The Full Spectrum


August 29, 2019  10:04 AM

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Broadband

The other day, the government announced yet another consultation on the future of the UK’s digital networking infrastructure, this time exploring the possibility of liberalising the planning laws to make it cheaper and easier for operators to deploy taller mobile masts and roll-out their 5G networks faster and cheaper.

As I prepare to move on to a new challenge at Computer Weekly, after five years of covering the UK’s broadband and mobile network roll-out, I was struck by the words of digital minister Nicky Morgan, who said; “The British countryside has always been a hotbed of pioneering industries and we’re making sure our rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age.

“We’re investing millions so the whole country can grasp the opportunities and economic benefits of next-generation 5G technology.

“In modern Britain, people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead.”

Setting aside the fact that the quote was clearly written by a DCMS staffer, Morgan’s ‘words’ strike me as vaguely familiar ones.

In March 2016, the government launched a consultation on proposals for a 10Mbps broadband universal service obligation (USO) – something that ultimately did come to fruition.

The then digital minister, Ed Vaizey, said: “This government has a clear digital agenda, and our ambition is for world-class digital connectivity at ultrafast speeds. As the country continues to take great strides towards ever better connectivity, a broadband USO will help ensure that no-one is left behind – a digital safety net for all.

“The benefits of greater connectivity are shared throughout communities, including by supporting small businesses to get online, compete and grow.”

Digital ministers come and go, I’ve seen off several in my time as networking editor – Ed Vaizey, Matt Hancock, Margot James – and they have all talked about “economic opportunities”, “digital safety nets” and the “left behind”.

Now, I don’t want to suggest for one minute that ultrafast broadband and mobile networks don’t present economic opportunities. They do. I don’t dispute that the digital society needs digital safety nets for the excluded. It does. I don’t believe the needs of the left behind should be ignored. They should not.

Back in 2014, the controversial Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) programme and the 4G roll-out were getting into their stride. In 2019, BDUK is evolving at last towards fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) services and the 5G roll-out is beginning. The parallels are clear to see.

The technology may be more advanced, but the fundamental conversations and the basic story line have not changed. Faster networks are always just around the corner.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

I speak as a hardened cynic, but despite this I think there are reasons to be optimistic, and as I bid farewell to my broadband and mobile brief and prepare to take over as security editor, I feel as if we may, at long last, be turning a corner.

Openreach, long the bête noire of the broadband industry, has had a Damascene road conversion to FTTP, and a so-called ultrafast broadband service is now in reach of over 50% of UK homes. Meanwhile, the potential of 5G to act as more than a mobile network, maybe even one day to supersede FTTP entirely, holds great promise in my opinion.

The path is a long one and the story will run and run, but on balance I am satisfied that things are moving in the right direction.

Of course, I write this with some trepidation, as the prospect of a disastrous No Deal Brexit seems closer than ever, and much will depend on how both the industry, and the government, respond to this challenge. Nevertheless, I will keep watching the story with interest, and I challenge you all to move the conversation on.

Good luck, it has been a pleasure.

August 27, 2019  9:35 AM

Here’s to five years of the new NHS Spine

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Infrastructure

Like any milestone birthday it’s a time for reflection, writes Andrew Meyer, director of NHS Digital’s Digital Delivery Centre.

Have you achieved what you wanted in the time passed, are there opportunities missed, have you been resilient over the inevitable bumps along the way? It’s contemplation not only on the path travelled but also on the journey planned.

I found myself at a similar juncture last week as the NHS Digital Delivery Centre reached a significant marker. Spine II turns 5 years old on 22 August. While still in single digits, it feels like it has gone through its own ‘rite of passage’. Like those early years with any youngster under your charge, the time goes all too fast and it can be easy to rush past the important developments.

I had the honour to lead the team on Spine II through its early trials, tribulations and teething issues. For those of you who haven’t heard of the Spine, it is that national digital infrastructure which supports the NHS. Spine I, the previous iteration, was delivered externally through a third party. It ran for 10 years, had an army of people running it and it cost the NHS and public purse a sizeable amount. The service was good – for the time – but change was slow. It had a 12-month change window and it wasn’t flexible. The contract with the external provider was coming to an end and standing still wasn’t an option, we had to evolve.

Our starting point was to build a system that was like for like, but we needed to achieve more transformational goals too, like vastly reducing its running costs and creating infrastructure that would be resilient to change. We knew that to achieve this we would have to do things significantly differently and that the only way to really own these goals was to bring it in-house and do it ourselves.

