How do we ensure that our responses to the Charlie Hebdo murders do not dishnour the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta?

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The would-be killers of Charlie Hebdo (click here for some of the cartons from the resurrection)
are in danger of achieving their objectives:

•    an unprecedented  propaganda coup (for such a tiny, ill-funded group), 
•    glorious martyrdom, (gunned down in a hail of bullets) and
•    a display of global hypocrisy  leading to an exploitation of groupthink to justify a massive diversion of resources into expensive and ineffective displacement activities   that could  cripple the "real" enemy of the violent extremism  -  freedom of thought and expression.

I was troubled by calls for global "solidarity" under the banner "Je Suis Charlie". I was rather more impressed by the thinking behind  "Je ne suis pas Charlie: Je suis Ahmed
How do we "exile", or at least expose and isolate the heretics  (of all religious strands) who genuinely believe they have a right (or even duty) to kill in the name of their selective interpretation of the word of God. Hence the reason for my Christmas Blog on The Amman Message .  The hollowness of UK claims to be serious about "the war against terror" is exposed by the failure to insist that such a  uniquely authoritative collective message  is used by Ofsted as one of the yardsticks for reviewing  the content of muslim religious education in UK schools. 

I have also been long concerned by the shallowness of debate about the meaning of the "Freedom of the Internet".  At School and University I was taught that "Freedom" is not an abstract. It has to be put into context: freedom from hunger, freedom from fear etc.  In the on-line world we need to balance the "right" to free speech against freedom from the fear of trolling and abuse.   We also need to give users genuine choice, not just the Hobson's choice offered by the cartel of global players who run most of the on-line world: tracking our footprints to refine (big data engines) our habits into the new oil, to sell to advertisers but not to provide to law enforcement to help identify and "remove" those who abuse us.

I am not convinced by the calls for blanket powers to address the use of the internet by potential terrorists while we fail to make serious progress with reporting and intelligence sharing at almost any level with regard to almost any type of criminal behaviour on-line. Some years ago I was told that during the run-up to the bombing of the Arndale Centre in Manchester, Special Branch believed there was only one, inactive, IRA cell in Manchester. My informant told me that within 48 hours of the bombing, the local CID had been given details, including membership and meeting locations, of six active cells. The local criminals had no problem with the IRA bombing London:  locally was, however, very  different. 

Last March I chaired a small round table on intelligence sharing. A key point was that law enforcement, including the security services, were drowning in data that they did not have the resources, people or technology to analyse. The suggested way forward was to make it less impossible for "industry" to use its own "big data" processes to filter data to protect possible criminal behaviour (and other abuse that was in flagrant breach of their supposed terms and conditions) and pass over that which was relevant in formats that could be easily collated and used. That would , however, require addressing issues of governance and co-operation, including responsibilities, liabilities and priority setting, that people prefer to keep behind closed doors. 

We also discussed the need to revisit the current convention whereby the defence can trawl through all of the prosecution's evidence base. It might have been an important safeguard if we still had capital punishment but we do not and such trawls are clearly being used to identify and silence potential witness and thus reinforce reigns of terror in inner city sink estates dominated by organised crime and street gangs (whether religious or secular or the unholy alliances across the "social" boundaries between the two).

I was among those infuriated by the many falsehoods and inaccuracies in "The Imitation Game" but it did succinctly summarise the dilemma faced by those wishing to keep sources of intelligence secret and those wishing to take action. An illustration of the consequences of getting the balance wrong can be seen with regard to the failure to respond to the original calls for help when the extremists began their take-over of the Finsbury Park Mosque .

The final report of the EURIM- IPPR study into "Partnership Policing for the Information Society"  looked at governance issues but failed to come up with recommendations that caught the imaginations of the participants. I revisited the subject in the context of the  governance of "big data" (public or private)  the in surveillance society when I reviewed the Labour Party Modernising Government  study  and its call for an ethical dimension.

I was, however, taken aback by how soon the issues would become topical. 

I would like therefore to repeat my call for their recommendation to: "Create an ethical framework and governance for ethical issuers around the interaction of the state, its citizens and corporations" to be responded to by the resurrection of the pre-1958 duties of Britain's third most senior Judge, the Master of the Rolls  and his deputy, The Keeper of Public Records . It is an "obvious" way to provide authoritative,  credible and (where necessary) public judicial oversight  for the surveillance and information security activities of the state and also of the industry players with whom they should be co-operating to address abuse of all types, not just terrorism,  over the Internet.

The current mish-mash of under-resourced Information, Interception, Surveillance Cameras and other "Commissioners" and regulators should then "report" to the "Master". Meanwhile the "Keeper" should be able to draw on the resources of the National Audit Office, CESG and National Archive to enforce good practice in private, while providing the evidence for "public" enforcement by the Commissioners and/or Master should this prove necessary. Of course there is a lot of small print to address. But, in the face of threats from all those who think that our private information is their new oil (alias "big data") what better way could there be to help counter the similar hypocrisy  around the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, than to put the data and surveillance activities of the state and of its contractors back under clear judicial oversight and Common (not Roman) law.

We should also remember that proud boast of the last "Keeper of Public Records" that her forbears had provided the evidence to have three of their sponsoring ministers (Lord Chancellors who had fallen out of favour) executed. We no longer have the death penalty for anything but a similarly rigorous approach to the enforcement of good information practice could also do more than any amount of blether to help rebuild trust in the UK as a globally trusted hub for information processing. 

There are some interesting side effects.

If it were possible for the Master to also have effective oversight of the intra-UK surveillance operations of GCHQ and Law enforcement it should also be possible to streamline current controls which get in the way of the timely and effective use of intelligence. Many of those controls currently give the worst of all possible outcomes, getting in the way of rapid response (as during the 2011 riots when law enforcement lacked the processes to use the real-time intelligence streaming in on a voluntary basis from communications services) while failing to give public confidence because they are unknown.

The spirit behind Magna Carta gained force in the 17th Century, an age of mass immigration (Huguenots and others fleeing from persecution), mistrust, plots and riots. Sound familiar?  Hence the need to take its values seriously. "Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je suis Ahmed." 

I have just read that the digitisation of government needs a major transformation effort

Which comes first?

The digitisation or the transformation?

It is over twenty years since Nobel Prize winner Arno Penzias (then running Bell Labs) told PITCOM than computerisation never made anyone redundant. It was the organisational changes that were enabled by computerisation that made whole functions and their departments, redundant. So what have we actually learned since LEO 1 automated the production control pf Lyons Bakery and  LEO2 automated the Army Pay roll? If this article is anything to go by .... not a lot.

Last year I promised, (while blogging on the problems with rural social inclusion as exemplified by the problems with using digital by default to identify farmers )  to comment on the report of the exercise commissioned to help the Labour Party Digital Government review .
I have been taken to task before by Chi Onwurah MP for not declaring my political allegiances. I therefore remind readers that whiIe I am Vice Chairman (Policy Studies) for the Conservative Technology Forum, I am also a levy paying, albeit now retired, member of Unite and of the Co-op. The views in this blog are my own. They reflect neither left, right nor centre but that area where old (non-Marxist) Labour meets tribal (open, but not necessarily "free", market) Tory, round the bike sheds at the back.
I particularly welcome the call for those looking at "Digital Government" to focus on social inclusion and ethical standards rather than simple cost saving, although I would have welcomed rather more on how to measure performance and to hold government to account with regard to both. I would also have preferred more focus on the objectives than the technology, although I was personally interested much of the latter. I fear, however, that too many of those responsible for public sector IT systems, particularly those over-zealously outsourced by the last Labour government (such as under the National Plan for NHS IT and the many botched hospital PFIs) have mindsets akin to those who run the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.
I was therefore delighted to see the recent admission from Andy Burnham that Labour had taken the privatisation of the NHS too far. Perhaps he already knew that Circle was planning to withdraw from the running of Hinchinbrooke Hospital. I look forward to seeing further evidence that all main parties recognise that the outsourcing and offshoring of critical public sector functions, including the security of our personal information, has passed its zenith and that the time has come to rebuild the in-house systems skills of the public sector. That rebuilding needs to include the skills for end-users, not just IT "experts", to use open source, interoperable and agile methodologies to support the integration and transformation of service delivery, under democratic control and open accountability.

