Shortly after the budget I blogged a welcome for the DCMS-Treasury Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy. Last week I welcomed Martha Lane Fox’s vision for Dot Everyone, albeit expressing my fear that a national institution, let alone a “plan”, will constrain growth and innovation (in line with the business models of currently dominant players) instead of achieving the transformation needed. I concluded by promising that I would follow the F-PLan with Plan B – for a business-led transformation.
It is apposite that the Labour Party has referenced the problems Britain faced in 1799 in its attack on the tax status of non-doms . In 1799 Britain was still recovering from a disastrous slump after the loss of the American Colonies. It was, yet again, at war with the rest of Europe (albeit more rather bloodily that our current regulatory spats). The government was in desparate need of money, but dared not choke off economic recovery lest it too face a revolutionary bloodbath (like the rest of what is now the EU). It also feared the defection of its wealth generating colonies in the West Indies to the nascent zero taxation United States. The first volume of Gibbons “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, (destroyed from within by bureaucracy and over-taxation), had been read by many more politicians than Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The Britain had been turned round from the slump that followed to loss of the American Colonies by a deliberate bonfire of regulation and the scrapping of all taxes that cost more than they raised. The politicians of the day also had a strong prejudice prejudice against central planning, “If death came from Rome we would all be immortal”. That prejudice lasted nearly a century. I do not intend to defend the current tax status of non-doms, in part because I too think it unfair and suspect that the difference between Ed Balls and George Osborne is small print that will serve only to make money for tax lawyers and accountants. I do, however, wish to draw parallels with regard to the creation of the infrastructures, from canals to through railways, water, gas and electricity to the telephone network, on which we still depend.
The Georgian canals and Victorian railways were nearly all funded by consortia of landlords and businessmen who expected to benefit from rising property prices and falling transport costs for their raw materials and produce. Today funding from those who expect to benefit most is missing from almost all plans to organise and finance the transition from 20th century voice and data networks to a 21st century, Internet age, mesh of high resilience, inter-operable, IPV6 based networks. Work is taking place on most of the other elements, from regulatory (where the US FCC has shown the way by classifying broadband as an essential utility) to standards (as for PSN, Smart Cities and Smart Grids). But those calling for a “national” policy have yet to address the issues of funding. They appear to expect a small group of incumbents operators to pay for bottleneck removal and network build that wll not make them more money, indeed it may even reduce their revenues. They expect government subsidy to make up the differnce. Meanwhile a growing number of communities are benefiting from alternative investment models at the local level. The most recent are Liverpool and Woking.
80% of the cost of new network build is civil engineering, including wayleave and access arrangements. In rural areas the cost falls dramatically when farmers provide uncharged access and help with trenching in return for service and shareholdings. In urban areas the cost reductions can be similarly dramatic. A recent meeting of inner city property owners (both commercial and residential, including social housing) and operators (both fixed and wireless) identified that the legal fees involved in agreeing wayleave and access arrangements (because current standard agreements are inappropriate for multi-tenanted buildings) averaged nearly as much as the equipment costs. Meanwhile the potential revenue from wayleave rentals and access charges is negligible compared to added value that comes from offering a choice of world class communications and smart building services to tenants.
New-build properties such as the Shard or Heron Tower incorporate shared communications spines to handle the network demands, including from smart building controls, anticipated over the next few decades. Such spines has already been retrofitted during major rebuilds and upgrades, such as for Tower 42 and Centre Point in London. Incremental change, to upgrade existing communication infrastructures, as tenants come and go in multi-tenanted properties, whether commercial or residential (as in common in inner cities), is more complex and needs to allow for the risk of one operator disrupting the services of another during maintenance, upgrade or when a new tenant wants a change of service. A growing number of players are, however, offering services in this space and the rate of take-up for these has accelerated over the past 18 months. Similarly a growing number of landlords and of those managing large portfolios of multi-tenanted properties can see the value of using semi-standard agreements for shared wayleaves and access which give changing populations of tenants a choice of service.
Conversely innovative operators wish to use the upgrade of legacy arrangements (which often assume exclusivity, rapid access for sub-contractors of unknown provenance and one-way break clauses) to organise profitable, rapid payback, offers to attractive groups of tenants.
The issues relating to Inner Cities, (tiers of ownership and control from freeholder, leaseholder, sub-leaseholder, tenant and sub-tenant, plus managing agents and building controllers) are different to those in a suburban or rural area where ownership and control have fewer tiers but may be more fragmented. The value to participants of the solutions on offer also differs. Some landlords and property owners welcome and may help fund incremental infrastructure investments that meet their own needs and those of their tenants. Others are less enthusiastic. The issues that need to be addressed are not, therefore, readily amenable to nationally standard solutions: hence the failure of the first attempt to update the Electronic Communications Code and narrowness of those being addressed by the current consultation deadline 30th April.
The need is to bring together those who wish to address the future needs of themselves and their customers, their tenants and, in the case of local authorities, their voters and business rate-payers.A group of inner London landlords, local authorities and network operators is looking at wayleave and access arrangements and has its second meeting next week.
In January I attended a workshop organised by Regional Network Solutions and hosted by BT Redcare to learn from case studies of co-operation, pooling budgets for CCTV, traffic and street furniture management and using local authority wayleaves and the spirit behind the Social Value Act (not just the small print) to massively upgrade shared infrastructures at the same time as enduring serious budget cuts and transitioning to PSN standards – whatever they are. I will not embarrass the speaker who knifed to the heart of successful collaboration with the wonderful phrase “the ego has landed“. The “real” obstacle to effective collaboration is rarely business case or even ring-fenced budgeting – there are usually ways round. The real obstacles are “status” and “politics”. “Success is driven by those willing to undergo a “charisma bypass” and give credit to those whose support is needed – even if they have had to be bludgeoned into giving it.
