‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

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!

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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.

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.

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.