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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The superfast slippery slope UK is on

Read more! Oh, here we go! It has taken quite a while for our handful of UK incumbents to decide that all this public money being spent on bringing Britain into the digital age needed stamping on. Legally. Publicly. (Unless it was going into their coffers, of course). We are now seeing the litigious games of US incumbents coming to our shores. Called an "appeal" by BBC. These are spoiling tactics - nowt more 'n nowt less.

This blog post can be read at

During my trip to USA this year, I heard yet more horror stories of what the big telcos get up to when there is even a hint of competition on their patch. (There's a book in that and it is almost finished!) It is not like this bad boy behaviour is new news, and it is not as though we in the UK, especially at grassroots level, have been unaware of what our own telcos have got up to over the last decade and more when they do not like the encroachment of much-needed competition.

The Superfast Cornwall procurement went one step further with mutual 'helping out' by elected and publicly funded bodies, allegedly, but even when that competition is a new entrant with small yet exciting plans, or a tiny, rural community, the incumbents always show their fizzogs. Especially when citizens and businesses are seeking to obtain a sensible, logical and independent solution to the broadband woes that face far too many in this country due to years of telco inaction and heel-dragging.

In the news over the last few days are two stories which ought to cause those in government to rethink the current strategy of throwing (a pitiful amount of) money at a national, deep-seated (read: historic) and economically damaging problem.

First, we have the total incompetence of telcos (although this malaise is most certainly not limited to the telecoms industry - think 'banking' for starters) to put customer service on the list of business priorities. That link is just one minor example: hang out on any of the forums about consumer rights, broadband, trading standards etc and you enter a murky downward spiral that leaves you to wonder whether this country's businesses are totally clueless, uncaring and/or just plain greedy. And pondering how long before people power kicks in on a national scale where the government and regulators have clearly failed to.

(This ponderance though will leave you realising that consumers actually have very little broadband choice in this country. Unless you have a bottomless bank account to pay for a leased line or dedicated fibre. The first mile, especially in rural areas, is dominated by BT's copper meaning the vast majority of customers need to pay BT for a landline ; most broadband packages are a white label BT product; LLU has never been extended to sub-LLU, meaning BT retains its monopolistic hold at sub-loop level and this limits LLU providers to offering copper-based rather than full fibre products unless they deploy brand new infrastructure into the first mile; mobile broadband is still patchy and slow in many areas; satellite has technical, real-time restrictions in an increasingly real-time world; 4G is not yet a global standard and therefore susceptible to interpretation by the operators etc).

Ask yourself what exactly Ofcom are doing to resolve the consumer-side issues (that is their statutory duty after all: to protect consumer interest) and you may find yourself coming up short with the answer to that particular question. The government should focus its energies on getting the existing telco industry house (telco 1.0) in order. AND fund alternatives and innovation (telco 2.0), rather than lobbing scarce cash for more of the same old, same old.

The reason this problem is not going away in a hurry otherwise is that telcos (and mobile operators) have cut margins to such an extent that something /many things have to give. There is a battle for customers. Telcos resort to all sorts of tactics to encourage churn i.e. customers moving to a new operator. In times of economic recession, for many people, the deciding factor to move to a new service provider is (probably although still unproven) price. However, there have to be other reasons why any customer would reach the point where they are looking to move providers.

These range from:

  • Quality of service (sometimes zero as we hear far too many tales of people who have had no service, broadband or telephone or mobile, often for months)
  • Poor customer service (how long are people being kept on hold to premium rate numbers? These are telcos. If anyone could provide a free number for customer problems, you would think it would be them!)
  • Failure to adopt the required technologies eg symmetrical 100+ Mbps that consumers and businesses need, today and tomorrow
  • Failure to resolve technical issues (or quite simply passing the buck - one of the big problems caused by having only 2 commercial operators running the vast majority of the first mile)

  • and of course, price
Substantial marketing budgets ensure that many of the problems are glossed over, spun, anti-hyped into oblivion, and better still, telcos appear to take great delight in knocking the competition publicly, in places such as Twitter. Not many sectors would permit an MD of a company to use Twitter to speak ill of the competition, or to write unprovable but damaging allegations online, but telcos seem to think they are immune from the normal business and legal practices. Or so it would seem to your average man in the street.

