UK broadband networks are standing up to coronavirus pressures – Ofcom

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has suggested while there has been a very minor impact to broadband speeds during the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t enough for anyone to be concerned.

In the UK Home Broadband Performance report, Ofcom noted average download and upload speeds fell by 2% and 1% respectively, and latency increased by 2% when comparing pre- and post-lockdown performance. The surge has had a statistical impact, however a 2% decrease is download speeds is highly unlikely to have any material impact on experience.

“Broadband in the UK has really been put to the test by the pandemic, so it’s encouraging that speeds have largely held up,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Group Director for Strategy and Research.

“This has helped people to keep working, learning and staying connected with friends and family.”

This is of course not a report designed to give confidence to the UK in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is supposed to be a periodic measure of how broadband infrastructure is progressing across the country. But the publication of performance levels across the country is a very useful by-product.

Looking at the wider trends across the UK, average speeds are on the up. There might be some incremental gains from upgrades which are being done on networks, but a more likely explanation is more people subscribing to superfast and ultrafast broadband services. This is a trend which seems to be extended to the countryside also, potentially eroding the digital divide.

From a full-fibre perspective, trends are heading in the right direction from an infrastructure perspective, but it is not necessarily translating through to commercial gains. Ofcom is now suggesting 12% of homes now have fibre services available, though a much lower number of customers have actually upgraded.

According to the latest statistics from the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, only 18% of the households who are able to subscribe to full-fibre broadband do so, meaning 2.8% of UK households have a fibre broadband package. It does appear UK telcos are a lot better and laying fibre than they are at selling it.

O2 set to scupper next UK 5G auction

UK operator O2 is apparently unhappy with the way Ofcom plans to conduct the next 5G spectrum auction and could launch a legal challenge.

There doesn’t seem to have been any public announcement, but the FT has been chatting to shadowy figures who reckon O2 sent a letter to Ofcom during the consultation period for the auction, which recently ended. The letter effectively warns of the potential of a legal challenge, which would delay the auction for as long as it took for the courts to make a call on it.

The issue seems to be the matter of contiguous spectrum. Ofcom wants to flog lots of little bits of spectrum but O2 would rather just bid for one big bit, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it would be a lot more useful for providing the kind of fat bandwidth 5G needs to deliver on is speedy promises.

Ofcom gave the FT a fairly passive-aggressive quote: “People and businesses need fast, reliable mobile services more than ever, so we want to auction these airwaves as soon as possible. We’re really disappointed that one operator has threatened to launch a legal dispute that could slow things down for mobile users and the economy.”

In other words O2 is selfish, bordering on treasonous for daring to raise an objection. There’s a simple solution, Ofcom: don’t chop the spectrum up. Then again one of the other operators would presumably moan if that happened, so maybe you can’t win. But it’s Ofcom’s job to sort this sort of thing out, so maybe it should adopt a more conciliatory tone and try to meet O2 in the middle.

O2 set to scupper next UK 5G auction

UK operator O2 is apparently unhappy with the way Ofcom plans to conduct the next 5G spectrum auction and could launch a legal challenge.

There doesn’t seem to have been any public announcement, but the FT has been chatting to shadowy figures who reckon O2 sent a letter to Ofcom during the consultation period for the auction, which recently ended. The letter effectively warns of the potential of a legal challenge, which would delay the auction for as long as it took for the courts to make a call on it.

The issue seems to be the matter of contiguous spectrum. Ofcom wants to flog lots of little bits of spectrum but O2 would rather just bid for one big bit, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it would be a lot more useful for providing the kind of fat bandwidth 5G needs to deliver on is speedy promises.

Ofcom gave the FT a fairly passive-aggressive quote: “People and businesses need fast, reliable mobile services more than ever, so we want to auction these airwaves as soon as possible. We’re really disappointed that one operator has threatened to launch a legal dispute that could slow things down for mobile users and the economy.”

In other words O2 is selfish, bordering on treasonous for daring to raise an objection. There’s a simple solution, Ofcom: don’t chop the spectrum up. Then again one of the other operators would presumably moan if that happened, so maybe you can’t win. But it’s Ofcom’s job to sort this sort of thing out, so maybe it should adopt a more conciliatory tone and try to meet O2 in the middle.

Facebook poaches Ofcom gamekeeper

Regulation is coming and Facebook knows it, so it has reportedly persuaded Ofcom’s Director of Content Standards, Licensing and Enforcement to join the team.

