When IT Meets Politics

December 6, 2016  9:44 PM

MPs understand IT better than IT Professional understand politics

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Brexit, DPA, Eurim, GCHQ, GDPR, PICTFOR, Pitcom

Bryan Glick has just written an excellent piece on why the tech community needs to be active in the politics of the issues that affect it.

I completely agree but first we need the Tech Community to understand more about politics. Too few of them understand corporate or trade association politics, let alone “professional” (and I do not just mean those of BCS or IET) politics.

The problem is compounded by lobbyists who tell politicians that things are impossible when what they really mean is that they do not fit their clients current business models. An example is those who have attempted to rubbish the mix of anonymised age checking and selective blocking which enables cost-effective on-line child and consumer protection. They have also resisted the automated collation of abuse reports allied to processes to track and trace abusers, including across borders. The success of such processes correlates closely with the effort put in, It can be close to 100% in the case of Hollywood films pirated before release – because the studio lawyers have budgets (for legal advice and technical “investigation”) to match those of Google or Microsoft, and “outgun” most Telcos, ISPs or the Domain Name “industry”.

I have now been engaged in trying to help MPs understand IT and IT professionals (users not just suppliers) to understand politics for 40 years.

My problem can be summarised quite succinctly.

MPs have long understood Computers, IT and Digital better than IT professionals or the new Digerati understand politics.

But BOTH “sides” think it is the other way round.

That was why PITCOM was created (in 1981), with the support of the National Computing Centre (which then had over 2,000 USER members) and Computer Weekly (which was then almost entirely funded by Job Adverts). Both were more interested in the use of IT to meet customer and public needs than in the sales pitches of the suppliers and gurus of the day.

So what has changed?

The NCC and the User Groups of the 1970s and 1980s are no more. And Computer Weekly no longer depends on Job Ads. But more MPs than ever before have had a professional background in IT. More-over almost all are now sophisticated personal users of IT, including to filter enormous volumes of constituency and lobbying e-mails into those that matter. Their use of techniques like Twitter or Facebook is limited mainly by their uncertainty as to whether those whom they wish to communicate are using them. The success of UKIP, Brexit and Trump indicates they are correct to be cautious. Few of those who e-mail MPs ever read their tweets. Some MPs think that is because the most vociferous (the digital equivalent of the old “green ink” letter writers) live in not spots where they can barely browse the Internet at all, let alone make effective use of social media.

All that said – one of the most popular events of the EURIM (now DPA) calender used to be an annual reception with the  Computer Weekly 500 Club, when MPs could hear the views of those responsible for making the technology work.

Taking a look at the topics currently before Parliament. There is much more that needs to be said about privacy and surveillance. But not by the “usual suspects”. MPs are only too well aware that most of their voters are far more concerned over the threats from the insecure adware that clogs response times over their PCs as it monitors their every internet look-up, let alone transaction, and tracks their smart phone  where-ever it (albeit not necessarily the owner) goes,  than they are about “threats” from GCHQ or law enforcement.

Meanwhile the rush (? rash) of new UK data centres is in part because major e-commerce and cloud operators know that the consequent consumer backlash means that the days of seamless global clouds are as numbered as the days of offshore call centres in locations that cannot, or will not, survive the implementation of the GDPR.

This morning I received a note on the plans for the PICTFOR programme for the year ahead and was most interested to note how closely it resembles the current Digital Policy Alliance work groups. I hope that before the 2017 is out the two will be working together as closely as PITCOM and EURIM once did.

I would personally like to see that include the exercise to turn Brexit into Flexit, i.e. have cake and eat it.

I will blog on this separately when I can make time but it entails deciding which bits of the Single Market (including in skills) we wish to help the EU to progress, (perhaps paying a reasonable contribution accordingly), and which nationalist derogations and obfuscations we need like a hole in the head. I would remind readers that under “the Digital Single Market we have not yet got” it is easier to route many on-line transactions via the US (or increasingly via China), not just via the local operations of US players.

November 24, 2016  10:36 AM

Not quite “bye bye to business rates for broadband” … yet

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Broadband, Uncategorized

A five year holiday for new investment in full fibre back haul from April 1st 2017, as announced in the autumn statement, is a major step in the right direction. It is not, however, the full overhaul that is needed. That will hopefully come as the small print of implementation is negotiated over the next few months.

Yesterday I rejoiced. Today I would like to add the necessary notes of caution:

  • First there is the risk that digging that might have taken place over the next few months will be put back to after next April. I am not sure how big a risk this is – but it needs to be addressed if the UK is not to slip further behind overseas competitors during the Brexit negotiations.
  • Second there is the position of local fibre connectivity. The announcement refers to the fibre spine. This is indeed where some of the most egregious distortions in incentives (or rather disincentives) to invest have occurred but local  fibre also needs encouragement.
  • Third there is the position of wireless networks. All modern networks are a mix of fibre and wireless. The issue is how close to end device does the fibre get. Even with fibre to the home, there will commonly be a mix of wireless and powerline between the router(s) and the smart phones, TVs and toys, if not yet fridges, that are increasingly used to access the Internet. Meanwhile 4G and 5G  will need armies of masts to service the flocks of IoT devices that will ebb and flow through city centres, around sports arenas and tourist hot spots and along motorways and rail lines.

The business rates holiday needs to be accompanied by a review of the Valuation office “tone list” to bring it into line with the way unit costs and prices have tumbled over the past decade or so. That  requires the competitors to BT to be less shy about giving current information to the Valuation Office. I have no illusions as to how difficult this will be. Back in 2010 I blogged in support of the last attempt to get them to do so. Almost none responded. They have since had to live with the consequences.

Time has, however, moved on. My understanding is that some of the players have been using evidence of current actuals in support of the current crops of appeals and court cases. The consequence has been “an outbreak of sanity”. Treasury now has the evidence that this is an area where apparent “give-aways” will lead to more tax revenue … not less. More-over, it will only lose if it fights to maintain unrealistic valuations which do not fit with the fundamental basis of the rating system.

