Are local councils falling out of love with BDUK?

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Is a groundswell of public anger causing local government to fall out of love with the BDUK Superfast Britain project?

The Western Daily Press reported this week that Wiltshire County Council is considering its options and may not sign up to the second phase of a £35m BDUK deal to deploy superfast broadband in the West Country.

Council deputy leader John Thomson described the project as a "nightmare" partly because consumer expectations of how fast their internet would actually be were set impossibly high by the fantasy world depicted in BT's TV advertising.

The reality of quite how bad fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) can be if you're not lucky enough to live right next to the cabinet was swiftly brought home to many Wiltshire residents when it turned out that 'superfast' was really 'onlyslightlyfasterifthat'.

Local stakeholder Geoff Preston branded BDUK a "scam" and accused the council and BT of being disingenuous with their pledge to get superfast to 91% of county homes by 2016.

Thomson told the paper: "It has been a nightmare, mainly because of people wanting to get superfast broadband now, and wanting it to be faster than it will be.

"To be honest, I'm not over-happy with the deal, but at the time it was the only one in town. There have been success stories, and some towns and villages are very happy with the result - but others not so much.

"There is a second part to the deal to the more rural places that we have applied for the money for, but it may well be there are other opportunities and other technologies that we can go for, that will provide a better service and give more value for money," said Thomson

Already, some Wiltshire communities have taken to organising their own broadband services. The village of Hankerton installed a Wi-Fi solution provided by Cotswold Wireless, and 10 other villages have come together to form a co-operative with the intention of going in on a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) solution.

Wiltshire may be considering its options, but The Full Spectrum knows of at least one council that has already gone in with the altnets.

West Oxfordshire District Council recently supported a community broadband project in Northmoor, obtaining £186,000 worth of funding to install a Gigaclear FTTP solution from the government's Rural Community Broadband Fund, jointly funded by DEFRA and BDUK.

Incidentally, it was Gigaclear's first ever use of public money. Up to now it has relied entirely on private funding.

And it was to Oxfordshire that I travelled last month to meet with Gigaclear and community stakeholders in the nearby villages of Greater Otmoor, to see an FTTP project in action. You can read the full feature right here, by the way.

One thing that quickly became very clear to me, chatting to the stakeholders at the Abingdon Arms, was that, like in Wiltshire, they felt abandoned and frankly a bit cheated by BDUK. The money on offer vanished "like a technological Marie Celeste," said one, once it was realised quite how difficult bringing FTTC to the Otmoor area would be.

"BDUK was a real red herring. If we'd just ignored it from the start, we'd have saved ourselves several months and a lot of trouble," another stakeholder from the Otmoor group told me.

But what also struck me were remarks made by Gigaclear sales and marketing boss Joe Frost, who told me all about how his firm selects which projects it can support.

Here's the quote: "The attitude of local councils helps us prioritise, too. It is nice to know that places where we plan to build won't be overtaken by state aid. A lot of councils are now on board with this and realise there is not enough money in BDUK to address the problem, so are in-filling with people like us or wireless or satellite solutions."

So are councils falling out of love with BDUK and BT? Well, obviously two councils out of hundreds does not a trend make, and there are clearly notable successes for BDUK as a steady stream of press releases purports to make clear.

But as the poor publicity around the scheme continues to spread among vocal rural campaigners, things are certainly looking better and better for the altnets. I doubt I'm alone in thinking the examples of West Oxfordshire and Wiltshire won't be the only ones we see as the deadline on BDUK's 95% superfast coverage target draws closer and closer.

It's easy for Three to be generous: they don't have many customers

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As millions of people set to fly off on holiday in the next six to eight weeks, we've been writing a lot about roaming charges lately.

And with internet access such a vital component of all of our lives these days it's easy to see why.

After all, why should you not be able to use Google Maps to find our way around a new city in the same way you do at home, or Foursquare to find that one bar you will remember forever?

The good news is that with a good amount of nudging and prodding from Brussels, things are finally going in the right direction: at the start of July new caps on roaming charges came into force.

That's an excellent example, by the way, of the European Union working as intended, to bring positive change for all citizens.

Earlier this week, I wrote about a new service from Vodafone. It's called WorldTraveller and it will allow pay monthly customers and users on some business tariffs to use their call, text and data allowances for £5 a day in a number of countries, including the US and Australia. Vodafone runs a similar and cheaper service in Europe, incidentally.

The story attracted a few below the line commenters who felt £5 a day was a rip off, particularly when Three offers a similar service for 'nowt.

"It's very, very, very rubbish compared to 3's Feel Like Home," wrote Uk Taxpayer. "£15/month SIM only 2,000 minutes, 5,000 texts, All you can eat data, Free roaming to 16 countries, 4G (at no extra cost) when they finish the network build-out, and as the real deal kicker **inclusive tethering** to your unlimited data."

Added Whoopee?: "£5 a day - what a bargain - NOT. More like a total rip off. As Three charge the same in Australia and other countries as back home in the UK I'd suggest that this continuing rip off is good reason to drop Vodafone sharpish."

The comparison to Three's 'Feel at Home' service - I've also been writing about that - is entirely justified of course - actually it's a no-brainer, as far as I'm concerned.

But I'd like to counter with the idea that besides Vodafone actually being entirely justified to charge whatever it likes for you to use the network it bought and built, the two mobile providers are at totally different stages in their lifecycles, and the comparison is unfair.

In the red corner, look at Vodafone, the world's second largest mobile provider with hundreds of millions of subscribers worldwide and billions of pounds of sales in the UK alone.

Then look at Three. In terms of UK subscribers it's a minnow. It may form part of a large multinational comms firm, but it looks and acts very much like a start-up, making stand-out plays to grab attention and new customers.

My argument is quite simple. Three can afford to be generous with its freebies - it has so few customers that the money it loses allowing them to roam for free doesn't really matter, and is potentially repaid in terms of goodwill and word-of-mouth advertising.

If Three was the size of Vodafone, do you think they'd be offering free roaming? Frankly, I doubt it.

