Dear BBC…

… Well, this has all got a bit much now, hasn’t it?

Regular readers will know I’m not much* of a TV watcher so the loss of ‘Stenders or MasterChef – in respect of which the BBC set up, and then removed (it seems on the grounds of the record number received), a specific complaints page – didn’t make an awfully big dent in my life; but I am a regular, committed radio listener and the disruption to the 6Music schedules – which is still going on – does have quite a bit more of an impact on me personally. It seems to be the DJs whose presentation style is more exuberant (Craig Charles), or whose programmes are sonically different (= ‘gnarly’) (Iggy Pop, Marc Riley), who have lost their shows over the weekend and into this week, replaced by DJs whose presentational style is a little softer and, on Friday itself, by the music of modern composers (Philip Glass). While it is right to show respect – a death is always a sad occasion – I find this resort to dark, sombre tones too much. Like many others, it seems, I simply switched off.

6Music is, quite famously, ‘Radio John Peel’ with just about every programme championing some aspect of musical genres that Peel also supported. One wonders, had Peel still been alive and broadcasting (though at 81 this is perhaps a little unlikely), whether his own programme would have survived this sort of cull. Certainly in his later years the presenter of Home Front was something of a republican so the question is not entirely random. 6Music caters to a particular demographic (those less interested in mainstream music) and it’s not obvious that its regular listeners would have taken much more than a passing interest in the death of Prince Philip. Furthermore, had it wanted to do so, this demographic is also more than capable of finding appropriate sources, whether broadcast or online, from which to satisfy that interest and to pay private respect. We might wonder about the role of a rolling news channel if the scheduling of a large number of other channels is to be disrupted in the way that BBC has seen fit these last few days.

‘Damned because it did; and damned if it hadn’t’ is, I suspect, a phrase we might get to hear more often this week in relation to the BBC’s actions and certainly past next Saturday. In the midst of the culture war, and when ‘flag shagging’ has entered the popular vocabulary and sizable pictures of the Queen have started appearing on the walls of government ministers’ home broadcasts, the BBC was always going to be under a certain pressure when this sort of story occurs and it was always likely to succumb.

But there are issues here which it needs to look at. Partly, this reflects the role of TV and radio broadcasts in keeping people going in the middle of a pandemic – especially those who live alone – at a time when death has been an omnipresent concern amidst the trauma of lockdowns; and for whom this sort of disruption is an unwelcome loss of stability and important colour. It’s also, however, a question of the BBC’s obligations to its own staff. Presenters – with some historic exceptions – tend to be an uncomplaining bunch; but 6Music had, just one week before, shuffled its Saturday schedule to accommodate new young presenters who, one programme later, were experiencing either the loss of their programmes (the Blessed Madonna) or else a shifted (and extended) timeslot (Jamz Supernova). Gideon Coe, a seasoned presenter and whose programmes I enjoy, found himself in Craig Charles’s Saturday evening slot: the irony of this being his first live programme for a year (the rest – four, three-hour programmes a week – having been faithfully pre-recorded in his garden shed) could not have been lost on anyone. Tonight, he finds himself with a four-hour slot in partial replacement of Marc Riley (whose programmes are all currently pre-recorded one week in advance from his bedroom). The Covid-19 pandemic has, for radio presenters too, caused issues and difficulties amongst which the loss of live programming, when modern radio DJing is about in the moment interaction with the audience and with live acts, is clearly a painful one. Presenters – and the production teams behind them – deserve to be treated better than having their programmes junked at a moment’s notice in favour of music aimed at creating a mood. 6Music needs little encouragement to go the way of mindfulness as it is.

The other side of all this is of course the role of the public broadcaster which the BBC has in ‘bringing the nation together’. It is a mark both of the culture war in which have now been embroiled as well as the many, and very evident, fissures that the UK is now experiencing that a divided nation actually proves itself impossible to bring together over the death of a senior royal. BBC channels lost market share on Friday night while the news that Gogglebox – as I understand it, an already popular TV programme which watches people watching the telly; a sort of live action version of The Royle Family – was Friday night’s most-watched programme does not surprise: people are just not engaged by this wall-to-wall coverage. In the modern, connected world, they know where to find that content if they want it. They look to their broadcast content instead as giving them a release.

