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 evening. Matt 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Everything is moving so fast that we cannot afford the time to check and still be first to market.
- The users will find the problems and we will fix them when they do, if we are still with the company.
- Only old farts rabbit on about professionalism. We digerati have new go-faster technologies and acronyms, so what they say is not relevant.
- 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.
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.
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.
With the departure of Janet Hughes have we seen the final victory of David Moss and/or “common sense” (not very common among the digerati) and/or “the dinosaurs”: alias DWP, HMRC, the NHS and all those who want robust identities that are usable by most of the UK population?
If so what does the “victory” really mean?
Responding to public sentiment that lies behind the Brexit vote will require the government to implement robust processes for identifying who is entitled to be in the UK and/or to claim benefits and/or to claim free treatment on the NHS. The Pickles Review on Electoral Fraud indicates we also need robust processes for identifying who is entitled to vote, let alone to deter/detect those impersonating them.
I have on file consultation papers and submissions from Michael Howard’s “Entitlement Card” exercise onwards. In the course of looking at the practicalities of ID cards and registration systems I have looked at how the debate over whether the “state” or the “God” (alias the invisible hand of the market) controls identities goes back to the contrast between Sumeria and Egypt. Meanwhile that on the use of electronic identities goes back to early electronic telegraph with a test case in 1867.
Perhaps the time has finally come for Government to look at how the private sector handles identity and access management.
Since I served as specialist advisor to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Cybersecurity Enquiry it has been interesting to learn how rapid, robust and easy-to-use the processes of some major players for detecting impersonation now are. Now we need public discussion on how best to not only spread good practice but penalise those who willfully ignore it.
I would like to think that are core part of that discussion will be how Government itself could and should identify and follow best practice.
The cost of not doing so has become too great.
It is not enough for HMRC and DWP to set their own houses in order.
We need to cut the cost of fraud and impersonation across the rest of the public sector – and to us all as individuals – as well.
It is vital that digital employers, large and small, not only respond to the consultation survey on the new grant and levy proposals, but also e-mail their wider views to the consultation e-mail address, email@example.com , copied to the trade association and professional body of their choice and to their local MP. I have heard many concerns about the Apprentice Grant and Levy Scheme. When it was first launched and I gave it a very qualified welcome and later blogged on the need to make it fit for purpose. The middle of August is not be the best time to finally announce a consultation on the practical implementation of a programme that is critical to the future supply of digital skills in the UK. More-over the consultation topics and questions asked do not appear to relate the main concerns of employers and the deadline for responding to the survey is short, September 5th. I have a very real concern that ministers have demanded a review and their officials are going through the motions.
For those who do not have time to try to understand the documentation that accompanies the consultation questionnaire, I recommend reading the calls for change from Tech UK and from the Federation of Small Business and the guidance produced by Tech UK . Then read their respective welcomes for the “concessions” in the consultation. Mike Cherry of the FSB is even more cautious in his welcome than Charlotte Holloway of Tech UK, Tech UK appears to welcome “concessions”, e.g. regarding the training of the existing workforce, that do not appear to be in the consultation – unless the tentative proposals to allow employers to set up their own apprenticeship programmes, as opposed to contracting out, are expected to pen the way to going very much further than funding agency officials appear to currently envisage.
Then try taking the survey – you can discard the result when you get to the end. It helps put the verbiage into context. Not think how officials will use the answers you have given. Discard the answers and complete it again. Also think of the consequences if neither you nor your organisation make your views known.
Nowhere is there anything on the key question on how to organise or get funding for apprenticeships which will give your staff the evolving mix of industry recognised qualifications and certifications that your customers or regulators will expect them to have.
Nowhere is there anything on funding the mot expensive part of any genuine apprenticeships – the organisation and supervision of structured work experience (mine back in 1968 – 9, as the sole graduate trainee in STC Microwave and Line, was to produce a “project control” system for the IT department. It was then gleefully subjected to destruction testing by those it was supposed to “control”. My “passing out” was almost literal, when all who had failed to break it bought me a drink in Basildon’s main pub).
