UK MNOs suck compared to MVNOs – Which

Consumer publication Which asked its members to rate UK mobile operators and found the small ones tend to do better across the board.

Vodafone sucked the most, according to Which, managing only a one-star rating for each of customer service, value for money and technical support. 19% of Vodafone customers surveyed said it was poor value for money, while 18% said its customer service was poor and 13% thought the same about its technical support.

There are various other unflattering datapoints attributed to EE and O2 too, but you get the general point. It turns out that market leaders can be a bit complacent, which challenger brands try harder. Who knew? Thee UK, accordingly, scored better than the other three MNOs, but MNVOs such as Giffgaff scored more highly than the lot of them.

“The continuing reign of smaller networks over the big players goes to show exactly how important customer support and value for money are to mobile users,” said Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which. “If you think you are paying too much or are not getting the level of service you expect from your provider you should shop around for a better deal – you might find you save yourself some money and probably a lot of grief too.”

Great advice Natalie, thanks. Some other people said things that amounted to much the same. In response Vodafone sounded contrite but EE defiant. Which also had a look at average contract prices and found that the bigger operators have the nerve to charge more for their substandard service.

UK advertising watchdog ties itself in knots over broadband marketing

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that Vodafone’s ‘Gigafast’ service was misleading because some people might reckon that means 1 Gbps.

In reality the brand referred to a range of broadband packages, the fastest of which could still only manage an average of 900 Mbps. Virgin Media thought this was a bit cheeky and so grassed Vodafone up to the ASA, which today upheld the complaint on the grounds that, while some people wouldn’t read much into it, some punters might reckon they would be getting at least 1 Gbps when they weren’t.

“The ASA considered that many consumers would likely understand the prefix ‘Giga’ to be a hyperbolic description of speed, and would therefore generally understand ‘Gigafast’ internet was very fast broadband,” satated the ruling. “However, we considered that a significant proportion of consumers would have sufficient knowledge of broadband terminology to understand Gigafast Broadband as a reference to a service capable of providing speeds of 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps).”

Contrast this with the ASA’s previous ruling on the use of the term ‘fibre’ in broadband marketing. Its conclusion in that case was that hardly anyone would think fibre meant 100% fibre, so it’s fine to just chuck the term around even if loads of the connection was actually over copper. How come people understand giga to mean 1000 Mbps but don’t think fibre means fibre?

To be fair to the ASA there was an additional complicating factor in this case, which is that Vodafone apparently kept banging on about the £23 price point in its Gigafast marketing, when that price only gets you an average speed of 100 Mbps, with the 900 Mbps one costing £48 per month. That seems to be the thing that the ASA most objected to, implying it’s fine with a 900 Mbps average service being called gigafast despite having previously ruled that ‘up to’ claims weren’t allowed.

“Although we considered that the website made clear that Vodafone Gigafast referred to a range of packages which were not all capable of providing 1Gbps, because it implied that consumers could get a service that offered speeds of 1Gbps for £23 per month, when that was not the case, we concluded that it was likely to mislead,” concluded the ruling.

The ASA seems to be increasingly confused about broadband marketing. It seems fine with labelling a package of services, the fastest of which only averages 900 Mbps, as Gigafast and with calling a partly copper connection fibre. At the same time it objects to the use of ‘up to’ in describing broadband speeds and is touchy about ambiguous pricing claims. It needs to either be laissez faire or authoritarian, but right now it seems to jump between those positions on a case by case basis.

UK wants to force internet companies to think of the children

A UK regulator has drafted 16 things internet companies need to do to help protect children online or else.

To be precise it has launched a consultation of a document called ‘Age appropriate design: a code of practice for online services’, but there is little precedent for these consultations resulting in anything other than plan A being fully implemented. It lays down a bunch of rules that anyone providing online services that could be accessed by children – i.e. nearly all of them – need to do.

“This is the connected generation,” explained Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “The internet and all its wonders are hardwired into their everyday lives. We shouldn’t have to prevent our children from being able to use it, but we must demand that they are protected when they do. This code does that.

“The ICO’s Code of Practice is a significant step, but it’s just part of the solution to online harms. We see our work as complementary to the current focus on online harms and look forward to participating in discussions regarding the Government’s white paper.”

