The Full Spectrum


January 18, 2016  1:30 PM

The government’s EC broadband consultation response is truly pathetic

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Broadband, European Commission, fibre, FTTP

Last Friday, just after 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the government published a series of responses to a number of European Commission (EC) consultations around the Digital Single Market.

Personally, I can’t imagine why a government as committed to openness and frank discussion as Prime Minister Cameron’s would want to put out important announcements just after the country’s journalists have headed off to the pub, but that’s just me. I’m sure he must have an excellent reason for it. Either that or he’s a fan of the West Wing.

Anyway, one of these consultations centred on the future needs around broadband speed and quality, issues of vital importance to the digital economy as regular reader will know.

The Commission sought input on the following points:

  • Network access regulation: The review will assess whether the regulatory objectives are still fit for purpose or whether they should be complemented with a stronger emphasis on availability and take-up of high-quality connectivity as a policy objective. It will ask whether the operators who are investing significant amounts of money in the very highest capacity networks need greater assurances of a long-term return on investment. The difficulty in relying on infrastructure competition to drive network investment in more rural areas points to a possible need to reassess the appropriate degree of complementarity between sector-specific access regulation and other measures which could enable efficient public intervention.
  • Spectrum management: to promote the deployment of high speed wireless networks and the further development of electronic communications and innovation, the review should focus on how greater consistency could be achieved by different means and through different levels of harmonisation or coordination (more efficient technical harmonisation; more convergent assignment conditions and timing to support investment);
  • Communication Services: to look at ways of updating sector-specific rules if they are still needed, while ensuring a level regulatory playing field for all players to the extent that they provide comparable services.
  • Universal service: the review will evaluate whether the current scope of mandatory services is consistent with market and technological developments. In particular, the role of broadband as part of universal service and its implications for the financing mechanism will have to be carefully assessed.
  • Institutional set-up and governance: this covers the need to enhance regulatory consistency across the Member States and to deliver convergent market outcomes while taking account of different local and national conditions. The review will explore more efficient and simpler arrangements for co-operation between regulators at EU and national level.

Our own government, however, decided it was going to set its own homework, and duly turned in the year-old results of a UK-specific consultation that formed the basis of a digital communications strategy first announced in March 2015.

We will now summarise the UK government’s contribution:

  • We used to have dial-up. Now, not so much.
  • The Internet of Things. That’s a thing.
  • Demand is growing.
  • Here are statistics from a friendly analyst that says this with numbers.
  • Nobody we bothered to ask cares about speed.
  • Everybody we bothered to ask has a vested interest in not delivering FTTP.
  • Moaners will get stuck with satellite.
  • Private investment good. Austerity good.

Which is exactly the same thing they’ve been saying all along, brings nothing new to the conversation and, one more thing, even BT Openreach execs will agree that FTTP is the right solution if asked the right question – it’s true, I’ve seen them do it. No consensus my a***!

Frankly, it’s an embarrassment to the country, and the ministers responsible at BIS and DCMS should feel ashamed for trying to pass off last year’s science project as something new.

January 11, 2016  11:23 AM

Remembering David Bowie’s very own ISP, BowieNet

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
BowieNet, innovation, Internet, ISP

As news reached us of the tragic news of the death of rock icon David Bowie at the age of 69, we were reminded that ever the talented and fearless innovator when it came to music, Bowie also had an eye for technological innovation.

And eighteen years ago, what better way was there to innovate than to set up one’s very own internet service provider (ISP)?

Few people seem to remember it now, but back in 1998, Bowie did indeed set up his very own ISP, BowieNet, the world’s first and so far, probably only ISP ever to be run by a pop genius, unless Adele is working on something.

The ISP launched with an ambitious – for the time – webcast that featured performances from Ani DiFranco, the Jayhawks, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacehog and the Specials, as well as highlights from Bowie’s 50th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in New York.

