When IT Meets Politics

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October 11, 2014  12:43 PM

There is no shortage of cybersecurity talent – only of employers willing to retrain their staff

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

I have said this before and I will say it again, when I blog on the next stage of the work with which I have agreed to help e-Skills, but the objective of this blog is to draw your attention to some of  the FREE training available to upgrade the basic security skills of all staff, whether in large firms or SMEs.

BIS recently e-mailed its contact lists to draw to attention the launch of 3 new free cyber security online training courses, funded by the National Cyber Security Programme. These courses are aimed at all levels, from young people through to existing employees and, according to BIS, represent an excellent opportunity to develop skills in the IA arena.


Introduction to Cyber Security MOOC

The new Introduction to Cyber Security Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) will begin its first run on 13 October.  The free online course has been developed by the Open University in conjunction with BIS, GCHQ and the Cabinet Office.  It will cover subjects such as network security, the threat landscape, cryptography, malware and how to manage security risks.  The course is open to everyone – from young people considering study or a career in cyber security, to existing employees wanting to improve their knowledge and skills, or members of the public interested in staying safe online.

8 modules will be delivered over an 8 week period, with each module expected to take around 2 to 3 hours of study.  The course will be run 4 times a year for 3 years, and has the potential to reach 200,000 students in this time.

Thousands have already registered for the first run of the course, but the beauty of a MOOC is that there is no limit on the number of students taking the course.  This means that there is still time to sign up.  Click here to register or ask for more information

Cyber Security Training for Lawyers and Accountants

On 6 October BIS launched a free online training course to help members of the legal and accountancy professions protect themselves and their clients from cyber- attacks.  This will help UK businesses protect themselves from information breaches and other threats that could potentially cost them millions of pounds.

The course will increase awareness of common cyber risks and threats they may experience in the workplace and how to prevent and deal with them. It provides advice on how to safeguard digital information, raise awareness of cyber issues amongst clients and gives examples of how to deal with issues such as information breaches in the workplace. It has been developed by BIS in partnership with the Law Society; the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority and can be accessed online via the Law Society website.  The course takes around an hour to complete.

Responsible for Information Training for SMEs

Also launched on 6 October by the National Archives was a short e-learning course which provides guidance to small companies on how they can better protect their data and get to grips with the risks associated with information security. This builds on the successful public sector “Responsible for Information” training which has been delivered to more than 200,000 civil servants.  The course can be accessed online and takes around an hour to complete.

October 3, 2014  8:23 PM

DCMS Select Committee call for inputs on the performance of Ofcom

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
btgroup, DPA, Eric Schmidt, Google, Infrastructure, Ofcom, United Kingdom

I apologise for not having had time to blog over the last week or so. First came the rush to get inputs to the Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy consultation by October 1st. Then came preparations for the launch (at the party conference) of the Conservative Technology Forum studies on the creation of 21st Century Digital and Skills Infrastructures. I reproduce the text of the flier for the CTF study below and will blog on the Skills study next week. I also plan to blog on the growing political divide evident at the party conference between the “IT establishment” (Big Data, Big Systems, Big Business, Big Government) and the majority of voters (who apparently trust their ISP or Telco with their data little more than they would a journalist and even trust Government more than they do on-line retailers like Amazon).

But have just been reminded of the Department of Culture Media and Sport Select Committee call for inputs on the performance of Ofcom . The Committee meets with Ofcom once a year to review its performance. This is your opportunity to suggest the questions they should be asking. The deadline for written submissions is 13th October. You should also note that deadline for inputs to Ofcoms next Annual Plan is 15th October. As always their document inviting inputs leaves our any mention of the needs of business users (large or small). The consequences of the omission of this from their statutory priorties are now all too apparent and need action as a matter of urgency – bypassing Ofcom if that is what is necessary.   

I have already been copied with half a dozen submissions to the DCIS consultation for use in the CTF policy study and understand that INCA plans to put those submitted by their members and partners in website and DPA may do likewise, also cross linking to INCA. Several of those that I have seen are very critical of Ofcom’s track record as a competiton regulator, particularly with regard to services for business and charges for access to BT’s infrastructure. Now is the opportunities for Ofcom’s critics to suggest questions for the Select Committee to ask. 

Text of the flier for the CTF Digital Infrastucture study:

How do we create and maintain Digital Infrastructures for the 21st Century?


In his first speech as DCMS Secretary of State (July 2010), Jeremy Hunt quoted Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google that “it is now vital that businesses and government build their strategies around the Internet”. The Internet and the communications infrastructures over which it runs are changing at an accelerating pace. Society is increasingly dependent on seamless on-line services that are always available. We can no longer afford to base policy on simply extending the life of half a dozen increasingly fragile, 20th century, semi-incompatible, pre-internet, fixed and mobile telecoms networks. We need to look at how to facilitate and expedite the transition to a seamless mesh of fully inter-operable services that collectively provide the necessary post-internet resilience.


Policies based on protecting returns on past investment and extrapolating the business models of current communication and internet service providers risk locking the UK into a dead end. We need to encourage investment in “future proof” services, including to locations and communities not currently well served. That requires government, to act as pro-active and intelligent customer, mandating open inter-operability standards, including IPV6 (the next generation of the Internet) for its own procurements. It also requires encouraging and assisting local authorities to pool spend on their own service delivery needs and economic development responsibilities, using the Social Value Act, with local businesses and property owners, in order to help pull through investment, via both current national operators and the new community network builders, in world class local access.


