Grant Shapps – need for speed?

Used with permission from
Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP

People (e.g. the Guardian) are clearly out to get Grant Shapps MP, and given their bias you can see why. But he’s not helping with the publication of his recent report, which he and British Infrastructure Group of MPs have wittly titled “Broadbad” (PDF format).

It’s calling for Openreach to be made independent of the remainder of BT, in order for the public to get the “super-fast” broadband we need if we’re not to revert to the stone-age. They claim that BT has wasted 1.7Bn on rolling out this technological artery to rural areas, yet 5.7M household’s don’t have the “minimum required” speed of 10Mb.

I say wrong, wrong and wrong.

First off, Openreach hasn’t received 1.7Bn for the rural broadband project. It’s only received about a third of that, and it’s a project in progress.

Secondly, I’d dispute that 5.7M households have yet to be connected. This is based on an old Ofcom report using figures available before the project got under way.

Thirdly, the case for 10Mb+ Internet connections to homes  h as not been met. It’s justified because the UK will “lag behind” countries like Japan and South Korea. So what?

The UK lags behind the USA in gun crime; should we therefore relax restrictions on firearms ownership? “Lagging behind” per se does not matter a jot. Their justification as to why we need higher speeds amounts to “Ofcom have shown that as consumers get better download speeds, they consume more data”. No sh*t, Sherlock!

So what is this data people are consuming? Basically Netflix. Only video has the “need” for high throughput Internet connection, and although this might help the bottom line of OTT media providers, it’s hard to see any other economic benefits to anyone.

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According to the report, Spain also has faster connections than our unlucky punters; so if they’re trying to correlate domestic broadband speeds with economic virility, they’ve shot their fox.

As I’ve said before, the whole concept is insane. Streaming video requires about 2Mbps. How many streams does a household need?

Most other high-usage domestic customers are, basically, pirating media. They need fast upload speeds for that, which aren’t really mentioned in the report. Why should the public purse be subsidising either OTT operators or pirates?

A few weeks ago I tackled someone from the Home Office about this crazy idea, and the reasoning behind it was more cynical than I thought. It’s only one civil servant’s opinion, but my contact has a pretty good idea about how government really works.

Consider all the infrastructure projects we could be working on; things that would benefit the country. There’s road and rail networks (HS2 is a drop in the ocean), the national grid, water supply and sewers. How about a sustainable transport network, as it’s a certainty we’re going to need one. All these cost serious money, with the exchequer hasn’t got. But the government has to be seen to be investing in infrastructure. The cheap option is to roll out mad-speed Internet. They can claim it’s needed for business; voters have no idea what a megabit of data can actually be used for. And the public want it. They don’t need it, but that’s not the point. They want it.

If you tell Mondeo Man his broadband is lagging behind the Spaniards, he’ll want something done about it. (If you tell him to wire up the house properly instead of using WiFi, it’d be in one ear and out the other.)

So, by making a fuss about broadband speeds and then demanding action from BT, and throwing relatively little money about, the government can look like it’s dealing decisively with a pressing issue.

As for Mr Shapps, he claims to have been in the Internet business before becoming an MP. He should know better, but it turns out he had a web development company so probably doesn’t know the difference between a kilobit and a megabit either. If only he’d asked.

No talk from TalkTalk

Charles Dunston’s budget ISP TalkTalk has been hacked again. Yawn. This time it’s big news on TV; the headline story in fact. Their website has been KOed for a couple of days, but it’s back online with a front page showing a different news agenda. They get their feed from AOL (also part of the Carphone Warehouse family), who probably just missed the kerfuffle; there’s no celebrity connection after all. Not yet, anyway.

If you’re a TalkTalk retail customer (or possibly a business customer – who knows how their systems interrelate and what data’s been pilfered), and you’ve used the same password with TalkTalk as any other sites, change your password on those sites NOW. The popular media is full of speculation as to what’s been compromised but they’re not mentioning passwords, presumably because TalkTalk will have told them that any passwords would have been encrypted. But if the criminals have got hold of the hashes, which is likely, it’s only a matter of time before they crack them.