We are no longer (even if we once were) the people who can be brought together by the death of a member of the royal family and the BBC has simply got things wrong: in cancelling programmes and disrupting schedules, it seems that it is actually not so much reflecting the public mood as trying to lead it in a particular direction. Radio listeners tend to be a loyal bunch so ratings and (likely) market share losses are unlikely to last – but that’s not the point. A nation that has lost much of its deference – though we still have a long way to go with that – is no longer the nation of the forelock-tugging 1950s, however much this Brexiteer ‘Global Britain’ parliament wants it to be. I write as a parliamentary motion is just getting underway on the death of Prince Philip giving parliamentarians the opportunity to lead tributes on behalf of their mourning constituents. Despite everything else that is going on, in political as well as social life, it is the only business of the day. Looking around, I don’t actually see a nation in mourning – but I do see one whose major institutions want to portray it thus. In allowing the death of Prince Philip to dominate its scheduling, the BBC is allowing itself to be used to promote an image of a country that no longer exists and whose time is anyway long past. As someone once sang, there is no future in England’s dreaming: a long-lost (and increasingly contested) past cannot be recreated in service of a nation’s future.

All of this is, of course, likely to be being used as a dry run rehearsal for ‘the big one’. In which case, I can only wish Herself, aged 94, a (continuing) long life. Indeed, God save.

[Edited later on 12/4 to include the reference on line 3 to the story in The Guardian on the number of complaints made using the BBC form.]

Rights at work in the platform economy

Readers will know that I have been writing a regular column for Stage, Screen & Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the digital, media and entertainment arm of Prospect, for a couple of years – all the columns are linked via the specific page on this site which you can find over there on the left. I am paid for this work and the money to do that comes from the monthly subs provided by BECTU members, so I prefer to keep the columns privileged for members of the union for a while, posting them publicly up here only once the new issue of the magazine lands on members’ doormats.

That’s therefore a quarter behind and, editorial and production deadlines being quite understandably what they are, it’s usually a fair bit longer than that. That occasionally means that the column, when put up here, has been a bit caught up by events. This, dear reader, is the case with this particular one, which looks at whether platform workers are employees or contractors. This was originally written in early November last year (the US elections referenced at the outset were taking place at the time) but has now been caught up by events, firstly in the US by a lawsuit filed to overturn the Prop 22 ballot result mentioned in the article’s Intro; and secondly in the UK by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of February in the case of Uber, the driver hire business. You can read plenty more about the Supreme Court decision elsewhere, and not least in my post on the issue below; but I thought I’d post the original column in the usual way; and, for those who saw the original, this time slightly extended and with a few additional links.

What hasn’t changed is the reference to unions keeping a close eye on the situation as it continues to evolve. That remains as true this side of the Supreme Court decision as it did back then. Further, reading the text back again now, I’m also struck by the relevance of the article’s closing paragraph which hints at the importance of seeing, and using, law-provided rights as a starting point on which to build and not seeing them as in some way tradeable. Sweetheart deals – no thanks!

_____________________________________________________________________________

Whether platform workers – those who sign up to deliver services digitally, or work for delivery companies – are employees or contractors is a distinction likely to become increasingly important, not least in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As voters cast their ballots in the US elections, in several states they were also put a series of other propositions applying to laws within their state. The US political system incorporates elements of direct democracy in which, in some states, legal initiatives can be put straight to voters.

California is one such state, with Proposition No. 22 asking whether voters wanted to support a minimal package of employment rights for those working for platform companies. The story here is complicated, but Proposition 22 essentially prevents such workers, who are not regarded as employees, from accessing a much larger range of employment rights they would otherwise have.

Regretfully, Proposition 22 – supported in a hugely expensive campaign by the big companies, like Uber – was passed by California voters.

