/ Technology

How are you staying in touch during the pandemic?

We’re lucky that there are plenty of ways to stay in touch these days – tell us how you’re using tech to see and speak to your loved ones during the pandemic.

I went to a surprise party the other night: about 30 of us gathered to sing happy birthday to a friend and give him the birthday present we’d all clubbed together to buy him – some new DJ decks.

But don’t worry – even though he only lives over the river from me in Clapham, I wasn’t actually there. And neither was anyone else, except for his flatmate.

Coronavirus outbreak: your travel and consumer rights Q&A

We had a virtual party for him, thanks to the thoughtful use of technology.

The tech in this case is Zoom, a videoconference platform that allows up to 100 people to join a meeting (though perhaps ‘meeting’ isn’t quite the right word), for up to 45 minutes for free (if you want longer, you’ll need to sign up to a paid package). 

Which? News: Are Houseparty and Zoom safe to use?

Virtual invites

My friend’s flatmate, who had already received and stashed away the DJ decks, set up the meeting and sent out the virtual invite, with a warning to make sure we’ve all tested the tech and could join online in time for the delivery of the gift.

So when she brought him in to the room where the new decks were set up, we were all online waiting for him. We had friends joining from all over the country, as well as one who’d got stuck in Poland thanks to the outbreak, and even one from New Zealand.

These are strange and difficult times, but for me, one silver lining is that it’s happening in a time when we are all hyper-connected and that there’s so much technology available, much of it for free, to help us stay in touch with the people we love.

And of course, with work: I did a video call the other morning with colleagues to discuss our scams workstream.

I am grateful to my colleagues for their forebearance when my cat insisted on joining the meeting to share her opinions: she does not like my lap being occupied by a laptop.

I’ve already made a note to make sure she and I join the next Zoom session set up by a friend in Seattle organised for the express purpose of fussing distant friends’ pets.

Life through video calls

I did several video calls last week: one with a friend, and another to contribute to a local TV news programme, and earlier I’d used Google Duo to call my sister, who’s been locked down at her home in Lombardy with her husband and three daughters for more than a week. 

It’s not just video: my family WhatsApp group has been a godsend, while the planning for the birthday party in Clapham took place via the old-fashioned method of email.

I’ve also been discovering the versatility of the Facebook Portal, which is much easier to set up than Alexa or Google’s video-calling devices. While many – understandably – won’t want a Facebook device in the house, it is nonetheless so simple to use that it’s worth considering if you have a family member who is unsure with tech.

Once set up you just put your favourite contacts on the home screen and all you have to do to start a call is tap that. Or, set it up using US/Canadian English and you can use voice control.

Another friend of mine is considering using a smart Chrome browser extension, Netflix Play, to organise a virtual viewing party. The extension allows you to pick something from the Netflix catalogue, create an invitation and send that to your friends.

Once everyone is signed in, you can watch the film, stop and start it and chat about it in the browser. We’re thinking we might do a Call The Midwife binge with that. 

The occasional glitch!

There was one slight glitch with the birthday party last night: for some reason, when the birthday boy fired up his decks, the music wasn’t reaching those of us on the call.

However, there’s a tech solution to that, of course. Next time, he’ll use a £30 gadget that takes a feed from the mixer, connect that to his phone’s headphone jack and, via the phone, livestream either to Twitch or Facebook Live

People worry about the impact of tech on our lives, but right now I’m very grateful indeed for it, and delighted by the creative ways people are using it to stay in touch.

How are you staying connected to your friends, your hobbies, your workplace and your loved ones? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments
Kevin says:
23 March 2020

Social media companies are ironically similar to the virus; they ruthlessly exploit our behaviour to propagate themselves. They are commercially driven surveillance capitalists who will attempt to monetise every aspect of our lives regardless of any negative impact on us, whilst avoiding any taxes which support the society they rely on.

Lets not get too starry eyed about them; I challenge anyone to read their privacy policies in full, still less understand them. Handle with care.