It was a big decision that required a lot of people to take a huge leap of faith. Getting it wrong was not an option, the national health care system relied heavily on it. If it were to fail, its impact would be felt immediately by hospitals, clinicians and ultimately by patients.

It was a controversial move. With so much at stake, perhaps unexpectedly there was a cohort that felt this was a risk too colossal to take. Fortunately, we also had some forward-thinking backers who shared our vision – and some of our confidence – in making Spine II a success.

So what did ‘doing things differently’ mean? It meant moving away from large systems integrators and enterprise licence software to open source, it meant using different technology like NoSQL databases and it also meant creating a DevOps team and adopting an agile approach to delivery. Each element of this was a major step change to how things had been done before. And of course, we had to run it ourselves, no longer would we be able to pick up the phone because something had broken – it was all down to us! So fast forward from this momentous decision, armed with a talented but lean team, a small budget and a lot of heart, Spine II was born.

This was five years ago and what a long way we have come.

Spine II is made up of four primary components – Summary Care Record, the Demographics Service, the Electronic Prescriptions Service, and Messaging.

The scale of the Spine is immense. 500,000 health professionals use it daily. It holds over 2 billion records, supports up to 47 million messages every day and a Summary Care Record is viewed every four seconds. This includes vital information needed in emergency environments including medicines, allergies and adverse effects. It holds 90 million demographic records, which are longitudinal records that stretch from cradle to grave and hold your address, GP information and preferred language. The Electronic Prescription Service supports two million electronic prescriptions per day. Finally, messaging, which is essentially a transport mechanism supports 17 million transactions per month. Together the Spine supports 28,000 healthcare IT systems across 21,000 organisations.

The stats are dizzying and to the average citizen mean very little. Perhaps easier to relate to are other services and functionality that is run on Spine such as: the National Record Locator which went live in a pilot late last year in collaboration with the Ambulance Service and Mental Health Trusts and provided ambulance technicians access to mental health crisis plans for their patients; the Mobile SCRa which currently gives ambulance technicians mobile access to Summary Care Records enabling them to triage and treat based on live information regardless of location, but has the potential to bring benefit in a broad range of settings; and our on-going work contributing to the transformation of Digital Child Health via the National Events Management Systems and the Digital RedBook.

They say for the young the days go fast, and whilst I may have lost a little more hair in the process, this is certainly true for Spine II’s early years. Our goal was transformation and we have achieved just that. Stability is undeniable given availability levels and consistency. Cost savings over the last five years are in excess of £100m. Functionality is far greater than before. The 12-month change window reduced dramatically with releases made every single week. The server estate went from 3,000 to 300, and our lean talented team of 55 not only run the service day to day but also devote time to developing the new products and services.

Spine will continue to grow and mature of course, but for today I think both the journey and the destination are worth celebrating.

Happy Birthday Spine II.


August 20, 2019  9:36 AM

Huawei risks drowning as HarmonyOS heads for open waters

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Android, app developers, Huawei, operating system, smartphone

Earlier in August, Huawei announced it was launching its own open-source operating system, named HarmonyOS, which may replace Google’s Android on its devices, writes Promon head of development, Jan Vidar Krey.

On the face of it this move makes sense, with there still being the possibility that the United States will ban Google from working directly with the Chinese company, resulting in it not being able to use Android.

Huawei continues to maintain its innocence in relation to security concerns, but HarmonyOS represents the company taking matters into its own hands. Despite the fact that this appears to be a backup plan, the company, which let’s not forget is the world’s number one telecom supplier and the number two phone manufacturer, says that this is in fact part of a much bigger plan to address the rise and demand of the Internet of Things (IoT), and increases functionality.

Huawei’s ambition is certainly commendable, but naturally where there is progression there is also risk. Huawei faces an uphill battle to appease both developers and end users, a task much easier said at a keynote, than actually done.

Developers face additional costs and testing efforts

Operating systems without apps are like homes without furniture, and so the big worry will be the reaction from developers, who will need to increase their investment and testing efforts for HarmonyOS.

New and existing apps can be adapted but this will depend on whether developers consider there to be enough incentive for them to do so. There is a historical parallel with Microsoft’s Windows Phone, which failed because developers generally ignored it, meaning users didn’t have the same access to apps available on iOS and Android. Huawei did, admittedly, sell 200 million phones last year, but the serious doubts surrounding the company’s future will definitely worry developers.