Recommendation 31 of the Digital Government Review , five days training for all civil staff during the next parliament to become digital champions, is far too modest and has far too low a priority. All civil servants should have the equivalent (including both off-the-job workshops and on-the-job distance learning) of at least ten days a year to help them do their jobs better. The goal should be to involve end-users and their managers in driving incremental change within inter-operability frameworks using IT "professionals", "systems experts" and outside "consultants" in support roles only. 

That has been the ostensible aim of those developing what we now call "agile" methodologies for over forty years. The time has come to take them at their word and adopt the necessary disciplines - while recognising why this is so hard in practice .

I strongly agree with the authors of the review that the goal should be better service for those in most need (my personal rephrasing of their social inclusion goals). Given the state of public finances  (including the overhang of bloated PFIs and other rigidly wasteful outsourcing contracts) that will have almost certainly have to be achieved by incremental change, on positive cash flow using software as a service over shared network and cloud services to cut new system costs by  30% (and more) above the savings on those they replace. We can then argue whether the additional savings should be used to improve services to the growing number of elderly (including me!) or to cut taxes.

I found it difficult to work out which of the other 34 recommendations were there to help achieve objectives and which were there to address assumed constraints.  Many appear to very technical and capable of interpretation in a variety of ways, not all of them good professional practice. I did the programme management module on MSc06 (1971 - 3) at London Business School and subsequently ran the only one of Tony Benn's DTI tripartite industry strategy programmes to achieve its objectives (The Water Industry Computing Development Plan). I learned that if a programme has more than six priorities, it has none. More-over only the top three really matter. Most supposed objectives, such as health and safety, equal opportunities and even timescales and budgets, are constraints, not objectives. My own experience has been that the biggest constraints are the skills and time available, not the funding.  I have seen too many expensive fiascos resulting from politicians throwing  consultants and contractors with the wrong experience, motivation and management at a problem because they think that mortgaging the future will provide a short cut to success. I would love to see a bipartisan agreement to follow good professional programme management practice. But pigs might fly      

Is the objective of Digital Government to deliver better and more socially inclusive automated services? Or is it to deliver better services, digital or otherwise, making use of technology to help human beings overcome organisational problems and resource constraints in addressing the needs of those in most need of help, support and/or treatment?

I suspect that some of the authors of the report did not recognise the tension between the two approaches. Others probably did, but could not agree how to reconcile the differences. I sympathise. Politicians, advisors and officials are subject to massive lobbying from armies of consultant and suppliers telling them that technology and outsourcing are the "answer" and the implementation should be contracted to them. Those currently at the top of most major suppliers to the public sector got there by winning such contracts, rather than working on their subsequent delivery. They now have grave difficulty in adjusting to the reality of a world where the public sector is not only broke but mortgaged to the hilt (PFIs and outsourcing deals).

The only realistic way forward is incremental change, using "agile" methodologies supported by low cost mobile technologies accessing cloud-based services. But this has to be funded by cannibalising existing contracts to save 30% and more on current outsourcing costs: hence the desire of major suppliers, and their lobbyists, to delay change while they shrink their UK sales and support teams and adjust to a new world.  Hence also the enthusiasm for complex studies to buy time.

I therefore applaud the focus on social inclusion, but would simplify it down to a requirement that public service delivery systems (whether digital or not) should be designed for access by those in most need, using carers they trust.

No large scale roll-out should be committed unless and until the specification has been successfully tested on the target audience. The Secretary of State for DWP's insistence on this basic principle is what lies behind the delays with Universal Credit. This appoach was alien to officials and suppliers, let alone the big management consultancies whose experts always know best. They insisted on cutting code and installing equipment under their existing, extended, contracts before they documented and tested the "pathfinders". In other words, they ignored the reasons for Australia's successful use of the Oracle methodology they were supposedly copying.  Hence the core reason for £hundreds of millions, and more importantly, several years of unnecessary human suffering and waste.  

In the small print of the 2012 budget the Chancellor mandated that no new system should go live after 2014 unless "the responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the system successfully"  . Thus George Eustace is personally involved with the three week "agile" cycle to belatedly sort out the systems of  the Rural Payment Agency. Similarly the Universal Credit systems cannot go live unless ministers can use them.

Hopefully the launch of the new Digital Accessibility Alliance will be followed by an extension of the policy, preferably in the pre-election budget with all-party support, to mandate the testing of all new systems with members of the target audience, not just the minister, before roll out is contracted.  

I note the plans to budget large sums for teaching the "digitally excluded" how to use current technologies but regard this as less effective use of limited government funds than training civil servants to take public service delivery back in-house and to work with local authorities and the voluntary sector to run "joined up people systems" that meet the needs of those most dependent on them.  Almost PITCOM's first activity was an exhibition of computer-based aids for the disabled, in the Upper Waiting  Room. It was opened by Sir George Young  when he was a junior Health Minister.

Over 30 years on and we are still failing to make effective use of the technology to help those who could and should benefit most. Barnados and the Salvation Army are well ahead of the Government Data Service in the sophistication of their use of IT to help them serve and protect (their levels of delivered security also put Government to shame) those in most need.  Perhaps government should pay leading charities some of what it pays to the big consultancies for advice on how to better use IT to meet the needs of those in most need.
That leads me on to the "ethical" dimension, which Labour would entrust to Cabinet Office.

The Charities are able to do such more at lower cost and more securely by enlisting the hearts and minds of those who work with and for them. Meanwhile no-one, other than a handful of Big data enthusiasts, trusts most Whitehall department further than they can be thrown  . That is not because of the lack of probity of individual civil servants but because of the constraints within which they operate, including rotation to a new role as soon as they begin to gain genuine experience and build trust. 

So how should we handle the issues of trust with the delivery of public services?

Abnd here I come why I agree so strongly with the ethical objectives behind the review ....

Christmas is a time for reconciliation. Please read the Amman Message

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We have recently much blether about the use of the web by terrorists, including for publicity and recruitment. We hear much less about its use to promote reconciliation and peace. In this context I do suggest readers visit the website of the Amman Message and then think about what it means to them.

It contains the nearest the Muslim world has to a definition of contemporary Islam, as opposed to the odd collections of 19th and 20th Century make-believe peddled by Islamic State, Al Qaeda and others who have "lost their way" and compete in their use of social media to recruit disaffected teenagers and malcontents to join them.

The process that led to the Amman Message was as though the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Moderator of the General Asembly of the Church of Scotland and the other leaders of the main Protestant Communities had come together to define Christianity as a similarly tolerant and compassionate faith, in the face of threats from those calling for a violent crusade against not only heretics and non-believers but also those who disagreed with their selective and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Gospels, including the supposed Revelation of St John.

If you think about the way the Catholic Church and Church of England operate or Article viii of the constitution of the Church of Scotland, let alone the way that other protestant communities are organised, you will realise how difficult such a coming together would be for Christians. It was equally hard and unusal for the Muslim World. Which is why the "Message" should be much better known and publicised - so that laymen, not just scholars for whom it was produced, can understand its implications.