How PSN can help rebuild our trust in government

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This week's Public Services Network Summit at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster brought together local authorities and suppliers to reflect and review the progress made in rolling out the Public Services Network (PSN), and explore avenues for further evolution and development.

To coincide with the conference, PSN trade association PSNGB launched a new whitepaper titled PSN: A platform for reform.

Among many interesting points raised in the whitepaper was that of trust in local and central government.

Whether applying for passports or driving licences or sharing health and personal information around departments and local authorities, said the paper, citizens must trust government to safeguard the information they supply it and use it appropriately.

However, it pointed out, trust in UK government is falling, down from 47% last year to 42% at the moment - that's actually below trust in business - and a third of people don't trust the government with our personal data.

The whitepaper claimed that PSN can bring about a restoration of trust. Really? How's that, then?

I asked PSNGB chairman (he prefers emperor) Phil Gibson and BT Global Services' Neil Mellor (wearing a fetching PSNGB hat) exactly that question.

"PSN is not visible to citizens, but while there is no sticker saying 'PSN Inside' if people know that our government is holding and sharing data responsibly, that could help rebuild trust," suggests Mellor.

So is there a case for being upfront with the general public, educating them about the existence of the PSN, and possible even declaring compliance with some sort of 'PSN Inside' kite mark?

Maybe, says Gibson.

"We have that circular logo. I could well envisage a time where you see that logo on the door at your GP's surgery, for example, and know that they have a process in place for sharing and managing the information that they hold on you.

""Trust in government is not about loss, it's about what other departments might do with your data," argues Gibson, "but instead, everyone remembers the child benefit record loss."

"There is a point where we can say 'we have worked on this, we have this highly secure network reaching all parts of the public sector' and I think that that might well be worth communicating to citizens."

I envisage such a scheme might work a little bit like the Food Standards Agency's (FSA) hygiene ratings.

The FSA's inspectors rate restaurant premises on a scale of one to five, and slap a green sticker on the door to give consumers the confidence that the kitchen staff are washing their hands and not putting horse in the steak tartare, for example. Could a star-based PSN data security rating be something the average citizen would find reassuring?

It's an intriguing suggestion and it may never come to fruition, but I am definitely on board with the idea of being more open about the benefits that government IT should be bringing to our daily lives.

It's time to think again about spectrum licensing

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A guest blog by Adam Afriyie, MP for Windsor and chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

More people are online than ever before. Between 2010 and 2013, mobile internet usage more than doubled in the UK.

The internet is now a huge part of our lives; it's sometimes hard to understand how we survived without it. We connect to the internet throughout the day not only from our home and work computers, but increasingly from our smartphones and tablets in trains, buses and coffee shops.

It's crunch time
This growing demand means that, in a number of areas and applications, we're fast running out of commercial space on the radio spectrum to carry digital information. The UK is heading for a 'spectrum crunch' unless extra frequencies are made available.

Without this extra capacity the UK's important digital economy, which contributes 6% to UK GDP and supports two million jobs, will run out of room to grow, and customers will suffer as they're plagued by Internet outages and price hikes.

So, I'm urging the government to release an extra 650MHz of spectrum to private businesses from the public sector. This would help companies meet the needs of their customers over the next few years.

I know the government supports the principle of releasing more spectrum because the minister has already stated his intention to release 500MHz by 2020. I'd just like to see a little bit more released just a little bit quicker.

Of course, some of the spectrum needs to be reserved for UK public services and defence, but most people agree we've earmarked too much because of historic allocations. In Australia just 10% of the spectrum is reserved for defence while in the UK around 50% is allocated for military and radar uses.

On top of that, no one is quite sure how much of that spectrum the public sector actually uses in the UK. To answer that question once and for all, the government should consider commissioning a thorough review of current public sector usage, so we have the evidence we need to make an informed choice.

Innovative new approaches

But if we're going to solve this problem in the longer term, we'll also need to find innovative new ways of managing the UK spectrum. As well as increasing the amount of spectrum released for commercial use, we shouldn't be frightened of experimenting with new methods of licensing it.

I believe, for example, the government should strongly consider releasing licences to the spectrum with rights to use it within only certain geographical regions or at specific times of the day. Different companies and clubs could then share the same parts of the spectrum without interfering with each other.

The government should also consider giving companies more power to sell, share and trade their spectrum allocations in a competitive market. This would mean parts of the spectrum that were being used unproductively could be quickly sold and made available where needed.

I'm aware Ofcom has allowed 'secondary trading' of spectrum units for some time, but uptake among industry has been low, lower than desired and expected. The government should consider reviewing this current trading process to see whether there are any regulations or restrictions that are presenting any unseen difficulties.

Investment in the network

Finally, there are some interesting emerging technologies in the pipeline, like 5G, that will require large capital injections to bring online. We need to encourage private companies to invest in these new technologies to squeeze the most out of the network.

Licensing radio spectrum to private companies would give companies the security they needed to invest in the network. That's exactly what we saw after the 4G auction - more investment and better service for customers.

The UK has the opportunity to set itself apart as the trendsetter of the global digital industry. If, as I've long campaigned, we combine our culture of innovation with forward-thinking policy, we will become the first-choice destination for global talent and entrepreneurial businesses. And if we're to compete effectively on the world stage tomorrow, we need to get ahead of our competition today. 

Renting the network: better connected or false economy?

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In the modern world, people cannot afford not to be connected. But what happens when this connectivity becomes literally impossible to afford? Or an area's historic investment has not kept pace with its business requirements?

Traditionally, the onus has fallen on the UK's major telecoms players to build networks. With vast resources, providers such as BT and Virgin Media are able to take on some of the financial burden. Last year, Norfolk County Council became the UK's first local authority to sign a contract with a private sector partner through the Government's Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contract framework.

Buy to Rent

With so much cash available, it is little wonder that large organisations are willing to share costs, especially when contracts invariably operate on a lease line model, where those relying on the network will pay the operator for its use. This model has served the industry well, but perhaps its clients less so.