The study focuses on the actions necessary if we are to use market forces to deliver world class, socially and commercially inclusive, inter-operable, UK digital infrastructures. The topics include:


1)     Basing a Universal Service Commitment on “guaranteed” access to services that are “fit for purpose”, with purpose including the effective use of “Digital by Default” services.


2)     Ensuring candid, accurate and meaningful information on prices, capacity and performance, particularly with regard to services to business.


3)     Improving guidance for local government and other public sector organisations on good practice in planning and procurement


4)     Mandating and supporting open Inter-operability.


5)     Providing the political and regulatory certainty needed by infrastructure investors while  responding to problems, particularly abuse by dominant players or local monopolists.


6)     Improving the skills of government as an intelligent pro-active customer and robust anti-trust regulator.


7)     Ensuring confidence that infrastructures are indeed sufficiently secure and resilient for those whose lives and businesses will depend on them.


The intention is to involve industry experts in round tables with relevant professional bodies and trade associations. The material will be digested for political use and tested with prospective parliamentary candidates for constituencies where broadband is a known hot topic. The results will be forwarded to ministers and to local councillors to help them drive local initiatives as well as to the 2015 policy team.


How do you participate?


Visit the website http://www.conservative-technology.org/  Click on membership, download the form and join. Join the discussion group on Linked In. Please also send  an e-mail with note of your interests and expertise, including relevant professional and/or political experience, to the CTF Vice Chairman, Policy Studies:  philip.virgo@btconnect.com

Readers will note that the questions are different to those answered in the recent “Number One in Digital” study published by the Labour Party. That is partly because we expect to address subjects like the tension between “Digital by Default” and socially inclusive public service delivery separately and partly because we want to focus on how to achieve results at affodable costs but also because there is little point in asking the same questions of the same audiences (several of the lead participants have already helped the Labour party study). Where there is agreement across the political divide we aim to flag this early on, probably via the all-party Digital Policy Alliance, so that actions can be brought forward to before the election purdah.    

September 18, 2014  4:22 PM

Political uncertainty is the biggest barrier to creating a UK broadband infrastructure

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

How many times a day, week, month or year would you be dead if your Internet connection was your life support system. I have been aware of only two hiccups on my BT Infinity Service since it went live a couple of years ago (one was fixed with a simple router reboot, I blogged a couple of days ago on the second). But my e-mail, search engine and browser services regularly stop for long enough for me to be dead if my life depended on them. It is usually because their fights with my security software have reached stalemate and I have to reboot the system in order the clear the blockage. Meanwhile one of those with whom I work, who lives in a rural area, has just apologised for a late response after a ten hour outage last night

 The round table that I chaired last Friday to help drum up responses to the DCIS consultation on communications infrastructure strategy went even better than I had hoped. We had participants from BCS, C&G, CLA, FCS, FISP, FSB, INCA, ISOC-UK, INTUG, the LEP Network, NEN, PSNGB and TechUK as well as a number of major suppliers and users representing themselves. There was agreement on the need for three or four messages to explain to politicians why they need to provide the political and regulatory certainty that will enable investors to bring investment decisions forward to before the election purdah next year. The meeting report is available on the DPA website http://dpalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/20140912_DPA-Comm-Infra-Meeting-Report.pdf and several of the agreed follow up groups have already started work. PLease do not feel excluded. If you wish to participate and are not active in one of the groups listed above please visit the mebmership page of their website and e-mail for details of how to participate via the DPA.

 I was on best behaviour on the 12th and the meeting report reflects the collective views of the meeting, not my own. That said, the only significant area of difference is that I believe we need to spell out the consequences of regarding communications as a critical utility on which 21st century life depends. I should, however, be honest. The importance of this only dawned on me as I read the some of the sub-group e-mail trails after the meeting. These put flesh on the implications of some of the headline discussions as the volunteers discussed how to handle, for exmaple, the multl-headed hydra that is open inter-operability. .

The current lack of clarity helps explain why current debate can polarise between those who claim our communications infrastructure is creaking at the seams and those who lament that their networks are under-utilised. Applications which require 100% availability, such as personal life support or business critical supply chain systems, have low data volumes. Meanwhile volume demand from teenagers and their parents can fluctuate wildly and degrade response times even over nominally high speed lines.Then ther are all the other factors that affect delivered response times and throughput.

We expect other utilities to plan ahead to provide capacity (and a margin) for peak load, e.g. the coldest day of the year or the commercial break in the middle of Coronation Street.

We placidly accept the “World Wide Wait” when communications networks run out of capacity. 

The Internet  is built on “best efforts” with no guarantees. But those who want a world that is “digital by default” fail to appreciate the consequences. I was given an example recently of a small firm whose terrestrial and  4G connections (fine for the rest of the week) regularly become unusable on Saturday mornings, their weekly peak. Farmers often face a similar situation, unable to go-online to do DEFRA or other paperwork, let alone browse auction sites for current prices, in the evening when their children, or their neighbours’ children, are doing homework and/or socialising.

