Archive for May, 2008

Broadband deregulation from Ofcom

In a notice issued this week, Ofcom reached the final conclusion of their broadband market review process. They have found that in 70% of the UK, there is no longer a situation comprising Significant Market Presence for any provider in the wholesale broadband access and backhaul market, leading to the immediate deregulation of those services in the areas concerned.

For many of us in the broadband industry, this signifies that we’re nearing the end of a long and difficult journey. For the past 4 years, representatives from the larger LLU operators have participated in a scheme run by the Office of the Telecoms Adjudicator (OTA) whose brief was to oversee the implementation of robust systems and processes with BT (mostly Openreach) and its LLU customers in order to stimulate and support the LLU marketplace, providing a genuine choice of operator (excluding the ‘last mile’) for wholesalers and consumers in the UK.

This scheme has presided over the complete replacement of Openreach’s order management and orchestration systems for LLU and Wholesale Line Rental (WLR), and supporting the establishment of BT Wholesale’s position as an equivalent to its competitor LLU operators, removing any commercial or technical advantage it had as a subsidiary of BT. New fault management and MIS systems have also been introduced, allowing Openreach to handle the new connection, migration and in-life support for an install base of around 4.5M unbundled lines (April ’08), which is growing steadily at a rate of around 200k/month.

The landscape is unrecognisable from the one we saw in the early days of the OTA scheme. BT had creaky systems, order management processes which invariably involved manual intervention at several stages, their provision of backhaul circuits (which connect an operator’s equipment in the BT exchange back to the operator’s own network) was backlogged, and the rate at which BT could build out racking and power with the exchanges for the other operators to use was way below market demand.

The original OTA, under Peter Black, Clive Fedida and Jim Reilly, presided over months of painful meetings between the operators and BT. Weekly performance reports showed KPIs which were never met, project deadlines missed, operators impatient that their business plans around LLU were being held up by slow performance by BT. The popular view was that this we deliberate gerrymandering by BT – I’m not sure this was actually the case; BT had many hard-working dedicated people working on LLU, but they were frustraated in their efforts to deliver by the inevitable inertia to change within BT’s mammoth operation.

But gradually, things began to improve. A new well-engineered platform was built to handle the order volumes predicted by industry (‘Equivalence Management Platform’ – EMP). The design of the interfaces and processes within EMP was shared with industry over the course of about a year of weekly workshops – quite a departure for BT, who have never in the past involed a customer in their IT development process. A project board, chaired by OTA, oversaw EMP’s development and launch. It wasn’t without its problems at first, but those have been ironed out over time leaving a platform and service wrap that meets industry expectations.

Openreach has also improved its delivery of backhaul circuits and exchange build-outs to within industry KPI targets.

As a result of these improvements, LLU has enabled competition in the marketplace to such an extent that in 70% of the UK, Ofcom finds that no operator has Significant Market Presence – indicating that the playing field is sufficiently level in those areas that no economic or other regulation is required to ensure that the consumer is protected.

The industry as a whole should pat itself firmly on the back. We’ve changed the world in 4 years.

May 30, 2008 at 9:29 am Leave a comment

Possibly the most stupid Government proposal ever

The UK government has made a few gaffes in its time in the area of electronic privacy, but this takes the biscuit. The Times online and BBC News report a proposal by Home Office officials to create a database of all phone calls and emails sent in the UK, to be used for “protecting national security and preventing crime”.

I’ve lost count of the number of reasons this is a ridiculous idea, Here’s a few:

– Its pretty near impossible to make happen, given the diverse nature of the billing/rating and mediation systems in use by telcos, and the non-existant systems in use by ISPs to record email traffic.

– It’s a privacy nightmare. No matter what rules are put in place at the outset to control access to the information gathered, there can be no guarantee that these rules won’t be changed in the future.

– Consider the government’s track record recently with respect to protection of personal data.

The Times quotes a Home Office spokesman thus:

The Bill was needed to reflect changes in communication that would “increasingly undermine our current capabilities to obtain communications data and use it to protect the public”.

Now, the authorities already have powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to procure various records from telcos and ISPs – designated statutory agencies can require an ISP to install Government-specified monitoring equipment, for example, and give up information about the traffic generated by a specific user on demand. While this is clearly still intrusive, it does require legal process to insitigate monitoring and is done on an as-needed basis. What’s different about the new proposals is that the Government would receive data on all traffic without establishing a specific need – and can then use the information gathered at its leisure for any purpose.

