Blowing towards Thrushgill – East of Lancaster

27 Sep

[‘From our own correspondent’ – visiting rural Lancashire to get a feel for great digital design]

Place your finger on the map at Lancaster and then move it across to the East until you find a large dark patch. This remote and roughly triangular terrain, in and around the Forest of Bowland, is not some black hole where civilisation vanishes but a place where businesses blossom and communities thrive.

brn-vanThese remote 53 parishes contradict the supposedly inevitable economic migration towards ever-more-complex city conurbations. In this rural patch you can find a world-leading example of sustainable digital infrastructure – largely because, in the rough-hewn ways across Lancashire/Yorkshire borderlands, the locals would have no truck with BT’s ‘phone-line broadband’.

If you live, learn and work in a remote area you soon learn a thing or three about resilience. Here you value the interdependencies on which communities build sustainability. For technologists and economists (and most politicians) there are huge design lessons here.   One might imagine (given the popular substitutes for five minutes thought) that densely populated cities would most readily justify the investment in future-proofed fibre. It might be assumed that remote areas would be the least likely candidates for great infrastructure investment.

In the UK (and particularly East of Lancaster) almost the exact opposite prevails. Larger places may be woefully underserved by dependence on a supposedly cheap short-term fix but, in this scattering of villages and hamlets, that same dismal design would deliver an even worse performance.   Not for them the inadequacies of variable and unreliable phone-line broadband. Digital technologies are a great enabler of economic well-being – but only if they work in all weathers all of the time.

That is why the B4RN fully future-proofed design is not just a great example for those who live learn and work away from large towns or cities. It also tells urban city dwellers that they too could aspire to something vastly better, more affordable and more energy-efficient.   Local governments are slowly beginning to realise that, whereas BT saw their copper network as a great asset, it is the holes and poles that are of greatest value in this digital era. It is unfortunate that most of those holes and poles are cluttered with copper cables but Local Authorities who have the good fortune (Like Bristol) to own alternative ducts are enabled to speed ahead.

This, of course, is not a problem East of Lancaster. There are precious few ducts and many of the poles are rotting relics of a bygone era. So the locals ignore any old holes and poles and, with a great deal of local community cooperation, dig their own ducts into their own fields and blow their own fibres through them.

  • Fifty Three parishes served by 25 nodes,
  • More than 2200 fully-fibred connections
  • Serving 65% of all properties,
  • A small army of local folk who have learned that this digital stuff is not rocket science
  • And what they get is 1000Mb/s in both directions.
  • For £30 month (inc. VAT)

But no one should pretend that this community-led effort is easy.   It requires massive motivation and collaboration (particularly from landowners) and astute management of the entire cooperative scheme. Some would say that the broadband service itself is only a small part of the benefit: making it happen demands that communities come together and develop greater cohesion. At the outset in 2011 it seemed like a pipe dream and potential funding was unlikely. Five years on B4RN has shown that it makes perfect sense and, as the Chinese proverb says, ‘Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it’.

Local Authorities everywhere are thinking (perhaps for the first time) that the holes and poles should be far better maintained and unclogged to make way for the future. Down in Westminster, BEIS and the IPA (HMT/Cabinet Office) understand the need for business investor confidence, particularly during the UK’s structural separation from the EU. The most immediate trigger for inward multi-sector investment to the UK would be to signal support for well-designed, resilient and sustainable pure fibre networks and replacement of legacy copper.

B4RN, East of Lancaster around the Forest of Bowland, may, on a drafty day, seem a very long way from Westminster but strategic connectivity lessons travel at the speed of light – in both directions.

blowing-towards-thursgill

B4RN – ‘Blowing toward Thrushgill’ by B4RN shareholder Walter Willcox.

The B4RN ‘Show-Tell’ day was sponsored by the network’s ‘blown fibre’ specialists – Emtelle

 

Passive Infrastructures – platforms for digital progress

27 Sep

 

stanley-steamerLike some chicken/egg conundrum the emergence of cars and the improvement of roads went hand in hand – each requiring the other to be fit for purpose.   And the evolution continues to this day although investment in the great civil engineering effort of new road building has largely passed.   Much the same was true of railways and energy distribution – evolutions to meet changing needs.