 But who will pay for the extra capacity – and how?  

 Until the recent above inflation jolt in line rentals, the revenues of both fixed and mobile operators were falling despite sharply rising traffic volumes, because competitive pressures have forced them to drop volume related charges at the same time as entering a discounting price war. Meanwhile new technology gives the new entrants the potential to build and operate networks at well below the cost structures of the incumbents, even before the latter cross subsidise the purchase of sporting rights to try to their increase their share of the “discretionary spend” available to hard pressed parents and their children.

There are many investors willing to fund local fibre to the home or business premises, using a variety of business models, but many of their invesmtent models depend on landlords and property owners paying up front for installation and/or tenants committing to a period of service long enough to cover the cost of connection.

Those seeking to tap such funds face a number of obstacles:

 1)     Regulatory disapproval of discounts for term contracts or favourable rates for up-front investors.

2)     The availability of affordable backhaul – one provider of local fibre to the premises networks is said to have turned down over 70% of proposals because this is not available locally

3)     Confusion and delay regarding local planning and infrastructure sharing, adding 25% and upwards (sometimes even quadrupling) to cost and weeks, months or years to timescales.

4)     Political and regulatory uncertainty, deterring major investors.

One of the conclusion of the meeting on the 12th was that the last of these was the most significant.

Hence the importance of agreeing three or four key messages to concentrate the minds of politicians so that incumbents can get better terms for raising funds to upgrade and extend their networks at the same time as new entrants address local markets that are uneconomic for national players.

September 16, 2014  6:45 PM

Why I would not risk switching from BT even though it costs more.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
btgroup, Google, Ofcom, Quality of Service, Vodafone

This afternoon my BT Infinity line went down. Luckily I was able to browse the net over an old netbook using Vodafone and find a phone number (after the BT website I Googled told me my number was invalid and would not let me use online reporting: I suspect I was looking at a consumer website for a business line – but it did not tell me).

Once I rang the phone number I was, however, impressed.

A nice Scots girl answered almost immedately and asked for the phone number and details.

She had my account details up, again almost immediately and talked me through a series of tests using software already downloaded into my desktop as part of the Infinity package, giving me a quick commentary on what she was asking me to do and why.

She concluded that there was a problem and put me on hold for five minutes while she ran a fuller set of diagnostics and consulted her supervisor.

Almost immediately the line came back up,

She explained that running the diagnostics might well have alerted the exchange to the problem and/or that I was affected by a problem on which they were already working.

She also said that the fault would be reported anyway for attention tomorrow morning, but it might well be that response would simply be that the fault had been found and corrected.

The whole process took barely thirty minutes, from start of phne call, compared to the fifteen minutes to get through and hour to blag a engineering visit of my last problem (which admittedly took the engineer over four hours of work on line, cabinet and exchange). That was, however, a great improvement on seven to ten days to get an engineering visit booked, when I had two services (one BT, one not), during the collapse of customer service that followed local loop unbundling, Luckily my dual sourcing worked. Both lines passed through the same physical exchange building but never went down at the same time.

I may gripe about the need to have proper competition with regard to the construction of new network capacity and the lack of network inter-operability when it comes to operations and maintenance. But I remain a BT shareholder and my own multi-sourcing will include a BT service contract for the foreseeable future – and I am content with extra that I pay for that service. BT may be part of the problem with regard to the current faltering communications competition scene but I have no doubt that it is also part of the long term solution.

If I did not have BT Infinity would I think differently? Quite possibly. Would I like to dual source with a separate gigabit fibre to the premises link if BT did not offer me such an upgrade? Quite possibly. Do I feel sorry for those without such a choice – most definitely.      

September 10, 2014  9:38 AM

Why we need a new Micros in School Programme – inspected by Ofsted

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Computer science, Digital skills, england, NEET, Ofsted

Among the more interesting questions in the recent House of Lords call for inputs to their enquiry on Digital Skills were:

How are we teaching students in a way that inspires and prepares them for careers in the future workforce in occupations that may not yet exist, rather than the current one? How can this be improved?


How are schools preparing to deliver the new computing curriculum in an innovative way?


How can the education system develop creativity and social skills more effectively?

My answers are now available on-line accessible from the webpage of the new Digital Policy Alliance skills group along with the report of the meeting that minuted me to do a personal submission based on my material covering discussions over the past fifty years on how to respond to technology related skills shortages.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the CyberSecurity Challenge “Talent” group it was pointed out to me that responses to the current Department for Education consultation on Reformed GCSE and A Level Subject Content, particularly that on GCSE Computer Science may be even more important than thsoe to the Lords Enquiry. The wording of the Departments consultation appears to imply that subjects like, for example, network security, will be taught and examined as abstract subjects – without any opportunity to acquire, let alone requirement to demonstrate, practical skills. The is particularly significant given that “what is not inspected by Ofsted and examined in GCSEs and A Levels is likely to disappear from schools, under pressures from parents to perform in leagues tables”.

I suggested that network security be taught and examined by attacking and defending the control systems for teams of robots, controlled by raspberry pi (or equivalent) and communicating by radio. This is in line with the philosophy behind the proposal for the original Micros in Schools programme (I chaired the relevant meeting before the 1979 election) and was delovered with the BBC Micro (remarkably well engineered for teaching image handling and process control not just information processing).