It was in 2012, with the realisation that an asset ownership model could better serve day-to-day users of a network, that staff from Lancaster University Network Services (LUNS Ltd) formed The Networking People (TNP).

Chris Wade, director at TNP, explains the reasoning behind the company's formation: "Leasing lines for a telecoms network
can represent a false economy, especially for those such as councils with unique requirements and many end users. After an initial contract, typically spanning three to five years, those councils that are leasing lines will either have to extend the contract (and not benefit from new technology or commercial deals) or tender for a new network partner, which can mean heavy installation fees or migration costs. This 'replace or renew' model offers no flexibility or long-term sustainability."

Better Connected

TNP's ethos stands in stark contrast to the larger providers. It works closely with partners to design a bespoke network that is owned by clients; because TNP is wholly independent and has the expertise to implement its designs, the network can be installed at a reduced cost while asset ownership means leased line fees are dramatically reduced. Owning assets also means the problems associated with the '
replace or renew' approach are avoided entirely.

The model seems to have struck a chord with those in need of cost-effective connectivity. Recent projects for TNP have included network builds for Blackpool, Stirling and Shetland Councils and its team is growing rapidly.

Blackpool councillor Chris Maughan, cabinet member for technology, summarises the benefits of the partnership with TNP and owning its network: "[It allows] the council to make significant savings at a time when the cost of telecoms is going up. It is also providing the town with resilient and secure connectivity that is completely under our control to grow and adapt as we do."

Wade credits TNP's success to its willingness to maximise on any existing infrastructure. For example, in its Shetland project, the council used dark fibre, microwave radio, ADSL and satellite to build and expand the in-place network in the most relevant and economical way - with TNP assisting to deliver a nearly tenfold increase in speed in some areas, it is projected to save the Council up to £1.6m. Similar savings have been seen by Blackpool Council on its 100 node network and for Stirling Council, which gained a 30% saving compared to an equivalent fixed-line solution.

Model Approach

So will the nation's largest operators be taking inspiration from TNP's tailored approach? Chris thinks not, concluding: "For the major providers, solutions can be about economies of scale and long-term leased line income. However, leasing is an outdated model and as anyone that has purchased a house could tell you, owning an asset is both much less costly over time and has more value to those using it."

This is a guest blog post from TNP

Does telco recruitment herald a brighter superfast future?

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I reported this morning the findings of a survey by ManPowerGroup that appeared to suggest that the growth in deployment of superfast fibre-optic broadband around the UK was directly responsible for an upswing in recruitment around the telecoms sector.

Actually, telecoms and media recruitment in the first five months of the year was up 17%, almost 10% above the national average, claimed ManPower.

ManPower hit up just over 2,100 UK employers for its regular - and well-respected - Employment Outlook Survey, and while these sorts of surveys are ten a penny these days, the comments made by its telco and media expert Tobias Mills piqued my interest.

"Whilst in certain parts of the country, such as cities and more urban areas, it is relatively straightforward to find workers with the relevant experience and skill levels, they are finding it much more difficult in the more remote corners of the country," said Mills.

Last week I spent a few hours in the company of local campaign groups and businesses in Oxfordshire, where pure-fibre player Gigaclear is currently rolling out 1 gigabit fibre networks in a number of villages (you can read the feature very soon).

What became clear to me very quickly was a palpable sense of frustration - even anger - at how slow things were moving, largely directed in the direction of BT and the unfit-for-purpose BDUK scheme.

One campaigner spoke of BDUK funding disappearing like a ghost once the scale of the project needed to hook up his community became apparent.

So does this so-called recruitment spike herald movement from the big players in rural areas? I only hope that the trends ManPower has extrapolated from its data points to recruitment of skilled engineers and not telco customer service drones.

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The Internet of Pigs might fly

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"A year ago, to get people to let me talk to them about the Internet of Things for five minutes, I had to buy them a drink. Now, they're taking me to dinner."

The words of Cisco CEO John Chambers there, spoken in a keynote at Cisco Live earlier in May ... also spoken at Cisco Partner Summit, and Cisco Live Europe, and to investors whenever he gets the chance, and, heck, pretty much every time he opens his mouth.

Well, when you hit on a bon mot you like to keep it in circulation for a little while.

"A year ago, to get people to let me..."

"Hush, honey, and eat your meatloaf."

John is right, though. The Internet of Things (IoT) is among us. Just last week Milton Keynes council signed an eighteen month deal to roll out a citywide IoT network with the ultimate objective of improving services such as parking provision and waste management. Yes, intelligent litter bins are coming soon to Buckinghamshire.

Pigs_highres.jpgNow two Cambridge-based companies are taking the concept to the next logical step. Sensor and monitoring outfit General Alert (GA) has teamed up with IoT specialist 1248 to see if the Internet of Pigs will fly.

GA bills itself as a pioneer in the use of sensors and monitoring technology in the agricultural sector, and hopes to use 1248's Geras IoT database to improve livestock welfare.

Its sensors pick up billions of readings on environmental data such as temperature, humidity, drinking water flow and feeding rates, CO² concentration, and ammonia and pH levels. Its RFID and temperature tags are implanted in the pigs themselves, meaning the animal in effect becomes a 'thing'. Which is not to say it wasn't already a thing, but now it's a 'thing.' The quote marks are apparently important.

This data collected will have applications when it comes to stock management, farm productivity and efficiency, among other things, but can also serve as an alert system for farmers - a change in drinking or feeding behaviour, for example, could be a harbinger of disease in the herd.

With potential to deploy such sensor networks nationally, GA and 1248 reckon they could provide early warning of diseases such as foot-and-mouth, which caused major losses in the UK 13 years ago.

"Rising global population and standards of living are increasing the pressure on food-animal production, which leads to an increased requirement to manage animal productivity, health and wellbeing effectively," says Chris Dodge, IT director at General Alert.

"Sensors, electronics and communications technologies have reached a price point that is making it possible to deploy IoT systems that deliver real commercial benefit and Geras is a core building block of our solution. We are already working closely with veterinary, agricultural research and farm management companies and looking to expand the range of applications."

