Huawei – the UK malaise and what can be done about it

My spring 2020 column for BECTU, the union for creative ambition within Prospect, addressed some of the issues behind the January announcement in the government’s Telecoms Supply Chain Review.

You can read that post directly below, or via the separate page link over on the left, but it has now been superseded by yesterday’s announcement that Huawei equipment must be removed from telecoms networks in the UK by 2027. This stems from fresh advice from the National Cyber Security Centre that it could:

No longer offer sufficient assurance that the risks arising from the use of such post-sanction manufactured equipment can be mitigated (para. 18).

What has changed in the meantime is that the US, in reaction not least (although clearly not only) to the UK’s decision in January, decided in May to block Huawei from buying semi-conductors made by US manufacturers – this is the sanction to which the NCSC refers. The critical importance of this in yesterday’s decision is recognised by the NCSC in the title of its collection of pages on the subject. As neatly explained by Gordon Corera in his interview for the BBC’s Newscast (the news item, with three different interlocutors, covers most of the programme starting from 03:45; but see, in particular, Corera’s segment starting from 6.00), what this essentially means is that, firstly, Huawei needs to find a new source of semi-conductors; and, secondly, that the UK’s intelligence services, which examines Huawei’s equipment regularly, would as a result not be able to guarantee they could give the equipment the same security vetting.

I’m by no means a technical expert, so take this with the requisite amount of salt: but I simply don’t buy this as an explanation. The notion that the UK’s intelligence services are unable to investigate the security of alternative (non-US) sources of semi-conductors, as a part of their regular examination of Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s communications equipment, and then to vet their use, appears on the face of it to be an extraordinarily lazy, sloppy claim entirely unworthy of the men and women in the NCSC. But, like I say, I’m no expert here.

There are, of course, many reasons to be careful of dealings with China, new security law in Hong Kong and its internment of Uighur Muslims (China says that the camps are closed, former detainees having ‘graduated’) being but two.

What the decision does do, of course, is tie the UK (now ‘liberated’ from membership of the European Union) very firmly into the US orbit, and quite specifically a Trumpian view of the world. Whatever the technical and security aspects of the decision, such a decision is highly favourable to Trump and the UK has thus been heavily leaned on, Trump’s self-congratulatory pleasure at the decision doing nothing to minimise such a conclusion. It couldn’t be clearer, at this point in the UK’s history, as to where this country’s political elites see its future, regardless of the likelihood of Trump losing the forthcoming election and US foreign policy changing as a result. China has reacted angrily, foreshadowing ‘public and painful retaliation’ as a means of preventing China from being seen to have been bullied. At this point, I’m very much reminded very much of this wonderful cartoon, copyright of the New Zealand Herald:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EbnRsjQXkAEuqjl?format=jpg&name=900x900

Cartoon by Guy Body, NZH cartoonist.

And, once China has done for us, we’re likely to find the US agricultural industry next donning the guise of Uncle Sam.

Politics apart, the roots of the malaise in which the UK has now come to find itself, as a consequence of a decision which is likely to put back the broadband connectivity timetable, not least in rural and small towns, can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, as my colleague Keith pointed out back in January. Decades-long reliance on ‘the market’, on privatisation and on an abandonment of industry and long-term investment in favour of profit-taking has left the UK exactly the sort of state which is not only reliant on the cheapness of foreign goods but which has come to see price as the ultimate determinant of decision-making. Be in no mistake, whatever the quality or advantages of Huawei kit, this country’s telecoms firms are using it because it is the cheapest around – as a result  not least of extensive R&D investment by the Chinese government – and because its deployment therefore maximises the return to shareholders.

Indeed, telecoms companies are now faced with greater costs as a result, not so much in having to strip out kit because the likelihood is that much of this is likely to have been replaced by 2027 anyway as a part of the continual upgrading of the network, but in terms of the likely greater expense that a removal of one of the three major players will entail, as Rory Cellan-Jones goes on to explain in his contribution to Newscast (from 11.40 and see, in particular, from 15.00). Nokia and Ericsson were already more expensive; they may yet get more so as a result of the narrower telecoms equipment supply market the exclusion of Huawei means. On top of this, there is the impact of the likely post-Brexit lack of a deal on trade in goods with the EU, judging by the current state of negotiations, as well as the continuing decline in the exchange rate (the £ has slipped by 6.2% against the euro since 1 January alone, standing today at just €1.10).

The decision raises a substantial number of policy questions, chief among which would appear to be these.

Firstly, there is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which gives private companies from one signatory state the right to sue governments of another when policy changes. This has a controversial history and was the cause of the EU (eventually) dropping negotiations with the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade deal. The failure of the EU to tie up many free trade deals was, of course, one of the arguments mounted against it by Brexiteers, though we should note the involvement of trade unions and other civil society actors in persuading the European Parliament to put pressure on the Commission to drop the deal. The US (inevitably) is a fan of ISDS and we’re thus likely to see it included in US demands of the UK as part of a free trade deal. Representatives, activists and negotiators need to be prepared for that. In this context, China’s open question as to whether the UK can ‘Provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries‘ raises substantial, and reverberative, questions.