I was told that such an approach is not on, because sink schools cannot afford the necessary equipment.  

I therefore urge all readers concerned to see the overdue reforms delivered in such a way as to deliver the results intended to read the consultation and make their views known. 

The logic behind my suggestion that Ofsted be required to monitor the performance of a new “Micros in school” programme includes the changes that will require to the way Ofsted operates, particularly with regard to science and technology. We need to bring back “practicals” to “inspire” those who are not turned on by theory, until they can see it brought to life..

September 9, 2014  10:32 AM

Would the UK be a happier or more sinister if the police routinely wore body cameras?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
CPS, Fergusson, FIPR, gps, police, Rialto, Surveillance, Technology, Wolfcom

The Home Secretary’s suggestion that to save time the police should routinely wear body cameras sparked a rush of publicity, much of it from those opposed to the concept for a variety of reasons, including because it might lead to a fully digitalised criminal justice system  

In my entry for the Leo Anniversary competition in 2001 for papers on “The World and Business Computing in 2051, I summarised expected developments in this area (including the technologies to ensure that the record was indeed unalterable) as follows: “The police electronic notebook, an unalterable record of what the officer or surveillance system saw and heard, will transform the legal process. Lawyers will then create a new world of obfuscation about what it meant.” The technology is supposedly in widespread use in the US and reports to date appear to indicate that it leads serious savings in time and paperwork, better behaviour (by both police and culprits) and more guilty pleas in return for quick trials although the first serious trial in the UK to test whether changes in behaviour against a similar control group who do not use cameras, only started in May. The US claims might also need to be treated sceptically since according to comments in the Wall Street Journal, they think we are ahead and forces like Fergusson had apparently bought the equipment but not deployed it.

Before blogging on the issues I therefore decided to ask the following question of those on the FIPR circulation list: “What are the issues surrounding the use of recordings from police body cameras instead of memories prompted by notebooks written up after the events. This would appear to be a welcome development allowing major savings in police and court time and a reduction in miscarriages of justice. What, if anything, am I missing? What other issues arise?”   

As expected I received some very thoughtful replies and I will take the liberty of reproducing the chain without comment or attribution – although I will be delighted to add attribution is requested.

The first comment was: 

The police and the CPS will have to review the recordings – possibly rather a lot of them in some circumstances. They will all have to be reviewed for disclosure and then disclosed to the defence. The court will need to see them and the defence may challenge any editing to remove unnecessary footage. It’s not clear to me that time will be saved. Some of the recordings may be open to ambiguous interpretations – which could actually lead to the CPS declining to prosecute in circumstances where a crime really has been committed and a notebook record would have secured a conviction. The recordings are likely to contain people other than the defendant – all captured without their informed consent. Where will these recordings end up? Maybe on some reality TV channel. I’m sure there are other issues.

Then came:

One problem will be a loss of the power of discretion. If an officer (and thus their always-on camera) sees something that could be treated as an offence they may feel obliged to arrest and prosecute where without the camera they might choose to handle it in a different way.

For those interacting with officers there could be other effects. You are no longer just talking to a policeman: the camera represents an unknown number of other people with other agendas who can use your words against you later.

We have to assume that in the near future it will be standard practice for all police camera footage to be analysed by computers and stored effectively forever, so everyone within sight/sound of a police officer would be well advised to hide and be silent ‘just in case’…

Are conversations with police officers protected by legal privilege? I suspect not. Suppose you see a fight in the street, run off to find an officer, and gasp out a garbled account: will your confused first impressions be held to be slander against the people involved? (or does
the recording make it libel?)

That contribution led to the comment: 

That suggests such recordings should only be used “without prejudice

To which the reply was:

I don’t really know what that would mean in this case.

I would have thought that the recordings should be usable in evidence, particularly if the recording devices and procedures are carefully designed. It may be necessary for the officer to appear in court to support and validate the recording.

As with all surveillance technologies, the technology itself is neutral but the data can be used for good or ill. I have no problem with police body-worn cameras provided there are strong rules around the use of the recordings. I would want the technology to support the officer in their duty and to provide accountability if they misuse their position, but I would not want it to become a big-brother-style intrusion that affects their behaviour in other ways.

Here are a few ideas. What I am aiming for here is the equivalent of a perfectly-honest policeman with a perfect photographic memory and good drawing ability, and I don’t think anyone could really object to that!

1)    Video and sound recording to run at all times while the officer is on duty. We don’t want any ‘conveniently lost’ recordingsso maybe the devices should just run constantly.

2)    Recordings to be stored securely for a defined period of time, then to be deleted unless required as evidence for a specific case.

3)    Recordings may *only* be accessed in defined circumstances:

* By the officer in person, in order to make reports, support a case, or defend themselves or others.

* By an officer investigating a specific complaint or incident that the recording officer was involved in. The system should constrain this access by time and/or location of recording.

Other constraints may be needed here to avoid creeping surveillance.

* Where a recording shows a person who is charged with an offence, that person’s legal representatives should be given the relevant part of the recording plus enough before-and-after data for them to be certain that they have the full story.