Those who came together to produce the Amman Message should be viewed as the thought leaders of the Muslim World: leading teachers and scholars from all the mainstream Sunni and Shia religious and law schools. It is not a "simple" collection of Prelates and Judges setting the "rules". Even the Sharia is better seen as a set of collections of interpretations of the will of God rather than a western style set of laws. This has the side effect of making it relatively easy for Governments to introduce legal codes that are nominally "Sharia compliant" - provided they do not obviously deviate from the "path".    

By contrast the leaders and spokesmen of Al Qaeda or Islamic State are commonly self-taught, with little or no formal scholastic education. Osama bin Laden studied economics and business adminstration. Abu Hamza studied engineering. And so on. Hence also the bizarre legal codes of the Islamic State Caliphate.

The authority of the Amman Message is, therefore, all the more impressive.    

So why is it not better known?

At that point it may be helpful to look at the politics of the Internet and the motives of those whose interests are served by stoking conflict between the Muslim Communities, let alone between them and both Christianity, (ancient, as in Syria and Iraq, modern) and Judaism.

I am, however,a great fan of John Donne, not just his erotic poetry but his later sermons and "religious" writings - at a time when christians were busy persecuting each other in the name of the God of Love. One of my favourites begins "Kind pity chokes my spleen" and contains:

"To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so."

A very similar set of messages can be found in the Koran saying, in effect, that those who claim to know the will (not just word) of God with absolute certainty and its meaning for you - are false prophets. You have to study for yourself. I therefore leave you to ponder working out how and why the voices of calm and reason are drowned out in the cacophony of the on-line world, with its lawyer-enforced, short-term, secular business models. 

When it comes to calling on God in support of a "justified war", I personally find little difference between the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo and the messages about self defence found in the Koran. Neither justifies what is happening in the Middle East today - other than those relating to secular self-defence against men of violence. 

My own summary of the careful and measured tones of the Amman Message is simple: "anyone who presumes to know the will of God and encourages others to persecute and kill in his name - is a heretic".

However, I too have no religious training. I therefore urge you to read the three points of the message for yourself and then think, very hard, even if you do not feel able to pray to your version of God for guidance.

2015: The Year of the Compliance-Created Cyber Confidence Collapse?

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We are bombarded with messages to promote new security technologies when most organisations the lack skills to make effective use of existing products and services to protect themselves and their customers against fraud and abuse. Too many compete for supposedly competant and experienced experts, rather than retrain those who already know the business. In consequence, turnover among those who can tick the boxes of the certifications in current demand and have a gift of the gab is spiralling up and actual security is spiralling down.  The problems are being compounded by layers of regulation that reward bad practice and open up more vulnerabilities than they address.

The biggest security risk now faced by employers is not outside hackers. It is compliance experts who stay just long enough to help you tick the latest regulatory boxes, having acquired the necesary understanding of your systems and security credentials necessary to do so. The drive by the European Commission to address supposed "data protection" problems, supported by the US obsession with "Data Breach Notification", could not have done a better job in opening up opportunities for serious fraud (both high value and mass market) if they had been actively planned by organised crime.

Autumn 2014 saw an explosion in recruitment effort for supposedly permanent compliance officers, well ahead of cybersecurity specialists and other assorted digerati. The average length of stay is now under 18 months. A quick scan of applicants shows that many have not stayed anywhere for more than a year since before the banking crash.

Next year will probably see the nadir of trust in the on-line world.

Part of the solution is for those who are serious about security to stop recruiting external staff of uncertain provenance (beyond the certification of their technical knowledge) for roles which should never be entrusted to those whose loyalty to the organisation is untested. Instead they should retrain long stay staff, particularly who might otherwise be made redundant or otherwise become disaffected after being passed over. This requires the organisation, however, to be serious about trying to rebuild the reciprocal loyalty that has been put a risk by a decade or more of outsourcing.

They should also start investing for the future by using the growing number of modular degree, apprenticeship and internship programmes to recruit and train the next generation, using the Tech Partnership Funding available and training contracts to enable them to claim exemption from national insurance at the same time as reinforcing loyalty by providing serious CPD training for existing staff. The combination of changes and launches over the past month has dramatically change the cost/risk calculations that should underpin the choice between retraining and recruitment. Add in the need to reinforce staff loyalty and competance to reduce the dangers of insider assisted fraud and it should be a no-brainer. Change does, however, require the Head of Information Security to stop talking cyberbabble and FUD and start talking business cases and staff development programmes with the Finance and HR Directors before putting plans to the Board.  

I started writing on the need for programmes to address our mounting e-crime problems in 2004. In 2011 I blogged on the need to ACT "before the shit hits the fan"  . Earlier this year I warned the crisis was about to come to a head  with an accelerating merry-go-round  for those claiming relevant skills and experience. I then agreed to help e-Skills (now the Tech Partnership) look for employers to help identify gaps in the new cybersecurity learning pathways  supply of training. My subsequent report was accepted and I am currently helping the Tech Partnership identify those training providers trusted by major employers to help them fill skills gaps.  I say "trusted" because training providers, like compliance officers, are among those able to work across security barriers without raising eyebrows.

When prioritising the security skills gaps the technology employers identified "Big Data" (including its use to detect fraud as well as its own vulnerabilities), "Cloud" (from access devices and networks to the hosting centres) and "Mobile" (including "Bring Your Own Device") as their top three. Financial Services commonly have a different, but not necessarily incompatible, perspective. Their focus is on "Identity and Access Management" in all its dimensions. These range from registering, identifying and locating the devices (often BYOD) allowed access to services (often cloud based), to the use of Big Data to analyse digital footprints to decide who should be given access and to monitor their subsequent behaviour (Vetting and Monitoring), including good practice in the use of those services already offering precognition reports based on on-line behaviour: where financial services employers have mixed views.

But the biggest issues are less to do with the technologies that the people processes they should be supporting. What is legal, let alone good, practice in the vetting and monitoring of potential recruits, employees and current or would-be customers?  Hence also the critical nature of my recent blogs on the Government Verify system and the obsession with trying to remove any face-to-face element in the creation of new digital credentials to replace those in which trust has been lost - in order to meet yet another deeply flawed  EU initiative to address the problems of the last century. 

The world has moved on. As part of my work with the Tech Partnership I am helping organise round tables in the New Year to bring together employers, recruitment agencies, training providers and members of relevant professional bodies and interest groups (including CIPD, CPHC, IAAC and SASIG) to identify those willing to work together on training needs analyses and the provision of relevant courses and material to meet the needs of today and tomorrow. 

In some of the most critical areas the first task is to identify what good practice is.

For example one of the areas is reporting: to whom should you report what, how and what should you expect to happen? Here the training needs analysis has to begin by "negotiating" the answers with law enforcement and major ISPs because the answers are not at all clear. The situation is equally unclear with regard to checking the CVs of potential recruits and assessing the probity, not just technical competence of those who could destroy the security of the organisation. Then there is the confusion over what is good practice in monitoring staff behaviour over time, given that signs of stress are more likely to be to do with health, finances or family issues leading to the propensity for mistakes and bad judgement rather than fraud. 

However, the exercise will be of little value unless we also address the reasons why employers are not retraining existing staff and the support for apprentice programmes is poor and may even have been falling . Hence also the importance of the work with which I have also agreed to help the Digital Policy Alliance (I remain a member of the unpaid advisory committee) on why so few employers invest in training. The DPA Skills working group suspended activity for the duration of the House of Lords Digital Skills Select Committee. Instead we urged members to submit evidence. The Committee has received over a thousand pages of evidence and those who have followed the oral hearings will have noticed a number of themes emerging. The DPA Skills group therefore plans to reconvene in February, after the Committee has reported, to discuss how to help implement the recommendations. That will probably entail focussing how to help make the break out from Groundhog Day : the 50 Year long, (to date), cycle of Skills Reports that have never yet lead to action. 