Secondly, BT reckons that the additional costs of this decision can be absorbed within its estimates of the cost of the original January decision (£500m). That may or may turn out to be so – it looks somewhat optimistic – but, equally, BT is not the only telecoms company. The potential costs of £6.8bn identified by Mobile UK in April last year look geared towards a somewhat different set of circumstances, but costs there will be. It is extremely unlikely that we will see UK companies sue the UK government for a change in policy affecting the climate of business decisions, in a kind of internal ISDS, but there will, instead, be substantial lobbying for other mechanisms under which these additional costs can somehow be recouped (in terms of forbearances on network roll-out, more favourable terms for investment, etc.). Those costs will, therefore, be born in the end by UK citizens.

Thirdly, and going back to the reasons why UK telecoms companies find themselves in the position of buying Huawei kit, there is the interesting context of the UK’s industrial policy. Non-existent since the time of Thatcher, which has seen all manner of technological companies either fail or sold off ahead of their time, from Marconi to ARM Holdings, while the UK government stood on the sidelines preaching about ‘the market’, industry policy seems to have gained a new focus. In this light, the publication last week of a policy paper on the UK’s Research and Development Roadmap looks like a step forward. This is, of course, Cummings’s grand plan. A commitment to spending £1.5bn more on R&D each year on average, taking the total to £22bn by 2024/25, to make the post-Brexit UK a global centre for science and innovation, certainly looks ambitious, not least in the face of governments’ deliberate act of vandalism in running down engagement in such areas and their encouragement of a privatised, share option focus to the rewards which such innovation ought to bring.

Now, this blog is no fan of Dominic Cummings, as readers might well be aware. But there is at least significant potential in this, not least in terms of establishing a route out of the malaise into which the lack of industrial policy has led us. There are questions that arise, including the extent to which public sector money can generate further private sector investment as well as, most critically, the ways in which this can generate, in non-military areas, a sustainable, zero carbon economy. The question of collaboration, across Europe, is also critically important to such a vision.

But what is also important is the question of ownership and the retention in the public sector, for the long-term benefit of everyone in this country, of what has been generated by public money. Capitalism, based as it is on inequality and exploitation, cannot generate a green economy nor, in the current context, a recovery which is geared towards sustainability. That needs planning and design, improved democracy, and it implies a key role for the public sector in the launch of a Green Recovery Act for which Common Wealth, a think tank supported, among others, by the Communication Workers Union and the Trades Union Congress, has recently called. Organisationally, it means democratising the workplace so that everyone has a stake in, and shares, the wealth that their labour is creating.

This is probably an issue which is not on Cummings’s horizon nor that more widely of the party actually in government, but it needs to be. The focus on short-term profit, and the focus on the supposed primacy of the private sector, have both had their day.

The route out of any malaise is – as with any pit – firstly to stop digging; and then to turn attention to thinking on how to build a ladder. If the Huawei decision means that we have indeed now stopped digging – and that is a big ‘if’ – it may be that the Roadmap, allied to a Green Recovery Act, provide some of the rungs of the ladder. Ultimately, however, we can’t build a new, bottom-up industry policy which puts right the problems ever since the Thatcher revolution without addressing that key question of ownership.

Edit 16 July: Worth noting in the context of the security concerns over Huawei that the European Court of Justice has this morning struck down the EU’s ‘privacy shield’ arrangement with the US on the grounds that US surveillance of data transferred to its territory (e.g. by Facebook) is ‘not limited to what is strictly necessary’ – i.e. that US data surveillance of communications is over-obtrusive.

The Huawei controversy – a symptom of a deep malaise

This is the text of my spring 2020 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect.

Note that some of the most recent developments in this story, including the ban on the use of Huawei kit, announced in the Commons yesterday, are now covered in a separate post above.

At the end of January, the government made its long-awaited decision on the third aspect of its Telecoms Supply Chain Review – addressing the security challenges posed by using network infrastructure supplied by so-called high-risk vendors.

Chinese company Huawei’s equipment will be allowed to account for 35% of kit used in the non-core part of the UK’s 5G network, despite pressure from US president Donald Trump to block the firm altogether. This includes being banned from supplying kit to “sensitive parts” of the network and excluded from areas near military bases and nuclear sites.

Huawei is not the only vendor of telecoms equipment regarded as “high-risk” – so, too, is ZTE, also Chinese. But it is the only one for which the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has a mitigation strategy designed to manage the risks raised by operators choosing to use Huawei equipment.

Prospect has members in Huawei and we will continue to articulate their interests as the outcomes of the review are worked through.

The details of the decision have been well-publicised. Essentially, they boil down to first, the desirability of the equipment of “high-risk” vendors being embedded in the communications networks on which we increasingly depend; and second, the problems posed by one equipment supplier coming to a position of market dominance.

Both represent different aspects of the risks in relation to Huawei; but I want to focus on the second.

A blog post by Dr Ian Levy, NCSC technical director, and published as a part of the package of materials released at the time of the review, is key.