There are many conceits and Orwellian aspirations implied in those two short statements, not least the inference that the government could prevent children from being able to access the internet if it wanted to. But then nobody’s in favour of harm are they, so surely this is all for the best. Here’s a summary of the 16 commandments.

  1. Best interests of the child

Protect them from any conceivable harm but you’re still allowed to make money so long as you do that.

  1. Age-appropriate application

If you can stop kids accessing your stuff then don’t worry about all these rules.

  1. Transparency

Provide clear privacy information, including ‘bite sized’ explanations at the point at which use of personal data is activated that kids can understand.

  1. Detrimental use of data

Don’t use kids’ data in a way that might be detrimental to them.

  1. Policies and community standards

Implement your own policies.

  1. Default settings

Privacy settings must be ‘high’ by default be difficult to change. Reset existing user settings accordingly.

  1. Data minimisation

Only collect the minimum amount of data you need to provide your service.

  1. Data sharing

Don’t share kids’ personal data unless you’ve got a really good reason to do so.

  1. Geolocation

Switch it off by default unless you’ve got a really good reason not to and even than make it clear that it’s on.

  1. Parental controls

Let kids know when their parents are keeping an eye on them.

  1. Profiling

Turn it off by default unless you’ve got a really good reason not to and even then think of the children.

  1. Nudge techniques

Don’t try to persuade kids to lower their privacy protections and don’t use things like reward loops to keep kids engaged. This could even include ‘likes’.

  1. Connected toys and devices

All this applies to them too.

  1. Online tools

Give kids tools to protect themselves online and make them prominent.

  1. Data protection impact assessments

A bureaucratic process to demonstrate you’ve complied with these rules.

  1. Governance and accountability

More bureaucracy to show you’ve done what you’re told.

“If you don’t comply with the code, you are likely to find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR and PECR,” warns the consultation document. “If you process a child’s personal data in breach of this code and the GDPR or PECR, we can take action against you.

“Tools at our disposal include assessment notices, warnings, reprimands, enforcement notices and penalty notices (administrative fines). For serious breaches of the data protection principles, we have the power to issue fines of up to €20 million or 4% of your annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.”

Some of the above points, such as 3, 5 and 14 seem perfectly sensible, but taken all together this initiative seems designed to massively increase the bureaucratic burden on nearly all internet companies. As ever the largest ones can just call on their compliance departments to mitigate the restrictions and keep the companies out of trouble. Small ones, however, may have to just impose age restrictions.

In that respect this seems like an extension of UK porn block law, which Wired does a good job of picking holes in below. At the very least this sort of thing is great news for VPN providers. The announcement coincides with  the European Copyright Directive clearing its final hurdle, so before long everyone will be able to access the internet secure in the knowledge that nothing bad will ever happen to them.

 

O2 goes up a gear in the 5G race

O2 has announced it will switch-on its 5G network at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire to fuel the testing of autonomous and connected vehicles.

As part of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) AutoAir project, O2 and consulting engineering firm Atkins join the project to accelerate the development of 5G-enabled intelligent transport systems. The test will be on of O2’s first forays into the 5G world, with the rest of the network set to be turned on across 2019.

“5G will play a key role in how our country develops over the next few years,” said Brendan O’Reilly, O2’s CTO. “If implemented properly, 5G has the potential to drive economic growth, create jobs and enable a new host of technologies – including self-driving vehicles. That’s why we’re delighted to be supporting the trial activity at Millbrook, alongside ambitious partners who share our vision of building a truly Mobile Britain.”

With the UK recently crowned on of the worlds leading authorities on autonomous and connected vehicles in a recent report, a lot depends on the success of these projects to prove the hype. Future of Mobility Minister Jesse Norman has already promised autonomous vehicles will be on UK roads by 2021, so let’s hope this project is a success; no-one wants to see a politician with egg on their face.

“The AutoAir consortium is pleased to welcome O2 and Atkins the 2nd phase of the project”, said Paul Senior, CEO of Dense Air and Chief Strategy Officer of Airspan Networks, one of the founding members of the project.

“O2’s integration and commercialisation of the 5G network at Millbrook to support both public and private mobile use cases is a world first and will be a reference deployment for the UK mobile industry as it moves to support for 5G applications for Industry 4.0, large enterprise and Government.”

Using 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz spectrum, the test will aim to accelerate the adoption of connected and self-driving technology in the UK. Part of the test is aimed at improving road safety and helping traffic authorities to monitor and manage traffic flow. It also follows other trials to demonstrate seamless and efficient handoffs between different radio sites.

