Review of ICT Infrastructure in the Public Sector in Scotland

Report by John McClelland CBE on his review of ICT infrastructure in the public sector in Scotland.

8 New Technologies and Techniques

As indicated earlier in the report there is a constant flow of new technologies and innovations and these generally offer performance and or cost advantages compared to current practice.

There are a number of technologies that have been introduced into the market in recent times that have not yet been fully adopted by the public sector in Scotland.

One of these is "voice over internet protocol" (VoIP). This technology takes advantage of digital infrastructure and communications technology for voice communication. By converting the regular voice signal to a digital one it can use broadband connections for voice telephony.

VoIP offers cost advantages primarily through not paying incrementally for the cost of a call irrespective of the time spent or the distance to the other party. Even when using VoIP to call a traditional phone in a public switched telephone network the call can cost less and within large organisations with many VoIP connections there are significant savings available as nearly all calls will incur no charge. And of course this approach avoids the need to operate traditional and complex PBX equipment.

It also allows the easier convergence of voice and video, e.g. through video-conferencing features.

Mobile technology is accelerating in its capability and there is a constant flow of devices and applications coming to the market. While there are many initiatives within the public sector in the use of mobile technology there is very fertile ground for accelerating the pace of adoption. The savings potential from mobile and home working is significant. However, there are also tremendous advantages to be gained in terms of timing and speed of access and execution. Portable devices such as laptop and netpad computers can create a movable office environment. Also handheld devices such as personal digital assistants and smart phones can transform communications so that dynamic mobile working becomes the norm rather than being exceptional.

Mobile devices are also being used as physical access devices so that in areas such as travel or other access the device becomes the boarding pass or ticket. There are also many specialised smartcard and smart device technologies which offer tailored but flexibly updated access and authentication.

The basic technologies behind new approaches such as VoIP and mobile and access devices are already tried and tested and offer very significant opportunity to the public sector to capture financial, employee satisfaction and citizen benefits. However, their use is far from pervasive and this lag in adoption means potential benefits are not being captured.

This status is before taking into account further opportunities in "telecapability" and its tailored applications. Currently within the public sector there does not appear to be a routine use of video-conferencing although recently its benefits are becoming more widely recognised and appreciated. And of course the escalating cost of travel makes the financial case for its use much more obvious.

As benefits have become more obvious so also has the capability being offered by the industry. The combination of new more sophisticated equipment together with improving broadband communications means that the public sector has available to it many new ways of using telecapability.

The quality and flexibility of video-conferencing is dramatically improving. For example telepresence uses different technologies and techniques to create the impression that groups of users are physically together in the same suite and provides quality of interactive video and voice that is equivalent to face-to-face communication.

At the other end of the spectrum desktop video-conferencing is becoming less expensive and also of much higher quality than before thus offering a realistic alternative to face-to-face meetings involving a small number of individual staff.

However, in addition to conferencing there are a number of other opportunities where telecapability can add value and save cost.

Amongst the most important of these is the use of these technologies in telehealthcare and telemedicine where they can support a transformation in how services are delivered particularly to patients who live remotely or who can be supported at home.

"Cloud Computing" is another emerging approach which reflects the argument that much higher speeds of data communication can support a reversal of the trend that prevailed over many years. This trend saw a dramatic growth in distributed computing, meaning that locally hosted, desk-top and even hand held device applications offered significant computing power at the edges of the network including quickly accessed data storage. In the absence of very high speed broadband this was an essential but is now regarded as a relatively expensive approach. Now with much higher capacity and faster data communication much of this distributed power can be centralised in a way that provides at least comparable service to the user but in a more flexible and less expensive way.

By centrally hosting applications and data storage in a network-enabled model for ICT solutions there is the opportunity to contract for services "on demand" while incorporating a "pay as you use" model.

In addition to avoiding fixed internal cost this business model is particularly relevant to the public sector in that it can avoid capital expenditure during difficult times for public sector capital budgets.

Some organisations are considering "Cloud Computing" but there are as yet no formal programmes, which although not surprising, is an opportunity for pursuit since this approach offers outstanding advantages compared to the current model of standalone self-sufficient hosting of applications.

In considering "Cloud"-style computing there are a number of different offerings and options. One of these is to have an external provider host and provide its own label standard applications and data storage centrally. Another is to build public sector "Cloud" capability that hosts unique or specialised applications for multiple user bodies.

Within this latter option there is a further choice which is to operate this service internally within the sector or to outsource it to a data services company. In the context of investment avoidance and an option to "pay as you use" it is obvious that the external and outsource options are more likely to offer this advantage.

This review separately mentions that within the current landscape there are already some internal "Cloud"-type installations such as those within the health service and the wider Scottish Government's ICT offerings.

In the area of broadband progress to next generation provision has, as mentioned at section 7. Broadband , a high dependency upon capital investment in new technology. This investment is mainly driven by replacing copper wires with newer technologies, primarily fibre optic cables. Having fibre connections direct to premises is the best user service option but is more expensive than fibre connections to roadside cabinets. Clearly there is a trade-off between investment levels and the quality and performance of the service. Another potential dynamic within the broadband cost equation is whether use can be made of dark fibre. This is existing installed fibre which is not utilised by its owners hence the term "dark" in contrast with actively used fibre optic cable. The use of existing "dark" fibre assets should in theory have a lower cost and could reduce the level of new capital investment required.

There is also an opportunity to mix the use of alternative technologies particularly in certain geographic areas by incorporating other technologies to carry broadband communications such as wireless, mobile and satellite.

The question of next-generation broadband availability and performance is therefore not only about technology capability but equally as much about economics. There is certainly a measurable trade-off between investment levels and the reach, quality and performance of the service and that balance needs to be struck across the whole network.

However if investment levels can be mitigated by using existing assets and a mix of the alternative technologies mentioned above then this greatly improves the prospect of having affordable high performance broadband. In this respect and as mentioned elsewhere in the report the public sector does not exert influence that is commensurate with its annual spend of around £200m per annum on communications infrastructure.

Also featuring more recently in the area of broadband is "local loop unbundling". This is a technical and commercial approach which involves carriers renting a local loop connection and installing their own equipment in local exchanges. The bonding together of copper wires combined with the utilisation of ethernet technology allows companies providing this service to claim significant performance and cost advantages. As with other areas of broadband provision these arrangements fall under the regulatory powers of Ofcom but it would seem that this approach can provide performance and financial benefits in the short to medium term and in advance of migration to next generation broadband.

In reviewing the public sector's position in relation to new technologies and approaches it is appropriate to say that there are few organisations that could claim to be "early adopters" of new offerings and overall there seems to be a lag in adopting new technologies. Despite that there are a number of initiatives and projects that are aimed at the opportunities that technology driven advancement brings.

Being behind in achieving potential in this area, although disappointing, actually offers an ideal opportunity not only to make progress in the adoption of newer technologies and approaches but also to do it in a way that spreads the investment and any risk through cross organisation shared installations, services and procurement.

It is obviously easier to share at the outset of a new development than to reconcile alternative approaches and converge once there is already a pattern of different provisions.



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