Dr Levy acknowledges that “the market is broken”, for reasons due predominantly to low margins at a time of high research and development (R&D) demands.

Prospect has been banging this particular drum for years and it is good to see this being recognised, at least in the equipment supply segment of the communications sector.

The solutions to which the review is directed are, at heart, a new test lab to de-risk the costs of market entry, allied to the government working with industry, and internationally, to increase the extent to which equipment from different vendors can be used seamlessly. Allied to this are questions of spectrum management and intellectual property.

All the above needs to happen, but also encouraging new market entrants, and facilitating market entry for those suppliers not currently operating here. However, this is a (very) long-term objective, so other solutions also need also to be considered.

There are few operators currently supplying the UK market. Nokia and Ericsson are the two most likely alternatives.

But they are already more expensive and, should there be no Brexit deal on goods, the cost differential after 31 December 2020 will rise further.

BT, whose compliance bill for limiting Huawei equipment is estimated by the company itself at £500m, may as a consequence face greater exposure in relation to costs.

Furthermore, the same problems are likely to arise in the future on batteries for electric cars. There are few operators of scale able to supply electric batteries at European level and, globally, those that are? Well, they’re Chinese, not least as a result of that government’s extensive backing for R&D.

We are beginning to reap what we have sown from our decades-long reliance on the market, privatisation and an emphasis in communications on price competition. The question that remains is how far the UK government is prepared to go to support the levels of R&D that “global Britain” will surely require.

Still no joke… ten years on from an exploding Icelandic volcano

‘Hey,’ said my friend Darko, ‘You can’t get back home!’ on finding me, as arranged, one mid-April evening in a hotel bar in Plzen, located mid-way between Prague and the Czech-German border broadly in the direction of Nürnberg. We were there, with other colleagues, to participate in an annual, albeit travelling, conference. I suspected Darko, known for his jokes, was pulling my leg – but ‘No – really: look!’ The TV was showing shocking pictures of a spreading ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland which soon led to airspace being closed, flights grounded and airports shuttered.

Hidden Europe, the regular English language publication dedicated to slow travel and to taking the train wherever possible, and published by a Berlin-based editorial bureau, reminded me this morning that it’s now just over ten years since those events saw me engage in some ‘slow travel’ of my own as I sought some way of returning north-west to the UK as the ash cloud was making its own, fairly leisurely, way south-east.

At a time of a lockdown caused by a different set of circumstances entirely, and with short-haul air travel again being viewed as not so much at a crossroads as at an end, assisted by sustainability concerns, it’s interesting to reflect on how things might have changed for travellers now faced with similar disruption.

I wrote about my experiences at the time on Connected Research, a WordPress blog I used to maintain (daily!) while working as a researcher for Connect and then Prospect. I’m deliberately not linking to it as the blog itself is not so much ancient as pre-historic, although you can still find it easily enough if you’re that motivated. The focus of my post was that, at a time of a communications revolution under which corporations were rapidly saving money for shareholders by locating customer services online, away from central, accessible locations (or at call centres whose lines were constantly engaged), information (and support) was almost unavailable with the result that travellers were being abandoned to the outcomes of their own, frequently poor choices and to chance. So much for customer service in the information era.

My own return journey took me in a rather circuitous way via Prague, Nürnberg, Berlin and Amsterdam (I had flown by KLM and laboured initially under the naive assumption that it was up to KLM to get me home again, or somehow ‘look after’ me) as I sought some resolution in the context of a rapidly dawning realisation that I was being abandoned entirely to my own devices amidst highly-influential stories (perhaps, indeed, sourced from a good deal of theatre; Hidden Europe is probably right there) of people paying exhorbitant sums for cross-border journeys.

This sort of return would be surely less likely to happen today: information is much more widely available to people on the move; ‘roam like at home’ has made data services more accessible to travellers; and smartphones are more ubiquitous than the ‘feature phone’ I then had, offering maps of somewhat less-than-familiar locations and access to pages offering advice on rights, as well as things like Twitter (which I joined six months later), providing hints and tips both from official as well as unofficial ones about what is, and is not, happening on the ground. The evident result of greater information is that critical choices at a time of immense disruption are likely to be better informed. Advice about the impact of CV-19 on impending journeys today features clearly on corporate webpages – see, for instance, the current KLM one.

On the other hand, it is not clear that travel companies have become more adept at the sort of decisive decision-making that lends itself to the ability to make definitive alternative plans in such a situation. Public accountability via things like Twitter can often produce turn-arounds when corporates become aware that they are losing a particular public relations battle – and that’s a clear advantage of the medium – but what is still more likely to prevail, at least in the first instance, is a fear of the outcomes of practical decisions, not only in the sense of claims for compensation, and this tends towards corporate blame-shifting, indecision and sclerosis. In my case, my airline was – like many others – caught on the hop and, as a result, it became invisible (though, perhaps, not as bad as some). Clearly, companies need time to sort themselves out when pressured by this sort of thing and, in the context of volcanic eruptions, the situation changes all the time. Lessons may well have been learned in the meantime – both as a result of Eyjafjallajökull as well as CV-19 – but whether these extend to clarity and decisiveness among corporates is a moot point. [Edit: it’s clear, meanwhile, that the UK government – Tories then as now – hasn’t got any better at repatriating people stranded abroad, with organisational incapacity, communications failures and a desire to save money at its heart.]