The Chancellor made a great start this month by exempting apprentices aged under 25 from National Insurance and funding some excellent Tech Partnership programmes but that will not be in time address the compliance-created cybersecurity crisis of 2015 as short-stay insiders help loot those organisation which place no value on corporate loyalty - unless employers make good use of the funding available for CPD programmes.  

The UK On-line landscape is being transformed in the week before Christmas

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The pledge by the mobile operators to spend £5 billion tackling mobile not spots   helps explain the speed of the EE (with £2 billion of its debts) sale to BT and the latter's plans for a £2billion rights issues plus £3 billion of extra debt

The City appears to have welcomed BT plans but they appear to take it to within a £billion of risking its current Baa2 debt rating. That the mobile operators pledge is only for 90% of the UK adds further confirmation for the need for a new approach to addressing the needs of the final 10%. Meanwhile the pressures to improve mobile cover for those in "rural" Inner London (where BT often claims it has no business case for improving fixed broadband) are increasing  with exercises like Syed Kamall's "No Bars" campaign  backed by the Evening Standard .

The good news is that the cost of tackling not spots can be cut by up to 80% by organising practical co-operation in making available shared mast sites and wayleaves.  The issues (including both economics and politics!) are different in urban areas to those in the countryside but shortly after Christmas I expect to be able to invite members of the  all-party Digital Policy Alliance to a round table to pool practical experience regarding addressing inner city and business park "not spots", including model agreements, early in the New Year.  This is part of the promised follow up  to the meeting I organised on 12th September  to help drum up inputs to the consultation on Digital Infrastructure Investment.

The economic value of work addressing notspots to enabling initiatives like Microsoft's support for Retail Week  to have serious impact on mainstream UK business cannot be overstated.  In the blog on my Digbeth experience, (when I learned why our forecasts  of demand are so wrong). I referred, albeit in disguised form, to the transformation of a transport business at the heart of the local retail supply chain, from voice messages and paperwork to text and images between the smart phones of the boss and his drivers and customers, stored in a cloud.

The reason was nothing to do with awareness campaigns or consultancy advice. It was that the fibre to every tenant on the business park was accompanied by high speed, high reliability, secure, wifi. The boss could be confident in relying on sending photos of paperwork to his drivers. They could respond in kind, equally confidently. Both could rely on GPS positioning to show where everyone, including at the collection and delvery points, was.

It was not rocket science. It did not require clever teenagers or apps.

But it did require confidence that the technology, partiucarly mobile and wifi, would be reliablw.

Now think of all those high street retailers and inner city businesses whose wifi and mobile cover is, at best, flakey. The deal made between the Secretary of State and the Mobile operators should help 90% of UK business. But think also of all those farmers and rural SMEs (including much of our tourist industry) whose choice is, realistically, between satellite and wet string. Hence my Christmas greetings to you all

Christmas indigestion for UK on-line retailers: what really is the effect of the new pan-EU VAT regime?

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If you have not yet read any of the arguments over what the new pan-EU VAT regime means for UK-based on-line retailers (large, small or micro) or are wondering how it will be implemented and enforced I recommend you do not do so over Christmas.

It will merely give you a mix of apoplexy and indigestion leading potentially to rancorous arguments with any relatives who work outside the community of internationalist digerati.
I would, however, remind you that ehat has happened is all your fault.

When I was Secretary General of EURIM (now the Digital Policy Alliance"), I used to regularly warn of the dangers of Euro Ping-Pong during meetings on the e-Commerce Directive and allied initiatives,hosted for us by then Electronic Commerce Association (now GS1), rapporteured for me by Will Roebuck while the Commission was consulting (and it did) before it gave up on trying to the right thing (whatever that might have been) and "harmonised" on Brussels fudge. And I gave up and focussed on UK-centric issues where I could make a difference.

Those who are serious about wanting to sort out the resultant mess should give rather more support to our successors, particularly the DPA plans to "support" (including inserting the necessary corporate, political and social "rockets") exercises to turn the current "reform" programme into the action plans needed for the EU to survive the next decade. I have great respect for the rapporteurs who are ready to support the DPA plans (I chose most of them and they have turned out even better than I expected) but they can only help produce balanced and representative results if those who will be affected by the chaos that is to come actually join, to help cover the overhead costs, and are then active in making their views known and working together on that which they can agree.

We now face the consequences of past compromises as governments world wide (not just within the EU) scramble for tax revenues while the world economy spirals downwards.  Governments face a triple fiscal whammy as the growing impact of the Ukraine dispute and associated sanctions coincides with the decision of Saudi Arabia to cripple its political enemies and erstwhile competitors and the US decision to rein  in its budget deficit. One "side effect" is that the on-line world will, in future, have to compete with the high street on efficiency and convenience, not just tax avoidance.

Christmas Stocking Fillers for Digital Government Anoraks: 1) The Government Verify Invitation to tender.

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Press cover for the latest phase of the Government Online Identity framework is beginning to emerge. The invitation to tender to become one of up to ten suppliers for the Government Verify Framework was dated on Friday 12th December and published on 17th with a deadline for submission of  6th February.  On 12th December the Government Identify Assurance blog carried a reminder that the deadline for submissions of interest in the pilot accreditation programme for suppliers was Monday 15th December. The UKAS notice was issued on November 24th giving three week notice, but UKAS is one of those quangoes of which  no-one has ever heard until they learn that they cannot do something because it has not been accredited. I therefore suspect the reminder was either because no-one had responded or because just one response looks like a 'fix'.

Do read the invitation to tender because it is the first time that the scale and nature of what is intended for this programme will have become clear to many.

Insomniacs will also need the supporting documentation on the CCS Agreements . Two documents have parts redacted. There is provision for changes to reference documents, but it's not clear which version is to be used for the bid, and some of those currently linked to from the Government Direct blogs have been stated as being well out of date.

Jugglers or Zen experts may be needed to sort out the limitations on how many times subcontractors can be used, but the risk of delay from challenges from lawyers must also be of interest as the contract mechanism is designed to ensure there's a loser. If someone comes 6th, say, and is then excluded, but would have been included, with exactly the same bid, if there had happened to have been a 7th, they would seem to have a very strong case for complaint on a restriction to trade.

It is also the first time that 3.5 million businesses, let alone those providing their accounting and payroll software, will have an opportunity to appreciate the changes they would have to make in order to play, allowing for the scope of the unanswered questions on the business model and therefore the uncertainty of take-up by anyone other than those parts of the public sector which are given no option.

That leads to a core question. What is the business case, apart from a questionable interpretation of the European Union Regulation on Electronic Identities and Electronic Trust Services?

The good news is that final draft of the regulation was watered down from that which the Digital Policy Alliance described as a "Massive European Own Goal"  after it had consulted its and called for inputs from others  and after my own attempt to draw attention to the ticking time bomb, including for DWP and the Universal Credit .

It is, however, a moot point as to whether the UK needs do anything beyond stating which existing identity and trust services it will accept for on-line authentication.

It is not as though this is a new market. As I have pointed out before  the issues are not new either. UK and US law on electronic signatures has been clear since 1867 (Supreme Court of New Hampshire judgement on whether a cable authentication is a signature)  and we have nearly as many government departments and agencies with fingers in the idenity and autnentication policy pots as we have commercial offerings in what is better viewed as the "Identity and Access Management" market.  Other governments, not part of the self-appointed D5 have quietly just done it: Roman Law countries also have a variety of solutions, usually based on "Electronic Notary" services.

Only the digerati who wish to treat our personal information as their oil  have a clear "business case" for change and they should be aware that the price of oil can come crashing down after the cartel collapses.

