June 2011 Archives

Broadband UK moves to exclude Big Society community consortia

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I am told that Broadband UK has issued a pre-qualification questionnaire for its procurement framework for rural access networks that contains all  the "usual" clauses that prevent organisations without a relevant trading record from bidding for public sector business in the UK. Meanwhile the framework is designed to exclude local authorities and businesses from participating in the co-ownership of networks that they can themselves use, including to provide PSN compliant access to public services. 

Am I wrong in believing the Framework, and perhaps even Broadband UK itself,  are unfit for purpose - if the purpose is, as Ministers have clearly stated, to use the funding available to help deliver that which market forces will not?

P.S. Still have not found the PQQ text on-line but Ian Grant's blog now carries a critique 



Am I also wrong in believing they are incompatible with overall Government policy -if that is, as claimed by Minister, to be to pass authority from Quangoes to "Big Society" initiatives that reflect the ways local communities wish to organise themselves - not the way that Whitehall think they should..

I would particularly welcome comment from readers who have compared the PQQ (due to be published today but I cannot find a reference) and OJEU entry with policy as stated by Ministers and DCMS officials.

I fear that rural broadband will become another battleground in the rearguard action of Whitehall against Town Hall and we, as taxpayers and customers, will be the losers.

P.S. But perhaps the framework will be overtaken by events as:

1)  the civil engineering contractors, who account for 80% of the cost of new networks, start to bring their customers together under the aegis of Infrastructure UK in order to copy the savings being made across the rest of the world.

2) we also copy the rest of the world in going mobile, using the technologies that are now rolling out across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, courtesy of Huawei, Samsung, China Mobile, China Pay etc.

How long before we see also regulatory convergence to match that happening to Utility regulation in other parts of the EU?

I was helping the late Geoffrey Dodsworth MP with a policy study on Gas and Electricity privatisation in the late 1970s when I was invited to look at the liberalisation of communications and the privatisation of the relevant activities of the Post Office and of Cable & Wireless. The current regulatory structures and processes are very close to what we wanted to avoid  - and are having the consequences we feared - regulators trying to compensate for market failures that they had themselves created. 

Will a rationalisation of regulators, with charges cut and capped and objectives focussed on customer (including business customer) protection, help improve the situation - including enabling us to once again become globally competitive - or will it make it worse.        



Warlords v. Merchants: who really controls ID and Information Policy

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Jerry Fishenden's excellent reprise on current UK ID policy in Computer Weekly should be read by all suppliers and consultants who think the current Cabinet Office reviews are the opportunity for another "customer pays" set of PFI deals. Not only is there no money, there is no need. There are a growing number of local, national, international identity and transaction services that are "fit" for most government purposes. The "only" problem is that those running them will not deal with those who will not accept liability for their side of the transaction,  This "little" problem is 5,000 years old and moved into "cyberspace" a decade before the Indian Mutiny, when the East India Company funded the telegraph network without which the rebels would have won.   

European Digital Agenda Assembly amidst Temple of Boys'Toys

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I was sitting in the final plenary of the first European Digital Agenda Assembly held in the Brussells Autoworld, amidst a world class collection of male status symbols from gangster limousines and sports cars to tanks and jet fighters, when the battery on my Netbook ran out. Otherwise I would have blogged on some of the more surreal discussions while they were happening.

On the eve of the Assembly the European Internet Foundation had a cocktail party at which Commissioner Neelie Kroes gave a  robust summary of the challenges that would have to be addressed. Four of the most active MEPs on Information Society issues gave equally robust responses. Three of the four were female. Over 30% of the representatives friom industry in the audience were also female.

The contrast with the gender composition of similar meetings in the UK, sometimes with no women at all present, rarely with more than 5 - 10%, was marked.

But perhaps that is unfair because the EIF meeting and the subsequent Assembly were focussing on the use of technology rather than the technology itself.

When I was project manager of the orginal (and arguably most successful) Women onto IT Campagn (1988 - 92: when the Departmenty for Education and Skills torpedoed the exercise) we had clear evidence that a key gender difference  was that men were focussed on the technology while women were focussed on applying technology to meet user needs. 

At this point I have to add that the Assembly, for all its faults, restored my belief that it may, just, be possible to save the EU from becoming a muddy backwater of the Global Information Society as India and China take over from the USA in making the running with low cost, easy to use multi-lingual mobile products and services. I have said so on Neelie Kroes' blog and would urge you all to be part of the follow up - lest my Netbook running out of battery be another metaphor  for our progress towards a single Digital Market.    

Garter Day with a Blackberry - a time for reflection

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Yesterday I took that day off and attended the annual Garter Ceremony as a guest, albeit not in the Chapel. I switched my mobile off for a blessed six hours but forgot to switch off my Blackberry. I felt very guilty as the only addict in sight - we were on the back row of a grandstand so I could see rather a lot of the crowd - when I used a gap in activity to catch up on that which was supposedly urgent.

Only one journalist got through to me on the EURIM policy studies prospectus . He was querying the data that appeared to show that 60% of the electricity generated in the UK is lost in transmission or otherwise "unused" - hence a large part of the case for smart grid and smart metering. As the clouds melted away to give bright sunshine on a scene of almost timeless pageantry I pondered the 20th century "steam age" obsession with centralisation and control. 