Incidentally, returning to Hidden Europe, my experience was not that Eurostar had plenty of seats available. In Nürnberg, Eurostar had no capacity at all from the Saturday afternoon until the Tuesday (and then only in first class) while, returning to the centre of Amsterdam on the Monday afternoon from a fruitless trip to Schiphol, I chanced on a travel agent who told me that a Eurostar had only just been released for the following day, and who wasted no time in booking me on it. An overnight coach from Berlin to London would have been interesting, though.

Did someone say Plzen? Here’s my photo of the brewery gates from that trip:

IMG_6644

And here’s where they used to brew beer in the couple of centuries before the 1839 ‘beer revolt’:

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O2 and Virgin Media merger

Following a fairly public courtship, with on again-off again speculation proceeding over a while followed by firmer rumours of an impending announcement on Friday last week, O2 and Virgin Media have this morning announced plans to merge their assets (and, of course, their liabilities). The deal mirrors the combination of the merger of mobile and fixed line assets that BT and EE entered into some years ago and regulators are similarly unlikely to stand in the way of Virgin Media and O2. Indeed, they might even welcome a larger-scale competitor to BT.

The deal – intended to be complete by the middle of next year, regulators permitting – has an extremely complicated structure as regards the financial engineering and I’m not intending to go into that here. There are, however, a number of points to note as regards the policy implications of the proposed deal.

Firstly, there is the question of the ‘substantial synergies’ expected to arise from the arrangement – expected to total some £6.2bn net, according to the details set out in the announcement itself. Substantially, this will be in terms of the companies’ cost and capital expenditure commitments, with major implications specifically identified in the announcement in terms of the combining of network infrastructure and IT systems, marketing, general and administration costs and site rationalisations. As we might well anticipate, none of this is likely to mean good news for workers in the industry for jobs or future terms and conditions of employment. If you’re working in the industry – for any employer, not just those that have made the announcement today – and you’re not a member of the union; well, you know what to do: join here if you’re a manager or professional in any capacity; or here if you’re up the poles and down the holes, or in the offices or call centres.

Secondly, it extends the ‘convergence’ of the communications industry (i.e. the coming together of mobile and fixed-line telecoms). Long an industry buzzword, this was facilitated some years ago by the arrival of the smartphone – the computer in your pocket – and companies on either side of what was previously a divide have been a little slow to respond, for reasons that are clearly numerous. But deals of this scale are, pandemic apart, likely both to encourage each other and to lead to bigger ones. So far, convergence has affected companies within a single country, but the bigger deals of the future are likely to be international as death-bed capitalism struggles for one more throe [of the dice] although, post-Brexit, they are, perhaps, less likely to feature companies in the UK. Nevertheless, and especially in anticipation of the likelihood of regulatory approval, it firmly marks out the UK communications market as, finally and ultimately, a converged one as regards the supply of services to consumers, which will have several repercussions.

Thirdly, there are inevitable implications for BT as a result of the merger. What these might be are, as yet, unknown; and much depends on how serious a competitor the merged Virgin/O2 turns out to be in practice. Either way, BT has already been re-organising itself to deal with competition over an extended period, with a sharp impact on workers’ terms and conditions. Such activity might well not be stepped back in the future – and that would really come as no surprise at all.

Fourthly, there is a quite a bit which is going to have to be unknitted before the merger can be allowed to proceed. It is here that Ofcom – the UK regulatory body for communications – is likely to take the closest interest. Mobile operators have, over years, offered their networks to suppliers of mobile contracts who don’t have networks of their own, and have developed a web of extensive relationships with them. Some of these are identified by ISP Review in its comment on the merger announcement and include: Virgin Media’s five-year deal with Vodafone to supply mobile communications, commencing at the end of next year; and Virgin Media’s fibre capacity deal with Three, announced only two days ago. O2 of course also has a range of similar deals, supplying connectivity for the mobile offerings of both Tesco and Sky. Regulators are likely to insist that such offerings continue in principle, as it provides some – perhaps rather superficial – element of competition, but particularly once Virgin has ‘in-house’ capacity of its own, there will be costs in extricating itself from such contracts.

Some unknitting might also have to occur were the combined company to choose a new name for itself. Virgin Media – taken over by the US giant Liberty Media a while ago – currently pays Richard Branson a royalty of 0.25% of part of its consumer, business and content revenues, plus a further royalty on business operations revenues, with both together amounting to a minimum payment currently of £10.5m/year, for the privilege of using the Virgin name. The activities of the Virgin Group in terms of impact on customers’ goodwill is specifically named as a risk factor in the annual accounts. It never rains but it pours eh, Richard?

