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Telecom’s role in helping Europe exit lockdowns

Estimates suggest that a coronavirus vaccine could take 18 months to develop at the very minimum. European economies cannot afford to wait anywhere near that long to start returning to normality, even if that means managing further waves of infection.

Vodafone, along with the rest of the telecom industry, has played a critical role providing connectivity during this dark period and making lockdown more manageable and probably tolerable for societies in ways that would have been difficult to imagine 30 years ago before the invention of the internet.

Looking ahead, the industry’s support will also remain key to governments and health authorities in devising the exit strategies from the lockdowns.

A key question, in this context, is the potential role of contact tracing apps.

Governments are exploring contact tracing as part of a broad arsenal of tools to protect citizens’ health, and reduce the risk of renewed surges in the spread of the virus, as we move out of lockdown. The virus will only remain contained, the famous curve flattened and the need for new lockdowns avoided, as long as each infected person spreads the virus to as few other individuals as possible, preferably none or a maximum of one. But when citizens return on mass to schools and offices, this will become much more difficult to achieve, unless there are simple, efficient and targeted ways of quickly spotting new cases and to get those who may have interacted with that person to urgently test themselves.

This is what contact tracing is supposed to provide. In combination with mass testing and other support measures, it can reduce the likelihood of having to go back into collective lockdown.

But as with many good ideas on paper, the devil is in the detail. Those details matter. That is why Vodafone identified early on four conditions for us to support contact tracing mobile apps: 

  1. apps are independent from operators and other private companies;

  2. they are developed and controlled by national health authorities;

  3. consent is still required; and

  4. state institutions need to justify why introducing these apps is necessary and in line with existing laws and regulations.

Similarly, we believe that European governments must choose a single interoperable platform so that travel and other forms of mobility can restart both within and between European countries. We need to have apps that support free movement of people in the EU, as one of the four freedoms currently put on hold. If someone using an app travels from Spain through France and into Italy, for example, they need to know that they will still be alerted if they pass people who are diagnosed with COVID-19, even if they are using a different app localised for their own country.

All of these principles align with the common European Union Toolbox for contact tracing apps that was released this week and which we support.  Significantly, we agree that contact tracing is best done via privacy preserving proximity tracing rather than apps that use location data which violates the principle of data minimisation and could create major security and privacy issues.

With these objectives and principles in mind, Vodafone has joined the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) consortia, which has also recently been endorsed by the governments of seven countries already including Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain and Switzerland. We strongly support PEPP-PT and encourage other European policymakers to also join this platform.

PEPP-PT is an open source technology standard and software developer kit that will enable national contact tracing apps to protect privacy and promote European interoperability as core requirements. Our role has been to help the consortia to test the app works with different smartphone operating systems.

Individual apps built using the PEPP-PT platform create an anonymous proximity history on a user’s phone based on receiving Bluetooth signals from other smartphone users who have compatible apps. That anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the phone of the PEPP-PT user, can never be viewed by anyone (including the app user) and can be deleted at any time if the user removes the app. If a PEPP-PT user tests positive for the virus their health authority will give them an activation code. The activation code will alert anyone the user has been in proximity with that they are at risk of having contracted the virus - without revealing when, where or who the alert came from. The PEPP-PT exchange is consent based, completely non-personal, does not use any location data and therefore balances the privacy and security of all involved.

That being said, while contact tracing apps based on PEPP-PT provide some hope of a managed migration from our homes, it should be underlined that such apps are not a complete solution. Governments will need to provide for people without smartphones, the tracking will only recognise people you have been within two metres of for at least 15 minutes, and its usage will need to reach a scale of around 60% of a given population to be effective - a similar popularity to WhatsApp. A single European platform – developed in Europe – makes it more likely to reach that scale, even when optional, especially if its advantages are properly explained and incentivised by health authorities.

Equally important to recall, is the point that contact tracing is only one of a multitude of tools that governments can and should utilise in devising effective exit strategies from the lockdowns.

Specifically, the insights into population mobility that telecom operators like Vodafone are able to draw from our network data have already enabled governments including Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal to assess the effectiveness of their quarantine measures and social distancing strategies. In the phase we are now entering, such mobility insights will continue to be vital helping policymakers understand the impact of unfreezing different economic sectors or regions on movement across their countries and the continent as a whole.

Finally, notwithstanding massive efforts, until there is a vaccine there will continue to be a level of risk and undoubtedly setbacks. That’s why we have repurposed Vodafone Foundation’s award-winning Dreamlab app to fight COVID-19 and encourage everyone to download it. Dreamlab is a smartphone supercomputer powered entirely by a network of fantastic volunteers who donate (at no cost to Vodafone customers) the processing power of their mobiles while they sleep. Dreamlab has already supported significant discoveries in cancer research and if enough of us use the app we can help scientists at Imperial College London to identify alternative uses of approved drugs or food-based molecules with anti-viral properties against COVID-19 within 6 months or faster.   

All this goes to show that there is no single path or policy out of lockdown. Contact tracing should play a role, if construed correctly and in a manner that preserves privacy, but comes in addition to many, many other interventions and efforts. Also, Vodafone and the telecom industry can and must continue to transparently provide critical support for the co-ordinated set of policy measures and citizen actions needed, reflecting the importance of the infrastructure and services we provide.

To learn more about how we're helping families, communities and businesses to stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit www.vodafone.com/covid19