How worried should customers of other ISPs be? Pretty worried, as on the serious side of the business they’re known as Opal Telecom, a significant LLU operator providing the link between the last time and the data centre for a large number of Broadband providers.

I can, of course, only speculate as to why this keeps happening to them. One reason might be related to several conversations I’ve had with people from ISPs TalkTalk has taken over along the way. Apparently they really don’t like hard stuff like UNIX/Linux, and within months of a takeover they force a switch to Microsoft before making all the UNIX people redundant. Any fool can use Microsoft – low levels of technical understanding are required, meaning cheap engineers and lower costs. But do their Microsofties actually know what they’re doing? I dare say that some of them do, and some of them don’t. But the bar for a point-and-click Microsoft house going to be lower.

Government “boosts” broadband at everyone’s expense

The government has moved to further line the pockets of telecommunications companies by relaxing planning laws requiring council approval before installing communications cabinets on public land. According to the new Culture Secretary, Maria Miller this sweeps away the red tape holding the country back. Ms Miller’s background as a advertising executive has obviously primed her well for a proper understanding of the issues involved in the telecommunications business.

The government’s aim, inherited from the previous lot it has to be said, is to wire up the country for “superfast broadband”, whatever that means. They reckon domestic users need at least 24Mbps for the UK to extract itself from the dark ages, and 80Mbps would be better. But does the Culture Secretary, or anyone else in government, know what 80Mbps means? Well in real terms, if you’re going to abuse the internet by streaming live high-definition video across it, you might use up 2Mbps of data rate. that’s 1/40th of an 80Mbps line. Okay – if you reckon that celebrity TV shows to people’s homes over the net is important to the country’s future this is still massive overkill. Video calls will use up about 1Mbps at worst and nothing much else comes close apart from downloading entertainment media.

Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Culture Secretary
Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, Culture Secretary

I’m not saying that the people of the UK should be denied the chance to download music and video content at high speed if they want to it. I do question the government’s imperative for those who don’t want it to share in the cost of paying for it. If some people want high speed file downloads, those people can decide whether the cost is worth it and stump up the cash. If there’s a subsidy going it should be to promote 100% availability of a reliable 2Mbps service to rural areas – the data rate needed for business. We want to make it easier for rural business to do work, not city dwellers to watch TV all day.

Relaxing the planning laws is undoubtedly going to make it cheaper for the telecoms companies to install infrastructure  but it’s also going to make it impossible for local residents to object to unsightly and badly placed street furniture. You may feel this isn’t a big problem now, but this is simply because they’re going to think through the idea properly before submitting it to the local council in order to avoid delays if the council objects.

According to BT, it takes currently takes between four and eight weeks for councils to approve new boxes. this is not unreasonable. Are telecoms company planners turning up for work on a Monday morning, deciding to install a new cable somewhere and then having to sit around for a month while waiting for approval? I hardly think so; these things need to be planned well ahead of time and thought through properly. There’d be something very funny going on if the planning application was on the critical path.

In May this year, Kensington and Chelsea council did deny BT”s request to install most of the 108 new cabinets it applied for. The council’s reason was that the new cabinets were unsightly and that BT had made no effort to re-use existing locations or place them in inconspicuous locations (a move which would probably have cost BT money). The council cited the historic character of the proposed sights; BT’s bullying response was to declare that the residents of the borough would therefore have to put up with “historic” broadband speeds – it then packed up its little vans and announced it was going to install fibre in other boroughs until the Council came around to their way of thinking. Other cable operators have been able to install high-speed internet lines in the borough, so BT’s argument is very thin indeed.

Our new culture secretary’s first act appears to be putting the interests of bullying big business ahead of local democracy.