In July the Tech Partnership organised a major event to bring players together to look at graduate level apprenticeships and launch its new Digital Apprenticeships Board. It is not at all easy to see how these will fit with the Apprentice Grant and Levy system as currently envisaged.
I strongly suspect that ministers are serious about the need for the new system to be employer driven. But they need employers to make their views known load and clear. You have barely three weeks.
P.S. Why is it so important you respond?
After all hardly any of you take on trainees, let alone apprentices. Most of you, like most Digital employers rely on your staff acquiring skills by osmosis, hiring those who claim to have done the job for some-one else, (usually without checking their provenance), importing supposedly skilled staff from the EU, or contracting off-shore.
The answer is Brexit. “The people have spoken – the bastards.” The pressure from the existing workforce and indigenous population for you to train them and their children rather than rely on importing talent or exporting jobs is growing. It is much better to harness it constructively with train for jobs and not just jobs for training administrators.
Ofcom has ended its investigation into the Premier League contracts. It has been widely accused of bottling it. The termination can, however, be viewed more calmly . Ofcom does not have the resources to simultaneously wrestle with the BT, the BBC and the Premier league any more than BT can afford to run a world class communications utility at the same time as subsidising the incomes of premier league footballers and their agents.
Both have to prioritise. It is far more important, for the economic well-being of the UK as a whole, for Ofcom to hold BT’s feet to the fire on its quality of service and its competitive behaviour in those markets which it dominates.
Far better for both Ofcom and BT to focus on Broadband
The consequences will be positive for all concerned when BT spins out its content activities before they lose value in the face of growing competition from Amazon, Netflix and all those whose traffic BT/EE would make better/safer returns from carrying. The scale of communications infrastructure investment needed, including to provide the necessary security and resilience for a society that is increasingly critically dependent (life and limb not just entertainment) on ubiquitous Internet Access, is well beyond that which BT alone can afford. In order to meet the needs of its customers (Wholesale not just Openreach) BT needs to adopt a positive attitude towards shared access, wayleaves and physical infrastructure access and to move towards partnership deals based on global inter-operability standards (at all levels).
Sky has made clear that its priority is to get better quality of service from BT rather that compete by building its own infrastructure. Although Sky is in trials with City Fibre in York, it is Talk Talk that is making the running with regard to providing consumers with fibre to the home. Does that imply tht Sky might be ready to open up access to the wayleaves it acquired when it took over Easynet? Perhaps. But more important is to get National Grid and National Rail to open access to their wayleaves, poles and ducts using the new standard agreements.
Towards a Post Brexit Broadband Plan
On Thursday I am due to chair a meeting to discuss inputs to a six point plan for a UK post Brexit communications infrastructure strategy. The objective is deceptively simple – to identify the actions necessary to reduce the risk of post-Brexit recession by pulling forward “future-proof” investment. Today that includes fibre network/wireless networks(including ducting, chambers, masts etc.) built, maintained and operated to global inter-operability standards that are capable of being readily upgraded to handle foreseeable needs (including 5G, small cells, smart buildings, transport, shopping malls,telecare etc.) over at least the next 10 – 15 years.
Avoiding recession entails cutting 12 – 18 months of current investment timescales
The ideas currently on the table to help cut 12 to 18 months off current investment timescales, reduce risk and improve payback include:
- Spreading the use of Standard Access and Wayleaves, building on the work to date;
- Brokering agreements between landlord and network providers on good practice to ensure that mutually beneficial reform of the electronic communications code leads to a rapid improvement in the number and location of the wayleaves, masts and aerial sites on offer and/or co-investment in infrastructure to meet the known/expected needs of business tenants as well as of consumers and their children;
- Ensuring support and publicity for local authority best practice planning and regulatory processes and securing active support from planning inspectors for those copying them;
- Business rates based on a proportion of actual revenues rather than a tone list based on historic fictions contributed by those who have been able to bypass its use for their own networks; [Others want a “holiday” or wholesale scrapping but my father, who had started his civil service career in the Valuation Office, drove a successful campaign to reform the application of business rates to voluntary sports clubs and playing fields by demonstrating that a reversion to the basic principles of the rating system can produce better, fairer and faster results than trying to over-turn it].