Earlier this year, McLaren, another partner in the consortium, lend one of its sports cars to the test. Driving around the track at 160 mph, the vehicle was able to receive and send data at 1 Gbps, while also sharing real-time UltraHD 4K video between a network of moving vehicles.

“This project will transform the way we design, maintain and operate on our future networks,” said Lizi Stewart, Managing Director, Transportation at Atkins. “Developing the first 5G neutral network in the UK will allow us to continue our drive for innovation and industry-changing initiatives for the transportation sector.”

While connected vehicles are certainly a prospect on the horizon, autonomous vehicles might be a distant dream. The technology might be progressing, but there is much more to such a revolutionary change in society than simply making a robot work. For O2, this will be of minor concern as the telcos strides towards the 5G finish line.

BT shows off its shiny new Nokia silicon

UK telco BT is one of the first customers for Nokia’s catchily-named 7750 SR-14s IP routing platform, which features its special FP4 chip.

Nokia first announced all this shiny new core gear a couple of years ago, but it looks like the sales cycle for this sort of thing is fairly protracted. So this is an important deal win for Nokia, but perhaps even more so for BT as it’s a clear statement of intent when it comes to investing in its core network. Apparently traffic through the BT network is growing by 40% annually so it needs to show it can handle it.

“BT’s FTTP footprint is growing on a daily basis, and we are launching 5G this year in the busiest parts of 16 of the UK’s busiest cities,” said Howard Watson, BT Group CTIO. “These technologies create an amazing customer experience, and drive people to watch more, play more and share more. We have to stay ahead of the massive traffic growth that this will bring, and Nokia are a key part of that, giving us the capacity and automation that we need.”

“Nokia’s 7750 SR-s platform, based on our FP4 silicon, will offer BT’s network the enhanced capabilities and automation needed to address continuously mounting capacity demands as it moves toward 5G,” said Sri Reddy, Co-President of IP/Optical Networks at Nokia. “Our exclusive partnership will allow BT’s converged core network to grow, and move to a programmable, insight-driven network architecture, creating a platform for BT’s growth to continue as demand for its services in FTTP and 5G expands.”

As you can see there’s a fair bit of buzzword-dropping in the canned quotes. The significance of FTTP and 5G in this context essentially amounts to the fact that network traffic is likely to keep growing rapidly for quite a while. For Nokia this is a juicy deal win in a core network market that, admittedly, is largely denied to one of its biggest competitors.

France and Britain are embracing state control of the internet

France has appointed a new minister for digital, while the UK wants to set up a new regulator for the internet. Both governments want to play more active roles in controlling the online world.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, nominated his political advisor Cédric O to the position of Secretary of State for the Digital (Secrétaire d’État chargé du Numérique), a post vacated when the predecessor quit to prepare for next year’s municipal election. O has been instrumental in running the president’s agenda to engage the digital heavyweights, including arranging the meeting for Zuckerberg, and organising the French senior civil servants to observe in Facebook’s headquarters.

O opened his story to the journalists from AFP and L’Express by claiming that he was in “100% agreement” with Zuckerberg regarding the stronger role the states should play in regulating the internet. “There is the demand from citizens, ‘please guarantee that when I’m on the Internet, my right is respected’. But the right should not be defined by the platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, etc.), ” O said. The government will also update laws to give it the legal foundation to play such a role, including bringing the current regulations on audio-visual sectors to the digital age, O told the interviewers.

The French government has recently revived the traditional measures to play a more assertive role in the economy, and has extended the approach into the digital domains in particular. Recently it decided to go ahead with the 3% tax on the internet heavyweights, the nicknamed “GAFA tax”, without waiting for the EU to reach consensus on the common digital market.

On the other side of the Channel, the British government, already having a department overseeing digital as its portfolio, is mulling over the set-up of a new regulator, either being part of the existing government structure or a new government body altogether.

This is necessary to consider the current problems surrounding the internet giants. On one hand, these companies have not been regulated properly either as a platform or content publisher. On the other hand, these platforms have been used to facilitate crimes including terrorist attacks. However, there is also the danger that the government is overstepping the lines to become a moral arbiter. The first “problem” of internet identified in the “Online Harms White Paper”, jointly endorsed by the Digital Secretary and the Home Secretary, states that “illegal and unacceptable content and activity is widespread online”. While “illegal” can be properly defined, “unacceptable” is a subjective judgment and a judgment that should not made by the government.

