IET to address the 5G/IoT Confusopoly
A major obstacle to planning today for the world of tomorrow is the confusopoly of current and potential operating systems and standards and the lack of information as to which products and services are intended to be capable of rapidly, accurately and securely with which, let alone whether they actually do so. ARM, for example, is monitoring the work of over 120 standards bodies around the world. How can those buying “smart” products and services today short list those intended to be capable of communicating with those from their rivals, not just their partners, in the smart car, building, high street or hospital, let alone City, of tomorrow.
I was, therefore, delighted to learn IET is about to announce plans to organise neutral guidance for those who have to make infrastructure and network planning and procurement decisions now, with which they will have to live over the next couple of decades as the world goes smart. The programme manager has already begun assembling a SharePoint site of existing material and sources of information. The launch is expected to include an initial sponsorship/partnership package of £5 – 25,000 depending on whether the organisation expects to be a “participant” or a “lead player” (helping to grow and drive the exercise forward). Either way, the intention is that happy initial sponsors/partners will then turn their initial contributions into operational subscriptions for ongoing shared services to meet information the needs of themselves and their customers/clients/partners.
Those who want to be lead players in the creation of what will hopefully grow into a global information service should contact Andrew Syddell who is currently drafting the “call to arms”: alias an advance notice to IET members who have, in the past, co-sponsored the production of reports or creation of new services. I doubt that IET has had any exercise that is so potentially transformative in its national and/or international impact since the original creation of INSPEC. It is therefore good to know that they plan to follow the “rules” of the Internet Age – think big but start small and be ready to scale fast on success.
Why is IET the ideal home for such an exercise?
The UK and IET are neutral between the 5G/IoT power blocks: American, Chinese, European, Japanese and Korean as well as between governments, regulators, academic and research institutes, technology developers and vendors, network builders and operators, customers and consultants.
What will make the exercise succeed?
A critical mass of current and would-be suppliers and consultancies who see public support for such as exercise as central to their marketing strategies as well as an invaluable tool for their own in-house product and service development and integration teams and for the innovative SMEs in their supply and distribution chains.
What is the biggest threat to success?
HMG and/EU (and/or their standards bodies or regulators) trying to “adopt”, “support” and/or help “plan” the exercise – as opposed to sponsoring/subscribing, alongside suppliers, consultancies and overseas governments and regulators, while allowing it to evolve in line with the needs of those who pay, whether up-front or via access fees (full or explicitly subsidised under government programmes.
The scale and nature of the Challenge/Opportunity
We can already see what the smart world of the future will look like with products and apps which stalk us and our children and enable our cars to cheat emissions controls and be tracked and/or hijacked . Those who think in fifteen to fifty year planning cycles from the managers of Canary Wharf to the Grosvenor Estates have already started to install open access infrastructures to enable incremental change. But we also have technology suppliers who expect to be able to automatically update the operating systems and security or applications software in our computers, phones or device control systems on monthly, or even weekly cycles as well as, in the event of serious compromise, at no notice.
HMG is supporting 5G trials and testbeds and 20 UK communities are included in the Huaewi its Smart Cities index but has yet to help the local authorities involved to adopt planning regulations akin to those in Spain and Portugal which mandated future-ready ducting and wiring standards to enable open connectivity. Those authorities which try to do so, like Ashford have been actively resisted by the British Homebuilders Federation . However Ashford fought back (see page 7 onwards, including the report from Analysis Mason justifying the policy). Three of the relevant appeals were withdrawn and the Ashford plan now appears to be on track for approval subject to some minor changes.
It is now over a year since the Interim Report of the Future Communications Challenge Group indicated the scale of the challenge the UK faces if it wants to be a leader, not a laggard in the world of tomorrow. Since then the rest of the world has moved on. It is powering ahead with practical preparation and implementation. Meanwhile the UK has pilots and test beds and a growing number of “guides” and “white papers” designed to attract strategic consultancy business for the authors, as opposed to helping organisations under increasing financial pressure to plan incremental change on positive cash flow – with savings today funding further savings tomorrow – while building on the willingness of pension funds to provide low cost fiancé for low risk utility infrastructure investments.
Start small with an obvious need and a scalable proof of concept
Last year the IET identified the need to provide practitioner guidance to help ensure that the “smart” procurements being made today by Local Authorities to improve service while reducing cost (e.g. installing new generation street lighting to save energy or environmental and safety monitoring, control and response systems in sheltered housing) open up opportunities for low cost future inter-operability and do not lock them into dead-end proprietary operating systems and architectures. Given that local authority budgets are likely to be even tighter in the smart world of tomorrow, because of the need to support an ageing population in an increasingly IT dependent, joined-up, networked health and welfare systems, the sooner such guidance is available the better.
Those wanting the property industry bring forward its investments in smart buildings, shopping malls, business parks etc. have a similar interest in giving them confidence that they can install future-ready ducting, accommodation and open access networks today that will not need expensive overhaul inside the decade. And the best way of persuading the Luddites in the British Homebuilders Federation to build future ready properties is to give them simple guidance on how to do so – combined with evidence that it will make their members more money when linked to schemes, like the connectivity traffic lights being worked on by INCA or the more sophisticated performance certificates (akin to an energy efficiency certificate, being tested by Hyperoptic, to enable purchasers to know what they will be getting.