The 'small voices' of the common man are drowned out by marketing £££s, hype, spin, politicians with their own agendas/careers to worry about, and a largely uninformed media. A politician can stand up over and over again and say we are going to be world-beating as far as broadband goes, when all the evidence quite clearly points to a contrary truth. In fact, it's all a bit Lance Armstrong (or, not trivialising the horrors of what he did, Jimmy Savile) TBH. A bloody major cover up of the facts.

The second news item I'd like to reference is the now well-reported decision by BT and Virgin to legally challenge Birmingham's plan to build a decent comms network. It's like the Kansas City debacle - "Unfair, m'lud," shout the telcos who have failed to do anything appropriate prior to this, and whose failure actually triggered the need to act by those voted in to protect the interests of residents.

Across the country, we are seeing BT scooping up the rural broadband pot. Mainly because the government wasted a vast sum of money setting up the BDUK system to work that way (One has to ask why. And keep asking).

The Urban pot has been set up a different way - not so easy for BT to get its hands on as there are far more experienced companies in urban roll-out who can compete in the tenders than in the (deliberately?) stifled rural procurement.

The fact is that there is market failure. If there was NO market failure, UK would be on the FTTH Council league table for FTTH, and list in many of the other surveys, reports, tables etc for a 'decent broadband connection.

In fact, it's worse than market failure. There has been market abuse, in particular by those with SMP (Significant Market Power).

Some of the stories that I have had the misfortune to hear over the years point to more than just dirty tricks; in some cases, it has been difficult to see how criminal or fraudulent activity can be discounted from the equation. For instance, 'magickally' damaged non-BT equipment within exchanges, luxury trips abroad for civil servants on the cusp of making multi-million pound contract decisions, and far, far more litter my notes. How can this any of this be permissible? How can a corporate evade investigation by the police, SFO, ombudsmen etc? Particularly if this 'behaviour' then puts the local authority in a compromising position when it comes to any contracts (paid for by the public purse, remember) that involve said corporate. BT's Vital Vision is one such program and the document includes the following paragraph:
There have been shenanigans surrounding grants and public funding for well over a decade now - one of the most recently well-documented such debacles is Ewhurst in Surrey - a saga which continues to this day with unresolved issues, failure to repair ancient infrastructure, appalling workmanship, constantly moving RFS dates etc.

I guess if BT had delivered, Ewhurst would once again become the Surrey idyll it strives to be. With its celebrity residents. But BT have failed to deliver anything of note. Whilst actively preventing others finding solutions. I hesitate to compare this level of behaviour with that of those who ignored the horrendous crimes against humanity that have been brought about by putting the people in fear of reporting failure at government or corporate level, but where the hell do you draw the line?

Where would much of rural UK be right now - after a summer that was not just soggy but completely sodden for many of our food producers - if they had just had a decent connection to the rest of the world? Why the hell are we permitting an incumbent that has had millions and millions of pounds of public investment and yet cannot be bothered to deal with even that most basic business issue - customer service - why would we let them rule our communications infrastructure? There are little to zero records of most of BT's ducting; yet, we allow PIA to continue on its path knowing that the ones who should know, know nothing.

Genius. Let them sue.

Let us spend years in court debating whether residents of inner city Birmingham deserve the RIGHT to a decent broadband connection that local people with local knowledge have identified as a problem because the telcos (VM and BT in this instance) have done sweet FA to solve, whilst the telcos in their ivory towers bring in the QCs at £1500/hr. And pshfiss our public funds away in court.

JFDI Birmingham. Build it Birmingham.
And show these miserable £££ hunting morons up for what they really are. Don't waste money on lawyers or QCs in expensive shoes and suits- bring in the people to speak up in court. About the reality.
Scared of a few more miles of fibre? Oh dear. As every gigabit community (fibrehood) goes live, you can hit your internal panic buttons as often as you wish. It will not change the fact that you dragged your heels for waaaaaaay too long. And now it could be too late for anyone to save you.
Docsis 3, FTTC, we won't miss thee, when we have FTTP
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Friday, 19 October 2012

B4RN's Blue Pound Goes Round & Round

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Up here in Lancashire, digging is proceeding apace to connect (initially) 1400 homes to gigabit FTTH. I've been watching with growing interest at the blue pounds doing the rounds in the B4RN community, and the increase in social capital as a result of the project.
This blog post can be read at

I originally wrote a piece about blue pounds back in 2005, and then reproduced it here again in 2009.

The opening paragraph reads:

"Suppose you paint a pound coin blue and watched where it went. Every time it changed hands within a community, it meant income for a local person. If the blue paint were to come off onto people's fingertips, how many people would have blue fingers before the money finally left the community? The more times it changes hands, the better for that community."