It is odd, then, that those using the ‘passive infrastructure’ for the digital evolution have not followed the same course. Unlike roads, the underlying infrastructure of holes and poles is still largely used to carry the equivalent of Stanley Steamers or Model T’s to convey the information that is now mostly in a digital form more suited to travelling at the speed of light.

This is much like a canal barge operator facing new competition from railways. They would claim that fast travel might be a danger to health or that speed should be curbed. The huge investment needed to pave roads must have been seen as exorbitant – until, that is, folks worked out the real cost to the economy and society of not doing it.

Of course, a complete replacement of copper wires with fibre is expensive but it’s nowhere near as expensive as previously claimed. The cost is probably less than half of early (over-puffed) estimates and still falling as techniques and materials improve. So the time is rapidly approaching when a combination of falling costs and increasing understanding of value eliminates the rationale for Stanley Steamers and Model T communications. Some would say that time has long-since passed. But logic is not driving the debate. At stake here are imagined fears for the shareholders of canal and barge operators Telco’s.

But, of course, those shareholders (investors) are actually sitting pretty. They own the holes and poles and until recently gave not a damn as to how they were used. What they now know, and are increasingly minded to say, is that if their holes and poles are not repurposed then others will build alternatives or find ways to avoid using them. And what they also know, since they hold diversified portfolios, is that all their other investments would be vastly more successful if light-speed connectivity made business flow faster and more reliably at far lower cost. And some would go further – seeing the need for true future-proofing – for who know what next will be coming down (or up) the line?

Unfortunately Shareholder Power is not of much concern to the enterprises in which they have invested. If grumbles grow they can be bought off with a hefty dividend and, in effect, told not to complain. Cash today nearly always trumps potential cash tomorrow. Long-term perspectives are rarely apparent to executive managements in the thick of the wood. Nor is it much concern for a regulator whose job it to manage fair play in this market rather than the long-term interest of the wider economy. It may be obvious to investors that the prime, most sustainable, asset is not the old twisted copper but the holes and poles.   But how can wiser heads prevail? It will not be put to a referendum but a view is emerging that a very different type of ‘structural separation’ may provide an answer without incurring vast overhead cost.

A transfer of the passive assets to new enterprises (part public owned) with a remit to set tariffs for their use would enable local governments and other public sector agencies (or the regulator) to provide proactive direction – incentivizing more efficient use, investing in regeneration and new-build and urging Stanley Steamers off the road. This type of Structural Separation is far more imaginative and likely to be more effective in creating strategies more attuned to our digital futures. It’s a fair bet that the ‘un-separated’ parts of the enterprises might suddenly see virtue in relaxing resistance to, for example, dark fibre.

Already the regulator Ofcom has demanded that hole & pole capacity is made available to alternative operators. Some cities, like Bristol, have the good fortune to own a duct network. In other (more dirigiste/clear-minded) countries the regulator has set a course for the elimination of the copper that clogs those holes and poles. Meanwhile government in the UK has asked, very gently, if our digitally inclined citizens might, perhaps, be allowed have the right to ride on slightly faster Stanley Steamers – leastways in one direction. The idea that Stanley Steamer technology could be stretched a bit more keeps recurring – but, like a cul-de-sac, that extended design is still very much a dead end.

Lots of very clever people will doubtless spend much time and money trying to find the blindingly obvious solution. Yes – the passive Structural Separation will take time and have an overhead cost (not to mention legal fees) – but that is a consequence of poor decisions three decades past. Sure – the complete infrastructure investment (holes and poles and cables) will be a cost for all parties – a fraction of an extra runway, a smaller fraction of HS2, an even smaller fraction of Hinkley Point. The more equitably shared design, however, could be delivered way before any of those projects and is likely to make all of them either a greater success or moderate their need. Deeply ingrained in Telco-talk is a view that ‘a level playing field’ is a large flat area under which they have buried the competition. Taking control of the playground would certainly improve the prospects for the UK’s new premier league of digital players.