- The creation of shared services to map the availability of backhaul and help turn PIA (physical infrastructure access) into a well informed, service driven, customer oriented, competitive market.
- Publicity for case studies of the use of fixed and mobile broadband to help local authorities deliver better services at lower costs without the need for up-front investment which they cannot afford. [Local authorities are almost totally focused on a mix of cost reduction and revenue generation. We need to harness that focus not piss in the wind trying to change it].
The list may change by the time I come to blog on what comes out of the meeting.
What will happen next?
I have a two main roles in this exercise.
- To identify which participants are willing to present which plans to a meeting with Conservative MPs on 6th September, in the knowledge that they will expected to help deliver on the implementation.
- To identify which channels they wish to use to organise co-operation on delivery, including liaison with officials and politicians.
How can you get involved?
I am pleased that a couple of those expected to participate are already working on plans to use Digital Policy Alliance sub-groups to handle all-party co-operation and to provide a neutral umbrella for professional/commercial co-operation. Those sub-groups will be open to all members of the Digital Policy Alliance. Please e-mail them, not me, for an invitation to join.
If you wish to be active at the political level via the Digital Infrastructure Group of the Conservative Technology Forum, please join before contacting me because I will be handing the follow up to others to progress after the party conference. I will then be focused on Skills, and particularly Cyber Security skills until my term of office comes to an end next year.
This week has seen a variety of calls to use infrastructure investment prevent the UK from sliding into a post Brexit recession. Most of the suggestions, (except possibly for an extra runway at Gatwick and restarting the electrification of the Northern railways), are unlikely to produce any results, whether spend or benefits, before the Brexit negotiations are complete.
The exception is investment in upgrading the UK’s Broadband infrastructure. Results could be almost immediate, provided the confused situations on access and wayleaves and on building regulation and planning processes can be rapidly sorted – removing 12 -18 months delay (on average) from almost any project (however modest).
Voluntary co-operation will achieve more, faster than coercion
The most obvious way of achieving this is not, however, government action. It is voluntary co-operation between a critical mass of property owners (wanting a choice of world class access services for themselves and their tenants), network operators (willing not only to be good tenants but to ensure they are not let down by their subcontractors) and local authorities (willing to ensure co-operation between their departmental silos as well as with their peers). Hence the programme of “co-operation between the willing” that I am trying to promote via the Digital Policy Alliance and members like the Federation of Communications Services, SOCITM, JISC and the Grids for Learning as well as those with direct commercial interests as users or network or technology suppliers.
Why not use the “system” to address business rates?
There is a similar case for addressing the disproportionate impact of business rates on small projects. More-over, were the costs and uncertainties of delay and of rates to be removed, the business case is commonly such that there is no need for public funding. Ensuring rapid action on business rates, for example a “de minimis” exemption until there is evidence of income on which a valuation can be based using a predictable formula. The process would, however, be so much simpler if more network operators would supply actual costs and revenues instead of historic fictions. The last attempt at reform failed because so few were willing to do so, despite my attempt to publicise the opportunity in this blog.
Who benefits most from the current confusopoly?
Why is the situation on access and wayleaves, the electronic communications code and business rates and what service can actually be offered where (given the state of the local networks and backhaul available) – so confused?
Partly because, until recently, it was irrational for the largest player to cannibalise its captive leased line and reseller markets or to do anything other that use all means possible to delay investment in rival networks. Supporting the creation and prolongation of a consultant driven “confusopoly” was therefore in its interests.
That may have changed.
What is the evidence for a change in BT’s motivation?