The news comes courtesy of the Times, which reports that Tony Close resigned last week and was placed in gardening leave as soon as it became clear where he was headed. Close had been at Ofcom since 2003 and was most recently one of the people heading up Ofcom’s regulatory strategy with regard to social media, a role that became a lot more interesting when it was given new censorship powers earlier this year.

Neither Ofcom nor Facebook seem to have confirmed the move and we hadn’t received a response to our enquiry to Ofcom at time of writing. However there’s no sign of Close on Ofcom’s content board page, which seems to confirm he’s legged it. Facebook seems to have a taste for UK establishment figures, having nabbed for Deputy PM Nick Clegg to head up its government relations in 2018.

Close continues the rich tradition of public servants taking lucrative positions late in their career in the private sector to help navigate their former beat. He will be able to fill Facebook in on the latest thinking when it comes to regulating social media companies, something Facebook insists it welcomes, but presumably also wants to ensure doesn’t get in the way of business.

The regulation of big social media will be a defining issue of the next few years. They are supposed to be neutral platforms that allow public discussion without any editorial involvement of their own. Increasingly, however, pressure from advertisers, politicians and regulators has compelled them to take an active role in censoring their platforms to ensure the ‘wrong’ kinds of content don’t appear on them.

That kind of activity is associated with publishers, not platforms, but the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube still don’t produce their own content. That, along with the practical impossibility of editing every single piece of content before it’s published, means social media companies can’t be classified as publishers for the purposes of regulation.

So it seems clear that a new category needs to be created for services that facilitate publication but don’t produce their own content. Regulators would then need to create a unique set of rules and obligations for that category to abide by, such as parameters of acceptable speech, as well as a proper structure to protect the interests of those who publish on those platforms.

It’s very hard to see where the best place to draw those lines is. This publication would prefer minimal censorship combined with robust public challenges to contentious content, but we’re apparently in a minority. Mainstream sentiment seems to err towards a more censorious approach to ‘preventing harm’ and it will be the job of regulators like Ofcom to define that. Facebook has quite sensibly used some of its abundant funds to get a greater insight into what form that definition may take.

Ofcom fails to clear up the myths around 5G and the coronavirus

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has published an announcement that claims to rebut the conspiracy theories regarding 5G and coronavirus, but barely mentions them.

The piece, entitled ‘Clearing up the myths around 5G and the coronavirus’, starts promisingly. “There is a conspiracy theory that claims 5G is connected to the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19),” it commences. “This is wrong. There is no scientific basis or credible evidence for these claims.” But then it goes on to note that burning down phone masts can reduce connectivity and then address the persistent ‘does 5G give you cancer?’ question.

Now, those two topics are definitely important, but they don’t in any way address the mistaken belief that 5G is in some way contributing to the spread of coronavirus. The very simple fact is that physical particles cannot be transmitted over electromagnetic waves. That piece of fundamental education should be front and centre of any fact checking campaign, and yet Ofcom chose not to mention that at all.

If, for whatever reason, Ofcom was disinclined to consult scientific experts in the preparation of its announcement, it could at least have linked to other sources that put a bit more effort into debunking the silliness. An obvious choice would have been Full Fact, which calls itself the UK’s independent fact checking charity, and seems as impartial as any.

At the end of March Full Fact addressed a story published by the Daily Star, originally headlined ‘Fears 5G wifi networks could be acting as ‘accelerator’ for disease’. While it doesn’t even attempt to address the sloppy conflation of cellular and wifi networks, it does have a fairly comprehensive look at a couple of specific allegations.

The first is that radio waves may in some way inhibit the immune system, thus increasing the chance of infection. This is easily addressed by the broader topic concerning the effects of electromagnetic radiation on the human body. Here, it must be said, the Ofcom piece does add some value, but reproducing the good old electromagnetic spectrum diagram, stressing that only ionizing radiation penetrates cells and that’s at the other end of the spectrum from radio waves.

The other physiological matter Ofcom addresses is the fact that longer wavelength radiation does transfer heat – hence microwave ovens and infrared bulbs. Nobody wants their brain cooked while they’re on a call, so this matter has been researched extensively, resulting in the recent release of guidelines to ensure that doesn’t happen. The most useful part of the Ofcom announcement reveals its recent studies have found UK 5G base stations operate at a tiny fraction of the maximum levels stipulated by the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection.

