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Eurobites: UK mobile operators offer tracking tech to government in COVID-19 fight

Also in today's EMEA regional roundup: BT updates further on network resilience; YouTube follows Netflix lead to save EU bandwidth; UK telecom staff are "key workers" – official.

  • UK mobile operators EE and O2 are both in talks with the government about using anonymized data from their customers' smartphones to help keep better track of people's movement trends in a bid to tackle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, according to newspaper reports. The Guardian says that EE's owner, BT, is talking to the powers-that-be about using phone location and usage data to find out whether coronavirus limitation measures – such as urging people to use "social distancing" and work from home – are actually having any effect. The Telegraph, meanwhile, says O2, which is part of the Telefonica group, is talking to the government about building models or "heat maps" that can help authorities better understand how populations move around in particular areas. Of course, such measures raise questions related to civil liberties, but then these are extraordinary times, which some would argue call for extraordinary responses…

  • BT has also been seeking to further reassure everyone that its networks are strong enough to cope with the increase in demand resulting from more and more people working from home in response to the virus crisis. A statement from Howard Watson, BT's chief technology and information officer, reveals, however, that the operator is actually seeing a 5% reduction in mobile data traffic, as more people are connected to their home Wi-Fi during the day, rather than using the cellular network. According to Watson, data usage is peaking around 5 p.m. UK time, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson is usually giving his daily briefing on the crisis, and more people are making mobile voice calls again – though Watson encourages people to use landlines and IP-based voice services such as Skype, especially for long conference calls. (See Eurobites: BT reassures UK users over network resilience.)

  • To help save precious bandwidth, YouTube has followed the example of Netflix and has decided to reduce the streaming quality of its videos in the European Union, Reuters reports. Earlier this week EU commissioner Thierry Breton called for streaming platforms to do just this. (See Eurobites: EU urges streaming giants to rein in bandwidth use.)

  • Today's the day all UK schools follow the lead of several other European countries and close in response to the coronavirus – closed, that is, to all children apart from the children of what the government classes as "key workers." So who are the key workers? Well, along with the obvious candidates, such as healthcare workers, police officers and prison warders, it seems telecom workers make the grade too – "including but not limited to network operations, field engineering, call centre staff, IT and data infrastructure, 999 and 111 critical services," as the official government advice puts it.

  • France's Iliad is launching what it calls a "solidarity initiative," promising to pay its small and midsized suppliers "immediately" rather than waiting its usual 45 (45?!) days. The operator says the initiative will encompass more than 5,000 invoices from more than 700 suppliers, equating to a total billable amount of around €50 million (US$53.4 million).

  • Switzerland's Salt and Three UK have joined the list of providers relaxing the rules governing their mobile offerings at this time of crisis. Salt will provide unlimited data for its business customers until the end of May at no extra cost, while Three customers who are not on an unlimited data plan do not need to worry about being charged when they are visiting the website of the UK's National Health Service on their smartphones.

    — Paul Rainford, Assistant Editor, Europe, Light Reading

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