Features: March 19th, 2004

Discovering The Reality Of Broadband

By Ian Mckenzie

With the award by the Department of Trade and Industry of 17 framework agreements for the supply of broadband services to the public sector, 2004 is fast becoming the year of broadband. With the Modernising Government Agenda providing the impetus for Local Authorities to deliver all their services electronically by 2005 and the Government’s pledge to make broadband accessible to all by 2008, it is important to ensure that broadband is a key part of a Local Authority’s E-Government plans over the next year.

Broadband can bring many benefits, to the workforce, to efficiency and to the service provided to the citizens.

Put simply, broadband provides a high-speed connection to the Internet that is ‘always on’ and many times faster than the dial-up connections that we are all familiar (and frustrated) with. Consequently, the volume of information sent or received is no longer a constraint to productive use of the Internet. For example, it means there will be no more long waits for large emails or complex Web pages to be downloaded.

Then add the considerable cost efficiencies of broadband. There are no online call costs to pay, just a single monthly flat fee so no matter how much it is used, the fee is always the same. There is also no need to rent a second telephone line to be able to make voice calls at the same time as using the Internet and the higher speed means that a single connection can be shared with more than one computer at the same location. Suddenly it becomes possible to give Internet access to more workers.

Providing a better service

With more and more citizens recognising the benefits of broadband, the audience for a Local Authority’s online services will grow, enabling more cost efficient delivery of services via the Web. The content and richness of these sites can grow and improve to reflect the greater capability of broadband. Online self-service enquiry forms can be used, large audio or video files, multiple picture files and graphics are possible, where previously text was king. This is extremely important because the “friendlier” and more visually appealing the web site is, the greater the audience.

In fact, the National Office of Statistics states that 28 per cent of the population currently connect with Local Authorities via the Internet to obtain information and download various forms. However, this figure is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2005, which will coincide with the Modernising Government Agenda deadline.

Given this range of advantages you might expect every Local Authority to be enthusiastically investing in broadband connections, and enriching its ‘joined up’ E-Government offerings – from improving internal communication links between departments and other public sector organisations to establishing better interaction with their citizens. But it seems that some are still wary of the implications of Internet technology.

Broadband and security

The increased amount of confidential citizen information on Council systems has sparked concerns about the security aspects of Internet connections. All data, from information posted on Council web sites to emails between Authorities and citizens, needs to be secured to protect the personal and sensitive nature of the correspondence.

Broadband is as secure as any other chosen method of Internet access – that is, it is as secure as you choose to make it. Authorities already carry out security precautions on any dial-up or leased line Internet connections and these precautions should be extended to broadband access.

As a minimum, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) recommend the use of a firewall, to block the attentions of unwanted “hackers” and “worms” (a form of virus that spreads itself from computer to computer via the Internet). Anti-virus software should also be installed throughout the Local Authority to ensure that any viruses that do arrive are swiftly neutralised before they can inflict damage.

A Local Authority network which is not protected by a firewall can be attacked within a matter of days. Hackers will scan entire IP address ranges to look for the unprotected networks and set to work tampering with the systems. They can take over servers or desktop machines and either access the servers at the root levels and copy or delete all their data, or install malicious programs that will take over their machines and attack other networks.

For Local Authorities that have installed firewalls, it is essential that these are set up properly and constantly maintained. It is possible for hackers to break down a firewall and disrupt the web server, email server, file and print servers if it is inadequate.

Similarly, it is vital that Local Authorities choose an ISP which is protecting itself. If not, in the event of a security breach at the ISP, the Local Authority’s network can also be affected. Many public service bodies, such as the police, often share links to a Local Authority’s website and their network could be attacked if the ISP is not properly protected. Local Authorities need to ensure that their provider fully explains its security procedures and its policies towards denial of service (DOS) attacks and unauthorised hacking. The provider will need to demonstrate that it has its own security administrator and is regularly auditing its own network.

As departments within Local Authorities are often located over a number of sites, it is also important that they have the ability to connect to the network from all sites to enable simple and effective inter and cross-departmental communication.

Remote workers should be secured using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) system. A VPN carries data over the Internet in a separate “channel” to the rest of the data. The information sent over a VPN can also be “scrambled” for maximum security, meaning that even if someone could intercept the data they would be unable to decode it. Efficient cross-departmental access to information allows all departments and sites to gain access to all material within the networks that is critical for each department to carry out its tasks.

A vital part of any security system which is often neglected is the “human factor”. Security policies should be in place and Internet users reminded to implement security precautions, for example, anti-virus programs need updating regularly to take account of recently discovered viruses.

Not all broadband offerings are equal. As with any other communications product, it is important to check that what is being offered by an ISP properly meets the need.

Every Local Authority needs to develop on-line services to meet the looming deadline of the Modernising Government Agenda. Broadband can help achieve those targets, as well as improving all internal and external communication systems, making staff more productive and delivering better services to the local community.

Ian Mckenzie is Director of Broadband at PIPEX Communications. www.pipex.net