The bad news is that I agreed to try to organise the production of a “Dummies Guide to Collaboration”, without having identified who to get to do the work necessary, let alone who to get to pay them. I had assumed that the suppliers who would stand to benefit from new spend during a time of increasing austerity cutbacks would be enthusiastic. I now realise that the suppliers are divided into two main camps. There are those working flat out with all the business they handle, usually on incremental projects with payback within weeks or months – not years. And there are those sitting on their hands, spinning out legacy contracts and hoping that the next government will unleash a new round of PFIs,
Meanwhile the world has changed. The purchase of O2 by Hutchison Whampoa (to merge with 3), on top of that of EE by BT, the £3 billion roll-out plans of Virgin Media (backed by HMG loan guarantees) and the rate of growth of traffic over networks like that of Sky (more than doubled in a single year) also mean that Vodafone has gone from market leader (with a massive war chest from Verizon to finally sort out its inheritance from Cable & Wireless) to laggard. Whether or not the “collective” business model of bundled “Quadplay” services will survive (let alone thrive), none of them is currently meeting the needs of business users and the backhaul networks they currently share (in shifting consortia) are creaking as traffic growth accelerates, now doubling in under a year.
Hence the growing investment in local projects to install fibre to the premises or femto (supporting a mobile or wifi cell), particularly business premises: from start-ups like B4RN (enlisting community labour to hold down costs), through players like Gigaclear , Hyperoptic (backed by George Soros and City Fibre to inward investors like Hong Kong Telecom (their parent PCCW owns UK Broadband or EMCOR (helping Woking leapfrog even further ahead of its competitors as a business location Most commercial players are, however, only looking at locations where the local authority will help them cut costs (e.g. by providing shared access to its own wayleaves and infrastructure and accelerating planning permission) and reduce risk (by helping them identify customers who will pay, or at least commit, up front). That enables them to achieve the rapid payback necessary to fund the next project (or three) without the need to dilute their equity.
BT and the other incumbent players are still trying to work out whether this is a threat or an opportunity to pass the cost of improving local business connectivity to others, while they focus on improving backhaul – so as to harvest the new traffic for their national networks, while plotting to take over the new networks when those running them get tired or bored – as is now happening in Sweden with the municipal dark fibre networks being taken over by the incumbent. This was, of course, what happened in the 19th century when the National Telephone Company hoovered up local operations before it was taken over by the General Post Office (so that Government could tap the phone lines!!!).
Meanwhile BT has joined Virgin and KCOM in resisting calls to open up its own backhaul and distribution networks, at least until they get access to those of others (e.g. to replace copper lines on electricity poles with fibre without paying ludicrous, to them, fees). And who is to say they are actually wrong, given the need to improve capacity and resilience with regard to some of the choke points where other players are most wanting access.
Given such a potentially competitive market, however, the cost of serving the socially and geographically excluded, whether in inner city social housing or rural areas, should fall. The only reason to fear that it will rise is if government support policy is focussed on enabling BT to extend its legacy networks and thus to cherry pick those who are easiest to serve – as opposed to creating integrated networks using alternative technologies that are better suited to remote, or otherwise difficult, locations and unusual topologies.
In short, there is a lot happening. The time is also ripe to stop waiting for GODOT (Government obfuscation, delay or other time-wasting) and let local enterprise (local authorities in partnership with property owners, landlords, estate agents, property developers tenants, business and residents) do the job – while adhering to the international inter-operabiity standards (including IPV6) which mean that any who fail or get bored can be taken over and integrated with the operations of those who stay the course.
On 23rd April I therefore plan to use the opportunity of the SOCITM Annual Conference to call for local authorities to work together to show central government how to do digital infrastructure better – with Manchester showing London how to leapfrog Hong Kong into the 21st Century and Leeds refighting the Wars of the Roses to show Manchester that Yorkshire can do IT even better.
I am now seeking to engage those suppliers who see making money by helping build the future as a better use of their resources than lobbying the next government (via the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, trying to use Son of PSN” or the current DECC consultation) to preserve and extend bloated legacy contacts until they go belly up, like stranded wales, rotting on the beach of history.
P.S. The DECC consultation (deadline 15th June) looks particularly odd – like an attempt to herd the existing smart meter networks serving business onto the new domestic smart metering system before the latter collapses for lack of take-up. The business (as opposed to political) case for a separate network for smart meters was always suspect (it dates back to when Ed Milliband, as Secretary of State replaced the proposed industry-funded scalable pilots by a national programme). It now looks positively dated as the landlords of shared office blocks and business parks are looking to install shared infrastructures (ducts, masts, risers and equipment rooms if not necessarily shared cables and aerials) for wifi, mobile, smart buildings and all forms of business and industrial communication.
I was not able to watch this year’s Dimbleby Lecture when it happened but over the Easter week-end I made time to watch the challenge that Martha Lane-Fox made to the Dimbleby’s (and the other media figures and journalists present) to help educate politicians and industry leaders on the actions needed to help the UK leapfrog the competition and lead the rest of the world into the Internet Age. I liked the concept of “Dot Everyone” but fear that any attempt to create an “institution” would achieve the oppostie of what she intended: for reasons to which she alluded. I totally agree with her point on the need to engage more women in key roles. This government has just made a leap forward and Ofcom appears to have begun its overdue transformation even before its new female chairman and chief executive arrived. [I remember Patricia Hodgson from University – charming but highly disciplined and a rigorous intellect. I too would have begun to mend my ways if faced with the prospect of her as my chairman].