Better to give way gracefully – beginning with a good headline!

November 23, 2016  7:43 PM

Bye bye business rates on full fibre broadband

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
5G, Broadband, iot

The announcement of a Business Rates holiday for full fibre broadband investment from April 1st is a tribute to the hard work put in by many players. It is also, perhaps, the cheapest give away the Chancellor has ever made. I calculate the net cost as zero. From almost the first month it will generate more taxable revenue for less hassle. There are many to thank but Kit Malthouse (Parliamentary Chairman of the Digital Infrastructure Group of the  Conservative Technology Forum) was the only MP to actually ask for action on business rates during the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill. Others thought it too difficult or technical an ask. I would also like to thank those who pursued appeals within the letter and spirit of the business rates regime. They succeeded in demonstrating that the current tone list values were about to collapse anyway.

Now comes the hard work of delivery. I put off blogging on the actions in put in train after the discussions at the party conference until today’s announcement – the hope that I could tick off at least one. Hence my joy that one of the biggest obstacles in the way of investment by the competitors to BTs has been removed.

The full wording in the Autumn Statement is as follows:

Digital communications

3.20  The government will invest over £1 billion by 2020-21, including £740 million through the NPIF, targeted at supporting the market to roll out full-fibre connections and future 5G communications. This will bring faster and more reliable broadband for homes and businesses across the UK, boost the next generation of mobile connectivity and keep the UK in the forefront of the development of the Internet of Things.

This will be delivered through:

  • £400 million for a new Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund, at least matched by private finance, to invest in new fibre networks over the next 4 years, helping to boost market ambitions to deploy full-fibre access to millions more premises by 2020
  • a new 100% business rates relief for new full-fibre infrastructure for a 5 year period from 1 April 2017; this is designed to support roll out to more homes and businesses (39) providing funding to local areas to support investment in a much bigger fibre ‘spine’ across the UK, prioritising full-fibre connections for businesses and bringing together public sector demand. The government will work in partnership with local areas to deliver this, and a call for evidence on delivery approaches will be published shortly after the Autumn Statement (10)
  • providing funding for a coordinated programme of integrated fibre and 5G trials, to keep the UK at the forefront of the global 5G revolution; further detail will be set out at Budget2017 as part of the government’s 5G Strategy (10)

Among the topics I aim to cover in the blogs over the next few week are:

  • the need for network builders and those property owners who want better fixed and mobile access for their tenants to work together to secure fast and fair agreements on access and wayleaves: within days or weeks, not months or years. A start has been made but there is much still to do.
  • the need for backhaul competition – to provide the secure and resilient inter-operable, but not inter-dependant (i.e. no single points of vulnerability), fibre spines on which a smart society, with ubiquitous 5G and vast flocks of chattering IoT devices, will depend.
  • the need for maintenance competition – so that those dependent on, for example, Openreach, do not have to wait for one of their engineers or contractors to fix that which those who already maintain much of the UK’s critical national infrastructure could fix without delay.
  • the need for a central repository of information on 5G standards and trials, perhaps maintained by Inspec and/or the National Physical Laboratory,  so that not just UK researchers and innovators, but those making plans and committing procurements have easy access to world class information.

On the 17th October the council of the Digital Policy Alliance approved, subject to membership buy-in,  plans covering all these topics. One of the reasons I have not blogged much since has been because I have been busy identifying those who want to deliver practical results and pull forward future-ready investment. I lost interest in those who wish to identify and admire problems for future study some years ago. The necessary critical mass finally appears to be coming together. I look forward to being able to also blog on some very interesting partnerships, as soon as the participants are willing to be quoted.

November 3, 2016  10:45 AM

Homebuilders Federation opposes fibre to the home policy

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
5G, fibre, Gigaclear, Uncategorized

The Home Builders Federation has formally opposed proposals, in its new town plan, by Ashford Borough Council to  require fibre to the home to developments of more than ten properties unless impractical. This goes further than the BT offer of free fibre to the home for developments of 30 or more properties which the HBF negotiated earlier this year. Developers might therefore have to pay BT for access and have no certainty of alternative offers, whether free or not.

The full objection, (see below) appears to equate “National Policy” with the deal negotiated earlier this year between the HBF and BT and quotes costs given by BT in the course of that negotiation. There is an interesting question as to how far these reflect the experience of the others who might wish to serve the new business parks and housing estates around Ashford International Station and the Channel tunnel terminal. They also appear to be higher than those experience in the rather more rural areas being served by suppliers like Gigaclear. This objection therefore appears to be more of a pre-emptive strike against other councils who might be considering similar policies

The HBF concludes that  “Developers want to provide Broadband in new homes. This has become an expectation of customers. The HBF is working hard with Open Reach and other providers to improve the service to new homes.”  Meanwhile Borough Councils like Ashford are looking ahead to 2030 when Fibre and 5G are expected by the Minister to be ubiquitous. Indeed this section of the plan is only one of a number of measures being undertaken by Ashford to encourage and facilitate, not just mandate, local investment in a future ready infrastructure.

It appears essential for the alternative (to BT) suppliers to respond to the objection below – and contact the HBF with their counter offer.

Should many more councils be thinking ahead, requiring new homes to be future ready?

Are the quoted costs a fair average, or have they been overtaken by new technology and business models?

Should future policy be dictated by national deals between dominant suppliers and major trade associations?

Or is that the way the world works and the Federation is being perfectly reasonable?

Please make your views known via the pressure group or your choice? Or post your comments in response.