Persuasion

Here in the UK, back in the summer before politicians started to talk once more about lockdowns, there was a concerted attempt to persuade people working from home to go back to the office. This had a number of facets. Perhaps the most interesting was the view that working from home drew attention to the notion that working in this way could subject the worker to competition from anywhere across the globe.

A large number of digital platforms offer the opportunity to work digitally – online platforms are not only for delivery, whether that be a person or a meal, but also facilitate a variety of services. Work on these platforms tends to be broken down into micro elements with workers asked to tender for each element. We are witnessing a new approach to Taylorism – the management system designed to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a production process, breaking work down into simple microtasks – this time not on the production floor for the office. This is sometimes called ‘crowdwork’ or, more frequently, and in an unthinking corruption of the complex jobs done by BECTU members in the entertainment industry, the ‘gig economy’.

Most Prospect and BECTU members who are able to work from home are not in a situation in which their job can be – or will be – broken down into micro elements. That’s trade unionism in action, in no small part.

However, not least under Covid-19, with the gaps in government support programmes being particularly visible in our sector, the temptation clearly rises to look to such platforms as a means of ensuring continuing income during shutdowns where workers have been entirely inadequately supported.

What employment rights might you find when you get there? Well, the line in the sand for platforms seems to be that their workers are not employees, but contractors, where a lower set of rights prevails.

A question was recently put in parliament by Derek Twigg, Labour MP for Halton, whether the government would assess ‘the potential merits of providing greater protections for online platform workers using crowd work platforms.’

The answer came in a two-part way.

New protections

Firstly, a forthcoming (and long-awaited) Employment Bill (intended to set new employment rights in the post-Brexit era) would include a consideration of the options for ‘new protections’ for those in the ‘gig economy’; and, secondly, that the current strategy of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement had already recommended the government examine the threat to compliance posed by online and app-based businesses.

The Director of Labour Market Enforcement is substantially concerned with the informal economy. This actually says quite a bit about what the government thinks of people working for online platforms.

It is, however, actually quite encouraging that employment rights in the platform economy will soon be on the consultative agenda. However, we will need to watch that the big operators in the sector don’t try any California-style ‘sweetheart deals’ over here.

Clocking big tech: the fight to own your data

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

Prospect has been working with a coalition of unions, tech specialists and researchers to develop new approaches to how we take control of our own data.

In July the beta version of one of those ideas – the WeClock app – was launched but soon after Facebook decided to ban the app on its platform. After discussions with the app developers, Facebook has now reversed this decision.

At Prospect, we have long been aware of big data and the need to secure the interests of our members when it comes to all the ways that algorithm-based software can be used at work.

Desktop spying

Indeed, many apps seek to put a ‘spy on our desktop’ – and with more people working from home during the pandemic, the risk increases of employers also wanting to put a ‘spy in our homes’.

Google has invested billions in mapping the world and developing self-driving car technology, because it wants to be in a position to shape our technology choices when it comes to our mobility.

That means knowing where we go, how often we go there and how often (and where) we stop en route. This encroaches into our lives as workers as well as private citizens.

Facebook is not the only example – merely among the most egregious. Earlier this summer, the social media platform pitched that Facebook Workplace, its office collaboration project, would allow employers to control the content of group discussions by banning words such as ‘unionize‘.

It later had to backtrack after complaints by its own employees and the US trade union organisation AFL-CIO.

Knowledge is power

Not least when it comes to the workplace, the data on which our choices are based belongs to us – or should do. Surveillance software undermines that principle and its very existence raises the need for accountability and worker involvement in decision-making about its use. Data needs to become part of our bargaining agenda.

This battleground reveals the rationale for Facebook’s initial decision regarding WeClock: its whole reason for being lies in hoovering up our data about what interests us, analysing that and then packaging it to secure advertising revenues.

Start-ups like WeClock, which enables workers to log their own working hours and overtime to protect themselves from being overworked and underpaid. Crucially it leaves control of the data entirely in users’ hands.

As Christina Colclough, who led the team behind the app, observes, WeClock is a ‘self-tracking privacy-preserving tool we can be proud of’. The more apps opt for such an ethical approach, the more those users will understand what platforms like Facebook and Google operate. And the more people realise the importance of asserting their rights over their data, the more shaky these platforms’ way of operating becomes.