I also liked Martha’s points on the need to use the Anniversary of Magna Carta to take a lead in addressing ethical and moral issues, . I would add that we need practice as well as theory. I have strong reservations regarding on the ability of any government support institution to be moral and ethical, hence the caution of my welcome, earlier this year, for the Labour Party plans to focus on social inclusion and ethical policy rather than cost savings . It should indeed be possible to achieve to achieve all three – but only if policy is driven incrementally by users (alias victims) – not by “experts”. All too often the most unfeeling, heartless, bureaucratic and wasteful of policy implementations turn out to have been produced by “professionals”, supposedly following the “best practice” of their “Institution”.
I would, however, like to focus on Martha’s first point: the need to spread understanding about how the Internet actually works and how we ensure social inclusion. I would extend her argument to cover am understanding of the actions necessary to deliver socially inclusive communications infrastructures that are fast, fit for purpose, flexible, future proof, fail safe and fraud resistant. I, like her, began life as a historian, before spending time (after Business School) as a corporate planner, looking at how to cope with the future – based both on what we knew and what we did not know. I strongly believe, in consequence, that FIRST we have to be honest about the present and how we got here.
I have often been critical about the way BDUK has bolstered BT’s monopoly position, beginning almost immediately after its creation but my blogs have rarely recognised why it did what it did, or its very real achievements. I would like to correct that. In 2010 the coalition government inherited a 20th century communications policy that had run out of steam. Neither DCMS, BIS or Ofcom had the skills and understanding to do any better and DCMS officials had to give priority to the Olympics . The inherited policy was based on accessing on-line services over infrastructures designed for the telephone age. More-over the New Labour decision to switch from “competition in the local loop” to “local loop unbundling” had destroyed the business case behind BT’s plans to upgrade and extend its 21CN network to provide “full motion, broadcast quality, video to the home” (the original definition of broadband) by 2002. Meanwhile the Government decision not to re-invest the £20 billion receipts from spectrum auctions in communications infrastructure had starved both BT and the mobile operators of funding. New investment stopped. Preventive maintenance fell behind. The networks were beginning to crumble even before the financial crisis- although few recognised this at the time.
The BDUK procurement process bought time for BT and enabled it to delay new commitents until after it had delivered the infrastructure and support for the Olympics. Most voters now live within a kilometre of a fibre-connected cabinet capable of providing services that are fit for most of their current needs, fixed or mobile. But many business users, as well as those living more than a mile away, are left trying to run “motorway traffic” over “country lanes” (copper and aluminum telephone lines that may be fifty years old or more). More-over the national fixed and mobile infrastructures to which they connect are overloaded and creaking, with traffic volumes rising faster than capacity: more than doubling over the past year, for example – with growth accelerating.
Meanwhile consumers expect services to be digital by default and much of life, from watching sport to shopping (whether on-line or in a supermarket) would grind to a halt if we lost access to the Internet because of fire , flood or digititis. The rest of the world has begun the transition to a new world of ultra-reliable, resilient, ubiquitous mesh networks. As Martha Lane Fox said in her Dimbleby Lecture, we must not only catch them up, but leapfrog them – if we wish our children to have the education and jobs of the future.
That means not just fibre to the front door or local mobile or wifi aerial, but networks that are inter-operable with the future as well as with each other, using global standards at prices we can afford. That means giving investors confidence to fund the infrastructures needed – by providing a fair and stable tax and regulatory regime and by pooling public and private money to serve areas where the business case depends on saving costs in public service delivery.
Helping heal the wounds of the past market requires the application of TCP
1 TRANSMISSION – better infrastructure to remove the jams between you and your home or business and the Internet: copper = country lane, fibre = motorway, radio needs sites/masts
2 CAPACITY – copper = rationing, radio = local, fibre = global, ration-free connectivity
3 PROTECTION – against fraud and abuse as well as network failure, that requires partnership policing for the on-line world and one-stop-shop reporting to those who will take action.
Hence my support for the Digital Infrastructure Strategy that was announced in parallel with the budget. Later this week I plan to blog on how I believe that the way forward will be driven: not by an “institution” by local co-operation between those who wish to provide world-class access and those willing to pay for it. In the mean time I would like to address some of the understanding gaps – beginning with the current meanin gless babble about “speed.
The first “F” in the F plan is for Fast. This does not mean meaningless nominal speeds. It means rapid and reliable response times. These depend on a variety of factors, from
• issues with the end-user equipment (browsers, routers, wiring etc.), through
• contention over local networks and bottlenecks in backhaul networks, to
• delays while well-known sites load tracking and monitoring and other software (“to improve your experience”) and your security software decides which are to be allowed.
[It is not “just” the “cookies” inserted by the shopping services you use. Ghostery identifies 14 items of spyware when you visit the Guardian Website, 17 for the Daily Mail and 27 for the Daily Telegraph – and so on].
It is positively misleading to report speeds based on “average” response for a network that is unused for much/most of the 24 hours of the day, but degrades sharply in the early evening (when farmers or small businessmen do their paperwork, children their homework and teenagers gossip or swap videos). There is a need for Ofcom to use and publish performance measures that reflect user experience. It has made a start and has promised more in its Annual Plan (see the references in my Groundhog day blog) for the year ahead but its plan references dependencies on work with the Internet Engineering Taskforce and others i.e. global not just national action. We need the UK to be seen to be in the lead on this, not just waiting and accepting that which fits the priorities of those who think our digital footprints are their “oil” to be refined and sold to who-ever pays best.