Even the national energy demand would tumble if we stopped heating pavements with expensive cabinets full of electronics to push information down copper wires. The transformation could put a spring in the step for the prospects of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and we’d no longer hear the immortal words, “That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley

_______

Graphic credit:  Steamcar.com

Online Success – on dodgy lines

7 Aug

UNPACS LogoCommenting on the UNDESA report showing the UK as the world leader in government online services, Julia Glidden, an international specialist in Open Data, makes an interesting observation about long-term policy investment.

Julia attributed the UK’s ranking in part to “a concerted national strategy, dating back to the establishment of an Office of the e-Envoy [in 1999, and the E-Government Unit in 2004] to integrate back office functions whilst simultaneously driving cross-government institutional coordination.” That’s a dedicated decade and a half of puzzling out the better delivery of public services.

Meanwhile those who campaign for vastly better broadband connectivity – seeing that as an essential enabler of greater online usage – would say that much of the last decade and a half has been wasted on short-term fixes that will inevitably need replacement in the push for future-proofing, operational efficiency, energy conservation and greater reliability.

The technologists have a strong case – and one that is gaining both media and political traction. The government may also be cheered by the UK appearing at the head of a global league table – particularly as, post-referendum, national advocacy is much in demand.

If the long-term stance had been taken for connectivity as well as services, would the outcomes have been even better? What explains the success of the latter, in a less-than-optimal infrastructural environment, is massive and often voluntary societal investment.

This is shown very clearly in the shortlist for the 2016 Digital Challenge Awards programme. Derived from an Open Call back in January the shortlisted finalists reflect what is really going on in corners of the country that media headlines very rarely capture.

The shortlisted projects for work in Digital Inclusion, Digital Skills, Digital Health and Open Data dominate the field. Sure, there are great projects in Network Innovations (from providers), Advanced Digital Applications (from university researchers) and in Rural Connectivity (by desperate country-folk), but these often more-technical pursuits are outshone by the devoted efforts of Charities, Local Authorities, Housing Associations and myriad public services agencies including the NHS, Schools and Libraries.

With their dedication to making sure that neighbours, communities and employees are not left trailing behind in our increasingly digitalized world, we should appreciate that the underlying reason behind the UK’s reported leadership is not entirely down to central policy wisdom.

In the next decade and a half we might even be blessed with fit-for-future connectivity – if the people get their way.

The State of our Digital Nation

31 Jul

2016 O2 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards

This is not scientific.

Its academic rigour may be some distance south of a tabloid’s opinion poll – but the final contenders in this year’s Digital Challenge Awards are instructive.

This is the 6th year of the Digital Challenge – an awards programme unlike any other. The categories and trophies are not set before nominations commence.

Every year the ‘Open Call’ simply asks for projects that exemplify great digital endeavour.   When the Call ends we review and define the Awards Categories and then create a shortlist for each. Every year that project shortlist reflects what is going on – real insights that might otherwise be overlooked.

Back in 2011 the focus was primarily on delivering better urban and rural broadband networks. That Rural Connectivity category remains, but elsewhere the attention has shifted beyond deployment to Network Innovations; their resilience, flexibility, performance and capacity.

Digital Inclusion projects have also been a constant category but they have evolved in so many different and imaginative ways – and some are now better aligned with an Economic Development agenda.

Projects devoted to boosting Digital Skills are far more evident (and delivering great achievements) but perhaps the brightest new category is for Digital Healthcare.   Some healthcare projects are contenders for the Digital Innovation Award and the willingness of NHS project leaders to transform their practice is evident in a flurry of very welcome initiatives in the mental health arena.

Meanwhile the Open Data category has lost its 2014 and 2015 prominence – now more business as normal rather than surprising breakthroughs.