But Facetime and local forums, running SMF, are a godsend. No exploitation at all, there; simply keeping folk in contact with family and friends, spreading slid information and disproving myths.

I have always treated FaceTime as a bit of a novelty but will be using it on a daily basis from now on. I used to use Skype but deleted it in disgust when Microsoft took it over.

My first attempt at a Zoom meeting failed a month ago because of a log-in problem but I will have another go.

I looked up Lemmings after our recent games chats and found it on MS as a download. I tried to retrieve/reactivate my forgotten MS password through Skype but it will take nearly a month to reset. Go figure.

Julia Miller says:
24 March 2020

my childrens school have opted to use Microsoft teams to help teachers and children keep in touch. My boys are happy to ‘chat’ to their friends but, as its also where their school work is to be accessed, they are getting upset as we have so far been unable to download most of the files that the teacher has made available for them to use whilst some friends have been posting that they have completed work etc. I want them to be able to ‘chat’ to their friends in a different environment – and see them – but not sure what platform would work best on their Kindles (need to free up my laptop and mobile for work). Cannt really use FB as that would be under my profile – a friend suggested JusTalk kids bujt I see that it may require in app purchases – any other suggestions gratefully received

Spare a thought for people who have just moved house and have been let down by their internet provider…

Yes, that would be a right pain because if the new resident has to communicate with firms whose staff are all working from home the telephone is not a satisfactory substitute for e-mails unless they have the home number of the person they need to deal with. On the other hand, the bliss of not seeing all the junk on the internet and getting unwanted messages would be a boon.

I have noticed that the internet has been struggling today due to overload and contention, but paradoxically the Which? Conversation site has been performing satisfactorily.

Anyone who has a decent mobile signal and a sufficient data allowance should be able to work online using mobile broadband, tethering their computer to their mobile. When I moved in to my present home four years ago I did this while I was waiting for fibre broadband to be installed. It was faster than the broadband service at my previous home.

I went for a walk yesterday evening, just before the lockdown restricted our movements and noticed that the new occupants of a house in the next street have arrived. That’s not very good timing but at least they are in and maybe the hire company will come and collect their large van. Hopefully the broadband service can be continued without anyone having to visit the house.

Clearly the policy is to isolate and keep away from the virus, but clearly the virus is getting through exponentially. I wonder if there are things the public are doing unwittingly -apart from the obvious gathering – that is making this such an easy virus to pass about? For a start, there must be other ways of catching it, other than breathing when someone coughs close by. Hard surfaces have to be touched by many positive cases in order to infect others. Have we really investigated the key spreading agents or is the non contact ploy just an obvious and effective way of keeping people apart? What else is going on out there that makes this a pandemic? How exactly are we catching it?

There’s a company on Anglesey which is starting mass production of a Snood mask which is not only lightweight and easy to wear but which actively destroys the virus. Viruses aren’t actually alive, so can’t be killed, which the report claims. But this does seem an effective device.

The problem really, I suspect, is twofold: many people feel they’re self-isolating and only see mum, or that nice lady over the road, or dad’s pal–but they can’t be infected, can they? Many people haven’t yet managed to get their head around the simple fact that anyone, anywhere can be infected. So you cannot exclude members of your immediate family, which is a problem for many.

The other factor, I think, is that a lot of people believe the virus can’t hurt anyone below the age of 70. That’s a mistake, since the youngest fatality in the UK was only 19.

Transmission has been identified as airborne and contact, and the truly nasty thing is that a person who’s infected can infect many others before their own symptoms show. It takes between 7 and 10 days for symptoms to appear, during which time an infected person may have unwittingly spread the thing far and wide.

Finally, shopping of any sort brings us into contact with others, and folk in cities who live in flats can’t really avoid contact with others, I suppose. Unless we’re prepared to grow all our own food (a practical impossibility for most, I suspect) then we’re inevitably going to have to handle things which an infected person might have touched.