4)    There shall not be any routine trawling or analysis of recordings.

5)    Recording devices to be tamper-resistant, to record GPS time and location data at 1-minute intervals, to encrypt all data such that it can only be recovered using keys held elsewhere, and to sign all data so that the identity of the device can be reliably determined.

6)    Officers to ensure that the recording includes their own face, voice, and shoulder number at least at the start and end of the shift.

7)    Recording format to be designed so that parts of the recording can be extracted for use as evidence without losing the security and authenticity features mentioned above.

Other things could be added, such as recording the IDs of other such recorders nearby.

The final comment was

We should remember th at the purpose of these devices is twofold: to protect the public from the brutal or dishonest officer, and to protect the officer from malicious allegations.  There is therefore a significant benefit of having the device working.

XXXX’s points are good, but the first is not yet viable with the battery power readily available, so it may be better to state that the onus of ensuring the recorder is running at the appropriate time is on the officer, and any investigation into her/his conduct when the device is not running will lead to the investigator drawing the appropriate inference. However there will then (either in this case, or the always on scenario suggested by XXXX) be the problem that officers will hold back if they suspect that their device has failed for any reason.  This may lead to some unfortunate consequences and needs to be thought through carefully.

Most of the above points already appear to have been addressed in the US, where their claims and ambitions are more ambitious . My personal conclusion is that the more modest objective of linking the policeman’s notebook to annotated video logs is most definitely “an idea whose time has come”, whether the motive is to save police and court time or to improve justice. The knowledge that the activities are being recorded might even help reduce (or at least displace) crime. The issue of ensuring the digital record is any more trustworthy than a policeman’s notebook is, however, non trivial. And what about private video logs.

I should perhaps add that for my 2001 paper I assumed the use of secure analogue worms (write once, read many) after the world had lost faith in anything digital.  

September 8, 2014  12:47 PM

Reconciling the Cabinet Office Digital by Default strategy with DCMS Digital Infrastructure Strategy

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
BCS, Bloatware, Broadband, BT, budget, carta, DCMS, Defra, G-Cloud, Hyperoptic, Internt, Net Neutrality, Ofcom, PSN

The responses to my attempt to drum up inputs to the DCMS Digital Infrastructure Strategy Consultation are beginning to come in and it looks as though the short order round table to begin the process of identifying who is willing to work with whom on what will be over -subscribed and more of the exercise will have to be done on-line, using services like that on which I blogged earlier this week. The inputs to date range from calls for better control over BT’s pricing policies to action to prevent growing social exclusion – by firmly linking the implementation of the Infrastructure strategy to that of the Cabinet Office Digital by Default agenda, to ensure universal access to on-line services that are “fit for purpose”. The means would include extending the mandatory PSN and G-Cloud use of international inter-operability standards to include IPV6 to ensure future compatibility with the rest of the world. 

There is a predictable split on whether the strategy should be based on centralised planning or on nabling market forces and local initiatitive to produce solutions that evolve over time. That split is not just between “left” and “right”. I suspect neither side is “right” or “wrong” and that we will need a traditional English (Scotland and Wales have their own policies) compromise to get the best from both approaches. We have a good model with Government “strategy” toward the railways in the 19th Century, after Prince Albert failed in his attempts to get the railway network centrally planned. The Government used procurement, particularly Admiralty and Post Office “mail contracts”, to support and expedite the lines it wanted for strategic reasons. And every line that wished to use compulsory purchase for parts of its route had to have a Private Act of Parliament – thus funding the start of the Westminster lobbying industry.

Unfortunately many of the players of today are still using nominal speeds and/or other technobabble as a proxy for “fit for purpose” when setting their targets. I have had to use follow up e-mails to tease out what was really being called for. Thus DEFRA believes that a 2mbs sevice is adequate to do Rural Payments Agency submissions on-line. But they appear to mean a genuine 2mbs”, actually delivered, not “best efforts to deliver up to 2mbs, fluctuating according to contention etc.” Over 20% of farmers do not yet receive even the latter. It is unclear when they will do so under current plans. Hence the the new agriculture minister’s announcement (when talking of the new on-line services) of help for those who will need to use, as yet unspecified, Assisted Digital routines. Hence also the reason for the Country Land and Business call for a 2mbs “Universal Service Obligation”, as opposed to a “Commitment”. A guarantee that two 2mbs will be delivered is a much stiffer target than a commitment to provide an “up to 2mbs” service. Stephen Timms was well aware of this when he used the former, when giving an unscripted response to a call for the latter, at the 2009 Parliament and the Internet Conference. Officials have been backtracking on this, under pressure from network operators, ever since.  

That leads to the question of the quality and cost of service needed to reconcile the government agendas of social inclusion and digital by default. I will begin with quality of service and the vexed question of whether faster line speeds give faster services.

Ofcom has just issued some rather patronising guidance on how to speed up your broadband It left out the two main causes of slow response over supposed high speed lines:

  • advertising bloatware: including tracking software which fights with common security software for control, causing the system to slowdown or even hang and
  • traffic management: alias bandwidth rationing, particularly at inter-connection bottlenecks.