However, when I got home I found a series a e-mails on the cost of the BDUK consultants job-creation programme - after a years delay they are seeking six week responses from local authorities so that they can lock them into another years delays while their framework meanders on - duplicating what can already be done faster, cheaper via other routes.

I also found an e-mail that helps make sense of the current "fight" over NHS reform - as US health care conglomerates seek to hoover up GP practices and PCT contracts using management processes, including IT systems, that are no more fit for purpose than those they replace and but will prevent the re-creaction of the local, pre-NHS, "Big Society" integrated health care that is suposedly a shared objective of the coalition partners.   

Hey ho - back to work



We need policies that Open Britain for On-line Business

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Last Thursday EURIM launched its Policy Studies Prospectus for 2011 - 12. This adds a new dimension to current working group, scrutiny and monitoring activities. It is intended to help secure the resources necessary to address the policy gaps that have opened up as politicians and advisors recognise the importance of issues like broadband, privacy, cybersecurity, confidence and professionalism but fail to recognise how they are interlinked and must be addressed in parallel.

Stephen McParland MP (Conservative) and the Rt Hon Alun Michael MP (Labour), both Directors of EURIM, made a bipartisan call for policies that ensure the UK remains the location of choice for high-value, knowledge-based business and industries. 

Copper thieves steal the future

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In my entry last Thursday I said I would blog next day on the EURIM policy prospectus released at a reception that evening to which the press was not invited. The reception went very well with a great buzz but our plans to update the press release with actual quotes went awry when one of my team was then stuck for six hours on a train after the copper thieves stole cabling in the sub-station which powered the railway signals around Woking. She worked until the batteries of her i-Phone ran out but we decided to put the press release off until monday. I will delay my blog on the announcements until Monday as well.

Her experience, and that of several thousand others, (locked in railway carriages in a way that our great-grandparents generation made illegal after the reasons for the death toll in the Quintinshill catastrophe of 1915 finally became known) adds force to a comment in the EURIM prospectus on the need to "join up UK/EU regulatory structures and initiatives that will ... reduce reliance on systems that are liable to catastrophic failure, with all that means for trust and reputational loss"

Most copper thieves appear unable to tell the difference between a copper and a fibre communications trunk. Many also appear to come equipped to steal live power cables. 

In a fortnight I am due to introduce a breakfast workshop on the difference between public and private sector approaches to cybersecurity. One of my points will be that the warlords (alias central governments) are obsessed with hypothetical threats from their peers while not  allowing the private sector take direct practical action against what is already happening, let alone supporting and encouraging them to do so.

Many years ago I said that law and order would be brought to the Internet in the same way as it was brought to the Wild West, by the Pinkerton men and their modern equivalents hired  by the Banks and Railroad Companies to protect their infrastructures, operations and paying customers. In the EURIM-ippr study on Partnership Policing for the Information Society we were urged to look at the model of the British Transport Police - whose origins predate all but Glasgow City Police and the Bow Street Runners. We rejected the model - but mainly because of its current jurisdictional conflicts.

I now realise that we were probably short-sighted. The time has come to bring the models together as I suggested shortly before Christmas. That will be one of the threads in the forward programme of  the Information Society Alliance (EURIM) although it is not among the headlines  for announcement on Monday. 

Another thread, more explicit, is the way in which current regulatory structures may well do more harm than good - the electronic equivalent of locking carriages to prevent passengers from getting out until railways staff have completed their health and safety checks.

One elderly (and once eminent) engineer of my acquaintance had such confidence in modern railway safety that even before Paddington he carried a an old fashioned "needle hammer" (at least I think that is what it was) to enable him to smash his way through the window if necessary. Even at his age he preferred a fine or prison to "extreme discomfort" and death.  


Towards the mythical Digital Single Market ?

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On Tuesday I chaired the first session of a Westminster eForum  event entitled "The UK and the Digital Agenda for Europe: e-Commerce Directive and the Digital Single Market". I thought that my opening remarks were gently provocative but we then had a collective venting of spleen over the regurgitated dog's dinner of conflicting directives and derogations that have ensured an almost total lack of progress toward a Digital Singe Market.

Will the proposed BDUK framework do more harm than good?

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Last week, in Brussels, Ed Vaizey talked of the need to use market forces to pull through investment in broadband. A day later Jeremy Hunt wrote to MPs on the replacement of central competitions for funding by allocations to authorities to "be made available once we have reached agreement with them on other sources of funds and their plans for delivery". I blogged a welcome while pointing out the need to put the broadband infrastructure plans alongside those for smart metering and grid infrastructure so as to cut the costs of both.

I had been briefed on the lack of progress in aligning the DECC/OfGEM and DCMS/BIS/OfCom agendas and how this was delaying industry-funded scalable pilots (that will interconnect and inter-operate to international standards). Today I was e-mailed on the Prior Information Notice for the Broadband UK plans to delay procurements by another year while it concocts a framework contract to limit competition to a handful of nationally approved cartels. Do officials inhabit the same planet as Officials and MPs? Or is this a consultants pipedream that has been overtaken by the events of the past fortnight - with 107 MPs supporting the motion for debate in the House of Commons on the need to expedite action.

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