Fifthly, the deal poses interesting conundrums for the shrinking number of those companies that are left behind – chiefly, Sky, Vodafone and Three. Vodafone has long been linked with Virgin Media, and it may be that it seeks to enter the fray here although it was interesting to hear Karen Egan, telecoms analyst with Enders Research, comment on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 that she thinks both Vodafone and Sky are currently ‘off the table’ as a result of debt concerns of their own. Three has no fixed network of its own; Vodafone does, as a result of its takeover of Cable & Wireless some years ago, although its current wholesale associations with both Openreach and CityFibre are suggestive of some limitations in that respect; Sky’s fibre offering is via Openreach and it has no mobile network of its own, existing purely on the back of the networks of others. Within the converged market that the UK increasingly represents, there is little regulatory possibility, as currently conceived, for any of these to seek separately to merge with either BT/EE or Virgin/O2; and, while it is not the purpose of this blog to encourage such destabilising speculation, a more formal link between the three thus looks more likely as a result of this morning’s announcement. Regardless, if Egan is right, then even a merged operation would start not only as the number three operator but with a severe financial handicap. The comms lines between all three, and with their major investors, are indeed likely to be buzzing this lunchtime.

Sixthly, and most importantly of all – join the union. Now.

Change your mindset – not your handset

Here’s my winter 2019 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect, which organises managers and professionals right across the UK. This was my fourth column for the union and, as always, the full column is available only to members – you can join right here and indeed so you should.

In it, I look at the sustainability of mobile handsets within the context of the industry’s two-year, contract-based replacement cycle and the environmental arguments behind why this should be extended. Note that I have slightly updated this with a couple more links.

The frequency with which we replace our mobile handsets – what the industry calls ‘handset replacement cycles’ – continues to lengthen.

Evidence suggests that consumers are seeing value in keeping their devices beyond the two-year timeframe which the industry has seen as standard in recent years.

Forecaster Gartner recently predicted that worldwide sales of smartphones will drop by 3.2% in 2019 – apparently the largest decline in shipments ever experienced.

If this is true, it will come as news to Huawei, which shipped 200 million smartphones in 2019 some 64 days earlier than it did in 2018.

And Apple has just increased production of its new iPhone 11 models by up to 8m units (about 10%). However, the company’s initial conservatism over production levels means that the increase takes it ahead of 2018 production levels by a much smaller amount.

5G to the rescue

5G is expected to rescue manufacturers in 2020 and will bring a return to growth in the market. This is one reason why the industry is continuing to talk up 5G technology as ‘transformational’.

But it does seem that 5G will facilitate some genuine breakthroughs, including:

  • much faster access speeds
  • extremely low levels of latency – the delay between sending and receiving information; this will encourage the development of connected self-driving cars
  • extremely low power consumption
  • greater connectivity, which will be required if the internet of things – the ability of your fridge to engage with your grocer of choice – is to take off.

Low power consumption, albeit within an energy market that will still grow as a result of new uses, has to be a good thing.

But, returning to mobile handsets, the question is ‘How often do we need to replace our handsets?’

Climate cost of short lifespan products

The European Environmental Bureau – a network of environmental citizens’ organisations in Europe – recently released a report on the climate impact of short-lifespan consumer products, including smartphones, and drew attention to the benefits of making such products more durable.

The study said that the average lifespan of a smartphone, whose production has the largest climate impact of all the consumer products studied, is just three years. Extending this to four years would save more than 2 million tonnes of emissions (CO2eq).

EEB argues that the study is ‘further proof’ that Europe’s climate obligations cannot be met without addressing our production and consumption patterns, which are based on the disposability mindset of the wider consumer electronics industry.

EEB says smartphones need to have longer lifespans and be more easily repaired when they break in order to minimise the climate impact of the production of new handsets.

The study concludes that it is hard to assess if manufacturers build obsolescence into their products. But the number of consumers who are replacing, rather than repairing, defective products is growing.

Right to repair law won’t cover mobile handsets

A new EU law on ecodesign, seeking to facilitate a right to repair and part of a much broader approach to sustainability and the circular economy, will help here although unfortunately it does not extend to mobile handsets (Edit: though this may be changing both for mobile handsets as well as for other electronic devices).

So, the next time your two-year mobile phone contract comes up, ask yourself whether you really need a new handset or whether you can make do with the old one for a bit longer (and save yourself some money in the process).

Rebelling against the disposability of mobile handsets might be but a small act on behalf of the planet – but it is an act.

Railway telecoms – what goes around comes around…

Many of my readers will be aware that I have a regular column in Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment sector of Prospect. The aim of the column is to reflect on issues in the communications industry – broadband, smartphones, mobile coverage, etc. – and their relationship with the policy-making process. Rightly, you have to be a member of the union to read the columns as they appear but the text does appear at some later date on this website: you can read them directly on a separate page on this site by following the direct link to the left (or, otherwise, here).

Production lead times being what they are for a professionally edited and produced print magazine, I wrote the column for the March issue at the start of February. The text of that will appear here (too) in due course, but I had a couple of choices of issues to cover this time around, and this post broadly follows one of the themes that (just) missed out.