I recently mentioned how bloatware can negate the benefit of moving from 7 to 70 megs, linking to my previous call for action by the members of the “Reform Government Surveillance Group” to address this problem if they are serious about the interests of their customers. Resolving this problem is the responsibility of those who wish their customers to access their services on-line – beating up the Internet community and boycotting those who insert intrusive tracking services, as necessary. Government and regulators do, however, have a role in ensuring that consumers have genuine choice. We need to review the role of Ofcom and others in this space, perhaps viewing Browsers, Search Engines and Security Software as part of the communications infrastructure. This shades, of course, into 2015 and the case for an electronic Magna Carta which applies to the Barons (e.g. dominant ICT and ISP players) as well as the King (State).   

Last week I was told that one of those taking a domestic gigabit service from Hyperoptic was receiving little more than 300 megs (as measured by his speed tests) and no better response than from a 100 meg link. The main cause was thought to be traffic management, beginning with where the Hyperoptic fibre linked to the BT network. Incumbents and dominant players like to like tell us that bandwidth rationing is not a problem in the UK and that the net neutrality debate is peculiar to the United States. They are lying. The UK Internet still has more bottlenecks than a brewery. Traffic rationing  is a very real and growing issue in many parts of the UK and requires public debate. It should be raised by those responding to this consultation. I hope that some of the members of ISOC will help lift the lid on the cess pit of hidden deals.

But speed and response times are not the main factor when it comes to reconciling “digital by default” strategies with the on-line world as seen by those most dependent on our public sector health and welfare systems. The key questions include:

Are the on-line services of government usable by the target audience?

How is that usability measured?

Section 1.224 in the 2012  Budget papers on  “Reforms to support growth” read as follows:

“The Government is setting an ambition to make the UK the technology hub of Europe. To support technological innovation and help the digital, creative and other high technology industries the government will … [after a list of other actions]  …. transform the quality of digital public services by committing that from 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the service successfully“.

No wonder Ian Duncan Smith is refusing to allow the new DWP systems to go ahead until they have been shown to meet the needs of the target audience. Or has this commitment been quietly dropped as part of the drive for Digital by Default?

Is that why Treasury has exercised its right to be forgotten and the link to the Budget papers from my blog (at the time) no longer works?

A BCS survey of an audience expected to have above average understanding of accessibilty issues indicates that the number requiring “Assisted Digital” support is likely to be very much higher that assumed by the “Digital by Default” enthusiasts. This is partly because of the low level of awareness and understanding among those developing systems and partly because of the lack of motivation among those commissioning them. Hence the need for those wishing to see a faster transition to listen to “OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition“. I hope that the Coalition will make a robust submission to the DCMS consultation.  

Finally there is price.

BT’s recent price hike for the mandatory telephone service that goes with any broadband contract has been called a “Football tax” . That and the growing divergence between “headline” wholesale and retail prices accompanied by the plethora of special offers for those who change supplier might be taken as evidence of a profound failure of regulatory policy which needs to be looked at by the DCMS Select Committee when it next meets with Ofcom.

I will stop there and go back to collating more of the inputs that have just come in.       

September 4, 2014  11:32 AM

Launch of on-line consultation on inputs to the Digital Infrastructure Strategy

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Bandwidth, bottlenecks, Broadband, DigreeIT, fixed, Funding, Mobile, Net Neutrality, Planning, rationing, TecQT, traffic

While working through the invitation for the round table I am helping organise on 12th September to help drum up inputs to the consultation on the Digital Infrastructure Strategy I was contacted by Lindsey Annison regarding an exercise to put up an on-line service to enable those unable to get to meetings and not active in those professional bodies, trade associations and interest groups which are planning submissions to make their members’ views known. The on-line consultation service is organised by TecQT and uses DigressIT. I am delighted to say that this is now live .

I look forward to seeing how this service is promoted and used in practice. I have observed many exercises to organise on-line consultations using a variety of tools, beginning with that organised by the Select Committee scrutinising the legislation to create Ofcom. That  committee received approximately 500 on-line responses, which was about the maximum they could handle with the resources they had available.   

P,S, I have been disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that some of the best known names in the on-line world have not spotted the importance of the DCIS consultation to the future of their UK operations.

I think this is because the jargon, including “DCIS Consultation” and “Digital Infrastructure”, conceals the range of topics that need to be addressed: from social exclusion (inner cities and rural communities), through net neutrality (alias traffic and bandwidth rationing at network and interconnection bottlenecks) and planning (including to turn potential infra-structure clashes into shared security) to business models that ensure those who benefit reward those who pay.

September 4, 2014  10:52 AM

UK employers need a level playing field when it comes to skills

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Digital skills, IR35

At the first meeting of the new Digital Policy Alliance skills group it was agreed that, rather than try  to agree a  collective submission to the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee we should encourage all member to make their own and that I should make a personal submission using the material I have on file, including from previous EURIM (now DPA) exercises. I have now done so, using material from the interdepartmental working group of the Department of Education and the Science and the Ministry of Technology (set up in 1965) onwards. In 1967 they recommended the establishment of a “National Computing Centre” to address the expected shortage of systems analysts by 1970. In the mid 1980s the then Director of the NCC enveigled me into spending five fascinating, but ultimately futile, years finding solutions to to the problems of the day. I think we found them. But they were unacceptable to officials and ignored.
Over the past couple of weeks it has been interesting to note how much and how little we have progress since then.