That said, it would be good if Cabinet Office were to have some sensible bids for recognition under the Government Verify programme from organisations that really do merit our trust. In my own case, I would trust Experian but would not wish to provide them with any information about me that they do not already have, in order to check my identity. Also I personally would not wish to have to trust any organisation based outside the UK to authenticate my dealings with HMG.  I should add that while it might have some value over current processes,  I have little faith that Verify will be much, if at all, more secure than the South Korean National Identity system or those of any of the other 'D5 leaders'.

I also await an explanation of the downward trend of 'live performance'  but am delighted to report that the new system is stated as being required to work in Welsh (albeit in a parenthetical remark).

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all festive-season bidders.

A Christmas Message for the Digerati on the practical meaning of social inclusion

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A Christmas Message for the Digerati on why we need to give priority to social inclusion not to "digital by default".  : Luke 2.7 "... because there was no room for them in the inn".  

Joseph to Innkeeper: "But I can show you the confirmation from the "Inns'R US" App on my tablet"

Have an off-line Christmas and a user-friendly New Year

As in previous years I have split what I would have spend on Christmas Cards between Barnados and the Salvation Army 

For nearly forty years most  IT employers have declined to take on trainees or retrain older staff but  have queued up to employ those with two years of more of supposed experience. Only the skills in demand have changed. There is no shortage of talent, only of employers who will work with local schools, colleges and universities to identify and train that which is not being properly harnessed - including that in their own work force! 

I have regularly talked of the need for Tax Free Training since exempting trainees from National Insurance and PAYE was identified by the National Computing Centre members ("The IT Skills Crisis: A Prescription for Action - 1987, based on 215 responses from 1420 IT employers) as the only Government skills initiative that would make a real difference.

I was therefore delighted with the news in the Autumn Statement that apprentices aged under 25 will be exempted from National Insurance, thus effectively cut their employment cost by around 20%.   The other great advantage of putting trainees (whether school leavers,  graduates or post graduates) onto formal training contracts is that costs (as per the test case of Sthraclyde Regional Council v. Neal) can be recovered if they leave prematurely  - thus giving a "guaranteed" return to the employer.

But what about all those older staff whose skills need updating, or those who being cross-trained from other disciplines for all those roles that need hybrids? 

The 50% aid (up to £500) from the Tech Partnership  (new name of e-Skills)  is per module, per person  and is not age-related. Thus an organisation running a programme of half a dozen modules to train a couple of users in those information security tasks which should never be contracted out could claim £6,000 towards the cost 

I would like to think that this is the start of a progress towards a level playing field for employers seeking to give world-class skills to their UK workforces to compete against those who import skills or off-shore jobs. My full evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee is now available on-line and I would also like to think that it (and perhaps more importantly the reaction to it) helped secure the announcement in the Autumn Statement.   

Yesterday I learned why our forecasts of broadband demand are so wrong

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Yesterday I attended the excellent INCA Super Connected Cities seminar in Birmingham at which two contrasting examples of the effect of providing fibre services to commercial centres and business parks were presented. A light switched on in my head. Neither analysis has yet been published and I plan to blog again with links when they are. One illustrated the effect of providing a high reliability 100mbs service to all tenants, without charging seperately. The other illustrated the effect of separate charging, according to speed, with the fastest service priced akin to the previous leased lines.

Thomas_Cook_Building,_Leicester,_one third.jpgOne of the users of the first service, the boss of a very traditional SME, had seen no need for computerisation but been perpetually complaining about the poor fixed and mobile phone service and was drowning in paper. He started using his smart phone to photograph orders and dispatch notes. He now photographs all documentation and files it digitally. Another user, a media distribution company, had been planning to relocate. it is now able to handle its business on-line instead of by courier and has been able to grow dramtically. An IT firm was able to cut timescales for quoting for new business from weeks to days by video-conferencing with users in major clients over details. The transformations did not, however, lead to average traffic volumes using more than a fraction of the new capacity (although this had gone up by a factor or 2 to 5 fold). It was the reliability of service when needed - with sudden short-lived bursts of traffic not leading to service degradation - that had led to the changes in user behaviour.  Traffic often spiked to around 50% of capacity even though the daily average was under 5%. 

In the case of the second service the effects had been far less dramatic. Many tenants used the opportunity to cut their communications bills instead of taking advantage of improved connetivity and reliability for the same cost.  The speaker presenting this service ended by calling for action to educate users as to the benefits of faster, more reliable services. He words echoed the call for such action that I have heard at meetings of the Broadband Stakeholders Group.

A light switched on. I realised that forecasting capacity requirements by talking of average traffic volumes is like planning a new railway network based on average traffic volumes. Most of the railway lines into London are empty for most of the time, save for the queues at junctions or into the terminals during rush hour. 

One of the speakers in the following session (on ways of looking at the investment case) had to drop out and I found myself taking his place after that light-bulb moment. It may be helpful if I reprise what I said, bearing in the mind that the INCA seminar took place in Digbeth, one of the areas that Birmingham sought to rejuvenate on the back of a shared dark fibre network.

"Good afternoon, I would like to go fast backwards to 1845. We are guests of the Digbeth Chamber of Commerce and the Birmingham Small Arms Trade Association. We are at the heart of the global defence trade. Their factories around us are working flat out, connected by canal to every major port and thus the world, producing the guns to enable all races and nations to more efficiently kill each other. We have been asked by DCNS (the department for canals, newspapers and sport) and OfCom, their regulator, whose remit has just been extended to cover railways and postal services, for forecasts of the scale and nature of demand for freight and passenger traffic over the next decade - to help plan the switch from canals to railways.

I pick 1845 because Thomas Cook agreed a permanent arrangement with the Midland Counties Railway Company in 1844. And in 1846 he was bankrupted when the costs of a tour of Scotland for 350 people from Leicester ran ahead of their willingness to pay for extras. But within six years, he had arranged travel and accomodation for over 165,000 visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851. In total over 6 million people, a third of the population of the UK, made that journey, an average of a million a month...  "  

I went to ask whether anyone had actually made any money from Quadplay over the past twenty years, as opposed to destroying tens of $billions of shareholder value, trying to invade market with different cultures, disciplines and business models, as opposed to making partnership deals with those who understood them...

I then called for action to remove the regulatory barriers to business models which are attractive to investors looking for opportunities underpinned by 3 - 5 year service contracts with those who stand to benefit most - such as those whose homes, hotels, workshops  or business parks will increase in value if better connected or those whose £billions in off-shore profit (from the advertising funded services that are clogging our current networks with monitoring and surveillance bloatware) are now at risk.   

My fellow panelists took radically approaches in looking at the problems of funding new services. We agreed that this was a "two bottle" problem and we were standing between delegates and the reception.   I would, however, like to congratulate INCA for organising another excellent event, introducing players who had not previously met and helping progress action and not just informed debate. I now have to follow up on the actions I promissed, regarding the removal of obstacles which add to the cost and delay of network upgades and new build.    

Rural Payments Agency opens up routines for farmers with no digital or credit footprints to bypass Government Verify

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I have been very business over the last week but hope to make time over the week-end to blog my responses to the Autumn statement, particularly a welcome for:
  • the exemption of apprentices aged under 25 from national insurance (should help transform the UK IT skills scene by providing a less unequal playing field with our overseas competitors),
  • the reform of business rates (to also be exploited for communications infrastructure) and
  • the less unequal tax playing field for UK-based and overseas on-line players (to make the latter compete on quality of service instead of tax avoidance).
  • the extension of the BDUK voucher scheme
I plan to also respond to the recent Labour party Digital Government submission, beginning with those recommendations with which, as a tribal Tory, I strongly agree - such as the need to:
  • give priority for public service delivery to those in most need and
  • to take a good look at which is ethical with regard to digital by default and big, open, data, particularly that which should belong to you and me. 
and to say that BDUK has actually done a rather good job, given the situation that ministers  inherited in 2010. Read my comments on the Computer Weekly interview with Ed Vaizey on Broadband Progress before you faint.