The second claim addressed by the Full Fact rebuttal is just downright amusing, that viruses talk to each other when making decisions about infecting a host. This paints a picture of viruses perched, en masse, on a phone tower, surveying the unwitting local population and then having a vote about which poor sod to infect today.

The only evidence presented for this entertaining theory is a single study from eight years ago that reckoned E Coli bacteria might emit electromagnetic radiation. It concluded “There is considerable work required to extract the bioinformation contained in these electromagnetic signals,” but none of the researchers seem to have considered that work worth doing in the subsequent years. Bacteria, or course, are not viruses.

Another good effort at exposing some of the crazy talk flying around the internet, in spite of feeble attempts at censorship, was recently published by Science Alert. It, too, addresses the nature of electromagnetic radiation and how it can’t transmit physical particles. Also mentioned is the likelihood that fear and general distrust of government are key factors in persuading people to cling to crackpot theories such as these.

That phenomenon was recently explored in a piece entitled ‘Conspiracies in the time of Coronavirus,’ which revealed that even supposedly ‘trusted’ sources can be seduced by the dark side at times like this. “Human beings, confronted with an infodemic as much as a pandemic, try to sort information of extremely varied quality into categories to ‘make sense’ of their situation, concludes the piece. “Conspiracy theories have a pleasant neatness that makes this process easier.”

As we will never tire of stressing, misleading speech needs to be countered by rational, evidence-based argument. Ofcom was right to move to address this lunacy but did so in a slipshod and incomplete way. In that sense Ofcom is representative of broader society and illustrates that the considerable resources currently being pumped into censorship would be achieve far more positive outcomes if spent on public education instead.

Ofcom to investigate 5G conspiracy comments as telco abuse continues

Telecoms infrastructure and staff are becoming the victims of the 5G conspiracy theories as Ofcom launches a full investigation into the short-sighted comments of TV Presenter Eamonn Holmes.

A swarm of celebrities have been fanning the flames of controversy by effectively endorsing conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus outbreak to the deployment of 5G telecoms equipment, and the latest is Eamonn Holmes, Presenter of ITV’s This Morning, a show which regularly attracts more than one million daily viewers.

Holmes has already addressed the statements which were made last week (which were very Trumpesque) but few will pay attention to the retraction. In fairness, Holmes did state he agreed the conspiracy theory was incorrect, but in questioning the validity of mainstream media, conspiracy theorists were given the ammunition needed.

For example, former-BBC Presenter and current-conspiracy theorist David Icke has tweeted support to the short-sighted reference made by Holmes without referencing the fact Holmes stated the conspiracy theory was not true. For those who thrive off half-truths and pseudoscience, Holmes has provided a soundbite to be used as support for inaccurate and false beliefs.

In the pursuit of balance, Holmes has affirmed his position. He does not believe there is any link between 5G and the coronavirus outbreak. It appears Holmes was attempting to present himself as a philosophical thinker, but it was a very amateurish attempt for someone who has such vast experience in front of camera.

As a result of the comments, Ofcom has launched an investigation, “assessing this programme in full as a priority”. 419 complaints were received about Holmes and his ill-advised comments.

Most of the time such baseless and idiotic theories are relegated to the comment boards on Reddit or obscure websites, but for some reason there are individuals who believe the nonsense. It does appear a lack of education into what 5G is and the complicated nature of spectrum is to blame, though the consequences are quite severe.

Over the weekend, BT CEO Philip Jansen complained about physical and verbal abuse which has been directed towards 39 field engineers, and Vodafone has also confirmed its staff have been the victim of abuse. Telecoms Association Mobile UK said there were an additional 20 arson attacks spread over the bank holiday weekend on mobile infrastructure, and it seems the trend is also spreading to Europe as Dutch infrastructure also came under attack.

The consequences are simple. Firstly, the field engineers are not necessarily and very unlikely to be working on 5G infrastructure. These individuals, who have been deemed essential workers, are most likely improving the resilience and reliability of existing networks to ensure the general public can communicate with friends and family during this time of self-isolation, or work from home to keep the economy ticking over.

The second very damaging consequence is to the emergency services. These organisations, which are critical today, make use of the telecoms infrastructure which is being targeted. Amazingly, the arsonists are not always attacking 5G masts (the intended target), sometimes just going for the easiest target which might well house 2G, 3G or 4G equipment, as confirmed by Vodafone.