The spark for some further research was provided by an item in a telecom news feed just before Christmas which referred to Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, deciding to open up its 18,000 km fibre-optic communications network to telecoms companies seeking a core network over which to deliver consumer services. In a subsequent conversation with the sharp members of the union’s organising team, we wondered whether there was a similar system applying across the UK’s rail network and, if so, whether this might face demands to be opened up in a similar way as a means of developing the UK’s communications fibre infrastructure.

Network Rail does indeed have a communications infrastructure – it’s actually an operational necessity in terms of running the signalling on which safe rail travel depends and which, in an emergency, provides secure and complete trackside communications for workers in the industry.

But there is a history here, too, which speaks more broadly of the failures of public policy over the past forty years based on privatisation, the desire to make money by selling off assets developed in the public sector and an over-reliance on ‘market’ solutions and competition, not least when it comes to infrastructure provision. A summary of the details of this ‘somewhat traumatic’ history has been provided (as of 2015) by Clive Kessell, a career-long inhabitant of railway telecoms, and it’s well worth a read (and see others at the same site (Rail Engineer) under the ‘signalling and telecoms’ news section, some of which have been linked in this post).

The story in short is that the railway telecoms network in the UK had been developed piecemeal between 1972 and 1993 under public ownership in pursuit of various signalling and electrification projects. Consisting by then of some 17,000 km of fibre optic and copper cable, it was the largest private telecoms network in the country. The network was parcelled up in the 1990s as part of the privatisation of British Rail and then, later, sold off firstly to Racal Electronics (in 1995, for £140m) before being split up with the main network being sold on (in 1999, for £1bn) to Global Crossing (which ultimately, and after bankruptcy recovery, was taken over by Level 3 in 2011. Level 3, a US company, has also since been bought by CenturyLink, another US operator). We ought, by the way, also to wonder at the valuations of assets which lay behind those prices.

Essentially, therefore, the privatisation of rail telecoms – as with the wider railway – was a botched process in which, as Kessell comments in a key section:

None of these private companies really understood what they were buying… At the same time, the privatised train companies were tempted to acquire telecom services from order-hungry sales people in a myriad of companies intent on cherry-picking the easy bits and ignoring the more important operational comms. The result was communication chaos with ignorance as to who was responsible for what and with serious doubts as to the integrity of the services being supplied.

Network Rail – by then back in public ownership following the failure of Railtrack – therefore took the decision in 2004 to recreate what had been destroyed by private hands in the mid-1990s by agreeing a £1.2bn investment plan for a fibre-based nationwide transmission network, based on GSM-R, a radio-based system whose use was being harmonised across the EU under legislation on interoperability. After securing agreement from the Treasury in 2006, this was instituted between 2007 and 2015 with the outcome that Network Rail – once again – now has access to a UK-wide communications structure. Subsequent investment has resulted in the development of an optical network to support the usage of IP-enabled devices, and will need to continue at a high level as GSM-R comes to the end of its natural life in the next ten years or so and as the industry’s need for bandwidth continues to expand.

The lesson – that there is no valid reason to privatise a core public asset which the private sector does not understand and will not see as intrinsically valuable other than in a commercialised way – ought to be clear.

It’s just possible that we might be making the mistakes again, however. Network Rail Telecom – which currently has some 600 staff – was formed in 2011 to own and manage the new asset on behalf of the whole industry. NRT’s asset base is sizable and encompasses some 18,000 km and 22,000 km respectively of fibre and copper backbones with an architecture based on hundreds of interconnecting rings to obtain a large amount of resilience, as well as 2,500 GSM-R base stations and 3,500 data nodes. The decision has been taken to merge operational and business telecoms, with many systems being used for both – a cross-over which external telecoms providers may not understand. This may provide some element of a ‘poison pill’ against the threat of outsourcing-based private rapacity, as indeed might railway congestion and the need to have trains running at speed and closer together – a solution in which reliable and comprehensive, not to say absolutely dedicated, communications networks have a key role to play.

Nevertheless, as indeed in Germany, the questions have already arisen about the use of the network ‘to benefit wider society’ – to whit, looking at it hungrily from the perspective of the government’s (2017) Digital Strategy for the UK, which (re-)raised the question of publicly-owned and funded networks being opened up to increase the fibre connectivity of homes and businesses. Various trials are underway, and envisaged within NRT’s Strategic Plan, and, while it is clear at least to existing senior industry personnel that the operational needs of the railway are paramount, this may not be at all clear to a Conservative government recently elected with a thumping majority, acting in a populist fashion (£) and allied to a complete lack of moral compass and a ‘year zero’ approach to public policy in the post-Brexit era. Back in 2016, Network Rail had considered a(nother) sale of its telecoms company, as part of plans to raise £1.8bn towards the Railway Upgrade Plan and under government pressure to reduce debt, but then ruled out a sale – though not, critically, any sale of access to spare infrastructure capacity.

But, even if it is good that wider counsels have prevailed (this time), who has the handle on deciding what is ‘spare’, alongside the level of priority to be enjoyed by digital rail where infrastructure is shared and in the context of the expansion of the industry’s own bandwidth requirements, is clearly the key question that will remain outstanding as policy develops.