The second “F” stands for Fit for Purpose. This entails reliability, resilience, response and security, not just “nominal” speed. It is the improved reliability, not just speed, of all-fibre networks that is transformative. “Digital by default” policies should be linked to the use by Ofcom of performance benchmarks that relate to those on-line services on which HMG expects target audiences to rely for communications relating to welfare and benefits as well as taxes. Thus, if farmers cannot do their Rural Payments Agency business on-line then the rural broadband service is not fit for purpose. If those dependent on disability payments, or their choice of trusted carer, cannot use the service then the services to inner cities, social housing complexes or those dependent on “care in the community” are not fit for purpose.
In 2012, George Osborne mandated that no new system should go live after 2014 unless “the responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the system successfully” . Thus “the Minister” (George Eustace MP) was personally involved with the three week “agile” cycle for the new Rural Payment Agency systems. Similarly the Universal Credit systems cannot go live unless ministers can use them, hence much of the controversy over costs and delays. The launch of the new Digital Accessibility Alliance should be followed by a policy of mandating the testing of all digital by default” public service delivery systems with members of the target audience, over the access services not available to them before roll out is contracted.
Next come Flexible and Future Proof: Any attempt to forecast demand or technology five years out, let alone ten is doomed. It was five years from the bankruptcy of Thomas Cooke (after getting his business model wrong for a tour of the Highlands, in 1846) to the Great Exhibition of 1851, for which he organized transport and accommodation for over 150,000 (out of 6 million) visitors. The need to cope with uncertainty with regard to demand (including as prices fall, and performance, availability and reliability improve), entails product, service and technology inter-operability (as with the standard gauge railways of the 19th century). Inter-operability standards enable competition at every level, with customers able to mix and match according to need and investors to reap safer rewards from incremental innovation. Standards do not, however, come about by chance or “simple” market forces. Dominant incumbents will always seek to lock customers into “integrated” services. Today they are competing to sell entertainment content subscriptions linked to phone line and broadband. Tomorrow we cna expect to see them face mounting anti-trust pressures leading to a new round of “unbundling”
The tensions over standards require constant government attention, including as the largest customer in the market (mandating inter-operability standards for public sector network procurement) and as regulator. We also need to note how most standards come about, via hierarchies of what are essentially “vanity publishing houses”. The standards bodies respond to the willingness of groups of industry players to come together to fund the agreement and publication of specifications which they then make money from selling. The more copies a standard sells, the more successful they think they are.
However, communications standards are now global and we need to ensure that the UK is in the vanguard of ensuring that our innovators and suppliers are meeting international business and consumer needs and we are not dependent on importing that which has been specified, developed and manufactured overseas. In 2014 the IETF, ISOC and ICANN, the bodies which set the standards for the Internet, all had annual plenary conferences, with thousands of delegates, in London. We need to make it attractive for them (and the international telecommunications organizations) to not only visit the UK but base more of their routine meetings and support functions here so that our innovators benefit from direct access.
The National Physical Laboratory, still the UK’s main measurement and testing operation, should be funded to provide UK business with access to all global standards, current and proposed, plus the certifications (who tested, what, to which standards) that indicate which products and services abide with which. This service should then be used to support a policy of mandating adherence to internationally accepted standards whenever public funds are involved. Such a service would also be a very effective use of the UK’s limited technology transfer funding to attract world class development, not “just” research, facilities back to the UK. Subsidized access. Including support to enable UK innovators to take part in global standards activities, should be confined to those based in the UK, including for the collection of royalties and payment of VAT or Corporation Tax in the UK.
We also need the digital infrastructure to be Fail Safe and Fraud Resistant. As society becomes increasingly dependent on on-line services, (e.g. telemedicine and care, on-line banking, food, fuel and energy distribution etc.) resilience and security become ever more critical. Both have many dimensions, from whole networks going down for hours, (sometimes even days) as a result of fire, flood, storm or theft, to individuals losing access for days (even weeks) as a result of local faults or fraud. There is also the question of who is, or should be, responsible for taking action against abuse and criminal activity.
Network resilience entails multiple routings and systems that continue running despite disruption. Hence the drivers behind the move towards “local internet exchanges” to handle the rapidly growing volumes of machine to machine traffic and local social networking. As yet the devolution from central operations, like the London Internet Exchange (LINX), to regional operations, like that in Manchester, is limited. But the benefits, including not only the capacity to handle greatly expanded traffic volumes and complexity (as with the growth of the Manchester Media City) but also the growth of high-tech Internet based spin-offs (London’s Financial Services Computing is clustered round the locally devolved LINX hubs) , are obvious.
A growing number of Cities with ambitions to be not only “smart” but also “innovative”, are looking to support local hubs in national and global incubator networks. They should be encouraged to do so. In this context is should be noted that LINX is a “mutual”, owned by over service providers. This, like many functions at the heart of the Internet, is an area where “privatization”, “market forces”, “public ownership” and “state control” all have clear limits.
Meanwhile The Financial Service Authority has mandated that critical parts of London’s financial services industry must have standby routines which not only inter-operate but can run even if BT entire network goes down (as well as vice-versa). Such an approach to reliability and resilience needs to be adopted across the UK, including the use of wireless and satellite to provide back-up to location where it is not economic to build and run more than one landline network. We need to balance the obvious savings from infrastructure sharing against the need for resilience.