  • Who in Westminster would have understood that Scotland is so digitally progressive?
  • Who would appreciate the educational/healthcare brilliance of body worn sensors embedded in fabrics?
  • How many Local Authorities understand the value of drones in combatting floods and other environmental risks?
  • How many judges (and jurors) know the value of Virtual Reality for visits to crime scenes?
  • How else would we be made aware of new care technologies for the elderly or the brilliantly imaginative Librarians whose services are so often under siege?

Many would decry the digital state of the nation – and sure there’s much more to be done – but the Digital Champions that step up to collect trophies in the House of Lords next October are leading indicators of massive transformations in the way we all work, live and serve.

 

A Certain Uncertainty

16 Jul

Question Marks And Man Showing Confusion Or Unsure

Time and again in recent weeks the pleas from European business leaders (and particularly here in the UK) for an end to uncertainty – or at least less of a policy vacuum – might have seemed quite the opposite of what might have been expected from our supposedly mighty risk-takers.

Any fleeting signs of stability have momentarily bolstered stock markets and smoothed exchange rate readjustments and yet it is ‘disruption’ we are oft told that is the golden characteristic of progressive, thrusting, opportunistic and innovative times.

This apparent contradiction reveals another truth. Businesses like to disrupt others but otherwise dislike being disrupted – and larger business with more at stake like it even less.   Yes, they’ll welcome innovation – but only on their own terms. And that is, of course, why monopoly power is so dangerously regressive.

Even, as in the case of BT’s Openreach, where the threat of regulatory changes looms large, uncertainty can invoke the sort of paralysis that borders on an existential crisis. No wonder, then, that when interviewed CEO Clive Selley is sounding more like Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”  There is no standing still in business and confidence is essential fuel.  Do nothing and nothing happens.

But his organisation’s current uncertainty exists only because of the ever-widening gap between national economic imperatives (championed by the regulator in lieu of government) and the resistance of an incumbent determined to extract shareholder value from legacy assets.

Put simply (though to be fair it is far from simple) Openreach can see little investment rationale in providing everyone with future-proofed broadband services. They would much rather stretch the capability of their existing copper assets and hope that demand for capacity can be constrained.

On the other hand, those who argue (in the national interest) for a future-proofed infrastructure (inevitably with vastly greater use of fibre) point to the wider creative constraints of underperforming connectivity. Download speeds are, they’d say, far less important than upload speeds, low latency, minimal packet loss, greater reliability and vastly lower operational costs.

And it is these factors that are now calling time on strategies that were decided well over a decade ago and based on dodgy economics. Fibre was said to be inordinately expensive. It was said many times over and that mantra became embedded in investors’ minds. And it was wrong. And facing up to that truth is awkward. Not perhaps as awkward as Brexit but, like that referendum, the choice has been determined by those whose delusions are most believed.

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to rethink the parameters around digital infrastructure investment. We applaud the creative industries and the clever clogs beavering away developing new services, cutting costs and making lives easier – particularly in the public sector. But all that cleverness is nothing without affordable underlying future-proofed connectivity.

Yes, in some places, gradually, we can find signs of a smarter approach. Yes, we can see that sharp, thoroughly commercial, minds have cracked the challenges of doing what was previously dismissed as not financially viable.   All that remains is for incumbents to recognize the new realities or suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, leastways until our incoming Digital Minister grasps the issues, the UK will muddle through with a certain uncertainty.

 

 

Don’t it always seem to go

3 Jul

EU-6Paving over paradise may not seem an apt metaphor for leaving the EU. How long have we railed against rules, regulations and the complexity of getting agreements amongst 28 States? How long have we bemoaned the deadening bureaucracy and the overhead costs of managing projects that must necessarily be communitarian to qualify for funding? How much easier, we might imagine, to go our own way?

Set aside the heretical thought that much of that complexity might have been of our making – that some determinedly perverse interpretations of EU directives might just have suited UK governments’ ideological agendas but could conveniently be blamed on some distant malevolent conspiracy.