The Geras database is billed as a generic, scalable IoT service - an open standards-based infrastructure that accepts and manages data trickling in from many different types of device, so that applications can quickly access and ask high-level questions of it.

"Geras is designed to allow companies like General Alert to focus on what they do best - in this case, developing and deploying livestock technology," said Pilgrim Beart, CEO at 1248.

"Companies looking to rapidly harness the opportunities presented by the Internet of Things need to partner with experienced providers who understand how to build scalable architectures and are committed to open standards."

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Is EE working on a driverless car?

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As a frequent cyclist around London I have to be extremely sensitive to what the drivers around me are doing in order to guarantee my own safety. Indeed, I always try to ask myself what is the most stupid thing a nearby driver could do right now, and react as if they have just done it. It's called riding defensively, and it's taught in cycling courses and endorsed by the Highway Code.

What does this have to do with networking and communications? Well, one of the biggest sins I see on the streets is drivers using their mobile phones behind the wheel.

Buzzard from EE - Packaging.jpgWith many studies now suggesting that mobile phone use while driving is as dangerous as drink driving, and one study at the University of Utah suggesting it is more so, I firmly believe the drivers who use mobiles while driving should face comparable penalties to drink driving, including potential bans.

Today EE announced a number of enhancements to its 4G service and of particular interest were plans to enhance 4G coverage along the UK's motorways and major A roads, and the launch of the UK's first 4G in-car Wi-Fi, the Buzzard, a plug-and-play device that can run off a 12v cigarette lighter connection to get up to 10 devices online. It also fits neatly into a cup-holder.

I asked EE's top brass if this well-intentioned launch might prove a temptation too far for some drivers. What steps is EE taking to keep those at the wheel off the web, and isn't it time for mobile networks to take more responsibility for safety given the frequency with which the devices they back are implicated in road accidents?

EE chief marketing officer Pippa Dunn told me it was definitely an issue that the firm is awake to and EE is making sure the new services and devices are positioned only for the passengers in the car.

"I do think the responsibility is on the driver to ensure they are driving and not using mobile phones," she said. But, she went on, mobile device use in cars is here and established and it is right for EE to address that, she claimed. The firm will continue to put in place resources to educate the market and ensure that device use behind the wheel is stamped out. Good to hear.

In-car lifestyle shot.jpgTo EE's credit, its messaging around using the in-car Wi-Fi plans is pretty clear. In the press pack handed round afterwards I found the photo you see here, of two kids sharing (sharing???) EE's new Eagle tablet in the back of the car. The car is clearly in motion but ... what's that ... the driver's seat in front of them is unoccupied! Nobody's driving! Where are mum and dad, Pippa? Or is this one of Google's driverless cars?

The topic of computer-controlled, driverless cars is of great interest to the two-wheeled fraternity, some of whom view them as a potential life-saver, and I think this picture points to a great sense of social responsibility over at EE.

So is EE working on a driverless car? It's time to come clean, guys.

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Calling network experts: the arts world wants your help

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Closeup of a thoughtful Tim Berners-Lee at the...

Closeup of a thoughtful Tim Berners-Lee at the launch. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On only my second day at Computer Weekly, scoring a front-row seat to watch one of my all-time heroes, Tim Berners-Lee speak isn't too shabby.

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours this week at the Southbank Centre in Sir Tim's company for an illuminating event on the future of the worldwide web. Among the topics up for discussion were idea that how concerted mass action is needed to maintain the free and open ideals of the worldwide web, and protect it from powerful interests that want to control it to often nefarious ends.

You can read my report on Tim's thoughts on web openness and his hope for an online bill of rights right here.

The Southbank Centre drew together an audience made up of web experts, technical masterminds, representatives of the arts world, journalists, politicians and local schoolchildren to share their thoughts and pose their questions to Tim at an anything goes 'think in' designed to help set the agenda for the Web We Want festival, which is being held at the Southbank Centre later this year.

The subsequent roundtable discussions were held under Chatham House rules, which means I'm honour bound not to tell you who was speaking or what, precisely they said, however, I spent a little time with some representatives from the world of theatre and some of their concerns were very interesting indeed.

One of the participants, who works for a well-known London theatre company, expressed his frustration at his inability to collaborate effectively with other bodies and institutions around the world, simply because the underlying network was not up to scratch, or because he simply did not know how to use it to its full advantage.

Another participant threw up the idea of an artist in a remote part of the country, who may be making truly remarkable, beautiful works, but cannot share them with the world because the BDUK scheme has not yet provided fibre connectivity to his or her home.

The arts can be a disruptive medium, at least as disruptive as, and potentially more so, than the worldwide web has been in its 25 year life. Just think of era-defining artists like Vincent Van Gogh, or revolutionary composers like Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring is said to have caused a near riot at its premiere in 1913.

Art inspires. Art delights and enrages. Art topples governments and changes societies. Can anybody seriously make the case that the worldwide web has not done exactly the same? The parallels are clear to me, and coming away from the Southbank Centre's event, I now believe we have a clear responsibility to foster greater collaboration between our corner of the industry and the arts. In a symbiotic, collaborative relationship, both sides can realise their far greater potential.

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EU roaming laws threatened by bureaucratic delays

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Europe - Satellite image - PlanetObserver

Europe - Satellite image - PlanetObserver (Photo credit: PlanetObserver)

If you have to travel for business - or indeed pleasure - you will know the pain to your wallet of using your mobile abroad.

Roaming charges are insanely high across the globe and recent research has showed more people are opting to switch their phones off rather than incur the plethora of charges put on them by mobile operators.

The European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, has put tackling the issue high on her agenda in recent years and vowed to slash roaming costs across the EU, even going as far to propose a vote in the European Parliament on scrapping them altogether.

The committee stage of this vote - which has to take place before it reaches parliament - was due to take place on Monday night, timely with the world's largest mobile trade show, Mobile World Congress, taking place in Barcelona this week.

However, complaints from the European Public Party (EPP) that members had not received the proposals in their own language - a stipulation enshrined in EU doctrine - meant the vote has been delayed, with one Bulgarian MEP saying it could be put back as far as a year.