I went for my permitted walk today and felt glad that there are quiet footpaths nearby. Most of the people I met were very respectful and kept well away and I did the same. Most dog walkers kept their dogs under good control but one dog jumped up on me three times. I reprimanded its owner who told me not to get worked up because ‘it’s just a dog’.

I agree with Ian that some people are not taking the problem seriously. Even if most young people have mild symptoms and make a full recovery they can still act as carriers and transmit the infection to more vulnerable people.

I’ve been thinking; we’re very lucky, in that where we live there are very, very few people and one only encounters sheep and goats during walks. But we’re also lucky in that there are two of us, and we play a lot of chess, read and tis enforced isolation has allowed me to work on Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No. 10 (Appassionata). Tricky one, that.

Normally I enjoy company but for the time being I am happy to speak on the phone. In the past few days I have made far more phone calls than usual.

I will choose a different walking route today.

Now that we are on Lockdown we communicate with our children and grandchildren through Facebook or phone conversation. My wife and I are both over 70 but have no problem with lockdown. We are in a village with no place to gather socially (no hotels, pubs or village hall) so most of our socialising involves travel to other townships. We are lucky enough to have a quarter acre garden with chickens, ducks and a woodturning shed so boredom doesn’t happen. Our ‘local’ supermarkets are nine miles away so the ideal would be to travel there by car, stock up for a couple of weeks and manage that way. Unfortunately to prevent hoarding our supermarkets ration food products to two of any one item which means that in that two week period we have to make at least four trips to meet our daily needs. Common sense doesn’t always apply in such situations but we are not complaining and, hopefully, will see it through to the end. We have had to cancel two of our grandchildrens birthday parties but better safe than sorry. We can party anytime.
Best wishes, and healthy ones to you all

We have five children, five sons or daughters-in-law and ten grandchildren, so far. Our elder son has organised several Zoom conference video sessions, which are great, if noisy! Also, of course, in this technical/digital age, there are luckily so many other ways of communicating with family and friends, in that respect most of us are very fortunate. We live in the countryside tho’ where Wi-Fi can be a problem with our reception in the low single figures!

What a joke this new Universal Service Obligation is. We have a guaranteed 0.3Mbps yes that’s right 0.3, not 3 or 30, and the USO says we should be getting at least 10Mbps BUT “Every home and business in the UK has the legal right to request a decent, affordable broadband connection.” but not to get it. What use is the right to request it? I’m with Plus Net, a wholly owned part of BT but run as a separate company. I asked them and they can’t help. I asked BT who have the obligation but they won’t help as there is a supplier in my area who can give me a 30Mbps connection via a dedicated wireless link (we have no 4G from any provider). I’m tied in to a contract with Plus Net and have been with them for years, they didn’t even give me a new router in the last 5 years but if I want to leave I have to pay the remainder of my contract. I contacted Offcom (and registered a complaint about the USO) and there is nothing they will do as I am not being catered for by BT.
How am I supposed to work from home during this crisis? How am I supposed to stay in contact? What was the point of the USO as it is useless for anyone not being served by BT or KCOM. WHat use is a right to ask if they’ll do nothing if there is any other way for you to get an adequate service (there wasn’t when I signed up) and they’ll hold you to any contract you have.
Come on Which, you campaigned for this but it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Could your employer assist you with regard to premature termination of your PlusNet contract and substitution of a contract with the alternative supplier?

You say you have a “guaranteed 0.3 Mbps” – is that the maximum you can get? What is the average broadband speed available at your home?

As from 20 March 2020 people have the right to request BT [or KCOM in Kingston upon Hull] to provide a decent and affordable broadband service. I presume you have looked at the Ofcom website, checked your eligibility, and made a formal request if you are eligible. It would be useful to know the response. See –
https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/advice-for-consumers/broadband-uso-need-to-know

According to BT – link in the article linked by John:

“What is a decent connection?
A decent connection is one that can deliver a download speed of at least 10Mb and an upload speed of at least 1Mb. Affordable means it doesn’t cost more than £46.10 a month. Most people will be able to choose a service costing much less than this though.”