It was to offer high-speed internet access across the world, offering “uncensored” internet access and naturally, an online community and exclusive content curated by Rolling Stone for fans, as well as access to Bowie himself through live chats and video feeds direct from the studio using FullView, a webcam service designed by Lucent’s Bell Labs.

“Initial applications call for the camera to be used for in-studio question-and-answer sessions with Bowie, as well as live ‘you are there’ rehearsal sessions with Bowie and his band,” said the press release, which incredibly is still available.

For $19.95 a month, users also got a a CD-ROM with two classic live audio and video tracks never before released, their own customisable homepage with a generous 20MB allowance, and a your name@davidbowie.com email address. The service supported both Internet Explorer and Netscape, at the time the powerhouse of browsers.

“The move would put Bowie near the front of the race to offer the kind of specialised, boutique access to the internet that is expected to challenge larger, broader ISPs,” opined an MTV journalist.

I wanted to create an environment where not just my fans, but all music fans could be part of a single community where vast archives of music and information could be accessed, views stated and ideas exchanged,” said Bowie at the time.

All things considered, BowieNet – which came to the UK a few months later – had a good run of it, surviving until 2012, when the shutters were finally brought down on the service.

“Some say that it was a Mayan prophecy for 2012 and was forever thus. Others suggest it may have been deliberate sabotage by gremlins, finally successful after a sustained attack over many years,” said a statement on Bowie’s Facebook page at the time.

“And one bloke said: ‘Your big end’s gone, mate, the whole thing’s a write-off.’.”

Rest in peace, David. You will be greatly missed by the Computer Weekly team.


January 11, 2016  10:04 AM

No surprise whatsoever as Openreach names new CEO

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Ofcom, Openreach

After BT Openreach lost Joe Garner to the Nationwide Building Society at a critical juncture in its history, as I have previously written, it is entirely unsurprising that BT should turn to Clive Selley, a man with insider knowledge to take the wheel.

Selley is a safe pair of hands to steer Openreach through the choppy waters that lie ahead over the next couple of months, and an eminently sensible choice from a BT perspective.

My predictions for Clive’s tenure are as follows.

  • BT will close ranks around an insider and we will hear less candour from Openreach.
  • BT will continue to insist it is delivering measurable service improvements with convincing top line statistics that ignore the voices of those left dangling.
  • Actually, nothing will change.

Oh, and …

  • If Ofcom forces the separation of BT and Openreach next month, Mr Selley will quit faster than you can say Gigaclear.


December 2, 2015  3:08 PM

Will satellite help us escape the dreaded blackspots?

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
4G, Broadband, Internet access, ViaSat, Wi-Fi

A guest blog by Neil Fraser, communications and information provider and leader at ViaSat UK

In March’s budget, George Osborne restated the government’s drive to push high-speed broadband across the UK: including testing satellite connections for remote communities and pledging ultra-fast, 100Mbps broadband to nearly every home in Britain.

However, broadband home internet is only one part of the equation. Last December, the government pledged mobile phone coverage for 85% of the UK’s land mass by 2017 in a £5 billion deal. While this will be more than the 69% currently covered, it doesn’t account for signal blackspots in areas that should be more than adequately serviced.

Even in London, a journey from the centre of town to the M25 can be accompanied by a wavering or even dropped signal and a consequent inability to use data services. For a nation aiming to sell itself to the world on the strength of its technology and communications, and with 4G and beyond a key part of that platform, the inability to guarantee high speed mobile broadband in the capital itself does not inspire confidence.

Who is missing out?

There are several implications of these blackspots. For the consumer, they mean interruptions to increasingly demanding online services. While five years ago, a mobile phone might have been used to check email on the move, the advent of 4G means that video and other data-intensive applications are an expected part of mobile life. If these expectations are disrupted for any reason, then confidence in mobile services, and the willingness to pay for higher speeds and more data, will fall.

For the economy, the fact that a high-speed service will be limited to only certain locations, whether the home, office or coffee shop, can be a barrier to investment. For instance, a business looking to locate within the UK will most likely make the level of connectivity available a key part of its decision process, meaning areas plagued by blackspots will regularly lose out compared to their more connected competition.