Compatibility conundrum

BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Amazon all found Android compatibility very difficult to achieve, and it will be no different for Huawei. BlackBerry tried to achieve compatibility, but the user experience result was terrible for users, while Amazon’s Android is a ‘different’ version which, just like with the Windows Phone, app developers ignore.

Huawei hopes that HarmonyOS will eventually have some Android compatibility. The key words here are ‘eventually’ and ‘some’, with Huawei claiming it will take three years before its operating system is fully integrated. Users, in the meantime, will lose access to some, if not all, of their favourite apps. The backlash from this will be fierce and will result in serious reputational damage. If there’s one technology company that could really do without more public scrutiny, it’s Huawei.

One area in which HarmonyOS has to be praised for is security, however. The operating system will have Trusted Execution Environment across devices, ensuring that data is secure and that root access is not allowed.

The jury is still out on the future of Huawei during a turbulent and defining time. The company finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with the threat of being barred from Android meaning it’s chosen to go down the route of developing its own operating system. The reality is that with HarmonyOS set to frustrate both developers and users, it may well prove to be the death of Huawei as a leading phone manufacturer.


This is a guest blog by Jan Vidar Krey, head of development at Norway-based mobile security company Promon. 


August 5, 2019  12:21 PM

Britain won’t have 100% full-fibre by 2025. One horrible – if speculative – version of why not

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Broadband

On 24 July 2019, as jubilant Conservative party members emerged from Boris Johnson’s victory speech in Westminster, one supporter was heard to remark Johnson had promised to “insert high-speed broadband into every orifice of every home”.

Earlier in his leadership campaign the tousle-headed presumptive PM had rubbished the government’s target of national full-fibre broadband coverage by 2033, saying Britain needed to ditch its “mañana approach” to broadband and “unleash full-fibre for all” by 2025.

But let’s be honest here. Knowing everything that has happened up to now, every concern over competition, every niggle with BDUK, every broken promise, every bit of spin over fibre-to-the-cabinet, is this new ambition in any way achievable? Will it be met? Can it be met? I don’t think so for one second.

Here’s one horrible, albeit entirely speculative and made up, version of what might happen to stop it…

Despite initial optimism among Remainers that Parliament would somehow be able to remove the new government or force it to revoke Article 50 at the last minute, a combination of in-fighting in the pro-EU ranks and the defection of 15 more Labour MPs to the Lib Dems (forcing a badly-timed leadership election which Jeremy Corbyn still won) helped Johnson steer the UK to a no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019.

A snap election in January 2020 quickly followed, and while the Conservatives were wiped out in Remain leaning areas such as London, Scotland, and parts of Southeast England, a divided and weakened Labour party and Johnson’s last minute pact with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party saw the Conservatives recover their overall majority to a narrow but workable 11.

Johnson had in fact heeded the advice of the broadband industry, which in August 2019 warned him that he would need to act urgently if he was to have any hope of hitting his 2025 target, and the Broadband Act 2020 was fast-tracked into law in May. Passed with little opposition, it introduced deeper tax cuts on new fibre and forced action on wayleaves and new-build homes

But to start to understand why the full-fibre roll-out still stalled, we must go back to the spring of 2019, when Openreach’s chairman Mike McTighe had told Computer Weekly that he was unconcerned by the possibility he might lose the ability to recruit skilled engineers from outside the UK.

Despite Openreach’s optimism this proved not to be the case. Indeed, it was CityFibre’s Alex Blowers who proved to have made the right call when he said, “We are not going to get full national coverage by 2025 and, arguably, we are going to struggle to hit it by 2033 if the workforce we need to build those networks is no longer available to us because, post-Brexit, we slammed the door shut on the workers we need to build it.”

What transpired was a combination of lack of skills and lack of equipment. As the recession bit over the winter and into the spring of 2020, the jobs market slowed to a standstill. What’s more, many foreign-born engineers already in the UK were choosing to return home, while European operators were eyeing Openreach’s well-trained workforce for themselves, and with tasty benefits and supermarkets that still had food in them waiting across the Channel, the temptation proved too much for some.

Those that Openreach did manage to keep were faced with another problem; no work. With crucial equipment held up for weeks at Dover, and foreign suppliers and banks unwilling to extend credit to a country that had just dropped out of virtually all its trade agreements, Openreach was forced to radically revise its roll-out targets back down. It took brickbats from the media for this, and Johnson’s chancellor Sajid Javid railed against its “lack of ambition” in a speech to the CBI, even while giant reels of fibre-optic cable sat in limbo.