This would be a disaster for the policy. The European elections are due in May and Kroes, who was dedicated to getting the plans through before this deadline, will step down after her rotation as the commissioner for technological issues.

I am a fan of the European Union due to issues like this being tackled on a grand scale and making a real difference to the lives of citizens across the EU. But the bureaucracy involved and the slow timescale of it being carried out is doing a disservice to the hard work of Kroes and her colleagues.

Those I have spoken to in Brussels think the year delay is a tad excessive, but there is no doubt that those responsible need pull their fingers out and get to work on translating the document for all MEPs so they can get a full understanding of what the policy means and vote it through before it gets condemned to the backwaters of EU paperwork and lost opportunities.

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Huawei may be one of the few winners of the NSA revelations

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English: Huawei Technology in Shenzhen, China

English: Huawei Technology in Shenzhen, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I attended an event at The Ritz yesterday - you have got to love making a posh place look untidy - hosted by Huawei, giving an update on its SoftCOM solution which offers up open, cloud-based technologies to bring software defined networking to telecoms operators.

However, whenever the big wigs from this Chinese firm are in town, discussion always turns to its awkward public persona.

I interviewed the CTO of its carrier networks business, Dr Sanqi Li, and I asked him about the tough couple of years the firm had had in the public eye - from the US deeming their products unsafe for use in corporate or public networks and Australia banning the equipment from government backhaul through to all the controversy surrounding their use by BT for UK government networks.

I am used to very polite answers from Huawei executives about how they want to be more open, transparent and gain the trust of the wider community outside of its home market, and Dr Li didn't disappoint. However, as he continued, it dawned on me there had been at least one winner following the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013...

"What we see globally is that people realise more that security issues in this new digital age are a challenge for all," he said. "You have heard the news. It is not just around Huawei anymore but about everyone else being a victim. The security, the privacy, these are constantly concerns for all."

"I think the situation has been improving for Huawei as people realise this is now about everyone. All vendors, operators, governments, they need to work together to truly find a solution. It is not just us, look at Amazon, Google, Cisco, Ericsson... we all need to work together."

And Dr Li is right. It is not just about some looming threat from the Far East anymore. When doubts were first cast over the safety of using Huawei equipment, a lot of people said off the record that the accusers - normally rival firms and Western governments - would only know networking gear could provide holes to leak information if they knew how to do it themselves.

The NSA revelations show just that and that whilst we still remain unsure as to whether the Chinese government is getting its mitts on our personal or corporate information, we know for a fact the US and the likes of GCHQ in the UK are.

So, it is a fair point for Dr Li to make and I'll be interested to see how this plays out from an Huawei reputation perspective.

Does this mean Huawei and other firms from China are suddenly going to gain the trust of the West? Perhaps not. But it does show its suspicious gaze that has been focusing on the emerging market for so long needs to stop being so longsighted and focus a little closer to home.

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The BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard could be the symbol of a triumphant return

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Too Many Blackberrys

Too Many Blackberrys (Photo credit: Ninja M.)

Everyone knows I am a bit of a fan girl when it comes to the BlackBerry 10 OS, along with the firm's first, and indeed flagship, device running it - the BlackBerry Z10.

However, its continuing failure across 2013 showed I was one of the very limited numbers celebrating BlackBerry's new direction in touchscreen mobiles, rather than its classic QWERTY keyboard design.

It never fully moved away from the tradition, launching both the Q10 and Q5 to keep the button tappers happy, but it seemed to be aiming its sights on a new market, claiming to be as swift and shiny as its Apple and Android competitors.

But just having me and Karl Flinders on-board was not enough for the new CEO John Chen (we are sure it was enough for Thorsten though....).

In an interview with Bloomberg at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, he claimed hardware was integral to the company and, although "you never say never," having its own handsets was still very important, rather than the alternative of just licensing the software.

But it seemed along with returning to its enterprise roots, BlackBerry would also be returning to the safety of its famed keyboard design.

"I think there are enough leaks in the market that the [next handset is known to be] a touchscreen... but personally I love the keyboards," said Chen.

"So, when you look to BlackBerry going forward with keyboards, I wouldn't use the word exclusively, but predominantly."

The promise comes just after the revelation BlackBerry is suing start-up firm Typo - financially backed by American idol's Ryan Seacrest - claiming its iPhone case, which provides a physical keyboard for iOS users, infringes on its own patents.  

Chen didn't want to talk much about the case, but said with 44,000 patents, his company should see some business benefits from that.  

Both companies are showcasing their products at CES so expect a few awkward run-ins on the show floor...

Watching the interview, I do have some hope for BlackBerry. As Chen admits, he is a "factual engineer" with an enterprise software background and he knows the market BlackBerry has been a success in. Focusing on its most popular features and its biggest market within enterprises is surely the best step forward, rather than attempting to compete with the cool kids and, let's face it, losing badly.

There is still a long path to recovery for Chen and his new team at BlackBerry, but now they have realised the less hip but more profitable world of business is the future, I am feeling much more optimistic, even though I still prefer the Z10...  

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What we missed in the festive season

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Happy New Year all!

So after a blissful two weeks off, I have returned to my desk as many of you have with emails up to my eyeballs and a few stories that have made those eyes water as the networking and telecoms industries ignored the Christmas break and carried on moving.

First up was the news on Christmas Eve that former BlackBerry CEO and co-founder Mike Lazaridis was selling off $26m of his stock in the struggling mobile manufacturer and backing away from a proposed take-over deal with fellow co-founder Doug Fregin. 

Lazaridis had owned 5.7% of the firm's shares at the end of 2012 but, together with Fregin, had upped this to 8%. In October the pair submitted a security filing hinting at a possible takeover of the firm.

However, a subsequent filing on 24 December showed Lazaridis shares had fallen to under 5% and he had terminated a contract with Goldman Sachs and Centerview Partners who he had hired to look into the acquisition. 

Another withdrawal story also broke over the Christmas period with Nokia announcing the departure of its executive chairman for the Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) business, Jesper Ovesen. 