We also need to be much better at addressing the suffering and loss caused by simple service problems, let alone actual abuse. Who do you contact, and how, after your Internet connection has gone down or your e-mail or social network account has been hi-jacked? And what can you expect them to do about it? Most voters have an elderly relative who has been rung by a nice man telling them their computer has a fault and offering to help them fix it over the phone. Most mobile phones are regularly vished (voice phishing) by those who want to help us claim compensation for the payment protection insurance or car accident we have not had. Meanwhile politicians appear obsessed with the use of the Internet by terrorists. And everyone else is playing pass the parcel.
There is a similar dialogue of the deaf with regard to “Big data”, between those who wish to keep their personal details private for fear they will be copied and used to abuse or defraud them or their families and those wishing to hoover up our digital footprints and personal data to refine into “the new oil” for sale to “Improve their services to us (alias sell to advertisers) but not to provide to law enforcement. There is a need for a joined up approach to the resilience and security of on-line services before confidence collapses in the face of a rising tide of abuse and fraud, compounded by sporadic network and service collapses in the face of storm, fire, flood and digititis (“software problems during a “routine service upgrade”.
Hence my strong support for the calls by Sir Tim Burners-Lee and Martha Lane-Fox to restore confidence that the UK takes the issues seriously by using the 800 hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta bringing the various debates and tensions over privacy, surveillance and information governance together with independent judicial oversight reporting to the Supreme Court.
In short there is much to be done. So who can we expect to do it. Those who believe that Government, alias politicians, is competant should listen again to Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture and reflect on the current state of political debate. Our Victorian ancestors had no doubts. They knew only too well that Westminster was incapable of thinking ahead – unlike local government, landowners and businessmen coming together to build for their children and grandchildren. Hence Plan B (for Business Broadband) – on which I have been working recently and intend to cover in my next blog.
Sajid Javid (current Secretary of State at DCMS is reported in the Guardian as having pledged to enforce on-line Age Verification. The Digital Policy Alliance Age Verification working group announcement on which I blogged on Thursday had its genesis at a meeting (on Smart Cities and the role of standards) chaired by Helen Goodman when she was Labour Shadow at DCMS. I suspect we can, expect all-party consensus on the subject.
The task will then be to deliver not just the standard, but to ensure that the implementation helps win more (and more profitable) business for those who take the protection of their on-line users (and the families of their online users) more seriously than they they do the revenues from those to whom they sell user data (the new “oil”). That means engaging those who wish to use robust and non-intrusive age verification to improve customer confidence and increase market share.
Times have changed: on-line age verification is now not only practical, it makes good business sense
Some players see publicity and support for the NSPCC Childline campaign announced on Tuesday as a potential threat to the “freedom” of the Internet. Others see it as an opportunity to rally support for activities to help provide children, families and silver surfers with freedom from fear and abuse over the Internet.
Both are correct.
Technology has moved on over recent years and ways to reconcile security and privacy are becoming increasingly practical. But they have yet to be effectively used. This is partly because of muddled and misinformed debate between players with very different agendas (from surveillance and “security” to privacy and “civil liberties”) and with different levels of understanding. The consequent potential for confusion can be seen with the range and variety of players concerned about child safety issues within the UK alone.
The overall effect is an erosion of trust in the Internet as a safe place to learn, play or make money: whether you are child, a parent, a silver-surfer, an employer – or anyone else without state-of-the-art information security expertise.
That is not good for business.
I have recently been privileged to sit in on some of the discussions that led to the formation of a working group that is trying to make practical progress on one of the points of leverage: a standard for processes which enable robust, consent-based, confidential age verification. , i.e. without the need to ask intrusive and unnecessary questions.
Seven years ago such an approach was probably not practical. Today the problems are more to do with the all-too-common practice of collecting information that is not needed for the service or transaction in question, but might be “valuable”, without considering the possible consequences . There is, however, growing evidence that asking unnecessary and intrusive questions costs paying customers. Some years ago a British Retail Consortium survey indicated that the cost of lost business, because of intrusive security, accounted for more than half the cost of e-crime, including the amount spent on information security. Recent data indicates that the proportion of transactions abandoned as questions become more intrusive is rising.
Hence the desire of those running commercial on line transaction services operations to be able to use reliable third party verification services, in order to avoid the need to ask unnecessary questions. An invaluable first step, for most, is the ability to verify age, (e.g. old enough to buy a drink or qualify for a bus pass or young enough to get a discount) independently of identity.
The UK is on the cusp of defining processes to underpin the roll out of scalable, viable, cost effective, age verification solutions, built on the principles of ‘verify once, use many times’. The next step is to turn these into internationally recognised interoperable standards, supported by certification programmes that define liability models.
The process is currently being driven by those required by their respective regulators to do age checks. However, wider support for the approach is such that the time has come for social networking platforms, data aggregators and advertisers to also re-visit their attitudes towards age verification. The aim should not just be to ensure compliance with current or future legislation designed to protect children on-line, but to facilitate the confident use of on-line services by all age groups.
The working group already brings together representatives of the on-line gambling, adult entertainment, tobacco, on-line dating and vaping (e-cigarettes) industries and aims to engage with the alcohol industry and educational network operators, as well as those concerned with child protection, silver surfers, social inclusion and, of course, with crime prevention.
Details of the C-Plan for “consent -based, confidential, on-line age verification” and a summary of those involved can be found on the Digital Policy Alliance Website. The group is actively recruiting so as to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are engaged.