Gradually, barely perceptibly, as layers of revelation are unpeeled, the true value of that bureaucratic buffer zone can now be measured. Paradise is not absolute but relative.

Relative to the prevailing chaotic confusion, that buffer zone may be revalued as a paradise.  Yes, that drag, that discipline, that ‘better togetherness’, those huge hurdles to gain consensus, to seek collaborative advantage and moderate nationalistic fervour, and in doing so reduce action to the most essential issues, is looking increasingly attractive.  Paving it over to erect parking lots for ministerial cars carrying a new set of homegrown zealots is no great bargain.

And, while we are thinking about absolutes, think what it means to be English or British.  Ish, sort of, defies the absolute.  The diversity of ish is in our very nature.  We delight in approximation and ambiguity.  The global success of the language owes much to its flexibility.  Its roots reveal remarkable transformations – like the origins of heresy in the ancient Greek word hairesis – a choosing.

So the country has chosen – and one half (or the other) has opted for a heretical path. The fabric, so carefully woven over decades, must be unpicked and refashioned in a different style for some new leader who will doubtless speak of unity as thin cover for naked ambition.

Paradise may be scheduled to be paved over. “Don’t it always seem to go, that we’ll not know what we’ve lost ‘til its gone”.*

______

* Joni Mitchell, a singer

 

Letting go of things not fully grasped

26 Jun

For the best part of my career I had a trusty cartoon companion – my mate Ed.

Ed Hoc graphicEd first appeared on my slides when I needed to explain that most of us have multiple identities – our personas.   Some of these were how we saw ourselves in different contexts – at work or home or in the band – or they reflected how others saw us.

Ed was, by birth, truly European and was first drawn to decorate a Scandinavian promotion for a telecoms company.   By the end of the 1970’s he was on hand to help me explain new identity options that were arriving with the advent of eMail.

It is nowadays difficult to explain the scale of that task but back then (before personal computers, mobile phones, message pagers or the Internet) telephone numbers and lists of them were important but not stored on anything other than paper.  And then suddenly we were introducing new, alternative, identities like email addresses and translations of those into meaningful names or functions.

Ed was Ed because in one serious context he was ‘Head of Communications’ or, when he relaxed listening to Blondie, he became Ed Phones.   He also served in academic circles as Ed Hoc, Prof. Ed or Dr. Ed Ovstrawski PhD but at home (or when visiting his children in Australia) he was more likely to be called Ded.

Ed has been retired many years now and rarely emerges from his comfortable archived crate in the loft – but now and again he senses that his life’s work remains unfulfilled. Last Friday morning I chanced to meet him on the stairs. “What are you doing down here, Ed?” “Just thought you might need reminding.”

Last Friday morning the newsfeed had told me I was not who I thought I was, not living where I imagined, not part of that community, not sharing the same delusions.  We live in bubbles of our own imagination.  Apparently my locale is in the top ten percent of UK places populated by folk with an entirely different worldview. I have many friends but I know none of these people from LeaviaLand.  Such are the delusional distances – the vast gulfs – that divided us in this EU Neverendum.

In business we are urged to ‘think outside of the box’ – indeed my own logo reflects that process – but now there is no box to constrain identity.  Today about half of the UK let go of something they’d not fully grasped.  Today the other half realised they had not fully grasped why the others were letting go.

Just for a moment we glimpsed the agony of those fleeing from warfare that is destroying what they imagined was their country. Today we can understand the anger of the disposed and disillusioned.  Today we (yes all of us) are like migrants wishing to plant new roots – to re-frame whoever we might be – and (some may hope) build bridges for their futures.

These seismic moments when reality breaks through are very rare but always devastating in direct proportion to the investments we made in our now thoughtlessly discarded frames.

As poet John Fuller wrote:

And it is late

To establish reasons for preferring

The things we prefer

When now it seems grotesque to imagine

That they might occur.

 

Thanks for reminding me, Ed.