Overstretched and on the verge of collapse, in March 2021 Openreach turned to its parent BT for support, which left a black hole in BT’s accounts the size of an articulated lorry. Forced to act to save a flagship UK employer, Javid tried desperately to tempt new investors, and behind the scenes the government frantically lobbied friendly operators to try to get them to take a stake, but to no avail. Javid was forced to harvest the magic money tree, and as a condition of BT’s bailout, swingeing cuts had to be made. Openreach’s engineers were on the chopping block.

But the problems of Brexit were not limited to Openreach alone, and although CityFibre had been proved right, it too was hurting. Its flagship full-fibre roll-out with Vodafone was stalling as its larger partner itself retrenched, preferring to concentrate on its money-making European operations and its 5G investment (which was going slow not only thanks to lack of skills and equipment, but to Johnson’s December 2019 decision to force Huawei out of the UK’s national networks altogether).

As for the altnets – those that had survived the shock of the first Brexit winter were just as badly hit by the headwinds, although community-centric builders such as B4RN were attracting interest as people seized on the ‘Blitz’ spirit that had taken hold among Johnson’s supporters. Yes, DIY broadband was the order of the day, and the nationals rushed to write the story up.

Ultimately, it turned out that the only real winner was Virgin Media, which could already provide ultrafast broadband speeds through its cable network, and had shown in 2019 how it could simply and cheaply extend this benefit.

Indeed, in the two-years to March 2021 Virgin grew its customer base to within spitting distance of BT’s. With Openreach foundering and Virgin’s press office reaping the benefits, things took an interesting turn when the CEO of its parent Liberty Global was spotted hanging around both DCMS’ Whitehall offices and BT’s new Aldgate HQ.

Six months later, at an as-glitzy-as-affordable event in central London, Liberty painted the town and the BT Tower red, and in the presence of Richard Branson the BVT brand was unveiled. BT and Openreach would receive an immediate injection and support from Liberty’s deep cash reserves, as a condition of which the international media giant took full ownership of both the network builder, now to be called, erm, VirginReach, and BT’s consumer business.

So the full-fibre roll-out was back on, but with conditions. VirginReach would receive funding for a roll-out of full-fibre with an unspecified target, but it could not overbuild in areas where Virgin’s cable network already existed, and moreover, other ISPs were not to have access to the original Virgin network.

Now, it’s December 30 2025, and I’m writing these words from the overcrowded departures lounge of Heathrow Terminal 5 – with the airport at capacity and no new runway coming, Johnson has been talking about reviving that scheme for a Thames estuary airport that he dreamed up as London mayor – but back to broadband.

So where are we today? Well, the full-fibre roll-out has not hit 100%. It’s not even hit 50%. It’s barely, if Ofcom’s most recent report is accurate, hit 35%. And remember, that’s just in terms of premises past. Uptake is a fraction of that, since it turns out that with the premium the remaining ISPs are forced to put on gigabit services, full-fibre has become a cost-too far for most. People who want ultrafast are content to take Virgin’s cable service. Oh, and of course, not a day goes by without someone complaining that Virgin Media effectively has a monopoly on ultrafast. The regulator claims its next market review will do more to boost competition, but I can’t see that happening. It sometimes feels nothing has changed in 10 years, except the names.

I’d like to say we have had better luck with 5G, but we haven’t, and as other countries start to look ahead to the proposed 5G Advance standard, millions of Britons outside of the major towns and cities are still relying on 4G connections.

Sometimes, I can’t help but think that former chancellor and new Lib Dem leader Philip Hammond had it more or less right when he suggested 2033 might be a better target.

We should have listened to him.


June 27, 2019  2:16 PM

Why are regulations still hindering connectivity?

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Connectivity

This is a guest blog post by Tom Dailey, chief international legal, policy and regulatory officer at Verizon


The regulatory and policy landscape is a really important topic for all businesses given the ubiquity of connectivity in today’s digital economy and society. One major challenge facing stakeholders is that technological development has outpaced regulation, even more so in recent years. Many countries are still bound by regulations developed decades ago, which don’t take into account innovations like the 5G-enabled Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, virtual reality and advanced robotics that are now powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Enabled by connectivity, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is fundamentally changing how we live and work. This connectivity is both wireless – such as high speed and low latency cellular (and soon to be 5G) connectivity, built on deep fibre; and wireline, with intelligent, virtual and software-defined networks (SDN) that offer secure, high performance, and adaptable capacity that can flex to support changing business needs.