Local Plan to 2030 Regulation 19 – Publication June 2016

Document Section Local Plan to 2030 – Publication Draft TOPIC POLICIES SECTION B – EMPLOYMENT AND THE LOCAL ECONOMY Promoting of Fibre To The Premise (FTTP) Content [List all comments on this document part]
Comment ID ALP/1920
Respondent Home Builders Federation Ltd (James Stevens) [List all comments by this respondent]
Response Date 10 Aug 2016
Current Status Accepted
Do you consider this part of the document is Sound? No
On which grounds do you consider the document unsound? (if applicable) Not Justified, Not Consistent with national policy
Do you consider the Document is Legally Compliant? Yes

This policy is unsound because it is unjustified and inconsistent with national policy. The Council has not considered the cost implications of this policy.

The policy requires that all residential development within the Ashford urban area will enable FTTP. In rural areas, schemes of 10 or more dwellings will enable FTTP.

Firstly, this is in effect a Grampian Condition imposed on applications. Providing a fibre connection is not within the control of the developer: the applicant depends on a third party provider, such as Open Reach. If Open Reach cannot provide a connection, or provide fibre, then this policy would allow the Council to refuse the application.

Secondly, there is a cost associated with complying with this policy that is especially difficult for smaller developments. Those organisations (like Open Reach) providing fibre connections do charge customers, although the tariffs they charge are not publicly disclosed. However, for dwellings in areas where there is no fibre network, the cost can be very high. It averages out at about around £2-3,000 per dwelling as the provider will need to build a cabinet and then extend the fibre from the cabinet to each dwelling in a scheme. This will cause difficulties for rural schemes. We have provided a copy of the agreement between the HBF and Openreach (letter to the Government dated 3 February 2016). This indicates the costs involved, although the specific costs are not referred to by the agreement for reasons of Openreach wanting to maintain commercial confidentiality. One of the key passages from the agreement is:

“However, although the co-funding offer is available to all those outside of existing coverage, for some of these smaller developments the cost to connect will be considerable and it is for these that wider community funding and alternative technologies could have a role to play. Openreach and the HBF jointly recognise there is still more work to be done to come up with solutions for the smaller developments of fewer than 30 homes where they do not benefit from existing coverage.”

There are significant cost implications associated with this policy and the Council will need to factor this into its viability appraisal. This is an area that is not currently covered by the Viability Study. The Council proposes that the policy is applied only to schemes of 10 units and more, but the providers will charge developments at this scale. Only on very large schemes will developers tend to benefit from the economy of scale.

The caveats in the policy with regard to applicants for proposals of ten units and under having to demonstrate what is ‘practical’ does not accord with the NPPF. The NPPF requires that “only policies that provide a clear indication of how a decision maker should react to a development proposal should be included in the plan”. The words ‘where practical’ would not provide this precision. It would be unclear to the applicant what the Council might judge was ‘practical’. This could be very subjective. This would prevent applications that accord with the development plan from being approved without delay (NPPF, paragraph 14).

Similarly, we are concerned by the requirement that if fibre is “not practical due to special circumstances” (with the applicant having to demonstrate those ‘special circumstances’ to the Council) then s/he will need to provide non Next Generation Access technologies. Again, like fibre, this is in effect a Grampian Condition as providing such technologies is not within the applicant’s direct control. This policy could be used to refuse an application.

Developers want to provide Broadband in new homes. This has become an expectation of customers. The HBF is working hard with Open Reach and other providers to improve the service to new homes. This is a priority. However, we are concerned by the prescriptive nature of this policy, and how it effectively imposes a Grampian Condition of all new residential development. For these reasons, we consider that the policy should be deleted from the plan.

We recommend that this policy is deleted from the Plan.

What changes do you suggest to make the document legally compliant or sound?
Do you consider it necessary to participate at the oral part of the examination? Yes
Does your representation relate to an omission site (a site that has not been included). For example a site for Housing, Employment, Travellers, or Local Green Spaces. No
Please supply details of the omission site.

October 28, 2016  11:08 AM

Brexit adds urgency to sorting UK skills supply

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
apprenticeships, Brexit, Digital skills, Internet, parliament, SFA, Uncategorized

Calls for continued “freedom of movement” get enthusiastic support from IT industry audiences. The Parliament and the Internet Conference yesterday was no exception. But the Brexit vote was caused, in no small part, by nationwide frustration with employers exporting jobs or importing skilled staff, rather than reskilling their existing workforce or helping sort out long standing problems with the UK education and training system. HEFCE and the Skills Funding Agency are still fixated with academic standards rather than employability. Perhaps the most egregious example is the ongoing attempt to use the apprentice levy to fund the development of new generation of fragmented anglo-centric programmes courses rather than enable youngsters to acquire employer recognised international qualifications.

The problem is not confined to digital but is perhaps at its most frustrating in our industry. I have sympathy with those who still think it is easier to fight Brexit and continue to import skills rather than try to reform the funding agencies and train our own. I have spent nearly forty frustrating years trying to get policy focused on the skills of the present and future. I have had sporadic successes: such as getting the Micros in Schools written into both Conservative and Labour policy studies before the 1979 manifesto and getting the Chancellor to fund the Millennium Bug busters programme – which provided hands-on intensive ten day courses in micro-processor diagnostics and maintenance for over 40,000 individuals.

But the UK “blob“, with a century of experience since the Universities took charge of education policy in 1917, has always fought back – and narly always wins – albeit it failed in the attempt to remove industry-driven quality control (including the materials and equipment and relevant experience of the teaching staff) from the bug-buster programme.

The “blob” will continue to win unless and until Chief Executives demand action from Secretaries of States in support of their Sector Skills Partnerships. But even that will not succeed unless and until we can persuade the Vice Chancellors and Courts of the Universities that our reliance on imported talent is a symptom of their failure (not success) and that their own future prosperity depends on responding to the winds of change – not backing those who continue pissing in them. You cannot actually beat the blob. You can only change its collective motivation using a mix of carrots and sticks hat they recognise: pride and prestige are at least as significant as money.

I recently helped organise a Digital Policy Alliance 21st Century Skills Group meeting which came up with a Six Point plan which will shortly be circulated for peer review. The summary is below. Please contact DPA (not me, I am now only an advisor) if you would like to join the exercises to help turn Brexit to advantage, including the creation of a new and more constructive relationship with a reformed European Union as well as ensuring that we are globally competitive with “the rest of the world”.