To couple such subjective assessments with the government’s demand that ISPs and ICPs should have the obligation to block content or face heavy fines smells similar to the measures adopted by the censorship regimes of China, Russia, Iran, and a few other countries. A side effect of such assertive measures could be driving some internet users down the route to evading government monitoring, for example this could be a boost for the VPN business.

As we said when Zuckerberg asked the governments to share his burden and blame, having governments control internet content, be it French or Chinese, would be a double-edged sword, and one edge would run against the internet’s spirit of liberating access to information and freedom of expression, and against what Sir Tim Berners-Lee demanded that governments should “keep all of the internet available, all of the time; and respect people’s fundamental right to privacy.”

This almost rolls back the years to what the late Christopher Hitchens once called “an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind: between every kind of commissar and inquisitor and bureaucrat and those who know that, whatever the role of social and political forces, idea and books have to be formulated and written by individuals.” (“Siding with Rushdie”, 1989) It would be the biggest irony of internet’s brief history if, after beleaguering the Chinese government for its heavy-handed approach towards internet, the western governments are all going down the China route, albeit 20 years later.

Virgin Media rumoured to be considering Openreach competitor

Virgin Media is sitting firmly in the middle of the rumour mill, with reports suggesting the team is considering opening-up its network as a wholesale connectivity competitor to Openreach.

For the majority of ISPs in the UK, there is very little option aside from working with Openreach. This position lead to a prolonged battle between Openreach parent company BT and the UK Government in an effort to separate the wholesale business from the group, and while the dust has settled, most feel the outcome is rather unsatisfactory. However, according to The Telegraph, Virgin Media is considering creating competition in this segment.

Should the move turn out to be true, it would be welcomed by many of the ISPs around the country. That said, Virgin Media and its parent company Liberty Media are keeping coy on the situation.

“We have the best broadband network in the UK and everyone knows it,” a spokesperson said. “We’re not surprised by this speculation but have no comment.”

While it is a slightly playful comment which will bring a smile to some faces, the firm has stopped short of out-rightly denying the report. This might lead some to believe there is an element of truth to the reports, others will simply suggest this is PR 101.

Although Openreach is still in an incredibly dominant position when it comes to the wholesale business, pockets of competition are emerging. CityFibre is leading the charge here, using an injection of funds from Goldman Sachs to built on its fibre footprint across the UK. CityFibre now has fibre infrastructure projects across 51 towns and cities, providing active and dark fibre services, most notably to Vodafone which is building its presence as an ISP.

The idea of emerging competition does seem to be spurring the sluggish Openreach into action, as the team has announced one million homes now fall into its fibre footprint. Openreach, and BT as the guiding hand, has often been criticised for lack of foresight when it comes to connectivity. For years, the team pursued fortunes via G.Fast while the industry was demanding fibre, with this inaction perhaps creating the fuel for the emerging competition.

While CityFibre still has the tag of a plucky outside bet, Virgin Media would certainly provide more food for thought. With 14.4 million homes passed throughout the UK, roughly 50% of households, it is a genuine alternative for ISPs who have nationwide ambitions.

We suspect such conversations are taking place behind closed doors in the Virgin Media offices. The UK infrastructure wholesale market is certainly primed for a shake-up, and Virgin Media has the footprint to capitalise.

UK finally runs out of patience with internet players

The UK Government has unveiled a public consultation which may well see stricter rules placed on the digital giants as the era of the wild-west internet draws to a close.

To date the internet giants have largely been unregulated. This was fine when everyone admired the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon, though numerous scandals have exposed the darker side of the internet economy. Many might have seen the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos as friendly folk, out to democratize technology, though the underlying business model has shocked many, forcing slumbering politicians into action.

Today, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office have jointly launched a new public consultation on proposals which will aim to introduce a new regulatory body to govern the internet economy and create a ‘duty of care’ mandate to ensure online safety and tackle illegal and harmful activity, as well as creating a rulebook suitable for the digital economy. The new body will have the power to hand out fines should any of the internet players fall short of expectations.