The evidence is not in the BT statements made in response to threats to separate Openreach. The process of separation could be used to paralyse investment for years. More-over much of the BT backhaul infrastructure, critical to both fixed and mobile communications, is not part of Openreach anyway.
The evidence is in BT’s appointment of their top engineer to run Openreach in place of the previous accountants and marketing men.
The evidence is in the doubling of his preventive maintenance budget
The evidence is in the BT programme to reskill its engineers to handle fibre technology and the expansion of its apprenticeship programmes.
Above all the evidence is in the restarting of a fibre roll-out programme that was cut back as unaffordable at the time of the original negotiation of the BDUK state aid programme.
The competitors to BT are, however, highly suspicious as to how far its behaviour really has changed.
The exclusion of public networks from the common access and wayleaves package negotiated so painfully over the past year or so with London’s main property owners is seen by some as a telling sign. More-over few will believe it is serious about allowing others to access its physical infrastructure on equal terms unless and until it has processes in place that enable it to make serious money from doing so – and its staff are motivated and rewarded for helping it do so.
How do we ensure BT has a good business case for to help bring forward investment to bridge the Brexit Gap?
I have been organising meetings to produce a six point plan to present to ministers to use the opportunity of Brexit to transform the climate for investment in full fibre broadband and help reduce the risk of a post Brexit recession. Success requires that BT has a good business case (i.e. not just regulatory pressure) to offer partnership deals to its competitors that enable all sides to improve shareholder return by growing revenues faster than costs and prices are falling.
The need for resilience and security (and therefore multiple sourcing without single points of failure) for a “smart society” should provide a wide choice of business models for achieving this.
Its about culture and motivation not “mere” regulation
My views on the Openreach debate were summarised 280 years ago by Alexander Pope “For forms of government let fools contest, what’s best administered is best”. The form of any separation arrangement is less important that the vigour and rigour with which Ofcom polices the behaviour of BT as whole – particularly the converged infrastructure operations supporting EE and the , yet to be created, local internet exchanges that will be needed by every would-be smart city.
If you would like to contribute for the Conservative Technology Forum “Six Point Plan” exercise why not post a public comment to this blog to help stimulate public debate. I should warn readers that those who e-mail me direct (or contact me via Linked In) are likely to be asked how they will help implement their suggestions.
BT may be resisting the forced separation of Openreach but its wider business strategy is unclear and it is unlikely to be able to fund both its quadplay ambitions and the investment needed to provide the reliability, resilience and security, not just response times, its customers are increasingly demanding. Its content advertising has begun to converge with that of EE while its largest shareholder, Deutsche Telekom is planning for a similarly converged 5G world.
DT has a market capitalisation of around £71 billion. Vodafone has one of around £61. Telefonica (parent of O2) has one of £43 billion (and is seeking to merge with Three, who backers are capitalised at over $1,150 billion). All are looking to provide converged services for a 5G (and beyond) world. None is trying to grow an in-house content operation, as opposed to providing access to content provided by others. The only other Telco trying to do both is Verizon, which has a capitalisation of £224 billion: although there are allegations that its content play is “merely” to strengthen its bargaining position vis a vis Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netflix and the “Net Neutrality” lobby.
BT with a capitalisation of £41 billion is planning to restart investment in its utility operations (not just Openreach, but also Wholesale), at the same time as continuing to take on Sky, Liberty, Netflix and the new content operations of Amazon. That restart, to head off a forced break-up at the hands of Ofcom, can also be seen to have been triggered by complaints from Sky, Talk Talk and its other resellers over the quality of service they and their customers receive from Openreach. It is not just consumers who are having a summer of discontent. Information from the performance monitoring services of, for example, Sky or Virgin, remains confidential. But the threat of legal, not just regulatory, action almost certainly lies behind BT’s appointment of its top engineer to turn round Openreach, the subsequent doubling of his preventive maintenance budgets and the restoration of capital spend to levels not seen since before the original appointment of Tony Chanmugan as finance director to cut Capex and Opex by 25% and save BT from bleeding to death after Local Loop unbundling.