I had always known that our tax regime put UK employers and contractors at a disadvantage against their overseas competitors but until I checked some of the current HMRC small print I had not realised how serious that could be. One example is the apparent exemption from national insurance for up to a year for those employed by contractors back home in Brazil, India, Russia or the Ukraine. More generally accommodation and travel expense allowances subject to income tax for uK employees are often similarly exempt. Then there is the comparative tax position of spend on training and career development, whether funded by the employer or by indviduals seeking to reskill themselves.     

The summary of my submission is as follows:

1.             There have been regular enquiries into shortages of what we now call “digital skills” for almost 50 years. The underlying cyclical pattern was identified in the 1980s. Recession accelerates the decline in demand for old skills and delays investment in training for the new skills that are taking their place. Recovery sees a “crisis” and another round of studies. No amount of effort in “trying to predict the unpredictable” in order to better target vocational education, will bring about significant change unless we better reward employers who recruit trainees and retrain existing staff more than those who compete for staff trained by their customers or competitors, import supposedly skilled staff or export jobs.


2.             It is currently more economic for many UK employers to compete for skilled staff or import from overseas, rather than train their own. This problem will not be addressed until we level the playing field between those who recruit trainees and retrain existing staff and those who import supposedly skilled “contractors”. Some of the latter can be paid tax free allowances for travel and accommodation and exempted from national insurance up to year. This can enable employers to save 50% (sometimes even more) compared to UK staff or contractors with equivalent take-home (after tax and expenses) earnings.


3.             We need to copy our overseas competitors in exempting employees following professionally and technically accredited training programmes from income and payroll (c.f. National Insurance) taxes and allowing individuals acquiring new skills, not essential to their current jobs, to offset the cost against current and future earnings. We also need the same tax and expenses regime for imported staff and contractors as for their UK counterparts. The changes needed also include addressing how IR35  penalises those seeking to keep abreast of changing demand for skills.


4.             When seeking to predict skills needs, we need to distinguish between core disciplines (which change slowly, if at all, over time) and technology, product and service technology related skills where demand can change before the curriculum, let alone content, is agreed.


5.             We also need to find better ways of relating publicly funded and accredited qualifications and courses to current and emerging skills needs and employers’ recruitment and training plans, without overloading those who do seek to plan ahead with “consultations” asking questions they cannot answer. The solution entails pooling budgets for demand assessment and forecasting via, for example, consortia of Sector Skills Councils and LEPs, to enable the use of industry strength market research


6.             Few employers can forecast their needs more than a year ahead in the detail needed to plan conventional courses and qualifications. Those able to do so commonly wish to mix and match modules for just-in-time delivery (to meet immediate skills needs) with those for longer term career development across academic and professional disciplines. This presents challenges to colleges, universities and funding agencies. Those willing and able to respond can derive significant earnings from the delivery of short course modules (both residential and on-line) within the global apprenticeship and continuous professional development programmes of major engineering and financial services employers. They are alleged, however, to be actively discouraged by funding councils from doing so.  

I thought of posting the full submission but it is 11 pages and my blogs are usually far too long anyway. 

September 2, 2014  9:15 AM

How consultation overload has led to communications policy paralysis

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
consultation, DCMS, Ofcom

In view of the many hidden agendas behind UK communications policy, I had expected Jim Prideaux  to comment (from a security and surveillance perspective) in reply to my recent post  speculating why the current DCMS/Treasury consultation is as it is – with an imploding list of those to whom the original notice was sent and almost zero press cover.

 Instead I received the following by pigeon post   from one of his former colleagues: “Disaffected of Dollis Hill” , who is concerned for his BT pension. I have changed nothing, not even the typos.


Here are some thoughts that some companies might like to make but cannot. They may shock. So long as people keep buying the things they are supplying why do they need to care?  The truth is that the current process is broken.  There is a possible solution, but no need to provide it because someone probably already did in a consultation response that was ignored.  There are ways to reenergise things – but the aim of this paper is NOT to set them out at this stage.

Some Key Issues

These are just some private thoughts – the main issues that come to mind.

Consultation Fatigue

One of the key drawbacks of the “proto-pseudo-wet-string-Internet” the UK has today is that the Government and Regulators are bombarding companies with consultations – or so it feels from the company “front line.”  The consequences of just one inadvertent comment can be catastrophic for individual and/or company, and companies form the East may be less willing to participate at all – or if they do to have a PR driven response which if of far less value than a considered response direct from the staff at the coal face.

Let’s look at just one recent example from Ofcom – a principal culprit.  The consultation which closed on 29th August comprised 185 pages – and that was just the main body document!  One thing is certain – companies do not have unlimited time or resources to devote to consultations, so the losers in this may well be the companies – but also those who deterred responses by simply making their consultation too damned long in the first place!  Now the Internet makes it even easier to do this, as only limited hard company runs of consultations are often produced…

 Plus ca Change – so why bother?