A Six Point Post-Brexit Plan for ensuring Local Access to Global Skills

(Third Draft – please comment to virgo.philip@outlook.com)

Summary of Key Points:

  •  The referendum campaign highlighted the tension between controlling immigration and access to world class skills, particularly digital. That tension indicates the increasing seriousness of our long term failure to nurture and harness native talent. We need to use the opportunity to review the means of delivering the manifesto commitment to a workforce for the 21st Century and 3 million apprentices.
  •  We need to use the opportunity of bringing skills and training together in a single department to clarify ministerial responsibility (including vis a vis cabinet Office and DCMS) for harnessing the growing employer discontent with current digital skills programmes and levy/grant proposals to bring about commitment to help make the necessary changes and use the results to meet their needs and those of their suppliers, customers and users.
  • The focus should be on the local delivery of globally recognised skills and qualifications, not the requirements of academic funding agencies, although the opportunity should be used to enable and encourage the latter to support UK leadership in pan-EU and wider international co-operation to address known gaps and future needs, in close co-operation with industry.
  • The prime policy objectives should be to make it more attractive to more employers to retrain existing staff and train local youngsters and to avoid policy changes which get in the way of enabling indigenous skills providers to meet local, regional and national needs, to global standards.
  • The six point plan can be summarised as:
  1. Clarify ministerial, departmental and agency responsibilities for consultation, funding, delivery and quality control
  2. Incremental programmes for streamlining and de-duplicating consultation, funding and delivery channels and encouraging cross-boundary co-operation.
  3. Simple processes for recognising reputable industry recognised materials, courses, qualifications for inclusion in publicly co-funded, employer-driven apprenticeships.
  4. Simple processes for supporting co-operation (including with technology vendors and commercial trainers) in the production of modules to fill existing and emerging gaps
  5. Support the replication of good practice, content and assessment with processes which recognise that some commercial players need a direct return on investment while others are providing uncharged access in support of marketing, security or other business objectives.
  6. Improve the quality and availability of material on apprenticeship programmes of all types (including graduate and post graduate), locally as well as nationally
  •  Ministers and officials must recognise the need for change to be incremental. Many of the current suppliers (particularly in the public sector) are in fragile condition, unable to cope with rapid, mandatory or organisational change. Some changes may need to be made rapidly. But others do not. Restructuring and mandatory change (as opposed to carrots) will not help.



October 13, 2016  11:56 AM

Theresa May has embraced Gigabit Britain. How will her ministers ensure delivery?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
backhaul, BT Retail, Carillion, competition, copper, CTF, CTIL, Fujitsu, Gigaclear, Inca, Maintenance, O2, Sky, Vodafone, Yoti

When the Prime Minister used her closing conference speech to say it is “just not right” that “half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection” we knew something really had changed. Martyn Warwick saw alarm bells for BT when she added that her administration is prepared to “take big, sometimes even controversial decisions about our countries infrastructure” because “where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene”.  That intervention may not, however, be bad news for BT shareholders.

Before the Conservative Party Conference I blogged on why the fringe meetings on Broadband would matter. I did not fully appreciate just how significant they would prove.

First came the Res Publica meeting on Sunday eveningMatt Hancock was an unannounced opening speaker and apologised to say he would have to leave early. He spoke briefly to say that the future is fibre, the questions is how get there. He then said that instead of answering questions he would rather listen to the other speakers. In the event he stayed to listen to all the presentations and into the beginning of the points from the floor, taking copious notes.   Damien Collins, acting chairman of the Culture Media and Sports Committee, put the best case I have yet heard for GFast: as a means of giving short term benefit to those who might not get fibre for a decade. He also said that the status of Openreach is less important than opening markets to competition and holding Openreach’s feet to the fire on quality of service. He also raised the need to end the current/potential Openreach monopoly of supply to BT Retail and EE to competition. That theme was reinforced by a double act between City Fibre and the Wireless Infrastructure  Group on the need for infrastructure competition. The pointed out that across Europe the main customers for the “independent” fibre and wireless utilities are the incumbent operators. Their UK equivalents need to be able to similarly supply BT Retail and EE,  because the latter cannot afford the infrastructure investment needed and pay their pensioners without significant market and regulatory change. Were BT Retail and EE to be anchor tenants for independent fibre and wireless utilities we would see a surge in investment on a scale that Openreach could never afford on its own – even if it was spun out and Sky agreed a ten  year contract to enable it to turn risk investment into a leasing deal.

The Conservative Technology Forum event was organised too late to appear in the Conference Programme. It was also outside the security zone in the IET, (not on the map of conference venues). Even so there was a full house (the picture below shows some empty seats but at the time it was taken there were more late-comers standing at the back than there were empty chairs). Mims Davies MP, PPS to Matt Hancock, arrived early to meet the audience and speakers and. like Matt at the Res Publica Event, took copious notes.

Mims Davies MP taking notes while the case was being made for opening the Openreach network maintenance monopoly to competition

Mims Davies MP taking notes while the case was being made for opening the Openreach network maintenance monopoly to competition

The aim of the CTF meeting was to illustrate the willingness of industry players to do what is necessary to prevent Britain from falling yet further behind France, Germany, Italy, Ireland and Spain, let alone Scandinavia and the Pacific Rim when it comes to installing “future ready” (i.e. fibre) networks. The aim was to address the question of how could/should network operators, property owners, technology suppliers and local authorities work together to use  market forces to help the UK not only catch up, but leapfrog the competition.

Carlos Pierce, Head of Special Legal Projects, CTIL (owned jointly by Vodafone and Telefonica) began with comments on the need for the network operators to work in partnership with property owners (both urban and rural) to create win-win agreements to address not spots and prepare for a world of 5G and ubiquitous access which would need many more masts and cells.  Chris Pateman, Chief Executive of the Federation of Communications Services then spoke on the need to introduce competition to the backhaul and maintenance markets.