“Will I need to pay anything?
It depends on how much the work to upgrade your local network will cost.

If the total cost is £3,400 or less (exclusive of VAT) you won’t have to pay for the work to be done. If it’s higher than that, you can still get a connection as long as you’re eligible but you’ll need to pay the excess cost.

If this happens we’ll provide a quote so you can decide what to do.”

So much for a universal service obligation.

I agree. Weasel words . . . although I never expected it to be free, merely undeniable and available on demand if paid for where the upgrade cost exceeds the maximum allowance.

I don’t recollect this qualification being brought to our attention in Which? Conversation and I am not sure the USO has even been reported here. It might have got buried in one of the several Conversations about broadband speed, but Sharon White [former Chief Executive of Ofcom] didn’t mention it in her Conversation in 2019.

Hi stevem9,
Have you tried to improve the speed you do have?

You could try connecting directly to your router that will get you the fastest speed.

We had a problem with a laptop where a fault turned out to be an older internal wireless network adaptor that was solve by buying a ‘TP-Link AC600 Dual-Band Wi-Fi USB Adapter – Archer T2U’ from Argos that solved the problem and gave the speed we expected.

https://www.argos.co.uk/product/3389780

Good suggestion, Alfa. It looks like a good solution and good value for money if it works in his situation.

I think PlusNet are not living up to their promises here and are badly letting their customers down. It should not be necessary to have to buy a booster to get a decent service. Increasing Steve’s speed ten times over would still leave him stuck in the slow lane!

Hi @stevem9 – I’m interested to know more about your situation and to see if I can help. I’ll be following up directly outside of the platform.

I’ve emailed you with more detail Colum

Hi, I have a top of the range nighthawk router, everything is connected by cat6e cable except a tablet and phones. Speed tests vary up to a max of about 5Mbps after dry weather and at about 01:00 down to about 0.4Mbps after a wet period (this is a known issue and Openreach regularly have to drain out an access point near our home.) The router’s connection speed maxes out at a tad over 5Mbps and if we ever get this we will not turn off the router until the next long power cut (regular here, last one was yesterday, and it’s on a UPS).
You’ve all noted the ‘right to request’ not the right to have. That you have to go to BT (and then end up tied to them if they’ll do anything, which they won’t if there’s another way of getting the 10Mbps (in my case potentially via a microwave link and normally with a substantial installation fee – which is not even mentioned in he USO.

You did of course note that they may take up to two years to do anything if at all, that you have to change to BT as your ISP to get it and that you only have the right to request it not to get it. They will also do nothing if there is any other way for you to get a ‘decent’ speed even if it’s capped.

Not undeniable nor available on demand John. See my comments to other posts.

Yes all done through the right channels and I got the phone number as they agreed that my connection was nowhere near the minimum. As you state “the right to request’ no obligation for them to deliver.
I am my employer so that is not a great help sadly, my business is pretty much dead anyway as we are not currently allowed to take on any business due to its nature. We had to cancel all our work for the next few months and refund deposits and prepayments, and will hopefully get some back from those we’ve paid out. Insurers are not interested as they always seem to find a way out, they actually advised us they would not be able to continue to cover us if we did not stop trading as we would have been negligent in enabling large gatherings if anyone caught the virus. Didn’t make much difference to us as the Government closed down all venues the day after and we wouldn’t have been doing the events anyway. We are now only issuing provisional proposals for events far in the future, trying to liaise with our subcontractors and artists to exchange plans, sets, designs, pictures and videos etc. -bit of a joke really on our speed, might as well not bother.

Stevem9 – My reading of the Ofcom document indicated that BT could not reject a request for the threshold broadband speed so long as the customer met the eligibility criteria and covered the excess installation cost above the £3,400 allowance. BT then have to implement it – not doing so is not an option.