Countless use cases for these emerging and new technologies are yet to be invented, but the connectivity-driven revolution is focused on innovation. It has tremendous potential when it comes to a positive social impact on the big issues of sustainability, public safety, healthcare and education. Yet, current regulations are obstacles in the way of potential progress.

Battling against regulations

In many cases, enterprise service providers are bound by the same regulatory framework that protects consumers. Lots of businesses might question why this is a problem. The fact is, services that cater to enterprise customers are worlds apart from those offered to consumers. Rarely do enterprise customers use off the shelf packages. Instead they choose a provider on a competitive tender basis, and then opt to negotiate specific terms and packages under a service level agreement for a tailored contract. Yet the same rules apply.

Today, regulation varies dramatically across the globe, with no consistent policy approaches. These current, patchwork regulations make it difficult for enterprise service providers to confidently operate across borders. While, work is being done at an EU level regulation is still complex and multi-layered. Regulator frameworks are essential to ensure legal certainty and clarity for all stakeholders in the future.

New technologies are often forced to operate in a regulatory regime that was developed decades ago and now no longer makes sense for the current landscape. An example of this is SDN. A virtualised network is no longer about the telephone line or point-to-point connectivity. It’s about changing information and ideas into bits and bytes, and using software to create an environment in which those can be shared. Problems occur when SDN then sits on top of the underlying network, as this becomes complicated from a regulatory perspective Should SDN be classified as a telecommunications service, or as an information service?

Policy-makers should now look to promote innovation when developing new legislation. A 21st century digital economy, driven by state-of-the-art networks, can only exist with a 21st century regulatory agenda. This is, however, by no means an easy task, as it needs to protect consumers, encourage investment and harmonisation, while avoiding the patchwork of regulation and uncertainty that stifles many investments and innovations today. But it will be worth it, as the payback will be cycles of innovation that generate significant opportunities and economic growth.

Overcoming regulatory hurdles

How can we achieve this growth and innovation? Firstly, regulators need to consider the unique characteristics of enterprise services, and should look to eliminate outdated regulations in this space. In most cases, light-touch (or even no-touch) regulation is vital for new technologies like 5G and SDN to flourish.

Simplification of regulation is critical and could be very positive for the use of these new technologies. In this case, simplification would mean deregulation where appropriate, rather than incrementally building on historic—and often outdated—sector-specific laws and regulations. This new approach would rely more heavily on existing horizontal competition and consumer protection rules. By making these changes it would markedly benefit the industry by providing: greater regulatory certainty and predictability; regulatory outcomes that minimise compliance costs and inefficiencies; a more prosperous environment in which innovation thrives; and a boost to economic competitiveness.

The technology-led disruption and innovation will transform communications around the world, and open up business and collaboration opportunities that we can’t yet imagine. Network connectivity is key to supporting this revolution and delivering the new services it will enable. But the right regulatory and public policy environment is critical for driving continued investment in this innovation across the board. There is no question that we need to move quickly, and think differently, to realise the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


June 11, 2019  11:54 AM

John Suffolk’s grilling by MPs exposes the tech industry’s troubling amorality

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
5G, Huawei, Security

In an astonishing and frankly unprecedented turn of events before the Science and Technology Select Committee this week, Huawei chief security officer John Suffolk was branded a “moral vacuum” by Conservative MP Julian Lewis.

Lewis was questioning Suffolk over his knowledge and acceptance of Huawei’s sale of surveillance and networking technology to repressive, autocratic regimes around the world, and its alleged complicity in the Chinese government’s oppression of its Muslim minority in Xinjiang province, and Suffolk responded that this was beyond his purview, saying essentially that Huawei had to be amoral in how it acts in accordance with the law of the countries it does business in.

Lewis went a bit too far in his choice of language, and his colleague Graham Stringer certainly went much too far when he tried to get Suffolk to compare Huawei to IG Farben, the German chemical company complicit in the genocide of millions of Jewish people in the Holocaust.

In his evidence, Suffolk referred to his decade-spanning career, including a notable stint as the UK government’s CIO, dating back to the 1970s. Now I don’t want to call one of our country’s foremost security and telecoms experts a dinosaur, but in my opinion amorality in the technology industry is starting to look positively prehistoric.

While I understand why Suffolk took the line that he did – that he had no view on anything to do with human rights, that Huawei complies with the law of the land wherever it operates, and so on – the difficulty I have is that in these troubled times, to take this kind of position is no longer really okay.