Ultimately, it seems that this fiendish play – of national assets being sold off (under a Tory goverment) to a private sector which engages in a wanton destruction of value, only for the owner (back under a Labour government) to have to re-build that utility and then facing pressure to sell off that utility again after a change of government – may have a season or two to run yet.

Communications in transition – the continuing need for dialogue

The third of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue (‘Celebrating Young Creatives’). Members of BECTU can download the magazine from the website – I’m on p. 24. Now the Winter issue has hit the streets, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text of #3, minus Tony Kelly‘s cartoon pointing up my words. Not a member of the union and want to see the text in all its glory? Here’s how to join.

For 15 years now, Ofcom – the regulator for the communications industry – has published an annual overview of the state of things in its Communications Market Report. This has always been required reading for its broad-sweeping analysis and its essential facts and figures on what remains a rapidly changing industry. Continuing a trend began last year, though, it is now truer to say that it’s required viewing: the comprehensive report of yore has gone the way of ‘big data’ with the 2019 CMR now consisting of a set of charts, each accompanied by a ‘key message’ bullet point.

A picture might well be worth 1,000 words – but art consisting of little more than graphics is going to leave the reviewer somewhat unfulfilled. It might suit the view that today’s wealth of access to news, stories, comment and images, along with too little time, has left us with the attention span of a goldfish. Or that, to capture people’s attention in these days, you have to hit them up with something punchy and direct. I don’t necessarily buy either one, although there are elements of truth in both. More prosaically, the reason for the switch is likely to be a lack of available resources. And that’s a shame.

Some of the key points to emerge from the 2019 CMR are:

  • telecoms prices and revenues continue to fall in real terms
  • there is a continued shift away from fixed-line to mobiles for telephone calls; and from mobile to web-based messaging services for text communications
  • revenues are static for commercial TV broadcasters, amidst a reduction in advertising revenues associated with a drop in viewing hours
  • public service broadcasters continue to spend less on generating new UK content (excepting the effects of the 2018 World Cup)
  • the reach for radio remains high and the time we spend listening to the radio nevertheless remains the same year-on-year, while digital radio broadcasting continues to expand.

Right across communications, the internet continues to wreak (creative) havoc. Telecoms companies and TV and radio broadcasters alike are facing continued declines in revenues while somehow justifying the substantial investment required, whether this lies in generating new content or in the pipes and airwaves that carry that content to us, at home or on the move. Rightly, we expect that experience to be seamless and to deliver us the same quality wherever we are even though we have been enticed into a world in which we expect to pay increasingly less for it.

Substantial investment is taking place, of course: in telecoms, more and more fixed broadband connections are ‘superfast’ and more of us are on faster mobile connections.

But investors demand both absolute dividends and predictability in them over time. And, when revenues are declining and there are plenty of free-riders around, continuing that level of share-out can only come from squeezing more and more out of workers whether this be in terms of effort or in terms of demands for further and greater concessions in our terms and conditions of employment.

Indeed, the share of national income going to workers continues to fall, with impacts in left-behind communities and in more of us in work feeling the pinch. And, when more of us are in work than ever, that’s a disgrace.

Just as in the transition to a low-carbon world, workers in communications are in transition too. This presents difficulties, and these can only be confronted, and resolved, through dialogue. In organised trade unions, we are not only aware of the importance of this, but we have the opportunity to do something about it. However, the message of dialogue needs to be more widely understood if workers are to start increasing their share.

Mobile phones and the FUD factor

The second of my columns for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU, the union for creative ambition, appeared in the Summer 2019 issue. Now the Autumn  issue is out, I thought it was about time to re-publish the text, here with added links but without the Tony Kelly cartoon and without the wonderful production values that BECTU members have come to expect as standard.

Stories have again recently [i.e. in May 2019] been appearing in the papers about the health and social impacts of our mobile phones.

We have had Madonna worrying about her older children and whether her giving them a mobile phone at 13 had ‘ended their relationship’ with her.

Last year, a paper was published by the researchers at Imperial College engaged in the important and wide-ranging SCAMP study on sleep deprivation among teenagers resulting from their night-time use of mobiles. There has also been a separate Oxford University study which concluded that social media use has only a ‘trivial’ effect on teenagers’ happiness.

And there have even been stories from the perspective of whether our digital lives and the handiness of our mobile devices are leading adults to have less sex.

Some of these stories have been rather sensationalised. But similar stories about mobile phones and various aspects of health have been appearing now for decades.

There are some aspects of mobile phone use which do give cause for concern. The SCAMP study is drawn from the lack of certainty among scientists about the impact of the radio frequency waves emitted by devices on children’s developing brains, and whether they are more vulnerable than the adults about whom the World Health Organization dismissed such concerns some time ago. The peer pressure on teenagers to send intimate photos of themselves – so-called ‘sexting’ – should also not be under-estimated (one reason why the Oxford University might well have understated the likely impact of mobiles on teenagers’ happiness).