He joined the firm in 2011 during the joint venture days with Siemens but will be moving on as soon as Nokia's deal to sell off its devices business to Microsoft closes. A shame as he has helped build its success, but I still think the company has a strong future in new leadership.

Finally, my favourite story of the past two weeks has to be about Ed Vaizey admitting his own incompetence. Following a Sky News party, the minister for communications was overheard agreeing with one of his aides that he was "completely useless."

This gave the shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis a perfect opportunity to dig at him for his performance in areas like the broadband roll-out, calling it "utterly pedestrian."

Yes, it was more than likely taken out of context and after a fair few glasses of bubbles, but it is nice to hear a government minister speaking with the people's voice for a change...

So, now we are in 2014 and there is surely much to come from the industry, with Cisco's next conference just a few weeks away and Mobile World Congress looming in February, to name just a few high profile events.

What are your thoughts for the coming year? Anything you will be keeping an eye on? It would be great to hear from you. 

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Christmas quips won't get the broadband job done

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Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament (Photo credit: Gail Johnson)

Most of the time, the Houses of Parliament is something that makes me proud to be British. The representation from every corner of the UK, the ability to question ministers, parliamentary privilege; this to me is what real democracy is all about.

Other times, I want to punch the walls of the impressive gothic lobby at how often that democracy is wasted.

Today was one of those days.

I was watching the questions to the DCMS ministers this morning and was pleased when the subject of the broadband roll-out arose.

Nigel Evans, the independent MP for Ribble Valley, kicked off with a lame joke about the Obama 'selfie' scandal, saying if the secretary of state, Maria Miller, came to Lancashire, she would find it "a bit hit and miss" if trying to upload one taken with him.

Yes, we all groaned, but the over-arching point was a good one.

"In Lancashire, only 55% have access to superfast broadband, whereas nationally it is 65%," he said. "Will she ensure that Lancashire is not going to be left in the digital dinosaur age but 100% will get access to it?"

Miller had stats to say it was actually available to 67% in the Lancashire and used the figures to show the government was making progress, but ended with the line: "We are making progress but clearly we need to make sure that continues."

Ok, nothing ground breaking there. Happy an MP has brought it up but let's try something a little more taxing for the minister, shall we?

Step up Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for Devon North, who had a much less jocular tone with Miller and a real question to ask.

"The secretary of state referred to the 10% that is most difficult to reach with superfast broadband," he said. "Does she recognise in areas like mine that 10% is in fact far bigger than that and that the rural economy is very dependent on small micro businesses and much higher than average levels of home working?"

"Will she get on with allocating the £250m that has been set aside for this 10% and will she not make it match funded by already broke local authorities?"

Alas Miller, going unquestioned as is the nature of these things, used the question as an excuse to say how great her party's plans were compared to the previous administration and to bypass the real question of the £250m - something that can't be allocated whilst the DCMS, local authorities and BT keep hidden where the BDUK roll out is taking place due to state aid rules - with a coming soon trailer.

"My honourable friend is absolutely right to say that making superfast broadband a priority infrastructure project for this country was absolutely right for this government to decide to do [we didn't hear him say that] and the plans we inherited from the party opposite were lamentable [he didn't say that either]."

"He will know that we have already allocated £250m, which we will be announcing shortly how that will be used [so, it hasn't been allocated to specific projects yet then, has it?] and also he will have noticed in the Autumn Statement an additional £10m for the hardest to reach areas where we need innovative solutions [another fund where details remain scarce]."

So, this didn't get any of us much further.

But when Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, stood up I thought here we go. I know this woman has balls and at least with the cheeky 'lamentable' comment about the previous government's plans - Labour wanted everyone to have a minimum of 2Mbps by 2012 by the way - she also had motivation to take the DCMS to task.

Talking specifically to Ed Vaizey, who is the real minister in charge of broadband roll-out, she said: "Under Labour's universal broadband pledge, everyone would now have enjoyed a year of full access to decent broadband instead of the ongoing delay and controversy we have."

Yes Onwurah! Now, go in for the kill; why the delays? Why the cover ups? When can we have transparency?

"So can I ask the minister if he will be sending out eChristmas cards this year and, if so, does he take responsibility for all the problems so many people will still have receiving them?"

YES, YOU GO... wait a minute... a Christmas card joke? Really? You have your moment to stand there in parliament and question the people running this much maligned scheme to try to get some real answers, and you make a terrible joke about online cards?

Vaizey answered in his BoJo-esq style, of course. With a wry smile and a gesture to John Bercow, he said: "Mr. Speaker, call me old fashioned, but I send out physical Christmas cards. You will receive one and so will the honourable lady."

And how they all laughed; Vaizey, Onwurah, the gathered throngs - OK, tens - of MPs, whilst I sat here with my head in my hands asking myself what is a point in a parliament and questions to ministers if it is just all a chance to try out your stand-up skills and make a mockery of a serious issue?

I have been experiencing a lot of abuse via email and Twitter since starting to seek out the postcode data and roll-out plans of the BDUK project. I have also been condemned in public for posing difficult questions. I have watched other outspoken individuals seeking out transparency for the project go through similar things.

All we want is the answers and, when answered fully, we will get back in our boxes.

But let's face it; if the best we are going to get from the opposition is a quip about festive postcards, I think we all have to keep this up for some time and have quite a way to go before the truth will truly be out there. 

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Hello... is that the operator on the line?

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A telephone booth with smashed tempered glass ...

A telephone booth with smashed tempered glass in Holloway, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I grew up in a small village in deepest, darkest Hampshire. When I was about 10 years old, the big news in the parish magazine was the fact we were getting a phone box. Oh the excitement! Don't get me wrong, the painfully middle class population all had their own home phones, but it felt like East Oakley was being included in 'the modern times' and keeping up with the Jones' - or neighbouring villages anyway...

I genuinely remember the moment vividly. Me, Danielle Stacey, Keira Armstrong and Rachel Davies, walking to the SPAR shop - something we weren't allowed to do on our own at the time, naughty us! - and dialing 100 for the operator (the only free number we knew at the time) to tell them to get off the line... or they may be hit by a train! Hahaha... OK, please remember we were only 10?