The topic of backhaul competition has been neglected for many years. The over-reliance of the UK on a single, under-invested national network with long-standing bottlenecks and single points of failure needs urgent action as society becomes increasingly dependent on on-line services. We tend to forget that the mobile operators, broadcasters and emergency services are often critically reliant on overcrowded Openreach ducts – such as the bomb proof communications tunnel under Manchester, in which a fire also took out the supposedly resilient World War 3 MoD network for the NW.

I had not previously realised just how much the maintenance, not just construction, of the Openreach network depends on subcontractors working within legacy processes resonant of 19th century demarcation disputes. Openreach’s management of engineering subcontractors has been a major source of complaint for many years, leading to claims of consistent underperfomance, poor consumer experience and higher costs for its customers – the 500 or so fixed and mobile communications providers (including BT Retail, O2, Sky, Talk Talk, Vodafone etc.). We were told that service could be greatly improved by enabling communication providers to use their own qualified engineers or contract direct with the independent network construction and maintenance organisations who help build/maintain the BT/EE networks. These include global players like Babcock, Carillion and Fujitsu). It was suggested that current quality control and service management practices be upgraded and extended to meet international standards for coordination and licensing to deliver customer improvements without compromising the functionality of existing networks. This would also enable the engineering community to expand the UK skills base and exploit the fast growing world markets for network construction and support.

Peter Farmer of Gamma then raised the vexed question of business rates on broadband. Claims of unfairness (with small networks being charged over 20 times the average charge to BT for an equivalent circuit) are not actually addressed by the Chancellor’s threatened quadrupling of BT’s rates bill  because of the way BT has been able to agree a single national deal whereby its rates do not go up if it invests in local upgrades – but those of its competitors do when they extend theirs. The parliamentary chairman of the CTF Digital Infrastructure Group, Kit Malthouse MP  raised the subject in the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill . A sub-group is working on proposals for revenue neutral ways of addressing the issue within the current business rates. It is relatively easy to be revenue neutral because the current regime is killing off investment. A fairer regime would lead to more investment and thus more, not less, revenue.

A lot is said about the way that fragmented Local Government government planning and procurement processes get in the way of pooling local resources and expediting investment. They are, however, under extreme pressure to reduce overheads costs. Practical support for joining up is rather more useful than mere exhortation. Louise Lancaster, Head of Regulation and Policy for Relish, talked about how the suppliers should work together to help Local Authorities with practical examples of how co-operation to share scarce resources had saved money and improved service. At a time of pressure on both finances and expertise they need support not exhortation. This is particularly true when it comes to setting procurement standards so that incremental cost-saving investments (e.g. smart lighting) will fit together to save even more as the jigsaw parts of a part of smart city come together. Another sub-group is coming together to provide the necessary guidance.

Matthew Hare, chief executive of Gigaclear, one of the sponsors, reinforced some of the points on co-operation and rates, giving an example of where he would have been charged four times in business rates what it would have cost to rent an equivalent backhaul circuit from BT. The system was broken. John Light, of Modular Wiring Systems spoke of the many infrastructures over which fibre was being run across the EU and the irony of those producing it in the UK being unable to access it locally at competitive costs. Robin Tombs of Yoti spoke of the way the current situation places obstacles in the way of those trying to grow innovative UK-based new companies.

We then had a strong and positive response from Charles Trotman, of Country Land and Business, whose members own most of the surface of the UK, on the need for co-operation to create win-win arrangements to address the not-spots that impact those trying to run businesses across the country, rural as well as urban. This led to points on the need to improve information on what has already been installed and what it will actually deliver to help markets work: particularly with regard to the quality of service needed by businesses. The point was again made that they need security, resilience and “guaranteed”, not marketing headline, speeds.

Then we had a sharp firefight on whether the publicity for G-Fast was “catsplatter”, deliberately muddying the business case for rolling out a mix of future-ready fibre and wireless, or a low cost means of providing most broadband customers with access to 2 – 300 mbs. For once we had a BT response that was both well informed and passionate. It led me to consult one of the technical experts who had been unable to join us. My conclusion was that we will only know the answer where we are able to access reasonably accurate maps of what has actually been built over the past 50 years. For example, we need to know how much of the Openreach network is not copper but copper coated aluminum. The latter was initially developed for overhead lines because it was lighter. Then it was used across many, perhaps most, local voice networks installed from the 1960s onwards as copper prices rose.  The downside is that the joints in a much repaired rural circuit, or that meandering though a 1960s or 70s high rise block of flats, mean it may go slower, not faster as these lead to sharply rising error rates when the latest digital technologies are used. Thus the entire network in Milton Keynes had to be replaced

By the time of the CPS meeting on the Tuesday of the Conservative Conference I thought I understood the issues. That meeting was addressed by  Vodafone, Sky and the Institute of Directors. Until then I had not realised how much both depend on Openreach, even thought they have their own backhaul networks. Apparently Sky spends 800 million a year buying services from Openreach. Were Openreach to be separated from BT Retail, Sky might well be willing to enter into a ten year contract for improved services. Such a contract could then transform the ability of Openreach to move rapidly to replace those circuits that would not benefit from GFast with full fibre. I was also told the expected BT strategy is to use GFast to counter the threat from Virgin, not to take on the altnets. In other words it is not Catsplatter but a Virgin Killer. Either it looks as though we might yet see a genuinely competitive market emerging.

