This is something that we will be discussing with network operators in our regular meetings,” a spokesperson said in the email.

Wifi-calling is just one solution to the problem of reliable connections. It has been rolled out by network providers and smartphone companies in the United Kingdom, India, and in the United States.

Don’t be mistaken: it’s different from making a “voice over Internet Protocol” (VOIP) call on an internet-based app like Skype or Whatsapp. 

Wifi-calling is set up directly in the phone’s dialler, so no alternative app or service is needed to make a call (CNET). The phone carrier automatically transfers the phone call to a wifi connection whenever the phone drops in service, even when in the middle of a call.

It should happen without the user even noticing.

“You make a call in your home and you’re on wifi-calling. You leave home, you walk out, your wifi drops, but you’ve got 4G coverage outside. The call will seamlessly hand over to 4G and your call will carry on,” explains Howard Jones, head of communications at EE, a British mobile network operator that provides the service.

“That’s pretty cool.”

Wifi-calling in its infancy, many unaware

Phone network company T-Mobile started working on the technology in the UK in 2014, and it is widely available across the United States, says Mathew Evans, a research fellow at the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science at the University of South Wales.

Still, many people are unaware of wifi-calling and its benefits.“I don’t think most people actually realise it’s a thing or something they have access to,” says Evans.

Chris Walsh, in Leeds, hadn’t heard of the technology before WikiTribune spoke to him.

It’s much more common and well-known in the U.S., says Evans. “Wifi-calling has been almost a standard in America longer than it has in the UK. It’s more common to find it out there than not.”

Despite it not quite yet catching on in Britain, Evans says wifi-calling has “lots of benefits.” These include giving people in rural areas greater coverage, and providing seamless connectivity when overseas.

“What’s kind of neat is if you’ve got a mobile phone and say you were American with wifi calling, if you come over to the UK to visit and you have wifi access, you still use your phone like you were in America … For people in the UK, if we’re going abroad and we have wifi connection, we’re still using our phone like we’re in the UK.”

Risky business

But there are also risks associated with wifi-calling.

Callers using public wifi networks may be at risk of having personal information stolen or calls intercepted. As discovered by students at University of California, Berkeley in 2013, T-Mobile’s wifi-calling service didn’t validate the security certificate in its server, creating the opportunity for an attack that tricks the server into thinking it has the right service.

Despite this attack, the issue has since been fixed and T-Mobile is the “most reliable” provider to use wifi-calling with, says Evans, “because they’ve been running it the longest.”

But Harman Singh, the co-founder of Defendza, a cyber security consultancy, says wifi-calling is “prone to data theft,” noting the T-Mobile breach. However, if encrypted properly, he says hacks would be more difficult.

“Where insecure wifi networks are used, wifi call data can be intercepted and stolen, therefore making it susceptible to attackers. It may be difficult for attackers to decrypt if a mobile carrier uses encryption before sending data over wifi networks,” says Singh. He adds that traditional phone calls have had fewer known attacks.

As for Chris Walsh, leaning out of his city-center window to make phone calls, neither interception nor increasing his connectivity is a big worry.

He says wifi-calling sounds like a “very good idea” but has little incentive to upgrade his phone to one that can do wifi-calling.

“I’m a bit of a Luddite with phones.”

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