For a government that has stated the importance of investment in the regions beyond London, and is pushing the Digital By Default agenda for services to be always-available
online, ensuring that these spots are eliminated simply makes sound business sense.

Furthermore, the importance of removing these blackspots will increase as emergency services review alternatives to the existing Airwave national public safety network. If services do move from the existing Tetra-based network to a system such as cellular which provides greater access to broadband data, any blackspots will prove not just inconvenient and costly, but also dangerous.

Filling the gaps

The continued existence of blackspots is largely down to a very simple issue: not enough cellular base stations. Whilst increasing the capacity of these stations to provide 4G and beyond is one thing, increasing their range is entirely another. Similarly, placing base stations in every conceivable location to ensure continuous coverage is often impossible due to issues of cost and access. There is also the issue of what happens if a base station is damaged or otherwise inoperable; at which point a new, albeit temporary, blackspot is created.

To avoid this, other technologies must be used to supplement the existing signal and ensure that users enjoy consistent and uninterrupted speeds. For instance, Wi-Fi on the London Underground network has allowed mobile users to stay in touch both above and below the surface, regardless of local blackspots. This alone does not address every issue; anyone using the tube can testify that there will be uncomfortable periods of switching between cellular coverage and local Wi-Fi when passing through a coverage area. However, it does help to provide the start of more comprehensive coverage.

Another way to cover off coverage black spots is with satellite broadband. Once seen as a choice of last resort for users too remote to use any other form of communication, satellite has come on leaps and bounds. The advent of higher speed Ka-band satellites, such as Eutelsat over Europe, has increased network capacity from single digits to hundreds of Gigabits per second; meaning data bandwidth for services is measured in the tens of Megabits per second, rather than kilobits. Thanks to this, a satellite service can now guarantee a high speed connection to any area within its coverage, eliminating the last few blackspots. At the same time, receivers are constantly shrinking in size; and can be placed in black spot areas for little cost or direct impact in order to broadcast a signal.

What this means is that the image of satellite as an expensive, slow service that needs a vast antenna to be of use is woefully out of date. Indeed, costs to provide high-speed satellite broadband are now comparable to other high-speed services, with the added benefit of removing access restrictions.

Mixing technologies

This isn’t to say that cellular should completely give way to satellite or Wi-Fi. Essentially, there is currently no single technology that can guarantee the complete, consistent, high-speed and cost-effective mobile coverage that the 21st century demands. Instead, a combination of technologies will help ensure that all potential areas are covered and that there is redundancy in case of one or more parts of the system failing.

Using a mix of technologies means that, whether in the Orkneys or Oxford Street, mobile users will have the high-speed connection they demand.


November 16, 2015  10:15 AM

Openreach needs strong leadership at a critical time

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Broadband, Ofcom, Openreach

When I saw the email from BT’s press office telling me that Joe Garner was leaving Openreach to become CEO of Nationwide, I nearly hit the roof, and I expect Gavin Patterson did as well.

Joe Garner is an enormously personable, open and friendly guy with whom I’ve got on well on the handful of occasions we’ve met, and to be fair he’s done a fantastic job at turning the Openreach ship – such as it is – around but I have to ask the question, why now?

Openreach is facing a rough few months. Depending on how the Ofcom review falls out, we may be heading into a time of legal uncertainty over the organisation’s future as part of the BT Group. I have not yet made up my mind if I would prefer to see it separated from BT or not, but the weight of opinion in favour of a split would seem to suggest that Ofcom will take the possibility very seriously indeed.

Furthermore, the national broadband network is a critical element in building the future digital economy of the UK. It needs ambition, commitment, and a relentless focus on bringing the very best possibly solution to the biggest number of people. Candidly, we deserve and should expect long-term strategic leadership on this.

My hope for Openreach would be for the appointment of a successor who is ready to lead the organisation through a potentially tumultuous few years.