That leaves open the question of whether BT/EE can afford its share of the investment needed at the same time as funding its pensioners and the premier league. Faced by similar, but arguable less acute pressures, Telia decided to stop opposing plans for municipally led dark fibre utilities  (like Stokab) and instead became on of the anchor tenants. a couple of decades alter it operates Stokab on behalf of its fellow tenants, but still does not own it.  Interestingly the UK is unique in how little of its fixed and mobile communications infrastructure is owned by independent utility providers. In the US around 90% of communications masts are owned by utility companies who rent capacity to multiple operators. In the UK the independents, like Arqiva and the Wireless Infrastructure Group, own only about 30%.  Given the stresses of investment for a Smart/5G world that is likely to rise – but how do we ensure that the pension funds and other long term investors of the world wish to invest in post-Brexit?

The all-party follow up to the CTF event (a Digital Policy Alliance Round table is being planned for the afternoon of the 25th October) is all about showing that industry is ready to do its part – provided it has a regulatory framework that will allow market forces to work – and not be constrained by a need to protect the past from the future lest Treasury has to pick up the tab for the BT pension fund.

Next week, on the 19th October, at the INCA Conference “Building Gigabit Britain”, I expect to hear how BT Openreach is planning to respond to that challenge – including by expediting its own fibre roll-out at the same time as using GFast to protect its core revenues from Virgin. But I expect to hear more. I do encourage those of you in Local Government or involved with plans to meet the needs of Commercial Centres and Business Parks to attend, sharpen your minds and then work out how to work together to get the future YOU want.


September 27, 2016  10:08 AM

Broadband at the Party Conferences: why it matters

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
"Digital Economy Bill", backhaul, Brexit, Broadband, BT, ECC, Inca, monopoly, Openreach, Sky, Vodafone

Without a surge of investment in “future ready” fibre and wireless networks next spring, the UK will fall behind France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Spain, let alone Scandinavia and the Pacific Rim before the Brexit negotiations are complete.  If so, Brexit might indeed be the disaster the Remoaners claim.  By contrast we could leapfrog the rest of Europe and even much of the United States  into the future.  But that needs co-operation between those who want to see investment in bypassing the bottlenecks currently throttling the communications of the high tech and multi-media businesses of the future.

I have just taken a look at the technology event listings for the party conferences.  The Conservative Technology Forum event on a Post Brexit Broadband Policy was organised to late to be included (the content and speaker line up are being finalised tomorrow). There are events on Smart Cities, Big Data (both medical and consumer), the effect of technology on employment (rehashing the arguments of the late 1970s and early 1980s) and Social Inclusion (both urban and rural). There are also many events on skills.  I could find only three, all at the Conservative Party Conference, on the need to expedite communications infrastructure investment.

Why is Britain’s Broadband Broken?

On Sunday 2nd October Res Publica is looking at “Why is Britain’s broadband broken? How digital infrastructure competition will deliver a brighter future” with two members of the Culture Media and Sport Committee and Mark Collins of City Fibre (who are doing more to create Smart Cities than anyone else). That meeting is expected to feature material from the INCA Gigabit Britain Report  That report is particularly interesting because it is co-sponsored by Vodafone and Sky as well as Relish (whose owners also own 3 and Hongkong Telecom), City Fibre, Hyperoptic and Warwicknet. More-over the latest supplier to join INCA is Huawei. It looks as though a post Brexit UK might well be very attractive to inward investors  provided we do indeed have a market that is open to competition.

Towards a post-Brexit Strategy for Gigabit Britain 

Hence the theme of the Conservative Technology Forum meeting “Towards a post- Brexit Strategy for Gigabit Britain – Building the Infrastructure for a Smart Society: 16.30 – 18.30, 3rd October IET Austin Court.  (note that is outside the Security Zone so those without conference passes can attend). This builds on the outputs from a series of meetings looking at why London is so badly served with fixed and mobile communications and how to help pull through new investment, despite the desire of the incumbent to preserve its leased line revenue from competition. Those meetings ere organised by a variety of players, most either all-party or non-partisan. They led to a partial breakthrough when property owners and network operators came together under the aegis of the City of London to agree a common toolkit for access and wayleave arrangements.

Some of the participants have since been looking at how to extend that spirit of co-operation to cover mobile communications, the rest of the UK  and some of the other barriers to investment. Most of the actions are non-partisan and the CTF event is an occasion for network operators, property owners and technology suppliers to describe how they would like to work together and with local authorities to remove the obstacles to allowing market forces to work.

The discussion chaired by Kit Malthouse MP (Parliamentary Chairman, Digital Infrastructure, CTF) will begin (at 17.00) with short presentations of plans for cooperation to address:

  • The Electronic Communications Code and Access and Wayleave arrangements
  • Introducing competition to backhaul and maintenance
  • Introducing certainty and fairness to business rates
  • Helping local government identify, publicise and build on success

There will then be a response from Mims Davies MP, PPS to Matt Hancock MP, Minister of State for Digital Policy, DCMS

Forming coalitions of the willing

There has been controversy and confrontation over the reform of the Electronic Communications Code. But happily many of the key players are coming together to help the Ofcom attempt to produce a code of practice. The potential for co-operation goes much wider, however, from common processes that enable access and wayleaves to be agreed inside days, not months (and in some cases years) through an open commercial market for re-use to Victorian style co-partnerships

Debate commonly  focuses on competition in the local loop but that is not the only monopoly. A variety of technologies might be used, including by BT to wind up speeds over current networks but their use is constrained by backhaul capacity. Is the problem best addressed by a USO for backhaul or by competition. And, if the answer is “both”,  surely we need a better concept than USO for the means of ensuring that all have access to services that are fit for the evolving needs of the 21st Century The Openreach maintenance monopoly can also be a serious constraint, particularly on those wishing to compete on quality of service, not just price.

Kit Malthouse spoke during the Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill on the need to reform business rates. Proposals are being worked up for a brief for use during the Committee Stage of the Bill starting on the 11th.