The Digital Communications Infrastructure Structure Strategy announced in parallel with the Budget shows that DCMS and Treasury have responded to the inputs to the consultation last year and raised their sights. The new targets are 100 mbs to all but the most remote households but, more importantly, fibre to the premises (a gigabit plus) for business. The strategy recognises that different markets have different priorities between speed, capacity, ubiquity, symmetry, latency, reliability and resilience:
It is most unlikely that one architecture will fit all future needs, any more than it does at present. Even the current BT network remains a hotpotch of heterogeneous architectures and technologies – built on the legacy from when the Labour government’s switch to local loop unbundling destroyed the business case behind Ben Verwaayen’s dash for growth and left BT saddled with debt commitments after its exchanges had been mortgaged and its share price had collapsed.
The recognition of the pace of change is most welcome. The strategy, quotes actual traffic increases of 40 – 50% p.a. annum over recent years with households connected by “real” fibre to the premises generating nearly 60% more traffic. I recently learned that the rate of traffic growth is accelerating and bandwidth improves. Traffic over Sky’s broadband network has more than doubled over the past year – and that over the mobile networks may be growing even faster. In consequence BT’s back haul networks are creaking at seams. Most weeks see several exchanges going down, sometimes for hours on end. In consequence financial services regulators, for example, now insist that critical services have standby facilities which do not depend on the BT network.
Hence the reason that Virgin, Sky, Vodafone and others, who had relied on BT for much of their backhaul, as well as for unbundled local loops, have been looking at major investment programmes of their own and partnerships with the local network suppliers (City Fibre, Gigaclear, UK Broadband, Hyperoptic, ITS etc.).
The announcement on the means of encouraging investment and enabling change to a world of competing but inter-operable fixed and mobile networks is also important: using the £40 billion UK Government Guarantees Scheme to underpin investment, with the £3 billion Virgin plans “pre-qualified” to show that it is serious about opening markets to genuine competition. See section 3.2 of the Strategy for details, although it does not say how others should apply, merely that they will be welcome to do so.
The strategy also contains the first public reference I have seen to the consultation on reform of the Electronic Communications Code Note the deadline for inputs of 30th April. The importance of the Code as an obstacle can, however, be over-estimated. The new code will not address the need for a critical mass of landlords and network operators to agree a new generation of framework contracts for multi-tenanted properties (office blocks, business parks, social housing complexes etc.) where the value of being able to offer tenants a choice of world class communications access and smart building services is greater than any revenue from wayleave and access charges. More-over those wanting rapid access to fix faults also need to accept liability for any damage or disruption caused by their staff or subcontractors to services on which other tenants rely.
The good news is that a recent meeting hosted by Westminster City Council illustrated the practicality of doing so. I am therefore hopeful that the Digital Policy Alliance will succeed in providing a neutral umbrella to build on success by bringing together those who wish to make rapid progress without waiting for GODOT (the General Obfuscation, Delay or Time- wasting that occurs with attempts to get agreement on a mandatory policy using statutory powers).
The group will probably not be looking at the lowest common denominator agreements that tend to arise from national standard agreements but at “future proof guidelines” that can be used by those planning new developments or refurbishments designed to last for decades and also for incremental retrofitting to existing properties as tenants change.
The Treasury Review of business rates to redress the balance between the on-line world and the off-line world gives a long-overdue opportunity to reform the current valuation regime so that it no longer deters investment in new fibre networks and helps high street retailers come on-line [link]. The return of increases in business rates to local authorities (beginning with a pilot covering Greater Manchester) will give an added incentive to local authorities to use broadband improvements to help deliver more for less – including by pooling their communications budgets (including for CCTV and traffic management as well as fixed and mobile staff and business communications) with those of local landlord and businesses, perhaps in partnership with their local LEPs (as suggested in the Strategy Paper) and foster local economic growth.
In parallel Ofcom is to do its first strategic review of the Telecoms market since that which concluded in 2005 enshrining its then priorities. I have previously welcomed the new focus of Ofcom on business broadband in its business plan for this year but some of the inputs for the DCMS-Treasury review show just how dated the focus of Ofcom had become. I do hope that those wanting to see Ofcom reinvigorated for the 21st century will use the opportunity.
Finally a quick comment on Spectrum wars. The Ofcom threat to claw back unused satellite
spectrum should be seen in the light of the Budget comments on raising the Universal Obligation from 2 to 5 mbs and using satellite to reach the final 2 – 5% of the population. Those fighting for fixed wireless or fibre to the premises for remote areas have been complaining not just of latency but of lack of capacity and contention. I am looking forward to seeing inputs on the quality of service that is available over modern satellite services. I undertand that 3% of Avanti’s global capacity is used for on-line gaming: i.e. 50% more than the capacity used to service UK customers. I also undestand that a numer of mobile radio networks trunk their trffic over satellite. I therefore suspect misinformation which may annoy satellite providers but not sufficiently for them to spend time countering when they can sell all the capacity they currently have available to other parts of the world.
In short, I do urge you to read the strategy and then think how to work together locally to help build the future without waiting for GODOT nationally.
P.S. I have been asked to try to put together a group to provide guidance for parliamentary and council candidates on how they could/should support local community groups (from Parish Councils to City Corporations) to use the new opportunities to work with local businesses, property owners and potential suppliers and leapfrog the competition (whether it be in the county or on the next continent). I look forward to hearing from those interested in helping.
Yesterday this blog was devoted to Jim Prideaux’s take on the budget. Last night a reader pointed out the reason for the ambiguity,
The success of HMRC’s record tax take this spring was critically dependent on taxpayers ignoring Verify . Moreover, one of the highlights of the budget speach was the abolition of the annual tax return. The programme to achieve this relies on rebuilding the in-house IT skills of HMRC for a post ASPIRE world. It is not based on passing roles to those in Cabinet Office who have been bogged down in the the five year struggle to bring transparency to the murky relationships between HMG and its outsourcing suppliers have resulted from two decades of “over enthusastic” outsourcing.