I am sure the only people that used that phone box were the local kids messing about, harmless as it was, but I still stick by the excitement it brought to the residents, young and old alike.

So, you can perhaps understand my reality check on receiving the latest consumer research from EE - used to tout its 4G network of course - saying half of all 18 to 24 year olds had NEVER used a phone box.

Working as I do in the West End, phone boxes have been purely for calling cards of ladies looking for, shall we say, company of an evening for many years and it was a talking point a few weeks ago in the office when I saw a man actually using one to make a phone call. Admittedly then, the stat that 80% of people had not used a phone box in five years was understandable.

But I am only in my late twenties myself and it amazes me that people so close to my age have never had to panic as they throw in an extra 10p to call their boyfriend when they are away on a dull family holiday, keep the emergency 20p to call mum or dad to come and pick them up when you have missed the last bus home from someone's not-so-secret house party or played pranks on poor, bored BT operators.

I know age comes to us all - my sister and I were last night discussing how our first email addresses were almost old enough to legally drink - and technology changes with the times. But it is little statistics like this that remind me how fast times are moving now and today's next big thing is tomorrow's age old relic.

Well, at least I can be grateful for the fun we had with the phone box, although perhaps not so grateful that it was the highlight of my year in 1995... 

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BDUK: The answer is to manage expectations with a transparent plan

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I am lucky enough to have regular conversations with some great alternative providers working at local level to try and get broadband connectivity to the most rural areas.

This week, for example, I got to speak to Dr Mike Goldsmith, managing director of
VillageBroadband, about the impressive community wireless project he is running in Northamptonshire - you can read more about that programme here.

But along with the exciting and innovative conversations I have, I also get the horror stories and the news from the ground of what small communities are going through on their quest to become connected.

Today one such provider contact pointed me to a story in the Burnley Express entitled 'Village broadband service not what it seems'.

A letter from local resident David Parkinson, living in Chatburn, said, as someone who works at an IT business based in the rural location, he and his colleagues were delighted when his village was chosen to be one of the first to get superfast broadband in the Lancashire broadband roll-out.

The work was completed in September 2013 and the local council, alongside BT, is now shouting from the rooftops the doors are open and orders are now being taken for the connections.

However, Mr Parkinson's business is connected to BT's exchange directly with an exchange only (EO) line. This means his business is unable to get the new superfast technology from cabinets.

If this was a one off, perhaps it could be forgiven, but Mr Parkinson said the majority of the businesses based in the village have these exchange only lines, leaving those who could arguably benefit most from the faster connectivity missing out.

A number of people have been questioning Lancashire County Council over Twitter about how this happened and how both it and BT were able to celebrate and publicise how super-connected Chatburn was when they hadn't even come up with a solution to help those with rural enterprises and EO lines.

The council has said it is working on a solution and considering a new cabinet to redirect the EO lines to, but this doesn't alter the fact Chatburn residents were told they would get their broadband in September 2013, even though those behind the plans knew it didn't mean all of them.  

It is yet another example of a lack of transparency when it comes to BDUK. They - both BT and the council - knew the EOs were there. They knew they needed to work out an alternative solution to connect those to the faster network. Yet, they still told the village they were getting superfast broadband in September with no caveats.  

I am consistently told by BT spokespeople that they won't tell us where they are rolling out as plans change and they don't want to disappoint people, as well as being told people like me - members of the press - will leap on them in 10 seconds flat if they didn't live up to their promises.

I have consistently replied that transparent plans with honesty about what areas they definitely will cover, where they hope to and the inclusion of caveats, including the likes of EOs, are still a better alternative than saying nothing or giving out tidbits of information.   

In the case of Chatburn, they have fallen into the last category, only revealing half truths about what they are doing, leaving out the killer detail that many will be missing out.

The residents of rural areas in the UK want broadband and, having waited this long, are ok with waiting longer. But what they want is the truth about when they can expect it and, as my provider contact said, a management of expectations, rather than statements that could easily be construed as lies.

I hope Mr Parkinson won't be waiting too long for his connection and his business doesn't suffer in the meantime.


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Is the fund to test 'innovative broadband solutions' funding for fundings' sake?

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This morning, I wrote a story about investment from insurance firms into infrastructure projects across the UK. The six companies plan on investing £25bn into the likes of airport redevelopment, flood defences, and, yes, broadband.

This will all fall under the umbrella of the National Infrastructure Plan from the government, which it claims will consist of £375bn of funding to get these projects done.

When the announcement came out this morning, a few token projects were touted, but the Treasury has just emailed me with more detail around how the broadband roll-out will benefit from the additional money.

Apparently, the government plans to open a £10m competitive fund in early 2014 to "test innovative solutions to deliver superfast broadband services to the most difficult to reach areas of the UK" - e.g. rural Britain.

"Options may include enhanced mobile services, new fixed technologies and alternative approaches to structuring financial support, working closely with the communications industry," it continued.

But, as with many government announcements, here is where the information stopped.

Is this new money or money from the Rural Community Broadband Fund? Who will be allowed to apply for this fund? Do we need to fund more research when there are plenty of small, alternative providers jumping in the air with working technologies who just need the funding and the nod from BDUK to start building?

Hmmm... I am not against extra funding in this area in the slightest - you may have seen my rants about the lack of money going into broadband infrastructure in the past - but you shouldn't have funding for funding's sake and it should be going towards the right projects, perhaps the printing costs of releasing all the postcode data behind BT/BDUK's roll-out?

So far I have been waiting over two hours for a call from the Treasury to come back to me with someone clued up on the scheme. As soon as they do and I get more details, I will let you know... 

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Best of the Beast

Best of the Beast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In these post-crash days and era of austerity, businesses up and down the country are struggling to balance the books. Yet some organisations have come out of 2013 looking healthier than ever before.

A new report from software company Growth Intelligence has announced a list of 1,000 companies said to be 'leading the economic recovery,' and technology is clearly making an impact on the fate of the UK.