However, more immediately, I ecommend that all digital by default enthusiasts watch the recent evidence session of the EFRA Select Committee enquiry on the ability of farmers to use the new on-line claims services by the spring 2015 deadline.

The first witness was Sean Williams who effectively said that everything was going according to plan and that the plans had agreed with Local SAuthorities did not include priority for those with the worst current connections, let alone helping them meet Rural Payments Agency timescales. Those affected should therefore use satellite.  We also learned that most of the 90 submissions to the Committee called for "Digital Community Hubs". I had not realised just how strong the support was already for these when I referred to the trend towards the local digital interconnection hubs in my submission to the Digital Communications Infrastructure Strategy consultation. Sean Williams said that BT would connect anyone who made a good business case. Watch this space because the key to their sustainable and future-proof success is "any-to-any" connectivity.

When Henry Robinson and Charles Trotman of Country Land and Business gave evidence we learned that 12,000 farmers (11%) have no digital footprint at all and four exchanges are still on dial-up, with no upgrade plans in sight. They reiterated the CLAB call for a Universal Service obligation and reminded us that, thanks to contention and other issues, "up to 2 mbs" is nothing like the same as the reliable delivery of at least 2 mbs.

As the session politely progressed, with all participants maintaining straight faces, the dry comedy continued with some splendidly polite "understatements": 

- from "as the broadband meanders" (for those next to a cabinet who are being served from one 4 kilometres away)

- to "and what have you learned [from the customer feedback via three pilot assisted digital centres] other than swearwords". 

Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, described how the Rural Payment Agency had re-learned both customer services and agile methodology. It now has a three week software upgrade cycle in response to feedback and the discovery of the need to structure services and the "customer journey" round the way that farmers, as opposed to the expert consultants think they need. He wryly contrasted that with nearly a decade of "delayed big bang", waiting years to discover what should have been discovered with pilot systems before confirming the specification for roll out. 

The new services have been tested to work at 500 kbs but even that may not be reliably delivered over circuits supposedly running at "up to 2 mbs" because of contention. They are therefore being restructured to save automatically whenever the service goes down. Meanwhile the approach behind the first Government Verify service to be accredited did not work with those who inherited their farms and have never had to borrow or request credit. The RPA has therefore had to reinstate a routine to bypass Verify and allow farmers to register direct.[I seem to recollect that this tallies with a court case which found that citizens have a legal right to be able to deal direct with government departments and not have to do so via intermediaries].
Finally Jonathan Owen, chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils described, among a series of other splendid points, how the provision of 100 mbps services had led to 20% improvements in "business efficiency", e.g. hotel bookings and orders for rural businesses.

I do look forward to the report of the EFRA Select Committee. 

The pan-European rush to create a new generation of communications monopolies and put up prices

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Further to my recent blog on why the possible BT - O2 or EE merger is born of weakness or strength, one of my readers has drawn my attention to Benoit Felten's recent analysis of the pan-european attempts to shut out competition from new network operators and create a new generation of monopolies to protect the past from the future. It is well worth reading for its demolition of the idea that competition is bad for investment because it depresses prices.

A contrast between the history of the railways in Britain, the Continent and the United States also illustrates that while competition may not always be good for investors, it appears to encourage rather than deter overall investment. It also leads to faster, better cheaper and more reliable services and pulls through economic growth. Has the time come for some trust-busters, akin to those who broke up the US railroad cartels before the First World War? 

Is a telecoms merger (BT and O2 or EE) born of weakness good for UK plc?

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The news that BT is in talks with both O2 and EE in order to re-enter the mobile market should come as no great surprise but is it good?

BT spun-off what was then Cellnet and mortgaged its exchanges when it was faced with £30 billion of debt after local loop unbundling destroyed the business case for its plans to deliver broadcast quality video to the home by 2002.

BT's recent capital spend on communications infrastructure, as opposed to that funded by government, has been little more than that necessary to cover preventive maintenence, replacing obsolete equipment so that can now make use of the fibre to within a mile of most UK homes that it already had over a decade ago. 

Meanwhile O2 and EE have struggled to fund the upgrading of their networks to overcome notspots and bottlenecks as traffic volumes rise faster than revenues, let alone to to meet their obligations and promises for 4G. Hence their desire to offer infrastructure sharing rather than roaming.

Meanwhile global infrastructure funds are said to have tens of £billions looking for opportunities to build 21st century hybrid networks providing gigabit services at a fraction (said by some to be as low as 20 -25%) of the costs currently being quoted for new build, let alone operation.

Is a "mere" share swop between market dominant but financially weak players good for the UK plc, or will it serve to deter the new investment that is needed?

A more positive view is, however, that the merged operations will be so "financially challenged" that, like the Swedish incumbent, it will have no realistic alternative to joining its current competitors in becoming "lead tenants" for the new generation of infrastructure only utilities, akin to Stokab, that are beginning to sprout around the UK

I look forward to readers comments.


Where is the Cabinet Office Identity Programme going?

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Over the past few weeks I have received a flow of e-mails regarding the status of the Cabinet Office IDAP programme.  

Is it making steady progress towards creating a market framework for inter-operable identity systems?

Or is it muddying the waters by trying to coerce users into new and unproven systems for their dealings with government while the rest of the world moves on?

The alterantive "proven" systems range from the Government Gateway (using by millions, including all small firms for their tax affairs) through the third party services provided by the members of the DCTE, (the European trade association for Digital Trust services) to the identity and access management systems used by industry (from airports through banks to on-line retailers) to identity and give layered access to visitors, customers, employees and contractors.

I find it difficult to understand whether the Government data Service is undertaking genuine voluntary customer trials or whether groups of users are being given Hobson's choice - e.g. use the new system or stop farming in an attempt to get a bandwagion rolling.

I therefore asked Mark King of Broadsail one of the independent consultants who has been tracking UK and EU debate on electronic signatures on behalf of his clients, to comment. Before you read on you might, however, care to begin by viewing the video of his presentation to a BCS-EEMA event last January.

His "observations". Including on how and why UK ID policy has got to where it is today, are below:

"The government programme for identification of people for online public services has been very focussed on be being seen to respect privacy, which covers more than data protection, notably in respect of user control. One of the drivers was a reaction to the previous government's ID card scheme, which also included a national population register, and that has also been cancelled rather than downgraded to fill missing but unfashionable considerations such as people's jury service status.

Instead of adopting a recognised, existing, privacy-friendly model such as that used in Canada, possibly as a result of the empty coffers, the decision was taken to re-use existing credentials, despite the problem that those suitable for consumers weren't built for giving out benefits.

Re-use of employee credentials was also investigated, but Government agencies are reluctant to allow staff ID to be used for purposes other than which they were designed, and with no commercial case for other employers to participate, this was amended. There was no enthusiasm for increasing risk by opening up if there was no benefit for the organization.

After a DWP initiative was announced in the EU official journal (OJEU) and then pulled, a call went out for a framework contract for 'Identity Providers', with the expectation that banks, supermarkets and other familiar organisations would participate. It was initially a DWP lead, but was novated to Cabinet Office when it became clear how gentle the Universal credit roll out was going to be. Far from being a gravy train, it required participants to invest, but also accept very strict terms as to what else could be done with the data. The only responses were from those not on the envisaged list. They must have been prepared to take the considerable risk of investing, unaware of the extent, or had some separate political motivation. As in Ireland, the Post Office was an obvious contender, and it qualified as being technically private, although some people remained confused about being redirected to the Post Office when they were trying to go online and not use the post.