Another reason for scepticism on the company side can be the view that this is just an exercise, another “fishing trip,” and nothing will change – what value do regulations, or resolutions, arriving late, really provide anyway?  If in doubt “have a judicial review…” seems to be the prevailing mindset if there are real problems.  This is unfair – but we are dealing with perceptions, and these guide behaviours… We will comply with the law, so we are Ok anyway and need not bother too much.

The core regulatory problems in the sector are well known already, but has adequate meaningful progress been made on the scale necessary to keep the UK at the forefront of the Internet revolution?  Whilst this depends on who you might ask, the evidence is pretty conclusive.  We still don’t have a superfast broadband infrastructure whilst many of our Global economic competitors do. Worse still there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of another GSM… 5G will be driven by Asia.  That may not be bad either, but it doesn’t matter either way because that’s just how it’s going to be. Roll with it or ignore it and die.

Below is a list of just a few issues:

1 The Infrastructure to enable people to properly exploit the Internet STILL simply isn’t there. Who has been held accountable for this national scandal? Wayleave charges- which should be scrapped if the policy was as stated to accelerate roll out of infrastructure, have actually been extended! Mistrust results.

2 We still have a focus on PSTN interconnect, and the future focus has all been about the fact that where BT does fibre up local loops, the focus has been on how to force them to share it – delaying roll out.  It’s just plan sad… BT is NOT to be blamed for its conduct – it has a duty to shareholders too, that’s its “electorate.”

3 Spectrum pricing has not delivered massive sums to HM Treasury – and never will again. What is has done is fragment the European market and prevented another GSM from emerging here – with massive detrimental consequences arguably greater than all the monies ever received (or promised) in auctions.  It has also arguably lead to the dislocation of the standards process.

Inaction Safer than Action?

Being seen as a radical “butters no parsnips” – and regulators and governments change anyway so what is the point of anything other than a shallow engagement some may feel? Better to avoid even the risk of consultation and confrontation until forced to act.  There is a fundamental asymmetry between companies in the market.  A few are huge, the majority supplying them cannot risk upsetting them nor easily afford the regulatory staff they would often like to employ (and who could really make a big difference to policy)

Two examples

1 Child protection

There was one company who actively sought not to get engaged throughout the whole process in UK

2 Dispute Resolution

One dispute over spectrum has now been running 12 years. The original complainant companies are mostly long dead now -as even is one of the judges who heard the case.  A speedier access to justice is needed

What Should Companies do?

Better in light of the above just to do a few forecast studies into the future and present these as the company position. They can always be disowned if they turn out to be wrong, and can conversely be used to demonstrate interest in the topic in general even if a particular consultation is not responded to. Safety first!

The Inconvenient truth is that Regulators and Government cannot promote Competition and Investment as fast or as well as the market and companies.  Those who must respond fastest to change are the companies.  If they do not they die.  The driver simply isn’t there the other way about. 

Government and regulators can make a difference at the margin – but not much more unless they act on a coordinated global basis.  They may have to soon to address trust issues on the Internet… If hackers succeed in securing even more revenues from Internet fraud then they already do (and this activity is allegedly already more profitable than the Global cocaine trade) – then the use of the Internet to do business will wither away – along with the jobs and taxes that could have been generated.


1 This comes under the company heading of “only important if it hits the bottom line” – it does matter but is often under-resourced and SME’s are not able to afford the energy and cost of a long term engagement programme

2 There are too many consultations and too little discipline exercised by those producing the biggest ones.  Impenetrability is not a benefit unless you want fewer responses

3 There is a shortage of those able to respond with quality answers

4 There is plenty of risk for companies in getting too involved – better to lie low when possible?

5 What’s the point – “they” never listen (or act effectively) anyway

Toughest of all… is that we can never really know if this is what is really in the minds of company respondents to consultations, we can only guess. Seeking to try to get to the bottom of the problem by using common-sense however would be infinitely preferable to yet another “forward look” consultation… Something has to change for if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll get the results we’ve always got…  perhaps we should consult on what we need to do?  Alternatively we could risk using common-sense before we start consulting on consultations!  Without strong leadership, the right expert team at Government level and a top down desire to fix things with staff empowered to do just that we can bury all hope of change along with the UK’s aspirations to be a future player in the Internet economy.  Maybe we could start by deciding if we even need ex ante regulation at all anymore?  Now that would be an interesting consultation!

By the way – YES – companies do need to engage in the process and absolutely should – despite all this. One day we may get to the promised land!

I am not one of the many engaged in debate over communications policy who is worried about their BT pension. I am, however, delighted that my BT shares have finally recovered to the price I paid at privatisation (£1.30 = £3.83), having crashed from £10.60 after the consequences of local loop unbundling became apparent. Also perpetual consultation leading to policy paralysis is not confined to Ofcom and communications.  I have just written (in a draft submission to the House of Lords Digital Skills Enquiry (deadline 5th September) about how similar behaviour underlies the reason why we have failed to address the underlying causes of our cyclical “digital” (we used to say data processing, computing or IT) skills crises. An ever smaller, and less representative, audience responds to detailed and duplicated consultations that fail to address the points of leverage.

Hence the reason I am seeking to help open up this consultation to a wider audience and am delighted that the Digital Policy Alliance has agreed to provide an umbrella for a short-notice, all-party round table on the issues 

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