It’s right that we are as convinced as we can be about the safety of our devices; and clearly we also need to talk to our children more about theirs and what they do with them. Whether mobiles result in impaired relationships with us: well, if teenagers are more interested in their mobiles than us, we need to find something more interesting to say to them. They said the same about television; and no doubt they said the same about The Dandy before that, too.

Stories of the ‘always-on’ worker, whether they stem from a reluctance to carry around two devices – a personal one and a work one – or from the need for freelancers and ‘gig’ economy workers not to miss a call or a text, are one of the reasons why we look to trade unions to protect us. In the latter case, current research shows us that they provide workers with a strong reason to unionise.

Furthermore, concerns about the ‘spy in our pockets’, given some aspects of our social media use and our apparent inability properly to investigate, and change, the defaults on the apps we download, may also be nagging away at the way we think. (And rightly so.)

More generally, though, I wonder whether it is the FUD factor (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that explains why these sorts of stories keep coming around. Perhaps the continuing concerns about the impact of mobiles, doing the rounds for thirty years now, reflect the uncertainty in our own lives and particularly our uncertainty about the changing shape of the world around us. Given the individualised, atomised circles in which we move and think, and when so much of the outside world, and indeed the environment, lies beyond our control, it seems only natural that we transfer that uncertainty to the device that almost all of us carry around with us permanently, and which may have come to symbolise that absence of control.

Or, better said, the appearance of that absence of control, since where uncertainty is the driver, we do have the answers when we analyse what brings us together. The answer is plain to all of us as trade unionists – we organise. And, about the issues we cannot individually control – then we collectivise them. When we realise that power, we can deal with most things.

Are we hanging up on landlines? (text)

A little while ago, I blogged about a column I had started to write for Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly journal of BECTU.

It appears I didn’t disgrace myself totally, and the union was kind enough to invite me back to the house for a second column which has now appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the journal. So I thought it about time to post the text of the first. It’s just the text so, for the graphics and a cartoon by the wonderful Tony Kelly you’ll need to log in. Working in the media and entertainment industry – then you will be a member already, right?

Are we hanging up on landlines?

In 1998, when I first joined the staff of STE (later Connect), the union for professionals in communications, I received several industry briefings penned by Roger Darlington, then head of research at our sister organisation, the Communication Workers Union, and more recently your former columnist.

Roger’s briefings helped me get to grips with the technical issues I would be dealing with as a novice. One provided facts and figures on the shape of the industry and the growing influence of mobile and the internet. Another described the UK’s telephone numbering system, based on area codes drawn up in the 1950s from the first letters of the town where the call was placed and their location on the telephone dial (or keypad).

So it is with a sense of the circularity of things that I write my first column on… telephone numbering.

I’m no mathematician and nor, I suspect, are many of those reading this magazine. But in an increasingly digitalising world, numbers do, indeed, make the world go round.

For example, whenever you type or click on a URL – the language-based website address of somewhere you want to visit on the web – your device converts that language into a string of numbers before delivering the page you require. It’s increasingly true of telephony, too, Already, more and more people are using apps like Skype, Messenger and WhatsApp to make phone calls.

Switched Off

By the mid-2020s, it’s likely the analogue Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) will be switched off completely with the intention of you – seamlessly, of course – making all your phone calls over the internet instead (in effect, talking while using 0s and 1s).

That is, of course, if anyone is still making telephone calls by then.

Ofcom has recently published new research on the future of the UK’s telephone numbering system, realising that, over the last six years alone, our time spent on landlines has halved while our consumption of mobile data has risen exponentially. In fact, we used 10 times more mobile data in 2017 than in 2012.

There are 610 area codes in the UK; and the numbering system has facilitated the availability of 1.3bn telephone numbers – enough for nearly twenty for every man, woman and child among us.

So, does a numbering system oriented towards area codes still make sense? We live in a world in which there is no need to remember telephone numbers, since our devices do this for us. An increasing number of us, especially younger people, prefer to have our contact with the outside world based on text rather than talk.

In truth, we have been moving away from this sort of world for some time: the 01734 for Reading, for example, makes sense to an aficionado in a way in which 0118 9xx xxxx (ever since 1998) does not.

It is also possible to buy telephone numbers in a different area – a trick known to cold callers to make their origin look familiar.

Meanwhile, our devices convert that sometimes only half-familiar sequence of numbers belonging to someone on an incoming call into a recognisable system based on their name – a helpful way of allowing us to screen our calls and, thereby, exercise an element of control over the numbers that prompt our world.

Perhaps it is time, then, to say goodbye to a system based on geographical numbers – and hello to one based on a little creative abstraction.

Are we hanging up on landlines?

I’m delighted (actually, I’m as proud as punch) to announce that the first of my columns for Stage Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a sector of Prospect – is now available. In it, I boldly propose to an audience composed substantially of creative professionals that numbers make the world go round before concluding that, after all, perhaps it is time to say hello to a world based on creative abstraction.

BECTU members – we think the content of Stage Screen & Radio is so good that it should be privileged for those who pay their membership subscriptions each month – can download the magazine here (after logging in). I’m on page 26. Happy reading!