Quite frankly, although his answers to the Select Committee may have protected Huawei’s interests, they were in my view, totally unacceptable. Read some of them for yourself:

Norman Lamb, MP (Committee Chair): Should we do business with a company that is complicit in human rights abuses?

John Suffolk: I think you should do business with all companies that stick to the law.

Julian Lewis, MP: There is a lot of law in China, isn’t there? Just like there was a lot of law in Nazi Germany. Some laws are good laws and some laws are bad. Some countries are totalitarian, repressive one-party states, and that includes communist China, doesn’t it?

JS: We do not make judgments about whether laws are right or wrong. It is for others to make those judgments.

JL: Do you have a view as to whether China is a one-party state?

JS: China is a one-party state, yes.

JL: Do you have a view as to whether that Chinese one-party state is repressive of human rights?

JS: I don’t have a view on that, no.

JL: You don’t have a personal view on that.

JS: I don’t have a personal view on that.

JL: You are a moral vacuum.

JS: I don’t believe so, no.

JL: Is there any country in the world with a repressive government that you would be unwilling to take a job from if you were offered it?

JS: I have never given that any thought, so I cannot answer that question.

JL: Well, here’s an opportunity—give it some thought. Is there any regime in the world that you would not be prepared to work for, as long as your work involved observing the laws in that country?

JS: As I said, I have not given that any thought. If you want me to answer the question with some thought, I cannot do that now.

NL: That is a remarkable position you have stated.

Now, I am inclined to think that broadly speaking, the UK has got it right on Huawei. The Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) has done excellent work and as a result Britain has some of the most in-depth knowledge of how Huawei works in the west.

In light of this I think the government is taking logical, reasonable and rational action, in step with the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs), to ensure that if there is any risk to our country’s national security from using Huawei equipment, it is minimised and controlled, and that China cannot exploit it for intelligence-gathering missions.

Because while I believe the UK is on the right track, and that President Trump’s attacks on Huawei are overblown, I also believe that China is to some extent a hostile, bad-faith actor on the global stage, that its leadership has been guilty of crimes against humanity, and that it has used technology in the service of oppression. It is right that we are cautious.

At Huawei’s customer event in Shanghai in 2018, I sat in on a terrifying session where Huawei’s public safety specialist Hong-Eng Koh, a former Singapore cop, gleefully shared details of Huawei’s surveillance technology and disclaimed all responsibility for how it might be used when challenged by one of our colleagues from Diginomica, who was also sitting in on the panel.

It is very easy to conclude, and indeed I think likely, that Huawei’s surveillance tech has been used in the oppression of China’s Muslim population, and it has certainly been sold to a number of decidedly unsavoury and autocratic regimes, which is something Huawei makes no secret of.

Unethical and dystopian

As you have read, John Suffolk said he had no particular views one way or the other on any of this. But consider the activities of Facebook, which has been implicated in misuse of user data that may have swayed elections, consider Twitter’s apparent unwillingness to clamp down on hate speech, consider the steady stream of  stories about Amazon’s growing power and how it is being used.

There is unarguably now substantial and growing public anger that tech firms have crossed a line and that digital technology is being employed in the service of an unethical and dystopian strain of exploitative capitalism.

Titans of the industry like Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are (rightly or wrongly) now reviled by many as utterly without morals, concerned not with whether something is right or good, but with whether they can make money off it. To that list we might reasonably add Huawei’s chief, Ren Zhengfei, as well.

If John Suffolk ever felt inclined to take advice from me, it would be that he should have considered these points, that he should have a view on human rights, that he needs to demonstrate that Huawei is acting fairly, honestly, and with accountability and integrity.

Instead he gave vague answers and evaded the questions. I’m sorry, Mr Suffolk, but you made yourself look like Michael Howard on Newsnight.

John Suffolk’s generation of Baby Boomers are now hitting retirement age, the oldest Millennials are starting to reach positions of greater power and influence as we approach our 40s, and in the dangerous and uncertain world we are inheriting from our parents we need fairness, honesty, accountability and integrity more than ever. And by the way, the kids of Generation Z (those born after about 1996) are now entering the workforce, and they’re even angrier.

It’s time for the technology industry to think on: if it wants to lead on building an ethical digital future, it can no longer afford to be amoral.


May 8, 2019  9:33 AM

Is BT’s boss about to make his mark with new full-fibre targets?