“Telecoms networks are the backbone that is keeping our vital health, education and emergency services online, and all of us connected to friends and family,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “We must keep them safe and secure. It is the responsibility of internet giants, content providers, and social media platforms to continue to ensure disinformation doesn’t jeopardise our connectivity in this emergency situation.”

Although it is frustrating, this is perhaps something we will have to get used to in the short-term. It seems education on 5G is the only thing which will reassure the general public that mobile connectivity is safe, and of course preventing idiots like Eamonn Holmes adding fuel to the fire. The overwhelming majority of scientists have confirmed these conspiracy theories are false, but education takes time.

Ofcom chills out on rule enforcement for now

In an update on what the UK telecoms industry is collectively doing to help out coz of coronavirus, Ofcom said it would relax some of its rules for a bit.

The UK comms regulator said it acknowledges the extra effort telcos are putting in to keep the country connected during this unprecedented crisis. On top of that it realises that they, like every other organisation, are facing staff shortages. To encourage them to keep up the good work in spite of everything Ofcom has written to them to say it’s got their back.

“For example, we appreciate activities like end of contract notifications, which providers are required to send when customers are approaching the end of their minimum contract term, might be driving additional traffic to call centres at a time when organisations need to prioritise calls from vulnerable people and those that are having difficulties staying connected,” said the Ofcom announcement.

“So, while we are encouraging providers to send these notifications as normal, we will take a pragmatic approach to compliance with rules like this, recognising the significant challenges providers face at this time and the steps they need to take to respond to the impact of the coronavirus.

“Therefore, for the period that these unique circumstances apply, providers will not need to pay automatic compensation where they are unable to meet the requirements for repairs, installations and home visits in the scheme. This is in line with an exception in the scheme that applies to ‘civil emergencies’.”

Meanwhile, Vodafone is extending its unlimited data offer to all of its customers that work for the NHS, with them getting a text today informing them of the upgrade starting next Monday. So far the UK’s communications networks seem to be dealing with the change well and it’s good to see extra efforts being made to help the NHS worked that are at the front line of the fight.

As YouTube defaults to SD worldwide, Ofcom offers connectivity top tips

With everyone stuck at home for the foreseeable future coz of coronavirus, telecoms capacity has become front page news.

Google-owned YouTube, the dominant social video platform for most of the world, has announced that it has set the default resolution for all video playback worldwide to standard definition. “Last week, we temporarily defaulted all videos on YouTube to standard definition in the European Union, United Kingdom, and Switzerland,” said the support update. “Given the global nature of this crisis, we are expanding that change globally starting today. This update is slowly rolling out, and users can manually adjust the video quality.”

The European move was matched by Netflix but they weren’t joking about the slow rollout. SD presumably means 480p and below, but our videos are still defaulting to 1080p in many cases. Since the UK has supposedly been restricted for a week, you have to wonder how long this fairly small concession will take to implement.

In the mean time Ofcom has published some top tips for ‘helping broadband and mobile users stay connected’. You can read them in full here, but in case you lack the bandwidth to do so here’s a summary:

  1. Use your landline or wifi calls if you can
  2. Move your router clear of other devices
  3. Lower the demands on your connection
  4. Try wired rather than wireless
  5. Plug your router directly into your main phone socket
  6. Test the speed on your broadband line
  7. Get advice from your broadband provider

“Right now we need people to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden. “Reliable internet speeds will be crucial so we can work from home where possible, stay connected with our families and keep up to date with the latest health information. I urge everyone to read Ofcom’s helpful tips and advice to ensure they get the most out of their broadband and mobile internet connections during these unprecedented times.”

“Families across the country are going online together this week, often juggling work and keeping children busy at the same time,” said Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive. “So we’re encouraging people to read our advice on getting the most from their broadband, home phones and mobiles – and to share it with friends, families and colleagues, to help them stay connected too.”

Ofcom announces 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz auction rules

A new batch of mobile spectrum that will increase the total by 18% will be made available for auction as some unspecified date.

Specifically we’re talking 80 MHz of the precious, low-frequency 700 MHz band and 120 MHz of spectrum in the less useful 3.6-3.8 GHz band. The 700 MHz stuff is especially handy for improving coverage thanks to its long range, which the higher frequency spectrum is being used for 5G capacity as there’s plenty of it.

The mechanics are similar to the 2018 auction in so much as they involve a principal stage in which lots of spectrum are bid for, followed by an assignment stage that determines the specific frequencies. The latter stage is important for combining old and new spectrum holdings into contiguous chunks, which are more useful to operators.