Bryan Glick has recently repeated his belief that BT secretly wants rid of Openreach, a low risk, low reward, “boring”, regulated utility. I suspect its largest shareholder would rather get rid of content operations which have failed to deliver targeted profits and are running into increasing competition from its largest customers – some of whom are now looking elsewhere for more reliable, cheaper, all-fibre service. Either way, the difference between what Ofcom has demanded, a separate Broad for a wholly owned subsidiary, and what BT has offered, a sub-committee of the main Board is significant.
Recent events (e.g. service failures taking the customers of other ISPs, not just its own, off air for hours on end) have shown the importance of resilience and competition in the backhaul and Internet services provided by BT wholesale – not “just” the local loop services provided by Openreach. But BT is, in turn, reliant on its own subcontractors and partners and their failures (from the power supplies for the former telephone exchanges in no longer owns to internet exchange and hosting operations it never did) reveal just how vulnerable our access to the Internet really is. Running Openreach at arms length will not help address such failures. Returning both Openreach and BT wholesale to pre-2008 levels of investment may also not be enough.
History lessons are boring – but before taking some of the most recent statements from the CEO of BT, a marketing man, at face value it would be as well to compare the analyses in the CMS Select Committee Broadband Connectivity Report report with Mike Keily’s most recent analyses and the summary of the reasons for BT’s past strategies contained in the Dirty Digest I blogged at the time Ofcom was calling for inputs to its strategic review.
Sir Michael Rake and Ian Livingston“stopped the bleeding” and saved BT from going broke after Local Loop unbundling and a series of Ofcom decisions had rescued the Cable Companies but destroyed the business case behind Ben Vervaayen‘s investment strategy. BT lived off the back of those investments for a decade and persuaded the coalition government to co-fund some of the gaps. But the consequences of the failure to complete the programme (e.g halting the replacement of 1970s cabling whose aluminum content means FTTC and G-Fast do not work) are now becoming apparent.
The quality of service problems with a “monopoly” are not, however, confined to BT. Internet peering, alias connectivity, is uniquely centralised in the UK. France , for example has 24 peering exchanges and most of its traffic routed through large regional centres – not Paris. The UK has only 9, including the new startup Internet exchanges in Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Leeds. Almost all traffic is still routed through the London operations of LINX. But LINX is a mutual, owned by members who are not happy with vulnerability that results from such centralisation. It is helping lead the drive for devolution to local Internet exchanges and I have promised to help provide political platforms for its Chief Executive to brief politicians on why and how they should support plans for every aspiring “smart city” to have at least one exchange of its own.
Meanwhile the rest of the world, and Ofcom, have moved on. Hence Clive Selley‘s most recent comments on restarting investment in “pure fibre” and “fibre by default” for new connections, while trying to wind up speeds over those parts of the copper network where FTTC and G-Fast will work. Hence also BT’s support for some of the new local Internet exchanges, including to reduce latency (signal delay) for its largest customers.
So what will the new BT strategy be?
One obvious component will be an increased willingness to enter into local partnership with new build operators where it is uneconomic to upgrade its own network without public subsidies. Another, announced but not fully appreciated by analysts, is a massive investment (staff retraining and apprenticeships not just recruitment) in growing its security operations, including to serve its partners and customers. Similarly the scale, impact and consequences of BT plans to retrain and multi-skill its engineers, take on many more apprentices and bring functions (particularly those where it has experienced embarrassing leaks and other service and quality problems) back in-house have been largely ignored. In short, BT may already have decided that rebuilding a boringly efficient utility operation is more attractive to more shareholders than trying to “eat the lunch” of “customers” like Sky, Netflix and Amazon. I am holding on to my shares accordingly – although I expect those in some of the “fibre infrastructure pureplays” to do rather better over the next few years.