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Broadband

BT’s new chief executive, Philip Jansen, is to revise Openreach’s targets for its full-fibre broadband network roll-out upwards when he reveals BT’s full-year financial results on Thursday 9 May, according to reports.

According to the Financial Times, which first reported the story citing sources familiar with the plans, Jansen may increase Openreach’s target for homes passed with a full-fibre – also known as fibre-to-the-premises or FTTP – connection by 500,000 to 3.5 million properties by 2020, and by five million to fifteen million by 2025.

The original targets were first set by Openreach CEO Clive Selley in February 2018, when he launched the firm’s Fibre First network build programme, which is now active in almost 40 large towns and cities in the UK, passing 14,000 homes every week.

If true, the revised plans are significant because while Openreach is essentially functionally independent, with its own leadership and board, it is still joined at the hip to BT, which has final sign-off on the network builder’s annual budget.

This means Jansen may have to move cash money from elsewhere in the BT Group to fund the additional works, and, ever with an eye for the shareholder angle, the FT reckons this is stoking concerns that the Group’s dividend to its investors will be cut.

This said, if investors can be or have been convinced that the FTTP roll-out is going to be some kind of golden egg-laying goose for the BT Group, that might not be a problem.

For Openreach to increase its targets could also be very good news for the overall regulatory environment surrounding the national full-fibre roll-out, as pointed out by ISP Review, which hinted that some of Openreach’s conditions for achieving its goals – such as easier access to land for works, changes to wholesale and business rates, and agreement with rival network builders on how to encourage mass consumer migration to FTTP – are being met.

The Full Spectrum approached Openreach for comment but was politely rebuffed. Never mind, we’ll find out tomorrow.


April 17, 2019  12:48 PM

Cutting off the internet is a TERRIBLE idea, whether or not you agree with Extinction Rebellion

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Internet

Many people using the London Underground today will likely have noticed that the usual Virgin Media-run Wi-Fi service is not working. Some might even have been mildly inconvenienced by not being able to access the internet on the platform like normal.

The network is down not thanks to some technical snafu, but because of the ongoing protests in London being conducted by Extinction Rebellion – a group of climate change activists who believe that direct action and non-violent acts of civil disobedience are now morally necessary in order to force governments to take action.

At the time of writing, the group was targeting London’s public transport network, and activists have glued themselves to Docklands Light Railway (DLR) rolling stock at Canary Wharf.

Because of this, the British Transport Police (BTP) took the decision to instruct Transport for London (TfL) and Virgin Media to turn off the Wi-Fi service in an attempt to disrupt the climate change protests by making it harder for activists to communicate and organise.

In the interests of safety?

While the BTP has attempted to portray the shutdown as being undertaken in the “interests of safety and to prevent and deter serious disruption” the underlying truth of the matter is that its actions curtail freedom to access the internet, freedom to express oneself using the internet, and freedom to organise using the internet.

Whether or not you agree with the aims of Extinction Rebellion – and causing disruption to environmentally-friendly mass transit systems is arguably not a positive step – the BTP has overreached itself.

It is therefore hard to escape the logical conclusion that the UK authorities are acting in a manner more befitting of an authoritarian regime.

Remember that Egypt famously cut off its internet connections in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring protests. More recently the likes of Venezuela and Sudan have taken similar steps at times of national crisis, restricting the ability of their citizens to communicate freely. In other countries like China, the government prevents all access to western social media platforms (with the exception of from within a few luxury hotels), and virtually all social media activity is directed through government-approved and monitored platforms such as the nearly-ubiquitous WeChat.

A dangerous precedent

Obviously the shutdown of a single wireless network in limited locations does not amount to a concerted attempt to stifle freedom of expression for everybody in the UK, and it would be hyperbolic to suggest it does – otherwise we could not post this article.

However, in a time of increased political turmoil and social discord it sets an extremely dangerous precedent for a country that prides itself on fundamental freedoms to allow law enforcement agencies to act in this manner. The optics are, quite frankly, terrible.

All over the world, freedom of access to and expression on the internet is under growing threat. Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net  reported an eighth consecutive year of global internet freedom declines. It said 17 governments around the world approved or proposed laws restricting online media in the name of fighting fake news and online manipulation, and 18 governments increased surveillance, often eschewing independent oversight and weakening encryption in the process.