Creating world-class smart communities

There are a number of events at each of the party conference under the banner of “smart cities”. Most are concerned with the devolution of powers from Whitehall. That is only part of the need. Most of Britain’s Canals and Railways were organised by consortia of landowners, property developers and businessmen working in co-operation via local authorities. “Coalitions of the willing” can move much faster than politicians and government can plan and mandate.  Such coalitions also require mutual understanding of each others objectives, motivations and constraints. The BEREC report on the “Challengers and Drivers of NGA rollout” indicates clearly that investment correlates with competition. Competition between would-be Smart Cities for jobs of the future might be the best way of helping the whole of Britain, not just a handful of Cities, get ahead and stay there. But how do we help councils justify the effort at a time when a efforts are focussed on making 30% savings without impacting services? The answer has to include publicity for examples where savings of 50% and more have been achieved, without up front investment, by the imaginative and shared use of mobile communications accessing cloud-based services. That is surprisingly difficult because the most spectacular savings involve bottom up incremental initiatives which made little or no money for the major suppliers who might be expected to sponsor the relevant awards ceremonies.

Why Fibre is Good for You

On the 4th October, 13.30 – 14.30 the Centre for Policy Studies has a meeting on Why Fibre is Good for you, with Sky, Vodafone, the Institute of Directors and Matt Hancock . I look forward to a robust call for a policy that meets the need of business and a response from the minister. Interestingly both Sky and Vodafone have good business cases for helping publicise imaginative, incremental exercises by councils to use a mix of fibre and wireless to delver more and better for less.

Then comes the need to deliver.

I am hopeful that the meeting tomorrow to go firm on the content for  the CTF meeting will also confirm the formation of teams willing to work together on an all-party basis to help delivering what they propose. A meeting of the all-party Digital Policy Alliance has been scheduled, in Westminster for day after the committee state of the Digital Economy Bill is due to end, 25th October, to put the issues into the context of the digital infrastructure needed for a smart society, with an initial portfolio of short term projects  for delivery by the start of the new year. That will, hopefully, give confidence that co-operation works better than compulsion.

September 23, 2016  6:41 PM

The 50% e-Crime rise and Yahoo revelations show how right the CMS Select Committee was

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Analytics, Big Data, Brexit, cybersecurity, e-crime, Yahoo

In July we learned that 10% of the UK population have been the victims of e-Crime – albeit nearly always reimbursed, having “only” suffered the hassle of a refused card and a couple of days struggle to get the cash to survive until they received a new card.  Earlier this week we learned that on-line fraud has risen 50% over the past year . Today we saw publicity for the Consumer Association plans for a class action against those banks which do not reimburse those who have been victims of the type of fraud that commonly follows a data breach notification  (e.g. the fraudster purports to be from security or technical support team of the organisation that has reported the breach and collects the credentials to bypass the banks security processes).

In parallel we learn that Yahoo discovered it had lost over 500,000 passwords and identities four years ago only when some of them were reported to be on open offer earlier this year. Meanwhile  we have no idea as to the security , or otherwise, of all those apps tracking what you do over your mobile phone or social network accounts. It is, however, apparent that those promoting “big data” tracking services have been concealing how they really operate, as well as what they really measure, from those whose advertising budgets they seek to influence as well as from those whose transactions and movements are tracked, analysed and sold to who-ever will pay (or can break the security, if any, of the “big” marketing database).  Meanwhile the changing scale and nature of some of the attacks being mounted against those who help law enforcement illustrates how the insecurity of the Internet of Things is already compounding the problems we face.

It is now also exactly three months since I blogged on the report of the Cybersecurity enquiry conducted by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee. DCMS has yet to respond, although more of the recommendations are for the new Information Commissioner: e.g. that she should link the scale of the fines she levies, whether under existing law or new GDPR, to the lack of security (Para 18) and to the lack of processes to enable a consumer or small business to check that a phone call or e-mail really does come from the organisation claimed (Para 34).

It is perhaps ironic, given current arguments about Brexit, that the latter weakness stems from the lack of action to enforce the e-Commerce Directive requirement that those trading on-line should tell customers how to make physical contact in the event of problem. The good news is that we are beginning to see legal action in the UK, as well as in France, to remove the “innocent carrier” defence from those who make it almost impossible to report traffic in breach of their terms and conditions and/or who deploy technologies in support of geoblocking and IPR licensing while refusing to do so for child protection or personal safety. The latter “problem” should lead to an interesting debate during the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill – when those who want effective age checking to protect children from exposure to pornography to be enforced field reveal that the arguments over what is “practical” are arguments about business models not technology processes.

Para 14 of the CMS report recommends that “All relevant companies should provide well-publicised guidance to existing and new customers on how they will contact customers and how to make contact to verify that communications from the company are genuine.  This verification mechanism should be clearly signposted and readily accessible, as with existing customer contact and complaints mechanisms.”. Under the GDPR “all relevant companies” means almost everyone with an on-line presence.

Paragraph 18 contains a polite bombshell for the Professional Bodies and Trade Associations who are collectively responsible for the insecurities that have made the Internet and many, perhaps most, on-line services so vulnerable.    “We were also surprised that there is no requirement to make security a major consideration in the design of new IT systems and apps.  We therefore recommend that security by design should be a core principle for new system and apps development and a mandatory part of developer training, with existing development staff retrained as necessary.”

Having been in the industry for over forty years I know why the situation is as it is: each generation ignores the lessons expensively learned by the previous one because …

The excuses vary but can be summarised as:

  1. Everything is moving so fast that we cannot afford the time to check and still be first to market.
  2. The users will find the problems and we will fix them when they do, if we are still with the company.
  3. Only old farts rabbit on about professionalism. We digerati have new go-faster technologies and acronyms, so what they say is not relevant.
  4. The trustees of professional bodies cannot afford to take on those willing to spend more on legal cover up than they did on quality control.

In short the current situation is indefensible. Hence the importance of Paragraph 25 of the CMS report, the advice to victims to “lawyer up” and the recommendation that the Law Society provides guidance to their high street members to make it easier for victims to obtain redress under civil law.

That is, however, the negative side of the recommendations. I hope that, whatever the Government response to Select Committee report, (likely to be issued in October in parallel with its new Cyber security strategy), we will see industry, (both suppliers and customers, come together to help rebuild trust in the on-line world before it crumbles further.