Should the Cabinet Office teams succeed in their efforts to deliver processes a that work reliably, efficiently and securely, they have a future. Should they not ….
Meanwhile the battle between backward-looking suppliers seeking to preserve a world of cosy, confidential, complex, lawyer-driven outsource contracts and those looking forward to a world of open-inter-operability goes on.
But taxes have to be collected and benefits paid,
That means rebuilding the in-house skills of the civil service (particualrly those of HMRC and DWP) at all levels. Hence some of Francis Maude’s comments earlier this year. But should delivery skills be in Cabinet Office or should it focus on co-ordinating and quality controlling the outputs of those created elsewehere – while departments develop the ability to transition to a world of cross-cutting, co-operative incremental change. I suspect the latter, if we really do want Gov.UK to be more than “lipstick on the face of a herd of pigs”.
I was working on a posting on the way the budget and the parallel announcement of the Digital Communications Infrastructure strategy should help transform the climate for investment when Jim Prideaux , one of whose concerns is the hollowing out of the security skills of Government, pointed out a splendid ambiguity in the budget statement announcement on plans to save money from rationalising IT spend: “Budget 2015 announces that, following a successful trial, the Government will implement “Gov.UK Verify” – a new way for people to prove their identity on-line when using government services – across central government“. Does this mean that the trials to date have been successful? Or does it mean that Verify will only be implemented when the trials have been successful?
Jim has blogged for me before on the strange history of the Government Verify programme and I have no doubt he will do so again. Meanwhile one of his erstwhile colleagues is trying to calculate how much it would cost to fraudulently acquire the identity of some-one dependent on benefits using the routines proposed by the suppliers whose services are currently being tested. After wading through pages of gobbledeygook he came to the conclusion that it could cost as little as £250 to acquire (via existing publicly available services) and scan the paper documentation and/or generate the digital footprint that would satisfy some of the supposedly agreed providers. I await his detailed working but this may explain why mainstream “trust” services are reluctant to get engaged – other than to certify those who they already “know” via more robust routines, including physical presence.
Jim, however, points out that Verify hasn’t got around to ‘level 3’, and the current (watered-down) level 2 (balance of probability – not properly defined) envisages doing everything online because the costs of manual paper-handling would exceed the budget: Level 1 – self asserted – doesn’t need any third party, so no justification for paying for one. He also thinks it may be easier to take over an account after it has been created because that may need no more than a quick look around the device being used for access. He is more concerned about denial of service (from failed masquerades), followed by the imbuggerance (which I assume is a spook technical term equivalent to “compromise”) of two factor authentication while a smart phone is being used for browsing and text, thus ensuring that it adds no security.
Jim goes on as follows:
“The recent scare over another false security certificate at the heart of widely used products and services should remind us of the vulnerability of those who assume that all certification routines are equally valid. The complexity of the chain of trust in which the compromise occurred means no-one should be surprised. After the £8M for damage caused by Companies House for a missing ‘s’, we should spare a thought for those trying to understand the liabilities for online transactions, which jurisdictions apply, whose services they can trust for what and the recourse available to them if that trust turns out to be misplaced.
How confident can you be that the Gov.UK website you visit is secure?
The supposedly monolithic gov.uk relies on a variety of chains of trust. When you get past ‘This web site does not supply ownership information’ the www.gov.uk chain (see foot of this blog details) starts in Ireland, then goes through the US. Meanwhile the chain for *.blog.gov.uk starts in Sweden, and comes via Salford. MI5.gov.uk and SIS.gov.uk use US-based certificates.
If you go to a German government site the chain is shorter and simpler, based on German certificates. Other nations can have stranger chains of trust. www.whitehouse.gov comes to you “securely” using a trust chain that says it starts in the Irish Republic, and ends us in the US via the Netherlands.
Is this ‘security theatre’, or does it matter? Will it help to have the .uk namespace under the control of Nominet? That is if there is a way to check that the control is more than nominal?
Should you be worrying about how you can verify that you are indeed using a secure link to a trustworthy website, following the padlock (or warning triangle) in the top left. Your browser probably has a few hundred roots of trust, possibly including those from countries you’ve not heard of. By looking at ‘subject’ in further information’, you can see where the chain of trust starts in this case, and then how it follows down to where you are.
The policies under which these certificates are issued can be searched for . even if you find the right ones (and how can you be sure?) somewhere in the dense legalese, probably at paragraph 9.8, will be some modest limit for you and all other users combined, and para 9.14 will identify the relevant jurisdiction.
For commercial transactions for ordinary users, the credit card terms may be more relevant, not least because the customer only needs one. Someday it might even follow the model envisaged in the recent EU eIDAS Regulation, but what happens for the public sector/government sites that offer a secure link? Remembering that many, including the GCHQ website and transparency.number10.gov.uk do not.”
P.S. The Gov.UK chains of trust refered to by Jim appear to be as follows:
CN = *.blog.gov.uk https://identityassurance.blog.gov.uk/
OU = EssentialSSL Wildcard
OU = Domain Control Validated
is provided by
CN = EssentialSSL CA
O = COMODO CA Limited
L = Salford
ST = Greater Manchester
C = GB
which comes from
CN = AddTrust External CA Root
OU = AddTrust External TTP Network
O = AddTrust AB
C = SE
www.gov.uk says “This web site does not supply ownership information” but the chain appears to be as follows:
CN = www.gov.uk
O = Government Digital Service
L = London
ST = England
C = GB
is issued by
CN = DigiCert High Assurance CA-3
OU = www.digicert.com
O = DigiCert Inc
C = US
in turn issued by
CN = Baltimore CyberTrust Root
OU = CyberTrust
O = Baltimore
C = IE
P.P.S. A reader has just pointed out the Register Article which explains the ambiguity
Given the pressures to tidy up the Internet and enable those responsible for victim support and redress to track and trace and “remove” trolls, the current Nominet consultation on the collection and publication of contact data for the WHOIS register for .UK is central to the rebuilding of trust in the on-line world.
