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Open APIs in the Telecoms IndustryContents



Building the future

Enabling new products and services

Open APIs enable easier switching, but we believe this will not just be about making it easier to get a better deal. It should make it possible for people to switch along axes other than price, from signal strength to data usage as shown in the AutoSwap prototype.

There’s also the potential to provide better services to groups that are currently under-served, in particular giving people real-time data about their spending and usage could help them improve their financial planning. In this report we have explored services that meet the needs of individuals in shared households, but other users and areas we believe may benefit from tailored services built on top of Open APIs include the following:

The opportunity also exists to offer people ways of proving facts about themselves without revealing large amounts of information. This is particularly interesting in the context of shared households, where currently the person with their name on the bill is the only person able to access the account or use it as proof of their identity.

If standards developed in the UK could be adopted internationally, there also exists the opportunity to create international services – for example, allowing companies operating in multiple jurisdictions the ability to manage their billing tariffs for their mobile devices. This may become increasingly important in the context of Brexit.

Further, if complementary APIs can be developed and adopted by other actors in other sectors – for example, water, energy and housing – then whole new classes of products become possible along the lines of the Bills Box prototype presented in this report.

Supporting data infrastructure

To enable new types of products and services, it will not be enough to provide APIs onto core closed data like billing or usage. There are a number of supporting datasets that will need to be made open under appropriate licences. These fall broadly into two categories.

The first is data about the infrastructure, including things like locations of cell towers, network speeds, lists of operators, hotspot locations and capabilities and payment plans. (It’s not just about the core closed data, but also about supporting datasets like locations of cell towers, tariffs and signal strength.)

The second category is data about people’s rights, such as terms and conditions.

We have written elsewhere about the need for structured, auditable data about how organisations implement access to digital rights to enable individuals and markets to make better decisions. This information will also have to be open and machine-readable. This means that any consideration of supporting open datasets should also examine how data about terms and conditions and privacy policies are published.

Permissions, design and digital rights

When shown the prototypes, several research participants were concerned about how data about them could be potentially accessed so quickly. For some of them, privacy policy held equal importance with price and signal strength when choosing a phone company using the AutoSwap prototype. As such, the development of open APIs must go hand-in-hand with a design that respects people’s rights and actively explains what is happening to data held about them.

Given the sensitivity of some of the data, good design patterns for controlling how it is accessed are critical. This is especially true in the case of situations where there are few precedents, such as permission in public space and consent within groups.

As such, we believe it is critical that the potential for new products and services is not only viewed through the lens of market transformation.

New products and services must be built to a set of ethical design principles that help people genuinely understand what is happening to data and give them new agency. Given this is hard to specify in regulation, this could take the form of a general responsibility of care to end users.

These considerations are of extra importance given the rights that GDPR grants to people.

Public trust and oversight

Most of the people we interviewed weren’t aware of the data telecoms providers hold about them, particularly location data, which most people felt very sensitive about sharing. Many felt less sensitive about other data being shared, such as data usage and which phone tariff they were on.

New services enabled by open APIs present the opportunity to educate the public about what data is held about them, thus improving the debate around digital ethics, including if some classes of data should be collected in the first place.

Services can do this by explaining the sources of data at point-of-use, ensuring people become more familiar about the type of data that is held about them by different types of organisation. They also open up the possibility of people auditing who has accessed data about them, providing a safeguard against against misuse and fraud.

There may also be new roles for central and local government to play in providing mechanisms for notifying the public about data collection (similar to the roles they play in regulating the built environment through the planning and licensing systems).

As shown in the ‘improving a city’s air quality’ prototype, new standards for requesting data collection and new obligations to notify the public could help improve public trust in use of data, especially when it’s for the public good. From our interviews, we are confident that when given a good explanation about how and why data will be used, people are in a much better position to be able to support it.

In the future, for people to trust something like real-time automated switching, society may require new types of organisation that audit and certify services and algorithms.

Where to start

As with other sectors, the direction of travel is towards more finely grained access to data in real time. We see no reason to think that telecoms is significantly different from other sectors in this respect.

The main question is how to take advantage of this opportunity sooner rather than later, in a way that enhances people’s digital rights. In approaching this, it is important to understand the constraints and motivations of both existing telecoms providers and other technology organisations, especially smartphone manufacturers.

Some telecoms providers will have an interest in maintaining the status quo: they might be concerned about losing features of the current switching system, including the ability to call customers and offer upgrades. As a result, they might resist the adoption of standards for as long as possible, or take the path of least resistance towards compliance rather than active engagement.

Smartphone manufacturers will have an interest in centralising switching, data mismanagement and permissions on to their platforms, which could result in more monopolies of power, not fewer. As represented by the AutoSwitch sim-card prototype presented in this report, where control of switching lies is a fundamental question for policy-makers to consider.

Finally, the needs of the organisations who will build services such as those outlined here also need to be considered. Making it easy for technology start-ups to build trusted services will require well-documented APIs and design patterns, as well as guidance on security.

In order to move towards the world described in this report, we suggest the following: