Tag Archives: policy

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.

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.

 

 

Broadband Policy and Local Government

6 May

In the UK we hardly need the example of the increasingly fragmented approach so clearly visible in Australia to underline the need for Local Government intervention.

A recent study from ‘down under’ noted that:

In the Australian context, the recent decision to build the NBN using a mix of technologies will leave the country with a patchwork of different levels of access to the infrastructure as well as producing different speeds across the network. This will intensify the need to investigate the implications of telecommunications at the local level, as Australian local governments then need to respond differently based on the level of access provided for them in each case.[1]

The example is not needed in the UK because we already have a fragmented mix of technologies and, since the late 1980’s, never stood much of a chance of envisioning a more cohesive approach to digital infrastructure.  It is, however, only in recent times that Local government has taken a more determined attitude to this lever of economic and societal development.

But illustrating local impotence, there’s a common link in that final phrase ‘provided for them in each case’ – a sense that incumbents are a law unto themselves as if still nationalized and a touching national belief in the power of market competition.

This newfound realization of the significance of digital infrastructure at the local level is not merely driven by the need to catch up with central government programmes for online transactions in the cause of greater efficiency. Nor is it entirely induced by the devolutionary ‘letting go’ of top-down controls – a hesitant process that reveals great lack of imagination and inbred presumptions of local incompetence.

More than that is the emergence (though we still say it quietly) of municipal enterprise – the realization that local government has the clout and competence to play a vital role in creating economic and societal well-being. And, moreover, not cowed into silence on account of outdated and over-simplistic ideologies that would label Public=Bad and Private=Good.

Summoning the will-power to be so bold, Local Authorities are beginning to leverage their strengths – even where the outcomes disrupt the supposedly ‘natural’ order of things, like incumbent dominance.  Local leaders do of course need to ‘gather strength’ – not least because they do not get much comfort or assistance from national regulators who are mired in refereeing markets whose definitions are increasingly irrelevant at a local level.

In the context of ‘austerity’, there is thin cover in the search for ‘efficiency gains’ (AKA cutting costs) but the real motivations are to take ahold of the shambles and JFDI.  That is why there will be many more Gigabit Cities across the UK long before London aspires to join the 21st century.

Leadership strength is best applied holistically – and digital investment is but one (albeit enabling) part of local economic and community development. Those leaders who can grasp the bigger picture are unlikely to let go of the opportunity to deliver real benefit for local businesses and citizens.

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[1] Local Government and Broadband Policy in Australia: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2015.1073976

 

Sparks of Creativity as Energy and Digital Futures Collide

26 Feb

Digital technologies consume way too much energy and present an environmental and sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach

Very few commentators link Energy and Digital policy topics. Even fewer policy developers understand how they are intertwined.

Each policy is on a single track but heading towards each other. Both engines of the economy urgently need collision avoidance. Knocking heads together now can circumvent an even greater mess.

Only now are the full consequences of strategic decisions made in separate silos decades ago becoming clear. Attributing blame and short-term attitudes for current and future shortcomings is, alas, too easy.   It doesn’t add up to a plan of where we go from here but first there’s a need for everyone to understand that we have a problem.

Basically the Internet will not scale – meaning that as demand increases, digital infrastructure performance will suffer and energy supply will become more fragile.

Regardless of which growth forecast you believe – and most insiders bet on a doubling of devices over the next decade – without radical overhaul, the predominant current and planned digital access technologies (how you get connected) will consume way too much energy. It is an environmental/sustainability issue that demands a fresh design approach to ensure resilience of these basic utilities.

The solutions are twofold – generate vastly more electricity or waste far less of it on inefficient forms of digital connectivity. No one is suggesting that we put the entire economy into hibernation.

The first option – generate vastly more – is decidedly unattractive and hugely risky in terms of the UK’s energy supply security. But current efforts to reduce demand need rethinking.

The second option – boost connection capacity but at the same time use far less energy – is technologically possible but demands a complete rethink by dominant suppliers – whether they are in fixed line or mobile markets or both.

Digital Management

It is simply not possible to envisage future energy sufficiency (Ref 1) to push signals down copper cables or send mobile signals over great distances – like more than 200 metres – given the sort of high frequency spectrum that is now available.

All mobile services are themselves ultimately dependent on fixed line connectivity to route to and from the wider Internet. Moreover, the implications of using higher frequency radio spectrum are that the much-vaunted low-power 5G designs will be dependent on fibre connections from millions of locations and will look like Wi-Fi on steroids – with demands way beyond the creaking copper connections of yester-year.

How many slightly overlapping 200 metre radius circles fit into the UK’s 65 million acres? That, of course, is a very hypothetical question – we live in a multi-channel landscape – but, as digital applications accelerate, the current lack of any mobile coverage on thousands of miles of UK roads illustrates the challenge.

Enthusiasts for maintaining use of legacy copper networks insist on pointing to technologies that seem to increase their capacity (if only in one direction) but these in turn exacerbate the energy challenges. Their application is misplaced. Sure, run fibre all the way to a building and then use the technology to push the signals a little way further inside the building – but even that local in-building distribution is inefficient compared to low power wireless technologies like WiFi.

Energy Management

At the same time, Energy Management systems have developed to render past infrastructures obsolescent. The top down view of energy – generators, the national grid, local distribution – is being turned on its head. Alternative energy sources – solar, wind, tidal, wave, ground heat pumps – are popping up all over the place.

Soon the complexity of managing demand will be further complicated by new local storage options. One thing that will not help lessen the load is the current and expensively failing UK Smart Meters project.

Collision Avoidance

So what if policy developers for both Energy and Digital better understood each other?

We don’t need to dwell on the past mistakes – but refocus minds on where they go from here.

For around the same investment cost as Smart Meters the Digital camp could reduce Energy demand by between 5-10% – depending on how quickly they buckle down to eliminating copper networks.  But, of course, much of that Smart Meter money has already been spent – some would say, wasted.

On the other hand the costs of fibre have been falling and the investment returns rising – a completely different investment scene to that prevailing 2 decades ago. The cost savings come from all aspects of network deployment.   That could easily be accelerated with liberalization of incumbents’ passive infrastructure – the ducts and poles,

And the net benefit of this silo-fusion?   Accelerated economic growth and greater energy supply security – massively faster connectivity and far fewer power failures.

If only it was that easy to knock government and industry heads together to avoid an unexpected collision. Maybe, in our newfound love of devolution, city mayors will be resolved to point out that the utility emperors are lacking decent underwear.

Brace, Brace.

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Notes/References

  1. Telecoms & Exponential Growth- Cochrane TJV8 Pt4  (PDF download)   Cochrane P, Telecoms and Exponential Growth, ITP Journal Vol. 8/4 Oct/Dec 2014 reproduced with permission of the Institute for Telecoms Professionals www.theitp.org

This article was first published by Computer Weekly 26/Feb/2015

 

Hold or Flip, Twist or Quit: better connectivity hinges on investor confidence

26 Nov

There are pivotal periods of infrastructure evolution that are subsequently seen as revolutionary.

In the early 1980’s employers started grasping the notion of distributed computing.  Before those times computers were big expensive beasts.  In the late 70’s and early 1980’s there were diverse ‘mini’ and desktop ‘personal’ computer choices – with equally diverse Operating Systems.

hi=-tech buildingThe critical step into personal computing had little to do with technological progress – indeed some saw it as retrograde. It was almost entirely about legitimisation.  When IBM defined a PC Disk Operating System (later adopted by Microsoft) some feared it would bring chaos and confusion to their ordered world.  The worst of those unsettling fears didn’t materialize but the scope for ‘creative disruption’ was boosted.

Settling on a standard (albeit proprietary) backed by the global covenant of the IBM brand, created huge confidence for investors and businesses – legitimising what had previously been regarded as slightly suspect.  Moreover it exemplified the very best way to utilise brand strength in the global economy.  It must have puzzled many of IBM’s loyal employees at the time.  It probably qualified as an ‘unnatural corporate act’.  It certainly demanded inspired leadership from within their ranks.

The point of recalling this story is to contrast those heady times with today’s challenges for infrastructure investors.  Some, like Apple and Google, are not afraid to move on – never resting in pursuit of progress.  In the connectivity arena, however, some incumbents seem determined to keep the lid on progress for fear of corporate calamity and/or investor uncertainty.

In matters of online ‘eCommerce’ activity it is generally recognized that the UK has ‘got it’ big time.  That is to say the nation simply cannot get enough of it.  And therein lies the broadband rub.  Some cannot get broadband at all – even in the urban jungle of London – even at the old 2Mb/s floor.

From the mid-1960’s onwards the capacity of copper to cope with ever-faster data rates (whilst still being used for phone calls) has been remarkable.  But that technological stretch is now failing to keep up with demand.  In computing, IBM chose not to defy progress.  In broadband connectivity the big brands, not yet ready to admit the game is up, have built two defences.  Firstly they’ve adopted network designs that are difficult to unbundle.  Secondly, they’re leveraging their old networks by a very gradualist approach to fibre – unfortunately leaving sites at the end of long lines inadequately served.

Some attempt at legitimisation is evident – leastways from government. It may be reassuring for investors to know Ministers believe in getting better broadband.  Interestingly the PM’s recent ‘brave’ promise of a universal 10Mb/s broadband commitment is a massive challenge to incumbents and a great opportunity for future-proofed alternative networks with no legacy assets to preserve.  That message is fast getting across to local government leaders who’d rather see economic growth as an antidote to further austerity.

Pretty much everywhere the old question ‘how much capacity do they really need’ is derided. The question only existed because pre-fibre networks couldn’t cope.  There is now no doubt about market demand for properly future-proofed networks – but let’s not fret about past mistakes.  This is the time for fresh thinking.

Fiber optics

Fortunately, it’s also a time when all the old investment parameters are being reset.  The costs of doing the job properly have fallen.  The economic value of doing it properly has been recognised. The demand for doing it properly never greater.  The costs of borrowing never cheaper. Return on investment ever higher. The danger of living in the past never more evident.  Even the future for mobile services depends on kicking old addictions to legacy networks.  Astute investors are primed for the next wave.

To be fully effective, flipping would have been better taken at the flood but that moment has now passed and brand power is withered by dither and delay.  Establishing long-term expectations, national imperatives and investor confidence is complex but is now no longer the preserve of politicians or incumbents.

This then is a critical time for emergent leadership, investors and for the entire economy.

Regulators have previously understood their role in remediation of past market failures.  In the absence of any credible long-term policy objectives from government is it possible that the market regulator can choose to be more forward looking?

Investors routinely ask ‘Is this all I’m ever going to get?’   Can ‘market failure’ now, similarly, be understood (by the regulator) as inclusive of an apparent lack of imagination and any adequate sense of direction?   If so, how could that forward-looking viewpoint be used to legitimize and incentivize new competitive investment?

In Ofcom (and their Digital Strategic Review) we must trust.  The nation expects.

Telecoms Regulator considers tackling the inherent dishonesty of most broadband services

26 Jul

[The saga continues – see previous episodes starting with Ten Eggs – Ed]

We have a responsibility:

for ensuring that consumers of broadband services are appropriately protected and informed”,

and,

transparent information around the speed most likely to be achieved . . . . should also be available to consumers before a contract is entered into.”

UP TO PLACARDWith those brave words the Telecoms Regulator in Ireland reported on a pilot project designed to discover just how difficult it is for broadband customers to be sure what it is they are being sold and what performance they can expect.

There are, of course, umpteen reasons, excuses, conditions, escape clauses and, for sure, a few honourable exceptions where some customers get almost exactly what it says on the tin.

And this was just a limited pilot project – so there’s ample wriggle room around sample sizes, the duration of the exercise, the customers’ own incompetence, the variable load on the system, unreasonable expectations, school holidays and, of course, the weather.

What they found was hardly surprising. What they think they can do about it is altogether more difficult.

So we know that:

  • rural areas are relatively poorly served,
  • some fixed lines work better than wireless (including mobile),
  • upload speeds are important,
  • low latency is increasingly essential, and
  • fully-fibred connections beat super-slow copper and fibre/copper combinations hands down.

More than that we know that we don’t know enough, but, curiously, most customers have come to expect poor service and only between 19 – 23% would say they were not satisfied.  Blessed are they who expected very little.

But what’s to be done?

The Regulator has a 4-point policy plan around:

  • Transparency for Consumers (Business and Household)

Consumers should be able to compare different broadband offers from different providers in order to choose between them – in regulatory-speak, ‘make informed choices’.

  • Consumer Education

Apparently we should all learn more about physics so that when we buy rubbish we know we are buying rubbish – even if the adverts suggest otherwise.

  • Contractual Commitments

Contracts should state how bad the service can be – though minimum service levels should not be set so unreasonably low as to provide an easy get-out clause for slack performers.

  • Market Information

There should be more of it.

And the bottom line?

 We should have great sympathy for any regulator of a market that specialises in services that are not honestly marketable.

This Regulator notes, “it has powers with respect to transparency and in relation to contracts and minimum quality of service and will consider how best to use those powers to achieve the best outcome for consumers.”

We should marvel at such restrained tolerance.

Meanwhile, like most comms regulators, the banner of Technology Neutrality is held high.  Well it sounds sort of fair, doesn’t it?

Surely ‘tis only reasonable to ensure a continuing freedom for connectivity providers to under-deliver in the profitable cause of sweating the assets they inherited from the pre-digital dark ages?

In any other sector, governments would intervene in their national interest.  Advertising Standards bodies would see red.  Trading Inspectors would rule against such local economic blight and outlaw such short-term get-rich fixes.

Why do we suffer this tendency of the telephonic tribe to serve up technological cul-de-sacs?

Why countenance their demands for subsidies from the public purse?

Do they, do we, imagine there is no alternative?

But, hey guys, that’s the market hand these regulatory bodies have been dealt.

And, if it’s not their job, who now will shift the infrastructure into 21st Century gear?

 

How many holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – or anywhere else?

21 Jun

 

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

As one of the many great communities that exist beyond the Metro rainbow, Blackburn and its people can stand as a metaphor for 50% of UK economic growth. Blackburn is not even included in the imagination-stretching redefinition of the UK’s 15 Metro Areas – a definition that has Aldershot as part of London. A definition which city lobbyists would claim to ‘make up’ fully 61% of the economy.

Like the rest of the real 50% that’s neither ‘made up’ nor under Whitehall’s devolutionary policy spotlight, Blackburn’s community of enterprises and people may understandably be forgiven for echoing the words of Oliver Hardy – ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’. But, in reality, the 50% are not alone: much of magic Metro-land also suffers from the same lack of attention to things that have turned out to be really rather important.

The last two weeks have been informative. But here’s a question. What theme links the Niagara Falls and a group of West Country MPs?

Yesterday ISP-review reported that a group of MPs, primarily from Devon and Somerset in England’s South West, have established a new All-Party Parliamentary Group that will investigate the roll-out of broadband.

Wandering the corridors of Westminster are many All-Party Parliamentary Groups that might regard this as their natural territory but, as we are constantly reminded, competition is a spur to innovation.

The new grouping may waste time by trying to pin the blame on the usual suspects, or, more positively, they might perhaps focus their minds on how to get out of this communications cul-de-sac. If reports are accurate, there’s a faint glimmer of hope: “it’s important to keep an eye on alternative network operators that can do some of the jobs”.

But that is merely a tactical reaction. Wake Up calls – Seriously Shocking Wake Up Calls – usually follow some undeniable crisis. The question, therefore, is whether the new group of MPs is driven to complain about inconveniences or recognize and demand attention to a real full-blown crisis.

But what has any of this this to do with the Niagara Falls? Another metaphor.

Horseshoe FallsIn the margins of the 2015 Global Summit of the Intelligent Community Forum in Toronto we took time out to visit. We transitioned from intense conference sessions led by mayors, civic leaders and progressive communities from around the world to standing right alongside this unstoppable force of nature.

Whilst many places struggle, the energy of leaders of the world’s foremost Intelligent Communities (note – much more than merely ‘smart’) clearly demonstrated how these places were succeeding, principally because they have held on to a truth that others have yet to fully grasp.

These inspired leaders have thought through the diverse impacts of living and working in a digitally mediated world. They see a world that demands much more than some short-term fix, ‘enough to be going on with’, or soothing reassurance that things will be OK if we muddle through.

They see all too clearly that we live in a time of ‘peak snake oil’: that like the unstoppable forces of nature, they, their people, their local economies, their cultures, must adapt to the new realities and not be satisfied by convenient short-term fixes. Fortunate indeed are these places that have leaderships that last way beyond electoral cycles and principles that were set down 15 or 20 years ago.

Standing alongside those thundering great falls, no one can deny their never-ending force. No one can dismiss this force as some impossible dream that we do not need, cannot afford, or could not cope with – leastways, maybe, perhaps, not just yet?

The West Country MPs, the good folks of Blackburn, the vast bulk of our economy, whether in or out of Metroland, even those technological romantics who imagine that maybe 5G will be a panacea (but overlook the need for backhaul to support thousands of 250m-radius cell sites), cannot ignore the reality that the future of our next and subsequent generations hinge on getting real;  rejecting woefully inadequate technologies and a scary devotion to old models that have long passed their sell-by date.

Please don’t waste time on the blame game, on fixing holes. Patches are for pirates. Okay – it’s a pity the last three decades were wasted but the time is now to sit down, decide what is really needed in 2030 and set about delivering it a good deal earlier.  It is far cheaper and yet far more valuable than you have been led to believe – if you (and your children) really want it.

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Readers may also appreciate our discussion paper written as preparation for the ICF Global Summit and a brief (4-minute) script – the ‘Ten Eggs‘ talk,