Will .UK remain as untrustworthy as at present, offering neither reasonable confidence that you are dealing with an organisation or individual subject to UK law nor that your anonymity will be protected? Or will Nominet help lead the way in rebuilding trust in the on-line world? Those who believe the latter should join and take part in the policy discussions because subjects like this are far too important to be left to the introverted community of registrars and IPR lawyers who usually dominate discussion on such subjects.
But what is “reasonable confidence”? And how can it be better provided?
The article by Eleanor Bradley COO of Nominet summarises the context of the consultation. But the growth of registrars offering “privacy services” parallels the rising concerns over those who conceal their identities in order to abuse and prey on others. Hence my recent blogs on the need for such services, and the routines allowing otehrs to acces their files, to come under proper judicial oversight.
It is, however, worth remembering that those traditionally responsible for checking identity in the context of authenticating legal documents in the “real” world (Notaries and Scrivenors) come under divine oversight – the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury . Hence also my long-standing interest in the tension between those who believe that the law are given by God and apply to the State and Rulers (as with Magna Carta) and those who believe that the State is God
In the early days of this blog, back in 2008, when I repeated the arguments that the Internet shold be seen as a cartel masquerading as anarchy it was relatively easy to find on-line references to the 1912 case that broke apart the US railroad cartel – just as it was seeking to leverage its market dominance to also control the embryonic road haulage industry. [There had been a spate of articles on the judgement when Microsoft was being investgated]
A couple of years ago the judgement became much harder to find amidst adverts irrelevant adverts triggered by the terms I used to try to find it – after the links I used the last time I referenced it no longer worked. Earlier today, having grown tired of wading through the paid entries that now preface any useful results from a Google search, I decided to try DuckDuckGo . A useful result came up instantly at the head of the list. Interestingly, when I then tried again using Google and Yahoo, having got the precise reference, I did get the same result. What I did not get was uncharged articles that put it into modern context, such as the Wikipaedia entry on Essential Facilities .
Why is this sopotentially important – including for UK discussions over the Digital Infrastructure on which modern sociaty now depends?
A couple of days ago, at an excellent Westminster eForum event on Priorities for Broadband I heard the Director of Group Inustry Policy for BT repeating the argument that Broadband was not a utility and should not be regulated as such. Is that sustainable now that US Federal Communications Commission has ruled, albeit subject to a probable appeal to the Supreme Court, that it is a utility and should be so regulated?
The landmark FCC judgement on Net Neutrality looks like a victory for the ISP community (Google et al) over the Infrastructure Community (Verizon et al) who want to charge premium rates for privileged access to that which consumes most bandwidth. However, the decision to regulate Internet Service Providers under the US regulations for telecoms providers has profound implications. Meanwhile Google has said it is not a monopoly because it has competitors like DuckDuck . Hmmmm …
Until today I was among those who thought that Google was an “Essential Facility” – and therefore potentially liable to serious anti-trust action to stop it from spreading its tentancles as the US railroad industry was doing, when brought to heel in 1912. Now I know that I can do many, perhaps most, of my own searches faster without it. But the world, and the FCC, appears to have caught up with the arguments I heard nearly a decade ago at the Oxford Internet Institute.
I suspect that Google, as an integrated entity, has passed its zenith. But when I said, nearly a year ago, that Christmas was creeping up on the Young Turks of yesterday , I also said that I expected the Googlettes to soon be collectively worth more than Google, just as the break up of Standard Oil made the Rockefeller family even richer. Are Apple and Microsoft at risk of similar break up pressures – or does their apparent head to head competition preserve them?
Meanwhile all three, any many others, are at risk as tax authorities around the world sharpen their knives and off-line businesses demand equality of tax treatment, on-line and off.
Politics is about to meet IT, whether IT likes or not.
I had forgotten quite how sharp Sir Michael Marshall, Charles Christian and myself were thirty years ago when similar arguments were in vogue. Amazon has now delivered a replacement for my last copy of what we wrote (loaned and never returned). Below is a scan of the first page of the text of “No End of Jobs”. Remember it was written in 1984, so for Japan you might read China. For West Germany you might read India.
Most of the forecasts have come true, or are well on the to coming true – save that we have imported immigrants to look after our elderly in overcrowded NHS hospitals, instead of making use of technology to enable them to live at home. One of the themes was the job creation effects of “prolonged active life”: resulting from automating records and administration to enable clinicians to spend time with patients instead of on paperwork, from the manufacture and installation of “robotics for rheumatics” to enable independent living for longer, as well as from all the telecare and telemedicine technologies that we are still talking about but not deploying.
The obstacles to do with the organisation of funding that we identified then have still not been addressed. Indeed they may now be worse. The overheads and waste resulting from the centralisation, bureaucratisation and outsourcing of our health and welfare systems, with funding fragmented for distribution down leaky silo’d drainpipes, means we are commonly spending more to achieve less, or at least to achieve far less than recent advances in knowledge and technology should have enabled us to achieve.
I plan to scan the rest of the paper.