Last week I was delighted to learn that the IET publications committee approved what looks like a strategy to build on what is already available around the world to create not just a report but an independent portal into the knowledge that will be needed by professional planners, buyers and developers (product, service and property) and their advisors (electronic, civil and mechanical engineers, architects, surveyors etc.).
Success will depend on the response of the IET’s target partners and sponsors but the programme manager planning the exercise has already begun building a sharepoint body of relevant knowledge, including sources of information, to help inform the practitioner workshops that will be used to distil good practice. Access to that body of knowledge and the ability to use it to focus and promote their own areas of expertise is of immediate commercial value.
I should perhaps add that the programme manager used a similar approach to help me turn round the NCC Microsystems Centre (the heart of the awareness programmes of the early 1980s) into a shared library, information services and test centre within walking distance of the Central London heart of the main pre-internet age UK software, services and consultancy complex. The subscribers rarely visited but they all subscribed to the monthly updated “Directories on Disc” which indexed the hardware, software and training products, services and suppliers of the day. He also set up our processes for testing whether products and services di what they claimed. His subsequent career zig zagged across helping large organisations to put in systems to manage massively complex technical documentation with front ends that senior management could understand. He is the ideal man to develop a system to make sense of a confusopoly of technical standards and accreditation and testing processes and results.
Why have those looking at UK Industrial Strategy not previously spotted the point of leverage?
Why such an exercise has not yet happened already – given the amount DCMS and BEIS spend on support for pilots and innovation as part of a supposedly targeted industrial strategy?
The answer is that the way Government encourages Universities, Institutes. Local Government and other to compete for funding, with “challenges” gets in the way of co-operation in the common good. I first came to appreciate the pernicious side effects of the “challenge” mentality in the 1980s, when the Training and Enterprise Councils (the LEP equivalents of the day) were persuaded to, collectively, spend more in bidding for “challenge” funding than the amount on offer. Already, as an advisor to the High Tech Unit of Barclays Bank, I had been asked to help the Bank identify applications to the software innovation schemes administer by the National Computing Centre who had been failed for lack of originality and/or additionality. The penny then dropped. I have never since spent effort supported any bid for “challenge funding”. “Challenges” are a job creation scheme for officials and consultants. Collectively they destroy more initiative and enthusiasm than they harness. But demonstrable waste of money is not enough to kill off accepted Whitehall wisdom. It takes political ridicule, collective boycott and/or a National Audit Office investigation followed by a Public Accounts Committee report
The support for a neutral “indexing” service, akin to INSPEC is linked to the fear that HMG would put the organisation out to tender between commercial or academic rivals. Hence the suggestion that IET should take the initiative and “allow” Government to provide funding for access via LEPs, Innovation Centres etc. but not to get in the way of the evolution of a collectively funded, shared information services, which meets the collective needs of those providing core funding and/or willing to pay for access.
The global positioning at the heart of a credible UK Industrial Strategy
When it comes to looking at industrial strategy we need to take a cool look at the remaining strengths of the UK, particularly our position as an attractive host for activities which bridge the global rivalries between standards and accreditation bodies (ARM is monitoring the work of over 120) and between American, Chinese, European, Japanese and Korean research, development and production consortia. These give us the opportunity to be the neutral host/base for products and services which enable secure inter-operability between those produced by rival camps.
When the need for such a service was first identified, by some of those who produced the FCCG report, I thought this could be a natural role for the National Physical Laboratory – including hosting the provision of low cost access for innovative UK SMEs to standards activities and data on which products and service modules had been tested/audited, by whom, against which standards. I now realise that it is improbable that any Government body would be allowed the flexibility necessary to allow the services needed to evolve and grow. I therefore came to the reluctant conclusions that, instead, NPL, the Catapults, the LEPs and other publicly funded services should have explicit budgets to pay for their target audiences to have access to reputable, neutral third party services.
Hence my original support for a workshop last year to help the IET to seek sponsorship on the scale necessary to produce robust, meaningful and independent practitioner guidance. It was then agreed that this might best be achieved by engaging sponsors via sector/market/problem specific practitioner workshops to distil current good practice into draft guidance that could be used by those who will have to make planning and procurement decisions before the final versions are agreed and published. This would also enable all participants to see results over time, without waiting a year or 18 months – by which time many decisions will have had to be taken
The intention was that workshops should be funded by suppliers who want publicity for examples of good practice using their products and services (including the architectures and standards they have adopted or are promoting). The success of the workshops should be used to encourage other suppliers to join and also help support/sponsor the creation of information services which cover the success or otherwise of the many pilots being planning around the world and also provide access to audits of which versions of which products and services adhere to which standards.
I suggested we target those who would not blink when asked to budget £50 – 250,000 from their marketing budgets, to be drawn down as opportunities emerge. In fact, the IET will almost certainly be launching a more modest, much lower risk “Phase 1”, at 10% of the cost/risk, to meet the needs of those having to commit investments in smart infrastructures this year and next. But I am delighted that the intention is for the guidance to “front-end” an information database that is designed to be capable of evolving, incrementally, into a much more ambitious scalable service.