Delivering the digital infrastructure for Dot Everyone - The F Plan

I was not able to watch this year’s Dimbleby Lecture when it happened but over the Easter week-end I made time to watch the challenge that Martha Lane-Fox made to the Dimbleby’s (and the other media figures and journalists present) to help educate politicians and industry leaders on the actions needed to help the UK leapfrog the competition and lead the rest of the world into the Internet Age. I liked the concept of “Dot Everyone” but fear that any attempt to create an “institution” would achieve the oppostie of what she intended: for reasons to which she alluded.  I totally agree with her point on the need to engage more women in key roles. This government has just made a leap forward and Ofcom appears to have begun its overdue transformation even before its new female chairman and chief executive arrived. [I remember Patricia Hodgson from University – charming but highly disciplined and a rigorous intellect. I too would have begun to mend my ways if faced with the prospect of her as my chairman].

I also liked Martha’s points on the need to use the Anniversary of Magna Carta to take a lead in addressing ethical and moral issues,  . I would add that we need practice  as well as theory. I have strong reservations regarding on the ability of any government support institution to be moral and ethical, hence the caution of my welcome, earlier this year, for the Labour Party plans to focus on social inclusion and ethical policy rather than cost savings . It should indeed be possible to achieve to achieve all three – but only if policy is driven incrementally by users (alias victims) – not by “experts”. All too often the most unfeeling, heartless, bureaucratic and wasteful of policy implementations turn out to have been produced by “professionals”, supposedly following the “best practice” of their “Institution”.

I would, however, like to focus on Martha’s first point: the need to spread understanding about how the Internet actually works and how we ensure social inclusion. I would extend her argument to cover am understanding of the actions necessary to deliver socially inclusive communications infrastructures that are fast, fit for purpose, flexible, future proof, fail safe and fraud resistant. I, like her, began life as a historian, before spending time (after Business School)  as a corporate planner, looking at how to cope with the future – based both on what we knew and what we did not know. I strongly believe, in consequence, that FIRST we have to be honest about the present and how we got here.

I have often been critical about the way BDUK has bolstered BT’s monopoly position, beginning almost immediately after its creation but my blogs have rarely recognised why it did what it did, or its very real achievements. I would like to correct that. In 2010 the coalition government inherited a 20th century communications policy that had run out of steam. Neither DCMS, BIS or Ofcom had the skills and understanding to do any better and DCMS officials had to give priority to the Olympics . The inherited policy was based on accessing on-line services over infrastructures designed for the telephone age. More-over the New Labour decision to switch from “competition in the local loop” to “local loop unbundling” had destroyed the business case behind BT’s plans to upgrade and extend its 21CN network to provide “full motion, broadcast quality, video to the home” (the original definition of broadband) by 2002. Meanwhile the Government decision not to re-invest the £20 billion receipts from spectrum auctions in communications infrastructure had starved both BT and the mobile operators of funding. New investment stopped. Preventive maintenance fell behind. The networks were beginning to crumble even before the financial crisis- although few recognised this at the time.

The BDUK procurement process bought time for BT and enabled it to delay new commitents until after it had delivered the infrastructure and support for the Olympics. Most voters now live within a kilometre of a fibre-connected cabinet capable of providing services that are fit for most of their current needs, fixed or mobile. But many business users, as well as those living more than a mile away, are left trying to run “motorway traffic” over “country lanes” (copper and aluminum telephone lines that may be fifty years old or more). More-over the national fixed and mobile infrastructures to which they connect are overloaded and creaking, with traffic volumes rising faster than capacity: more than doubling over the past year, for example – with growth accelerating.
 
Meanwhile consumers expect services to be digital by default and much of life, from watching sport to shopping (whether on-line or in a supermarket) would grind to a halt if we lost access to the Internet because of fire , flood or digititis.  The rest of the world has begun the transition to a new world of ultra-reliable, resilient, ubiquitous mesh networks. As Martha Lane Fox said in her Dimbleby Lecture, we must not only catch them up, but leapfrog them – if we wish our children to have the education and jobs of the future.

That means not just fibre to the front door or local mobile or wifi aerial, but networks that are inter-operable with the future as well as with each other, using global standards at prices we can afford.  That means giving investors confidence to fund the infrastructures needed – by providing a fair and stable tax and regulatory regime and by pooling public and private money to serve areas where the business case depends on saving costs in public service delivery. 