I know that two parallel, but interlinked, exercises are being considered.

One is a SASIG event to describe the benefits large on-line users are getting from already following the recommendations in the Select Committee report. This should give the Information Commissioner a supply of case study carrots to accompany any sticks she may threaten to yield (para 34 of the report). The other is a Digital Policy Alliance event to bring together the relevant professional bodies and trade associations to look at alternative ways of identifying, maintaining, promoting and enforcing good practice (Para 30 and Para 38 of the report). These might include regular updates to cyber essentials (now more than a little dated) and linking incident management and cyber-indemnity insurance to auditable (and audited) evidence of competence and behaviour, not just theoretical certifications and processes.

I look forward to seeing both being progressed after the Party Conference Season in co-operation with the Information Commissioner, Government and Industry – including to make the Brexited UK  a safer place to go on-line and a more profitable location to base an on-line business, than either continental Europe or the United States.

September 12, 2016  1:28 PM

What pool of top cybersecurity talent? It does not exist.

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
cybersecurity, information, Security, talent

I was struck by a recent bleat that Whitehall is not “cool” enough to attract top cybersecurity talent. There is no pool of “top cyber security talent”. There are ten vacancies for every candidate. And the quality and motivation of many of the candidates is suspect – even if they have the qualifications and experience they claim – which many do not.

It is, however, probable that at least 10% of current Civil Servants have the aptitude to be turned into competent security technicians inside three months – using blended learning (a mix of intensive on-line and experiential learning and mentoring). MoJ (the source of this particular bleat) should join those who are organising “apprenticeships” for their own under-employed mature and experienced staff and/or for those who left to handle family responsibilities and are now free to return.

Next week I hope to be able to do an update blog on the current state of plans for the London Cybersecurity Skills Partnership. This appears to be  evolving into a group of major employers and training providers who wish initially to add a couple of zeros to the throughput of their talent development programmes: to meet both their own needs and the needs of those in their supply chains. They then wish to use the same approach to addressing the needs that no-one is looking at, but which will cripple the safety of the “smart society” unless we start to address them within months, not years.

Participation will be via the 21st Century Skills Group of the Digital Policy Alliance. Those wishing to discuss/admire needs/problems need not apply. We are also looking for those recruitment agencies who want to make more profit from helping clients to attract, identify and select new talent than from trying, in vain, to recruit the experienced security technicians who do not exist. I use the term technician to distinguish those capable of demonstrating practical competence from a scamateur, who confuses users into believing that mastery of jargon equates to technical, let alone professional, competence.

August 23, 2016  7:48 PM

Whose bloatware is killing your on-line sales?

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo
Bloatware, cloud, Data Analytics, Data breach, E-commerce, Uncategorized

Internet marketeers appear to have only just discovered that  half their audience “won’t even wait three seconds” for a website to load. I was, however, more interested to learn that average response times are now 4.5 seconds and growing.  Back in 1971, I was taught than an average response time of over 4 seconds was unacceptable for what were then called “on-line transaction processing systems”. The users would get pissed off and rebellious. If my system could not respond regularly within 2 – 4 seconds I had to disguise the delay, e.g. by overlaying requests for more information. So why are we going backwards on one of the key metrics for user satisfaction?

Excuses of complexity will not wash. Yes, I was only putting a couple of dozen VDUs on a mainframe which could not handle more than half a dozen “apps” at the same time. But technology has supposedly moved on in 45 years – even if user expectations regarding acceptable response time have not!  In the 1980s, when I was running the NCC Microsystems Centre, our yardstick for testing response times and reliability, including for pre-Internet on-line systems was “If this was a life support system, how many times a day would you be dead”. Over the next twenty years both power and reliability improved dramatically. A decade I could use the measure of “How many times a month or year …”

Over the past couple of years we have indeed been going backwards   

The same BBC article gives one of reasons why: “it’s mainly because of all the third party connections … ” The article mentions those to Google, Facebook and Twitter and the latency delays while waiting for responses from the US. Apparently Australian load times have increased from 5.4 to 8.2 seconds. The cost in lost business has also been measured: 10% for an extra half a second. Hence the growing pressure for high speed broadband (backhaul not just local access), the growing US investment in European data centres and internet exchanges.

But who are the real culprits?

I now look to who who is to blame when my systems slows or stops dead, usually while I am following up news stories, visiting a wide variety of sources. The culprit is nearly always some piece of cloud-based monitoring or tracking software which is trying to record what I visit and is waiting for a response or has crashed. I recently set about deleting the cookies of unknown origin on the system I most commonly use for web-browsing, leaving only those from sources I could recognise and felt likely to use again. A thankless task. I am still tempted to delete the lot, block cookies entirely and see what happens.

Then I read that, according to Kaspersky, 38%  of targeted cyber attacks involve the employees of Telcos and ISPs . I began to wonder how many of these involve “unauthorised access” to analyses of tracking software. Not only are the delays caused by monitoring bloatware costing you more sales than the analyses gain. The data collected for those analyses of such dubious value may be about to cost you massive fines under the GDPR when the breaches are finally detected.

I say dubious value because I am not interested in adverts from what I bought last week or hotel offers from towns I have just visited. More-over now that I have got into the habit of ringing to check the supposedly confirmed hotel bookings, I might as well ring those I have visited before and save them the on-line booking fee. I also avoid the risk of turning up unexpectedly because their Internet has been down or so slow they have given up and, either way, not received anything for several days. Then there are all the bargains not available on-line, Recently after two days of fruitlessly hunting on-line for a fridge to fit an unfashionable space (you try getting an old one repaired). I gave up and visited John Lewis to talk through my problem with a human being.  We found what I wanted. While it was on display it was not in the on-line system because it was discontinued, due to replaced (probably by something that would not fit!). There is much to be said for spending more time off-line.

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