The group of eight in the framework were a disparate mixture, with at most two of them being household names, although they might have used different branding. Only five went through to a delivery contract, and public testing started on 21 October 2014 with just one.

An unpaid group of privacy experts were brought together to agree the principles for the programme. Had this been done before going out to contract it any principles would have carried more weight than putting them out for public consultation three months after the system was due to become operational.

More-over, public endorsement of the principles by a cabinet minister precluded (and still precludes) civil servants from debating the issues in public.

The group's remit was also extended beyond privacy to general user concerns (but, it seems, not non-users); it is not clear if sufficient additional experts were called in, nor who has time to provide unbiased pro bono advice for such an extended period.

The user was not allowed to be able to chose to be consistently associated with a permanent identifier such as a National Insurance or NHS number, but rather a matching data set including 'current address' and date of birth - use of both of which are deprecated by online security advice. Nor is the user allowed ...

Should Broadband advertising be 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'? If so ...

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Further to my recent blog on the way in which the Advertising Standards Authority has been accused of approving serious "misrepresentation" of the broadband offerings from dominant suppliers and thus helping prolong the current distortion of the market, I have received a number of responses as to what their approach should now be.

I particularly liked that from Dave Cullen, now with ITS , which has been providing high speed networks using hybrid (fibre and wireless) technologies for urban centres , business parks and rural communities for nearly 20 years.  The recent rapid growth of ITS (taking over smaller operators as well as winning ever more and bigger contracts) is indicative of the way the UK communications infrastructure market has changed over the past 18 months and now offers the prospect of genuine competition and growth.

Dave believes that, regardless of whether there is a good case for challenging BT's claim of "19 million fibred homes" as "mis-representation", the providers of alternative networks should ask the ASA to follow the logic of its own judgement.

Given that the ASA position appears to be that the issue is around customer's service expectations and performance, it should be pointed out that Fibre to the Cabinet cannot  deliver  the claimed 'up to' levels of performance more than about 700 metres from the cabinet - and that distance is as the copper meanders, not as the crow flies.

Therefore, as a minimum, BT should be obliged to clearly state the "risks" associated with their product within EVERY ad, in much the same way as mortgage and loan companies have to warn that "Interest rates can go up as well as down; your home is at risk if your do not keep up repayments... etc"

BT should similarly be required to say: "our fibre optic service relies on copper for your final connection; it cannot guarantee superfast speed or quality to premises using copper cables longer than 700m from your connected cabinet..."

The same would, of course, apply to those whose "fibre" services also depend on reselling the BT Openreach fibre to the cabinet services. It would give BT an incentive to repromote its own fibre to the premises service, instead of hiding it away lest too many customers ask for it and thus overload its creaking backhaul infrastructure. It would, of course, also give its resellers (incuidng Sky and Talk Talk) an added incentive to offer "crapfree" (i.e. no copper, rust, alluminium or other pollutant) broadband using rival local fibre and wireless to the premises providers.  

Why IT Projects Fail - forty years on and what is new?

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One of latest downloads from the Computer Weekly website is entitled "The psychology of IT projects: why they fail"  It is almost 40 years to the day since Computer weekly published the last in a series of ten articles on "Computer Assisted Bankrupcy" based on my London Business School project: "Business Appreciation: a study of the business training needs of DP staff and the current calamitous consequences of its absence".

When it comes to the reasons that IT systems fails, the pace of change has been about the same as the development of my literary style - including my love of alliterative headlines. 

The more interesting question is - why do we never learn? In the public sector it is because good practice is punished hardest when it matters most , hence the reasons the lessons of how to acheive success are commonly ignored . At least the private sctor has more interesting reasons - but they too remain boringly similar. I leave you to read the download.

Advertising Standards Authority wrecks attempts to promote "genuine" fibre broadband

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I have just been told of the Advertising Standards Authority ruling that copper to the home from a fibre connected cabinet can be called "fibre". Meanwhile, it would appear that those offering "true" fibre connections cannot drop the "up to" in front of the speeds they offer.

Even more interesting is the revelation in the small print of the supporting material that as recently as last year BT still hoped to offer genuine fibre to the premises to 25% of the UK. That ambition appears to have have fallen by the wayside with the squeeze on its investment programme resulting from invasion of the content market and consequent price wars - with headlines offering "fibre" for £2.50 a month (rising to X after a given period), provided you take it over a copper line for which you pay £12.50 a month (rising to Y after a given period).

It is clear that those offering future proof fibre to the router/femto connectivity need a new headline slogan over which they can police copyright - so as to ensure that it is not misused by those with market dominance and advertising budgets large enough to sway the judgement of a self-regulator. I have a bottle of House of Lords whisky for the best suggestion.

Ideas to date include: "full fibre", "home fibre" and "crap (copper, rust, aluminium and other pollutants) free fibre".

I would also welcome a good definition of "crapband". The current working definiton is: a service which delivers a speed that is, at best, less than 25% of the advertised "up to".               
P.S. Copyright is reserved on the terms "full fibre", "home fibre", "crapfree fibre" and "crapband" (unless some-one else can demonstrate they have already used them). Free license will be given to those offering fibre to the home router and/or local mast or femto.

City of London to use market forces to bulldoze broadband blockages while Vodafone parks tanks on BT's lawn

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The Corporation of the City of London has just voted to publicise and build on their surveys of local broadband supply and demand  with a two stage project. The first stage is to identify the range of solutions that are available and to map demand for fibre broadband, building by building, in the Square Mile. The stated aim in the press releases is to use "this information to 'nudge' fibre suppliers into providing connections that SMEs can afford".

The second stage is to address growing complaints over mobile and wifi cover with a major  upgrade to wireless voice and data services, using City Corporation street furniture and buildings for extra masts and connections.

Mark Boleat, Policy Chairman of the City of London Corporation that looks after the Square Mile business district, said: 'The 13,500 SMEs in the Square Mile employ many people, are vital energisers of the business environment and need the right tools to deliver productivity both in the City and the adjoining areas that are fostering growth. This project will help close the digital divide by putting  superfast broadband within reach of far more of our vital SMEs, and help residents and visitors, too.'

The City of London Corporation, the elected body which runs the global business hub around St Paul's, has been pushing hard to improve connectivity for SMEs who can't afford the £500 a month needed for a big-league business connection, and for its 8,000 residents. Both the building-by-building fibre survey of the Square Mile and a tender for a wireless service will begin in January 2015.

The Square Mile is behind others, including its traditional rival the City of Westminster, when it  comes to using its street furniture and building to help pull through upgrades to mobile and wifi cover. However, it looks to be in the lead when it comes to organising a building by building survey with the aim of helping alternative network providers create a genuinely competitive business broadband market.

The Corporation may not be alone in this for long. The Countryside Alliance plans to work with the Actual Experience BBfix project  to identify not only the services actually received in rural areas but also some of the reasons for poor performance. When I first heard of their plans I thought, "why do we need another mapping exercise?".

I then drilled down into the detail of the maps currently available and what they measure and reflected on discussion at the launch of the Broadband Stakeholder Group report on "Out of Home Usage"  and took a look at how the different "maps" illustrate the supposed broadband and mobile cover across the constituency of Rochester and Strood, a BT near monopoly  serving a UKIP stronghold (rather like Clacton in fact). The picture they give is remarkably rosy compared to the reality found by politicians and party workers as they canvas the area.

The twin approaches of building by building surveys and measurements of actual experience, not just nominal speeds, could help blow apart cosy debate over what we do, or do not need, and help enable market forces to compensate for regulatory failure. Then came the press cover for the announcements from Vodafone, now that it has sorted out the national backhaul network that it acquired from Cable and Wireless.