Reporters Without Borders already lists the British government as an enemy of the internet alongside some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, such as Belarus, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Coming on the same day as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed that the delayed and, to all intents and purposes, largely unenforceable UK porn block will come into effect on 15 July 2019 in an email that was openly copied to every technology journalist in the country (a GDPR breach), this will make many who argue for freedom of access and expression online very nervous indeed.

The British government is walking a dangerous path when it comes to online freedoms, and we all have a responsibility to challenge it, or risk our liberties being slowly but surely eroded.


March 26, 2019  12:35 PM

Is Avaya entertaining private equity bidders? I have déjà vu

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Avaya

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

It’s a handy quote for all occasions – whether or not you believe Albert Einstein ever really said it (spoiler: he did not). Just take our dearly beloved prime minister, Theresa May, and her repeated attempts to get her increasingly meaningless meaningful vote through Parliament.

So I was interested to see that my old friend A Source Familiar With The Situation has been on the blower to Reuters again, this time with a choice bit of goss about unified comms firm Avaya. Apparently it is giving serious consideration to an approach from an unnamed private equity firm that values it at $5bn.

Now, maybe I’ve been doing this for far too long, but have a vague sense of déjà vu here.

But this time it’s not just a funny feeling, or a glitch in the Matrix – it definitely happened.

The $8.3bn acquisition of Avaya in 2007 by private equity backers made waves at the time, but to put it charitably, Silver Lake and TPG did not run Avaya particularly well.

The firm was saddled with billions of dollars worth of debt and was allowed to massively over-reach itself through the ill-advised purchase of defunct Nortel’s core networking hardware business (although I have to confess I clearly didn’t think so at the time). Ultimately, it all proved a bit too much and Avaya was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2017.

Of course, there’s no certainty a deal will happen, but it’s not controversial by any means to observe that private equity companies do seem to be all too frequent common denominators in bankruptcies the world over (even Bloomberg, hardly a bastion of Marxist thought, is prepared to publish pieces hinting at this)

The entire private equity business model hinges on acquiring companies, generating massive efficiencies and streamlining operations (job cuts!), increasing margins and then selling them on. But for this to be successful you need market stability and that is something that has been in short supply for some time.

The last time Avaya was acquired in 2007, the US subprime mortgage crisis (that ultimately developed into a full-blown crash) was just beginning to bite, and the resulting recession was so severe that it is perfectly possible to argue we have still not quite recovered from it. Economic booms and economic busts go in cycles, and the next recession is now widely considered overdue.

Coming just 15 months after a revitalised Avaya emerged from bankruptcy protection as the direct result of its mismanagement in private hands, entertaining thoughts of inviting private equity back in…. Well, if that ain’t the definition of doing the same thing again but expecting different results…


March 21, 2019  11:41 AM

Remainers accidentally DDoS the British government

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
DDOS, Internet

With eight days until the UK’s scheduled exit from the European Union, a prime minister who has lost control, a paralysed political system, and Britain reduced to a laughing stock on the world stage as it limps into an entirely avoidable humiliation, the country feels like it’s on the edge of total breakdown.

Indeed, over the past 18 hours, over 750,000 angry Remainers – the sort of people who (for some reason) unaccountably insist on indulgences such as supermarkets with things to buy in them and access to life saving drugs – have signed a last-ditch petition on Parliament’s website to revoke Article 50 and forget about the whole thing.

Unfortunately for them, the unintentional side effect of thousands of people logging onto the same website at once is causing an abnormal spike in traffic to the government’s site, with the effect that the servers that host it are repeatedly crashing, resulting in visitors being served a 502 Bad Gateway error (which means one server has received an invalid response from another one upstream, i.e. it’s offline). In effect, an accidental distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is taking place.

Our sister site WhatIs defines a DDoS attack is one in which multiple compromised computer systems attack a target such as a website and cause a denial of service for users by overwhelming the target with a incoming messages, connection requests or malformed packets, causing it to slow down or crash.

DDoS attacks are more usually associated with bad actors, state sponsored hackers, cybercriminals and so on – the massive Mirai IoT botnet attack in late 2016 was a DDoS attack – but it isn’t unheard of for sudden spikes in legitimate traffic to websites to have a similar effect.

Ruby on Rails expert and Unboxed (the firm behind the petitions website) CTO Andrew White explained on Twitter that the site had gone down because calculating the trending count became too much of a load on the database – Unboxed uses an AWS-hosted relational database service (RDS).

There is one way that you can help if you are signing the petition today, please consider others and resist the temptation to sit there refreshing it, and trust that GDS will have things back up and running in good time.


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