Helping heal the wounds of the past market requires the application of TCP

1 TRANSMISSION – better infrastructure to remove the jams between you and your home or business and the Internet: copper = country lane, fibre = motorway, radio needs sites/masts
2 CAPACITY – copper = rationing, radio = local, fibre = global, ration-free connectivity
3 PROTECTION – against fraud and abuse as well as network failure, that requires partnership policing for the on-line world and one-stop-shop reporting to those who will take action.

Hence my support for the Digital Infrastructure Strategy that was announced in parallel with the budget.  Later this week I plan to blog on how I believe that the way forward will be driven: not by an “institution” by local co-operation between those who wish to provide world-class access and those willing to pay for it. In the mean time I would like to address some of the understanding gaps – beginning with the current meanin gless babble about “speed.

The first “F” in the F plan is for Fast. This does not mean meaningless nominal speeds. It means rapid and reliable response times. These depend on a variety of factors, from

•    issues with the end-user equipment (browsers, routers, wiring etc.), through
•    contention over local networks and bottlenecks in backhaul networks, to
•    delays while well-known sites load tracking and monitoring and other software (“to improve your experience”) and your security software decides which are to be allowed.

[It is not “just” the “cookies” inserted by the shopping services you use. Ghostery identifies 14 items of spyware when you visit the Guardian Website, 17 for the Daily Mail and 27 for the Daily Telegraph – and so on].

It is positively misleading to report speeds based on “average” response for a network that is unused for much/most of the 24 hours of the day, but degrades sharply in the early evening (when farmers or small businessmen do their paperwork, children their homework and teenagers gossip or swap videos).  There is a need for Ofcom to use and publish performance measures that reflect user experience. It has made a start and has promised more in its Annual Plan (see the references in my Groundhog day blog) for the year ahead but its plan references dependencies on work with the Internet Engineering Taskforce and others i.e. global not just national action. We need the UK to be seen to be in the lead on this, not just waiting and accepting that which fits the priorities of those who think our digital footprints are their “oil” to be refined and sold to who-ever pays best.

The second “F” stands for Fit for Purpose. This entails reliability, resilience, response and security, not just “nominal” speed. It is the improved reliability, not just speed, of all-fibre networks that is transformative. “Digital by default” policies should be linked to the use by Ofcom of performance benchmarks that relate to those on-line services on which HMG expects target audiences to rely for communications relating to welfare and benefits as well as taxes. Thus, if farmers cannot do their Rural Payments Agency business on-line then the rural broadband service is not fit for purpose.  If those dependent on disability payments, or their choice of trusted carer, cannot use the service then the services to inner cities, social housing complexes or those dependent on “care in the community” are not fit for purpose.

In 2012, George Osborne 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 “the Minister” (George Eustace MP) was personally involved with the three week “agile” cycle for the new Rural Payment Agency systems. Similarly the Universal Credit systems cannot go live unless ministers can use them, hence much of the controversy over costs and delays. The launch of the new Digital Accessibility Alliance  should be followed by a policy of mandating the testing of all digital by default” public service delivery systems with members of the target audience, over the access services not available to them before roll out is contracted.  

Next come Flexible and Future Proof: Any attempt to forecast demand or technology five years out, let alone ten is doomed. It was five years from the bankruptcy of Thomas Cooke (after getting his business model wrong for a  tour of the Highlands, in 1846) to the Great Exhibition of 1851, for which he organized transport and accommodation for over 150,000 (out of 6 million) visitors. The need to cope with uncertainty with regard to demand (including as prices fall, and performance, availability and reliability improve), entails product, service and technology inter-operability (as with the standard gauge railways of the 19th century). Inter-operability standards enable competition at every level, with customers able to mix and match according to need and investors to reap safer rewards from incremental innovation. Standards do not, however, come about by chance or “simple” market forces. Dominant incumbents will always seek to lock customers into “integrated” services. Today they are competing to sell entertainment content subscriptions linked to phone line and broadband. Tomorrow we cna expect to see them face mounting anti-trust pressures leading to a new round of “unbundling

The tensions over standards require constant government attention, including as the largest customer in the market (mandating inter-operability standards for public sector network procurement) and as regulator. We also need to note how most standards come about, via hierarchies of what are essentially “vanity publishing houses”. The standards bodies respond to the willingness of groups of industry players to come together to fund the agreement and publication of specifications which they then make money from selling. The more copies a standard sells, the more successful they think they are.      

However, communications standards are now global and we need to ensure that  the UK is in the vanguard of ensuring that our innovators and suppliers are meeting international business and consumer needs and we are not dependent on importing that which has been specified, developed and manufactured overseas.  In 2014 the IETF, ISOC and ICANN, the bodies which set the standards for the Internet, all had annual plenary conferences, with thousands of delegates, in London. We need to make it attractive for them (and the international telecommunications organizations) to not only visit the UK but base more of their routine meetings and support functions here so that our innovators benefit from direct access.