B4RN stated at the outset that it would use local resources for everything it possibly could. There are no other telco projects I know of that even suggest this, and certainly there has been little to no mention of it during the BDUK funding rounds currently pushing out £830M of public money from the BDUK pot and matched by far more public money from local authority coffers.

How is this local spend affecting the B4RN area? Firstly, all the people being paid to dig, whether in cash or shares, are local. None of this drafting in contractors from afar. There is a level of competition between the farmers now which adds to the fun of the new sport Xtreme Digging too! Secondly, the prices being charged are realistic and no-one is seeking to over-inflate the prices artificially (unlike a certain telco who pay £10/hour and then charge it to the customer at £30/hour or more) because this is a community project and everyone involved is as keen as mustard to see it succeed. No need for greed, the end result is far more important.

Once all the core network is in place - a difficult task when today as I write this is the FIRST DAY OF THE YEAR that it has not rained in this sodden county, but there's time yet! - all the revenue generated is being paid not to some distant telco with little interest in the area, but to the community it serves. Yes, there will be some paid out for the backhaul but all other expenses will go to local contractors and employees of the project, who obviously live here. The blue pound is going round and round, see?

In addition to blue pounds, I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the social capital B4RN is generating when I went to Arkholme recently. A quick pint in the very friendly and cosy pub, The Bay Horse, revealed that the local digging team - which is made up of as eclectic a bunch of folk you could ever hope to find in a muddy trench - have become regulars.

(I just phoned Arkholme to get a list of the people involved. Off the top of their heads and whilst inspecting a huge rock that is in the way of the duct going in: 2 doctors, the village postmaster, a software system engineer, retired accountants and solicitors, a university professor, the chairman of a retired racehorse charity, and a teacher).

The pub is getting more business, the people involved are getting to know many more of their neighbours, and one heartwarming story I heard was of someone who has just moved in to the area who now knows far more people than you would ever normally expect to meet in the first few weeks of living anywhere, and has been rapidly integrated into this great little community.

On the bar during my visit was the latest copy of Lancashire Life, which features Arkholme and shows what a JFDI place this is. No waiting around for "someone else to do it" here, typical rural community in fact.

One totally unexpected turn for the B4RN project has been the hiring of diggers by local people, using their own cash in return for shares, to speed up the digging. I don't know exactly how many days have now been paid for in this way, but it was an idea proposed by the villagers (who had probably come up with it in the pub!). It's an ingenious way round a problem that has been exacerbated by a truly appalling summer, and the knowledge that there are local farmers in dire straits. Who have diggers and need cash. Those same diggers only a few weeks ago were on standby during silaging etc to tow tractors, balers, foragers etc out of atrocious mud so you can imagine what state the crops are in, and the problems that will bring during the coming winter when livestock need feeding and feed prices are high because the whole country has suffered similar problems.

The landlady works in an estate agent, so we got talking about houses for sale and for rent in the area, and the fact that house prices with a gigabit connection provided by B4RN can be increased by around 5-10%, according to multiple reports. Hopefully, anyone wishing to sell or rent a property in the Lune Valley through the company she works for will now be informed that a B4RN connection is far better value than a new conservatory in increasing the value of your home. It costs the estate agent nothing and helps B4RN towards future profitability, as well as putting a few extra pounds in both the vendor and estate agents' pockets. These things work both ways - you never know, I might finally be able to find a house in the B4RN area, and it was a very good pint of real ale too!

There is no way to actually put a value on social capital in £££s that I know of, but you cannot help but know that the strengthening of the community bonds, the new friendships, the team building, the mutual support, let alone the blue pounds now circulating in the Lune Valley is of far greater value than the community asset and wallet stripping caused when a faceless behemoth comes into the area and makes zero effort to employ blue pound and social capital strategies.

I would like to see county council and local authority insistence that all BDUK bids include a strategy for ensuring that local people will be used where at all possible for deployment and maintenance of next generation solutions, and that any bidder shows exactly how much of the money coming from the public purse will remain in the area, not just during the build etc, but far into the future from the revenue generated by the network.

Right now, B4RN definitely tops the list of broadband projects doing good in the community served, not just today, but for the lifetime of the network, which is a couple of generations down the line because of the technology being deployed and the fact that upgrades during the coming 50 years should be minimal.

Like I keep saying: do it once, and do it right. B4RN are definitely doing that, although some of the outtakes from the digs show that this is one tough, steep, and WET learning curve!

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