It is unfortunate that BT are allowed up to two years to achieve it, although Ofcom states that most customers will get it within twelve months of a request. Provided BT do that I am not sure that the technical means of connecting is that important. Ofcom previously made it clear that the customer could choose a service provider but that no longer appears to be the case, although I could see no reference to being tied to BT as the service provider. I had assumed that Openreach [which now has to operate at arms length from BT the telecom service provider] will make the connections and leave it to the customer to choose their provider.

It appears that the Ofcom website has been amended since I looked at it the other day. With reference to the monthly charge cap of £46.10, it previously gave the price as £45 [it has been increased with effect from today] and said most customers should be able to find a lower tariff than that, suggesting that customers could shop around for a service provider.

I hope Which? will be able to get to the bottom of this and make sure the universal service obligation is fulfilled diligently. Every ordinance that comes out of the government seems to be loaded with prevarication and procrastination such as to thwart its intentions.

Hi all. I quote from the Offcom site
“Am I eligible?
When you contact BT or KCOM they will have 30 days to confirm if you are eligible, and how much it will cost to build your connection.

Your home or business will be eligible if it:

has no access to existing decent broadband; and
will not be covered by a public broadband scheme offered by the UK and devolved governments in the next 12 months.
If you currently only have access to a decent service that is priced over £46.10 per month, you’ll also have the right to request a universal service connection.

What will it cost?
If the cost of building or upgrading your share of the network connection is £3,400 or less, you won’t have to pay for this work to be done.

If it will cost more than £3,400 to connect your home, and you still want a connection, you will have to pay the excess costs. If you want to do this, BT/ KCOM will conduct a survey and give you a quote within 60 days.

You will pay the same price for your new broadband service as anyone else on the same package, and no more than £46.10 a month.”

The things of note are “No access to existing decent broadband” and “£46.10 a month”
If there is a service available that costs less than £46.10 a month (regardless apparently of if it is capped at a few GB) you have no right to request BT/KCOM to do anything so they don’t have to, and there lies the rub – at least in part – as you cannot then get the up to £3400 subsidy as they will not be providing the upgrade. So you have to bear whatever cost there is so – for example – the provider who is available would seem to be able to charge say £2500 for connection and £46.10 a month for 100Gb/month on a non renewable one year contract and you will not be eligible for any help, and the next year they could again charge £2500 for ‘admin fees’ etc. etc. OK the CRA would probably make the second part debatable but you see my point. I CAN get it, and the MONTHLY cost is below the threshold so that’s it. No help. And still the issue of being tied in to existing contract as there is apparently no provision for getting out if your existing supplier cannot give you a decent connection. So I believe as I started saying the new USO is – let’s upgrade – a chocolate fireguard. Useless for 90% of those it might have helped.

If I were a satellite ISP I would be getting BT to buy me so they could run me as a separate company and offer broadband at £35 a month and £3400 set-up with a monthly cap of let’s say 1Gb. No one would go for it but they would no longer have to honour the USO as there is another provider available. Or have I missed something?

Stevem9 – I referred this thread across to a new Conversation called “Is your broadband reliable enough for lockdown?” authored by Catherine Colloms, Managing Director for Corporate Affairs, Openreach, who has today responded to the concerns expressed.

You can read the comments here [and onwards] –
https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/broadband-connectivity-coronavirus-openreach/#comment-1591680

Ian says:
3 April 2020

A number of telecoms providers have either removed call limits or put a cap on the chargeable part of the bill for calls to UK landlines, and, in some cases, UK mobiles too.

tony walker says:
26 April 2020

With “lockdown” we are looking at ways in which we can carry on life at least with some semblance of normality, I understand that “Zoom” is all the rage at present I understand however, that Zoom video conferencing had serious security flaws. There has been an upgrade circ 14th of this month. Is anybody able advise if Zoom is now reasonably safe to use, bearing in mind how “lockdown” has increased dramatically the use of this product? Is this the best product?