From AppSense in the North West to Wireless Logic in the South East, the country is covered in successful tech firms that despite the tough economic climate have continued to bring in turnovers of between £6m and £250m.

But I'm afraid all of these innovative firms are lagging behind the fastest growing of the lot, and one you might not expect to see on a list containing everything from telecommunications to building materials.

Heavy metal legends Iron Maiden will this Christmas celebrate their 38th anniversary and as a little present, their holding company has been named as one of six music companies outperforming all other industries in the UK.

On top of the typical companies house data, Growth Intelligence includes employee growth, intellectual property and investments in patents and office space, amongst other metrics to get a wider picture, and it seems Maiden are kicking the backside of the corporates in their business endeavours, as well as on stage.  

They have been particularly successful when it comes to social media, where during its Maiden England World Tour between Jun 2012 and Oct 2013 - one of the best shows I saw this year - the band grew its online fanbase by five million.

In September 2013 alone, the band added almost 630,000 new social media fans, which Growth Intelligence said was the highest monthly increase the group has seen so far this year.

So maybe there is a lesson for us all here. Dressing smart, sticking to the rules and focusing on how to make money from your customers can get you far, but rocking out around the world with galloping guitar solos and songs celebrating the number of the beast may mean you do even better...


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Here's hoping HP doesn't squander its networking opportunity

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Image representing Hewlett-Packard as depicted...

Image via CrunchBase

HP's trial of a year has come to a close today with the release of its fourth quarter and full year results for 2013.

If you take the figures alone, they look much healthier, with revenues for the quarter breaking $29bn and the entire year coming in at $112bn.

However, these are smaller numbers than last year, both for the three months and the full fiscal period, and are only being celebrated because of the huge drops suffered in Q3.

The particular area being praised by HP's CEO, Meg Whitman, was the enterprise group - the hardcore hardware such as servers and storage. But again, these two particular product groups are only just returning to the same levels as 2012 and recovering from a sad performance in the previous quarter.

There is one beacon, however, in the company's enterprise arsenal and that is networking. This seems to be the only product set that is continuing to grow at an albeit slow but steady rate, bringing in $635m for Q4 2012, $644m for Q3 2013 and this quarter reaching $656m.

Yes, when a company has overall revenues in the billions, these numbers may seem small fry, but it is the continual progress of them that should bring a smile to the company's face, compared to the yo-yoing of its other enterprise hardware and the ongoing crash of its once very fruitful PC business.

With innovation in the networking space continuing to disrupt the market and the likes of Software Defined Networking looking to be the silver bullet to knock Cisco off its perch, it is an exciting time to be involved. Now it is time for HP to invest into the burgeoning technology area and makes it stamp on the market as others begin to fight over the ground Cisco may leave behind.

I look forward to seeing how it embraces networking and hope it doesn't squander the opportunity it has... 

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Welcome to Benioff-force 2013

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There was a slightly sad air circling the Moscone Centre at Salesforce's annual Dreamforce conference.

I have been attending since 2009 to cover the news coming out of the event; an event that has grown bigger and brasher over the years, with CEO Marc Benioff boasting as many as 130,000 registrations in 2013. But this year it felt different.

Dreamforce always had that vibe of an exciting and new conference filled to the brim with announcements that even the best journalists struggled to keep on top of. Salesforce itself was founded within a year of Google and was part of those select firms that came out of Silicon Valley in the late nineties and managed to manoeuvre their way through the bubble bursting which killed so many others.

These types have always garnered much respect in this part of the world but also managed to keep a cool façade, even if their founders have started to cover up the greys.

Yet this year, the almost cult status the company had achieved seemed to be sacrificed. Instead it became the Marc Benioff show and the technology that made the man took a cheap seat right at the back of the vast keynote halls.

I am somewhat of a cynic about the philanthropy of the world's richest, grateful of course when they make contributions I could never dream of giving, but feeling uncomfortable when they are used as a branding tool.

In the opening keynote, a large portion was dedicated to Benioff's personal philanthropy and in some cases it felt horrendously awkward. There is one thing deciding the children's hospital he was funding needed to be named after him, but I didn't know where to look when a picture with Haitian children writing 'Merci Salesforce' came up on the screen and the Prime Minster of Haiti stood up and thanked the CEO for his help and his cloud platform. It just seemed like the world had gone somewhat topsy-turvy when a world leader was puckering up to a Silicon Valley executive.

The rest of the conference continued in this vein. Even when it returned to the corporate customers rather than the charities, CEO after CEO was trawled out to tell Benioff what a wonderful man he was, how much he had changed their lives, and that was just from the president of WholeFoods.

Benioff has never been a shy guy and his presentation style has always been confident. He tried to make a joke of how in the connected world we lived in, it was crazy that every shop, airport or organisation didn't know who he was when he walked in and use it to their advantage. But this little diatribe sounded like more of a "Don't you know who I am?" rant you'd expect from a D-list celebrity in the queue for a new nightclub.

Then during a Q&A with the press, the mask of a man who cared about his customers and innovation in technology didn't so much slip as fly off, when he admitted he wanted to make as many products as possible to "ram down the throats" of his users, whether they needed them or not.

Yes, Dreamforce is always a great excuse for the UK technology press and customers to travel across the Atlantic, take advantage of hospitality in one of the greatest cities in the world and watch the likes of Metallica and Green Day with a free pint in hand. But there has always been an excitement around the technology, the feeling people were really getting what they paid for and that new innovations were just round the corner - which is what kept us coming back.

This year, the only announcement anyone was talking about was one with HP, which seemed to backtrack on the cloud-dream Salesforce had always stood for.

Salesforce is alive and well, revenues are coming in at vast rates and there is no doubt it will continue to be a success for some years to come. But the enticing company you always looked forward to getting a call from with its next big adventure has gone - and Benioff has taken his seat next to the Ellisons, Ballmers and Chambers of this world as an old, established, rich, white CEO rather than the new, refreshing innovator his cult company could have allowed him to be.

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