“Demand for getting online, on the move is soaring, with mobile customers using nearly 40% more data year on year,” said Philip Marnick, Spectrum Group Director at Ofcom. “So releasing these airwaves will bring a much-needed capacity boost – helping mobile customers get a better service. We’re also releasing more airwaves to help cement the UK’s place as a world leader in 5G.”

Here are the details, as explained by Ofcom:

  1. The spectrum would be made available for bids in the following lots:
    – Six lots of 2×5 MHz (60 MHz in total) in the 700 MHz band with a reserve price of £100m per lot.
    – Four lots of 5 MHz (20 MHz in total) of 700 MHz downlink-only spectrum, with a reserve price of £1m per lot.
    – 24 lots of 5 MHz (120 MHz in total) of 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum, with a reserve price of £20m per lot.
    – As we are not planning to include coverage obligations anymore, the two spectrum lots that carried a proposed maximum discount each of between £300-400m will no longer apply.
    2. We are using an auction format known as ‘simultaneous multiple round ascending’ (SMRA).
    3. The 37% cap on overall spectrum holdings has the effect of restricting existing mobile companies to acquiring the following amounts:
    – BT/EE – 120 MHz BT/EE;
    – H3G – 185 MHz;
    – Vodafone – 190 MHz;
    – Due to its current spectrum holdings, O2 will not be restricted by the cap.
    4. The 700 MHz band has previously been used for digital terrestrial TV and wireless microphones. The 3.6-3.8 GHz band is used for fixed links and satellite services.
    5. In December 2018 we proposed including coverage obligations in our auction rules. These would have required up to two mobile companies to increase coverage in rural areas, in exchange for winning discounted spectrum through the auction. The mobile network operators developed the Shared Rural Network plan in response to Ofcom’s proposals, and it is therefore no longer appropriate to include coverage obligations in the auction.

Ofcom appoints safe pair of hands as new boss and gets new internet censorship role

Establishment figure Dame Melanie Dawes has been announced as the new Chief Exec of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom.

She replaces Sharon White, who was also a senior civil servant before being handed the Ofcom gig. Dawes (pictured) is currently Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a position she has held since 2015. Prior to that she was Director General of the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat at the Cabinet Office.

“I am delighted that the Secretary of State has approved Ofcom’s appointment of Dame Melanie Dawes as the next Chief Executive of Ofcom,” said Lord Burns, Ofcom’s Chairman. “The Government’s statement that it is minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for online harms is a vote of confidence in Ofcom’s expertise. I know Melanie will do a fantastic job of leading the organisation and maintaining its strengths.

“I look forward to working with her over the months ahead as we prepare for this forthcoming legislation as well as the ongoing tasks of achieving better broadband and mobile coverage and supporting UK broadcasting.”

“I congratulate Dame Melanie Dawes on her appointment as chief executive of Ofcom,” said DCMS Secretary of State Nicky Morgan. “Melanie’s experience leading organisations through change will be vital as the Government today announces it is minded to appoint the organisation as regulator for new online harms laws.”

What’s all this ‘online harms’ stuff they’re all banging on about, I hear you ask. Well the UK government has been having a public consultation on how to protect people from bad stuff on the internet. As a result it has concluded there needs to be some kind of state intervention to make sure those who publish bad stuff are censored, punished and prevented from ever doing so again.

“We will give the regulator the powers it needs to lead the fight for an internet that remains vibrant and open but with the protections, accountability and transparency people deserve,” said Morgan. There’s just so much to unpack in that. Of course things like child abuse, promoting terrorism, etc should be kept off the internet and proponents of them punished, but that stuff is already illegal, so why do we need extra powers to fight it? Proposing the censorship of ‘harmful’ but otherwise legal content creates so many new problems it’s hard to know where to start.

“There are a number of important questions that remain unanswered – especially in a post-Brexit environment – such as how Ofcom will use its new powers, how a regulator would deal with companies not based in the UK and ISP blocking – including how the UK reacts to technical developments such as DNS-over-HTTPS. ISPA will be working with its members on these and other points as we enter the next phase of consultation,” said Andrew Glover, the Chair of ISPA.

It had previously been rumoured that the new UK government would push for a more radical appointment, but maybe this additional internet censorship remit caused it to err on the side of caution. Dawes would have had her hands full without the impossible job of policing the internet, now she’s really got her work cut out.