February 13, 2015  8:27 AM

Don’t buy the hype if you’re a Virgin Media customer

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Customer service, Virgin Media

 

I am fed up with Virgin Media.

This morning they announced a £3bn investment to bring fibre broadband to 4 million new homes.

But every day Virgin Media is neglecting its existing customers.

For a little while now, Virgin Media has been telling me I will be upgraded for free* to ‘supercharged’ 50Mbps speeds by the end of February 2015. Today, on the day that Virgin Media makes its announcement, I logged in to find that this has slipped to July to December 2015. Suitably vague.

I imagine their oh-so-amusingly named vans (stop doing that Virgin, it’s just awful when brands try to be cute) are going to be driving round some new neighbourhoods with new customers!

Since joining Virgin Media in 2010 my prices have risen by an average of 9% a year, substantially above the CPI average of under 3% a year.

All this time, an ongoing ‘overutilisation fault’ that never seems to be fixed means my broadband service has degraded.

Overutilisation. Hang on. Sounds like that means Virgin Media has too many customers on its network! But it wants 4 million new ones? Hang on. That doesn’t compute…

And all this on the day Virgin Media reveals a £3bn investment to extend the network to 4 million new households.

Well, that certainly explains why increased prices for existing customers haven’t actually made the existing service any better.

*With a 9% annual price hike it isn’t actually free is it?


January 29, 2015  10:31 AM

FCC showing its teeth on broadband speed. Time for Ofcom to grow a pair

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
BDUK, Broadband, FCC, Ofcom

News reaches the Full Spectrum that later this week the FCC, the US Ofcom, is to vote to change what is defined as, and possibly what can be sold as broadband.

The FCC wants to change the actual definition of broadband from 4Mbps to 25Mbps, which would leave millions of Americans who thought they had broadband with, well, not dial-up obviously, but not quite broadband, either.

The big hope is that this move will make the US broadband market more competitive, and force the big providers to improve their average speeds, for which read, put fibre in the ground.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Ofcom would consider following suit?

Ofcom’s new chief exec Sharon White will formally take over at the comms regulator very soon. Forcing the issue of broadband speed early on would be a good way for her to demonstrate that Ofcom means business.

Oh, who am I kidding? Upping the UK definition of basic broadband from 2Mbps to 24Mbps – which is conveniently BDUK’s current target for superfast – would upset BT and make it harder for it to dismiss complaints over speed (and lack of fibre).

We can’t have that, can we?


October 29, 2014  11:18 AM

Why is Huawei hiding behind Honor?

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
China, Honor, Huawei, LTE, smartphone

Let’s be clear. I don’t think Huawei is some kind of Chinese fifth column. I think it has consistently demonstrated good faith in its dealings outside China, and I’m generally happy to stand by that.

But now something has given me pause for thought.

A new smartphone brand has just launched in Europe. It’s called Honor, and it hopes to shake-up the consumer mobile sector with more appealing pricing and a direct connection with the customer, rather than selling through faceless mobile phone shops.

Its debut model is the Honor 6, launched today.

Powered by an octa-core Kirin920 chipset and integrated with LTE Advanced communication modules supporting LTE Cat6 protocol category, the Honor 6 can achieve download speeds of up to 300Mbps, the fastest in the world, claim the makers.

Oh, but there’s one thing the people who drafted the press release didn’t think fit to mention. Honor is not just Honor. Honor is a new Huawei brand.

Whoa there! Hold on a minute! Huawei?

So now I’m a bit worried.

I asked Honor why this wasn’t being made clearer, and they sent me this statement:

Honor’s parent company is Huawei but it is an entirely new brand. It is a brand that will grow and be shaped by its audience and supporters. It is in the fortunate position of being able to benefit from the extensive hardware and software experience and global footprint of the Huawei parent company, but it is run by a dedicated team and is run as a separate business.

Honor is a subsidiary company of Huawei and the relationship between the two brands is complementary. We plan to continue this relationship on an ongoing basis.

Honor products will not be branded Huawei as Honor is now a brand in its own right.

