The Full Spectrum


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.


March 4, 2019  12:25 PM

MWC 2019: Robots, robots and robots, oh my!

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
5G, Mobile, ROBOTS

All the world loves robots, and when they are robots holding something a human might hold, doing an activity a human might do, and preferably doing it while looking a bit like a human (two legs, arms, a smiley cartoon face, etc) the world loves them even more.

And at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, it felt like you couldn’t move without bumping into a robot doing something a human can do. There were dancing robots, drumming and piano-playing robots, packing robots and even a barista robot.

What’s 5G got to do with it?

The idea behind all these robotic demos is that the advent of 5G mobile networks in the not-too distant future will really kick-start the robotics revolution.

Operators promise 5G will bring vastly increased speeds, vastly reduced latency, and vastly improved possibilities around edge computing. This will create a perfect storm (if you’re a robot) for robots, because it enables them to accomplish more tasks, quicker, and with even greater precision than was already possible.

That’s the claim, anyway. The reality seems to be a little more clunky – let’s just say the dancing robot posed absolutely no threat to Anton du Beke, the packing robot made more mistakes than a tired Amazon warehouse worker who hasn’t been to the loo for eight hours, and the drumming robot … well … it might have been the best drummer in the Beatles.

Coffee to go

But one robot in particular caught the eyes of the thousands and thousands of Congress-goers feeling the strain the morning after an intense ‘networking’ session.

On the Korea Telecom (KT) stand at the GSMA’s Innovation City showcase, thirsty punters availed themselves of the services of dal:komm’s Beat, a 5G-enabled robotic barista.

Using a smartphone application, users place their order in advance, then watch as the robot swings into action, whirling around, grinding, pouring, frothing and icing. When your coffee is ready, you simply approach the booth, type in a unique pin, and Beat delivers your drink through a self-service hatch.

Backed by KT’s 5G base stations, Beat’s human controllers monitor the robot in as near to real-time as makes no difference, checking in to see if something needs repairing, or if the bean supply is running low.

Unlike human baristas, who generally do not connect themselves to networks, edge-based compute power means Beat can prepare three coffees at once, up to 90 per hour, and if left idle with nobody looking at it, it even becomes its own marketing department, waving its arm to attract attention and flashing happy emojis at passers-by. Beat that, underpaid service industry workers!

Humans under threat?

So do robots have a future in the high-stakes world of coffee preparation? I’m not so sure – for while my iced Americano was a much-needed treat on a busy afternoon, Beat completely forgot to write my name on the side of the cup in black marker pen, and that’s not easily forgivable. Baristas of the world, I think your jobs are safe for now.

This is Alice Scotts Town, reporting from Barcelona, for Computer Weekly…


February 28, 2019  3:07 PM

MWC 2019: Our planet is dying – is it time to ditch Mobile World Congress?

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Mobile

This year, my flight from London’s Stansted Airport to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, plus two days of hour-and-a-half commutes through horrendous traffic between my hotel and the conference venue on a half-empty fume-belching diesel bus, generated at least 0.24 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

But it was probably more than that. In order for me to spend time in Barcelona this week, a vast, continent-spanning logistics operation was pressed into service, seamlessly and efficiently, but at such environmental cost! Technology companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on building materials for stands – some as big as a decent-sized family home – that otherwise would not have existed and will be torn down at the end of the week.

Then there’s my paper metro ticket, my receipts for lunch, the countless cardboard coffee cups, the plastics in my badge, the unwanted extra fabric lanyard (handed to me by Ericsson when I walked onto their stand covered in Huawei branding), the free pens and little presents tech vendors like to foist on the press corps, all consumed resources that did not need to be consumed.

Oh, I ate a lot of tapas, and I do love pa amb tomàquet – the Catalan speciality of bread smeared with tomatoes and often served with ham – so several pigs died for me, too. They were delicious.

I am a technology reporter at Mobile World Congress, and I am also an environmental villain.

Of course you can always make the argument that that plastic would have been used and consumed anyway, those pigs would still have died, Ryanair flight FR9810 would still have taken off without me, my hosts would still have rented a half empty coach for 12 journalists, and a driver with an apparently magnetic attraction to traffic jams.

So why am I bothered?

A carbon neutral MWC?

The GSMA – the mobile trade body that runs and organises the show – makes a virtue out of Mobile World Congress being a sustainable, carbon neutral event. It enables attendees to offset their carbon emissions by donating to green projects. It also provides a number of recommendations to enable attendees to minimise their environmental footprint, and it can boast a number of laudable achievements. The GSMA is taking sensible, rational steps, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that they are not trying very hard.

But the GSMA’s actions don’t go far enough. There is no compulsion for attendees to offset their carbon emissions (and carbon offsetting is, in my opinion, pointless – the carbon was still emitted), it is not a requirement to take public transport to the venue, you can still print out your schedules rather than download the app, you don’t have to choose locally grown or sourced food options, and unless you’re coming from elsewhere in Spain, or possibly parts of France, you’re still going to fly.

The GSMA claims that Mobile World Congress was carbon neutral in 2015 and 2016. But was it? Really? When every variable is accounted for, I’d say that was highly, highly improbable.

What’s the point?

So I’d like us to at least begin to discuss the possibility that Mobile World Congress simply isn’t necessary, and as increasing speed, capacity, and capabilities of networks prove, travel for any reason other than personal growth and enrichment, that is to say, business travel, is becoming less necessary.

Okay, you’re right, Mobile World Congress is a fun couple of days. We meet, greet, catch up, learn, drink into the small hours…. These are good things (mostly) and their loss will be keenly felt. But nobody said the transition to a post-carbon economy would be without pain and loss. Nobody said that saving our home from catastrophic climate meltdown and ecological breakdown would not require radical actions.

And with temperatures back home in the UK hitting 20⁰ centigrade in February, ice melt speeding up by every measure, and the biosphere quite literally dying around us, I’d argue the time to take radical actions is now.

Which side are you on?

When you’re weighing up seven billion human lives and the preservation of a habitable planet for future generations, radical choices don’t seem so radical. The solutions to climate meltdown are right in front of us – we just need the popular will and the political backing to implement them. Would you rather your descendants lived in the utopian Star Trek future, or the barbaric Mad Max future?

So I’d like to ask you to ask yourself a few things. Why do we need Mobile World Congress? What social good does it serve? What ecological benefit does it bring? The GSMA talks so much about the power of social good and sustainability, and how mobile will solve these problems.

And yet, and yet, every February 100,000 people descend on Barcelona, snarling up the streets, choking the azure Mediterranean sky, and consuming, consuming, consuming.

Why?


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