Facebook’s monitoring software, Workplace, is a key tool it can sell to employers facing worker recognition campaigns.

Online activism

I doubt we have heard the last of Facebook Workplace. Lobbyist and employer consultant Rick Berman says the pandemic has encouraged a ‘historic rise in labour activism‘.

He warns that employees worried about exposure to the coronavirus have taken to Facebook and other platforms to share their concerns, giving union organisers greater access to disgruntled workers.

Worker recognition campaigns in the tech giants and elsewhere are certainly growing in the face of increasingly precarious terms and conditions.

In ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, we need to encourage high-trust workplaces where managers are allowed to do their jobs by actively using their own people management skills.

Prospect will continue to articulate the need for better trust, accountability and transparency when it comes to monitoring and surveillance software in the workplace; and for data to become part of the bargaining agenda.

As our workplaces change, our core commitment to empower our members to realise those goals remains steadfast.

Myth versus logic in the time of Covid-19

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

With Covid-19 now back on the rise, including out here on the islands, and shutdowns once again becoming a reality for many of us, it’s timely to re-visit the themes of the column, originally written at the back end of May. The column looked at the conspiracy theories over 5G masts, while pointing out that fear over technological developments is not a new phenomenon.

Few have any living memory of times as extraordinary as the ones we are living in under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

I don’t know whether the post-World War I flu epidemic of 1918 brought about any particular conspiracy theories, although I suspect that the more unusual the surrounding events, the stranger the theories that gain circulation.

In the early weeks of the pandemic and lockdown, one such theory directly connected 5G mobile technology to the spread of COVID-19.

This led to attacks on mobile mast installations – idiotically, but poignantly, ones that had no 5G capability – and also to the harassment of telecoms workers who were going about their jobs.

It was therefore good to see Scotland’s First Minister take the time to praise telecoms workers as key workers.

The contribution that Prospect members are making right across the UK to ensure that people can stay connected and working has been a major factor in slowing the spread of the virus and, in the process, helping our wellbeing to hold up.

Uneasy relationship

Interestingly the telephone has always been a bit of a bellwether for our relationship with technology.

The British Medical Journal reported – in 1889 – on concerns that spending long periods on the telephone could cause ‘nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness and neuralgic pains’.  

Radio broadcasting, which was developed in the early 1900s and shares a common technological root with modern cell phones, was thought to cause sickness. Coming up to date, apart from our cellphones, there is similar noise about our home Wi-Fi and smart meters.

Many do not understand the technology we rely on, and which has become central to how we organise and live in our world. This has led us to develop an uneasy and unsettled relationship with something whose ubiquitous invisibility makes it an easy target when things go wrong. There is a lot more work to do to settle that relationship and ensure emerging technologies work for people. One such organisation doing good work in this field is the Ada Lovelace Institute.

Furthermore, with mobile technology continually evolving – 3G in the 2000s, 4G in the 2010s, 5G now and 6G already being spoken about – there is always room to find new grounds for conspiracy or a fresh angle.

The less easy the relationship, the more easy it is to distrust something – not least at a time of a generalised lack of trust.

Prospect members know there is indeed no magic about mobile technology. It is more a case of ‘observation and logic’, as Ramesh cutely puts it in the end-of-year school show at the close of series two of BBC drama The A Word (which I have been catching up with during the lockdown). Both are qualities in short supply during the pandemic.

The increasingly tortuous way we use language doesn’t help. It is evident that viruses cannot spread over radio waves; they spread by human contact.

Both government guidance and a statement from the four mobile operators have declared: ‘There is no scientific evidence of any link between 5G and coronavirus’. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough to persuade either the conspiracy theorists or those vulnerable to their theories.

Meanwhile, especially for those working from home more than usual, it is good to remind ourselves to unplug outside working hours. Giving ourselves downtime is valuable for our own mental health and helps our colleagues do the same.

Stay safe – and do encourage anyone you know who is not a union member to join one.

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:

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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.