“The era of self-regulation for online companies is over,” said Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright. “Voluntary actions from industry to tackle online harms have not been applied consistently or gone far enough. Tech can be an incredible force for good and we want the sector to be part of the solution in protecting their users. However, those that fail to do this will face tough action.”

The new regulator, and the soon to be created rules, will apply to any company that allows users to share or discover user generated content or interact with each other online. Those platforms who do not meet expectations will either have sites blocked or face significant fines. One of the questions which the consultation will look to answer is whether the new regulatory body should be part of an existing department, or a newly formed body which would be funded through a levy placed on the sales of the internet companies in the UK.

While this is a necessary step forward, this is going to be a very complicated process. Creating a mechanism which protects users but also maintains the principles of free speech is a delicate equation to balance. We suspect there will never be a situation where all parties are satisfied, such are the complications when dealing with opinions; who should be the judge on what is offensive and what is acceptable?

Ultimately, this is a move which is long overdue. Social media companies, such as Facebook, have slipped between the regulatory red tape for years, fitting nicely into the grey area between ‘platform’ and ‘publisher’. While these services might have started as a platform, they have certainly evolved beyond that, however, it would not be just to designate them as publishers; they are not content creators as such. A new definition is needed and only then can rules fit for the digital era be created.

Change is on the horizon, and it is unavoidable for the internet economy. That said, the lobby machine will soon be taken up a gear to attempt to minimize the impact of any new rules. Numerous European nations are swiftly moving forward to create more accountability, and the internet players will have to change their game-plan from offensive to damage limitation.

That said, the internet players have been given enough chances to clear up their act over the last few years. These are companies which have operated without the severity of the red-tape restraints of other segments, partly because governments have not understood how these businesses operate, but this era of self-regulation is drawing to a close.

“Despite our repeated calls to action, harmful and illegal content – including child abuse and terrorism – is still too readily available online,” said Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

“That is why we are forcing these firms to clean up their act once and for all.”

Huawei’s software comes under renewed scrutiny

A leading UK cyber security expert has slammed Huawei’s software engineering as “very, very shoddy”.

The comments comes from the Technical Director of the National Cyber Security Centre Dr Ian Levy in an interview with the BBC. It was part of a documentary that will be broadcast this evening called Can We Trust Huawei? In it Levy says “The security in Huawei is like nothing else – it’s engineering like it’s back in the year 2000 – it’s very, very shoddy. We’ve seen nothing to give us any confidence that the transformation programme is going to do what they say it’s going to do.”

While it might seem like a bit of a bombshell, Levy is mainly reiterating the sentiments of the recent annual audit published by the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre. We asked the NCSC if it had further comment on the matter and it pointed us towards the following official statement it made following the publication of the audit.

“Huawei’s presence in the UK is subject to detailed, formal oversight. This provides us with a unique understanding of the company’s software engineering and cyber security processes. We can and have been managing the security risk and have set out the improvements we expect the company to make.

“We will not compromise on the progress we need to see: sustained evidence of better software engineering and cyber security, verified by HCSEC. This report illustrates above all the need for improved cyber security in the UK telco networks which is being addressed more widely by the Digital Secretary’s review.”

The HCSEC is chaired by the CEO of the NCSC so it’s not surprising to see a fair bit of unanimity in their public statements. Huawei is fairly contrite about its software and knows it’s something that needs sorting out. But since the HCSEC has been flagging it up for a while you have to wonder why Huawei hasn’t done a better job of it so far.

This contrition is somewhat undermined by increasingly petulant public comments from senior Huawei execs, presumably encouraged by the Chinese state. Carrier BG boss Ryan Ding is quoted in the BBC piece questioning the validity of US security concerns when it barely uses Huawei gear, which seems to miss the point somewhat, before disingenuously concluding he’s got better things to than talk about this stuff anyway.

Huawei dies seem to have an ally in the form of ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao, however, who apparently told reporters he’s not happy with the absence of evidence that Huawei poses a security threat. “I would encourage Huawei to be given equal opportunities to bid for business, and during the operational process, if you find anything wrong, then you can charge them and accuse them,” he said. “But if we don’t have anything then to put them on the blacklist – I think this is not fair.”

So while there probably isn’t anything especially new in this BBC investigation, the fact that it has been given such prominence by the UK’s national broadcaster means Huawei is likely to come under even more pressure to get its software house in order. Since we’re talking about bespoke code, some of which has been kicking about for decades, that represents a substantial undertaking.