Huawei has previously released Honor devices under the Huawei brand. But from this moment on, Honor is a new brand.  We know there is a real opportunity to create a brand for the digital native generation and our Honor devices are best positioned to meet their needs. It makes sense to use the Honor name for this new brand as it already has some awareness amongst our audience.

I understand that Huawei wants to let the Honor brand speak for itself and stand on its own two feet, that’s fair. And to be even more scrupulously fair it does have a copyright notice (at the bottom of its website in small type).

But when you are consistently criticised over trust and security, deliberately obfuscating the facts about what you’re up to is a worry. In my view, if Huawei wants to be trusted, Huawei doesn’t get to hide.


October 17, 2014  9:00 AM

Shropshire broadband stalemate part two: the missing £11m and how to find it

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
BDUK, Broadband, Shropshire

After learning last week that one of the more vocal rural broadband campaign groups – the Shropshire and Marches Rural Broadband Campaign, was pulling out of its partnership with Shropshire County Council – the Full Spectrum reached out to campaign spokesman Patrick Cosgrove.

As you may remember, the group took the decision to pull out after annoyance that the Council could (or would?) not find a way to match fund an £11.38m BDUK grant reached a head.

According to Cosgrove, the problem is that Shropshire Council simply does not want to borrow its share of the £22m, and was in fact “pretty peeved” when it found out it had to match fund £11.38m, as it would divert attention from its deficit reduction strategy.

To be frank, there is more than a whiff of monumental cock-up to the situation, as well.

“They had originally been hoping for some Growth Fund money from the Marches LEP, but there was some sort of cock-up. They say that they and the LEP were badly advised by DCLG  (the Department for Communities and Local Government) and were told that the first round of Growth money couldn’t be used for broadband infrastructure,” explains Cosgrove.

“It turns out that was wrong as it has been permitted for some counties. I think they’re hoping for some in the next round. In the meantime it leaves the three county MPs playing chicken with the Council as to who might blink first in finding or borrowing some money from ‘somewhere’, and Shropshire with no Phase 2. It really is a bit of a stalemate.”

As for the Shropshire and Marches campaigners, their withdrawal also means ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’ and a bit more attitude, clearly in evidence in its most recent bulletin, which said the government would bring the countryside “grinding to a halt” unless it worked with Shropshire Council leaders to end the impasse and stopped playing chicken over who blinks first.

“Rural residents and businesses deserve better than these antics,” said Cosgrove.

I have to say. I couldn’t agree more, and with an election on the way I wouldn’t want to be the candidate who has to doorstep voters in rural Shropshire.

But where on earth do you magic up £11.38m?


October 16, 2014  11:03 AM

Through the VDU, and what Alice found there

Alex Scroxton Alex Scroxton Profile: Alex Scroxton
Unified Communications, Video conferencing

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Two pence a week, and video conferencing every other day.”

Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire me – and I don’t care for video conferencing.”

“It’s very good video conferencing,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any today, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, video conferencing tomorrow and video conferencing yesterday – but never video conferencing today.”

“It must come sometimes to ‘video conferencing today’,” Alice objected.

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s video conferencing every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

I got sent a report by Azzurri, (the communications service provider, not the Italian national football team) today. It was about mobile productivity.

It was mostly well-thought out and quite sensible in its conclusions. Mobile workers are more productive. Employees are increasingly using mobiles for consuming, creating and editing content, and more and more are exploiting access to corporate content, such as email and CRM systems.

No argument there whatsoever.

The survey went on to say that next year, the focus would move to enabling unified communications and collaboration tools on mobiles, and video calling and conferencing is one of the top priorities for enabling, the survey said.

So will 2015 really be the year of video?

As I recall, late in 2013, 2014 was going to be the year of video. Before that we were certain it was going to be 2013. And definitely 2012. 2011 was also the year of video … in 2010. And 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006 as well.

I can’t speculate on 2005 as I only got my first job in tech journalism in July that year.

But I have my suspicions.


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