I suspect the reality is rather different.The headlines are about Vodafone doing deals with BT and others for local access and content, leading to head-to-head competition between BT, Virgin, Sky and Talk in the quad play market. According to investment analysts like those at Redburn, BT's capital spend is falling, not rising and it has neither the funding nor the incentive to invest in both infrastructure and content. Meanwhile Virgin is extending its local reach and Sky and Talk Talk are exploring connectivity deals with alternative network providers.

The Vodafone announcements might be better seen as a very public warning to BT to stop planning to re-enter the mobile market via wifi and instead to include them within upgraded Openreach services as a shared utility for all to use. Meanwhile Vodafone is well positioned to not only reduce what it pays to BT for backhaul but offer services to BT's competitors, local alternative network providers and business users. It will be interesting to see it offers next spring to those in the Cities of London and Westminster as well as to those whose local fibre plans are constrained by the availability of affordable backhaul (see page 4 of the BSG "Out of home experience" report. Will it also seek to take a lead in providing seamless local, national and pan-european roaming to business customers, whether or not it is compelled to do so by regulators?  Is this part of its positioning for the world of smart cars, buildings, cities and infrastructures ?

The UK broadband market, including the future of digital infrastructure investment, just became much more interesting. 

On the eve of the meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force last March, the Conservative Techology Forum held a meeting  at which there was general agreement  that the time had come for more openness about the  governance procedures of GCHQ in order to help rebuild confidence  after Edward Snowden's revelations.  There was also discussion as to whether those procedures were more or less opaque than those of the on-line service providers, who collect and store the fine detail of our on-line footprints. 

When the IETF had a session with MPs of all parties on the following evening, we heard of the "breaking of the Social Contract that underpinned the Internet". I then blogged on the issues raised during the reception afterwards when leading figures from the IETF and ISOC were candid about the challenges they faced in structuring honest and constructive debate between engineers as opposed to allowing lawyers to dictate the future.  

Since March we have many more attacks on the governance processes of UK and US law enfircement and surveillance services, with no recognition that they are very different.  US based companies (and their lobbyists) would like the UK to copy the court-driven processes with which they have to live back home -  where locally elected judges can authorise, for example, the collection of data to enable investigations into the tax affairs of their political opponents. 

The differences  between the governance processes of GCHQ and Fort Meade can cause tension,  but on balance, the result has almost certainly helped resist the trend toward unaccountable autocracy in both nations - at least on the part of government, if not on the part of the shrinking cartel which now controls the access of most of us to the Internet .

Until publication of Sir Ian Lobban's  valedictory speech we had, however, almost nothing on public record about how GCHQ's interprets UK  governance, including the determination of its staff to resist the pressures of politicians  to gather dirt on their opponents (as in France or the US) let alone their opposition to the routine mass surveillance of which it is accused and of which so many of its attackers  are themselves guilty.

Remember that when an Internet Service Provider says its monitoring operations are to "improve customer service", you are NOT the customers they mean. They mean those who pay them for analyses of the data they have collected about YOU. Even much of the free ad-blocking software is funded by those who pay for loopholes, alias whitelists  .

If information is the new oil, has the time come to break up the Rockefeller Empire?

If so, we should also remember than within a decade the Standard Oil of New Jersey was bigger than the parent had ever been.

Hence my comments on the importance of also looking at the business models of the Googlettes when looking at those attacked by Robert Hannigan for aiding and abetting terrorists and  criminals .

The collective response of the ISPs  was predictable - albeit not necessarily wrong.

At this point, however, we need to look at the evidence available on the balance of public opinion and think long and hard about what that evidence really means - assuming we are serious about democratic values and holding dominant commercial players, as well as government, to account.  

When I blogged on IT at this years' party conferences, I pointed out the IPSOS Mori data showing that the public trusted law enforcement  and central government with rather more than they trusted their Telco or Internet service provider.
This morning the daily YouGov poll was on attitudes to Internet regulation.  When I voted the tally was running at :

  • Much more regulation of the Internet 18%,
  • A bit more regulation 32%,
  • Currently about right 29%,
  • A bit less 7%,
  • Much less 5%,
  • Don't know 8%.
Digging deeper indicates that consumers  are more concerned about fraud, abuse and bullying than about cyber-terrorism. The claim that mobile roaming to reduce the number of not-spots should not go ahead because it makes surveillance harder  is therefore likely to get short shrift, were it even true.  I am awaiting details from my moles but suspect the reality is that the mobile operators want any excuse to avoid national roaming and have yet to come up with an alternative solution to the not-spot problem, other than infrastructure sharing. 

Meanwhile the urban mobile traffic of much more interest to the surveillance services is increasingly being off-loaded onto wifi-hotspots. I therefore commend the Matt cartoon in the Daily Telegraph on November 6th: One country yokel to another saying "I wanted to become a jihadist but round here  the internet's too slow and there's no mobile phone cover"

The time has indeed come for a fresh look at responsibilities of those who take £billions in untaxed profits out of the UK while claiming they are unable to protect their customers from abuse. As part of that review we should, however, also look at the reliance of state surveillance systems on outdated communications architectures that stand in the way of allowing the UK's digital infrastructure to evolve in line with customer needs into a world of ubiquitous, seamless, mobile, connectivity.

That almost certainly means tapping, instead, into the systems used by ISPs and their advertising (and other) "customers", to follow the every move of those whose communications they are monitoring, including via the GPS locations of the devices they use.

Such an approach raises many questions and the answers need to be based on genuine public consultation not hurried discussions with vested interests.  In the meantime  I urge all those concerned about  addressing the not-spot problems, urban as well as rural, to respond to the DCMS consultation on mobile roaming.

The announcement of  Environment and Rural Affairs Select Committee  enquiry into "Rural broadband and digital only services"  should be just in time to spur government into joined up action before the start of the 2015 Election Purdah.The terms of reference  put debate over rural broadband into the context of the demands of the Rural Payments Agency that access to its services be digital by default . The absurdity of these demands (and lack of practical attention to the means of delivering "assisted digital" to those without adequate on-line access) has just been compounded by the decision to force farmers to also use the new Government Verify Service instead of the Government Gateway accounts they use for tax purposes. The consequences of this decision were all too predictable. It should also be remembered that the pilots are the stalking horse for the Cabinet Office attempt to force millions of small firms and all those who make individual tax claims, to similarly move from the Government Gateway, instead of simply offering them the new service as an alternative.

It is as though those taking the decisions concerned are closet UKIP supporters determined to "take-out" not only the current Government's rural MPs but also the digital by default enthusiasts of the opposition. Or is it merely a short term ploy to help meet DEFRA's targeted spending cuts - by making it impossible for farmers to claim anything in the period to March 31st 2015.  

Either way, it signifies political disaster for the Government - even before we begin to consider the implications for all those, other than farmers, who live in rural areas who are losing their buses, post offices, market town bank branches - for whom this is clearly the thin end of a very big wedge threatening to exclude them from public services  ... and drive them into the arms of UKIP.

I therefore urge all those with friends and relatives living in rural not-spots (who will not be aware of the Select Committee enquiry because they are unable to browse the web in the first place)  to let them know of opportunity to make their views known before November 19th and to offer to email submissions for them if they cannot get on-line to do so themselves.

I also suggest that All Party Rural Services Group, SPARSE, ACRE, the Countryside Alliance and Country Land and Business offer to collate the views of their members and supporters and that the Federation of Small Businesses offers to collate the views of their 100,000 or so rural members.

P.S. I would also like to take this opportunity to promote a modest suggestion  to make it easier for those in rural areas to deal with all those offering to help them via the growing plethora of fragmented grant and loan schemes: The Gov.UK Unified Grant Applications Form (GAF1) . The "business case" is obvious. The only credible argument against is the job preservation of those who want to be seen to be doing something, even if only wasting the time of everyone else, but do not actually have much, if any, money to give out.


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