The National Physical Laboratory, still the UK’s main measurement and testing operation, should be funded to provide UK business with access to all global standards, current and proposed, plus the certifications (who tested, what, to which standards) that indicate which products and services abide with which. This service should then be used to support a policy of mandating adherence to internationally accepted standards whenever public funds are involved.  Such a service would also be a very effective use of the UK’s limited technology transfer funding to attract world class development, not “just” research, facilities back to the UK.  Subsidized access. Including support to enable UK innovators to take part in global standards activities, should be confined  to those based in the UK, including for the collection of royalties and payment of VAT or Corporation Tax in the UK.

We also need the digital infrastructure to be Fail Safe and Fraud Resistant. As society becomes increasingly dependent on on-line services, (e.g. telemedicine and care, on-line banking, food, fuel and energy distribution etc.) resilience and security become ever more critical. Both have many dimensions, from whole networks going down for hours, (sometimes even days) as a result of fire, flood, storm or theft, to individuals losing access for days (even weeks)  as a result of local faults or fraud. There is also the question of who is, or should be, responsible for taking action against abuse and criminal activity.

Network resilience entails multiple routings and systems that continue running despite disruption. Hence the drivers behind the move towards “local internet exchanges” to handle the rapidly growing volumes of machine to machine traffic and local social networking.  As yet the devolution from central operations, like the London Internet Exchange (LINX),  to regional  operations, like that in Manchester, is limited. But the benefits, including not only  the capacity to handle greatly expanded traffic volumes and complexity (as with the growth of the Manchester Media City) but also the growth of high-tech Internet based spin-offs (London’s  Financial Services Computing is clustered round the locally devolved LINX hubs) , are obvious.

A growing number of Cities with ambitions to be not only “smart” but also “innovative”, are looking to support local hubs in national and global incubator networks. They should be encouraged to do so. In this context is should be noted that  LINX is a “mutual”, owned by over service providers. This, like many functions at the heart of the Internet,  is an area where “privatization”, “market forces”, “public ownership” and “state control” all have clear limits.       

Meanwhile The Financial Service Authority has mandated that critical parts of London’s financial services industry must have standby routines which not only inter-operate but can run even if BT entire network goes down (as well as vice-versa). Such an approach to reliability and resilience needs to be adopted across the UK, including the use of wireless and satellite to provide back-up to location where it is not economic to build and run more than one landline network. We need to balance the obvious savings from infrastructure sharing against the need for resilience.      

We also need to be much better at addressing the suffering and loss caused by simple service problems, let alone actual abuse. Who do you contact, and how, after your Internet connection has gone down or your e-mail or social network account has been hi-jacked? And what can you expect them to do about it?  Most voters have an elderly relative who has been rung by a nice man telling them their computer has a fault and offering to help them fix it over the phone. Most mobile phones are regularly vished (voice phishing) by those who want to help us claim compensation for the payment protection insurance or car accident we have not had.  Meanwhile politicians appear obsessed with the use of the Internet by terrorists. And everyone else is playing pass the parcel. 

There is a similar dialogue of the deaf with regard to “Big data”, between those who wish to keep their personal details  private for fear they will be copied and used to abuse or defraud them or their families and those wishing to hoover up our digital  footprints and personal data to refine into “the new oil” for sale to “Improve their services to us (alias sell  to advertisers) but not to provide to law enforcement. There is a need for a joined up approach to the resilience and security of on-line services before confidence collapses in the face of a rising tide of abuse and fraud, compounded by sporadic network and service collapses in the face of storm, fire, flood and digititis (“software problems during a “routine service upgrade”.

Hence my strong support for the calls by Sir Tim Burners-Lee and Martha Lane-Fox to restore confidence that the UK takes the issues seriously by using the 800 hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta bringing the various debates and tensions over privacy, surveillance and information governance together with independent judicial oversight reporting to the Supreme Court.

In short there is much to be done. So who can we expect to do it. Those who believe that Government, alias politicians, is competant should listen again to Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture and reflect on the current state of political debate. Our Victorian ancestors had no doubts. They knew only too well that Westminster was incapable of thinking ahead – unlike local government, landowners and businessmen coming together to build for their children and grandchildren. Hence Plan B (for Business Broadband) – on which I have been working recently and intend to cover in my next blog.

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