The privacy implications make this a classic Governement sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s in the same vein as the recent fuss about extending the police’s right to detain suspected terrorists for longer and longer periods, even when it can be demonstrated that the police have never used the powers they already have to their fullest extent. It’s a disproportionate solution, and should be stomped on if it ever sees light of day in a Bill before Parliament.

Update: Imran has some more insight in his blog on the same subject.

May 20, 2008 at 1:28 pm Leave a comment

Phorm by any other name

It seems that Phorm, who have created a huge rumpus in the UK and Europe with their system for tracking a user’s browsing habits and allowing partner websites to serve up relevant ads, are not the only people in the game.

A recap… Phorm’s WebWise product relies on installing a device in an ISP’s network that ‘sniffs’ individual user’s browsing activity (albeit anonymously), and then when the user visits one of Phorm’s partner publisher sites, uses the accumulated history to select an appropriate ad to show. For example, if the user had been looking at motoring websites recently, they might see an ad for cars when another user who looks at sports sites might see an ad for sports coverage on pay TV.

The benefits claimed for various parties are thus:

  • This ad will be more relevant to the user than a default ad would be, thus enhancing the user’s experience and annoying them less – peoples’ tolerance for relevant ads is higher than their tolerance for irrelevant ones
  • An anti-phishing filter is built-in (not sure how this integrates with the rest of the service)
  • A more relevant ad should provide a better click-through and conversion rate for the advertiser, increasing their ROI
  • As a result the publishers of the website on which the ad was shown should get a better return on their ad inventory.
  • The ISP, normally not party to the advertising model, can start to share in ad revenue
  • Phorm invented it and make money at all stages.

This all seems like a win-win until the P-word is mentioned… Privacy, of course. The whole thing only works when a user’s ISP collects data about them and allowing other parties to access this data. Depending on your sensitivity to online privacy issues, this is somewhere on the scale from innocuous to the work of the devil. Phorm’s initial ISP customers in the UK (BT Retail, CPW and Virgin Media) have indicated that they’ll provide the ability for a user to opt-out of using Phorm, but since many won’t even notice it’s there, privacy campaigners have suggested that the whole thing should be opt-in instead… this would mean a significantly lower penetration for all parties and perhaps make the whole thing unviable. The ISPs will be very sensitive to anything that might cause their users to consider churning to a rival service.

Phorm’s response to the privacy issue is robust; they’re confident they don’t breach any privacy legislation and are pushing ahead.

So, back to the plot… Phorm are not the only players in this area, and not the only ones causing controversy, either. In a Wired article, Ryan Singel writes about a plan by Charter Communications, one of the largest US broadband providers, to roll out technology from NebuAd. This appears to be similar to Phorm’s product. Charter’s plans have already come to the attention of 2 high-profile Congressmen as reported elswhere on Wired, who are not going to  be fobbed off with anything less that cast-iron guarantees of user privacy and compliance with relevant US legislation. The Congressmens’ question centres around the nature of a user’s consent to the service – just like Phorm, the Charter/NebuAd scheme offers an opt-out to each individual user, although there appears to be confusion about the technical nature of this – NebuAd’s opt-out page tells the user that they have to accept an ‘opt-out cookie’ – and by the nature of cookies, some part of the user’s traffic has to have hit a NebuAd server before they can act on it. So what is the user opting out of? Certainly the display of targetted ads, but the privacy issue is around the collection and sharing of data, and the jury’s out on that part.

Users have been shown targetted ads for years – a large site selects ads based on its own knowledge of the user’s behaviour on that site. A site which is a member of one of the large ad networks allows the network to track users with cookies to help target ads. Google shows ads related to the search terms you typed, and AdWords ads based on the content of the page you’re looking at. Gmail shows you ads based on the content of your email inbox. None of this is new. But what’s different here is the collection of data within the ISP network, without the explicit consent of the user, and sharing with unknown parties. It’s probably the way of the future – it’s not going to get un-invented, but it’s not going to be deployed without a fight.

May 18, 2008 at 9:54 am 3 comments

End of the line for Google Mini-appliance?

Techcrunch is reporting a rumour that Google is ramping down on production and sales of its mini search appliance, in favour of a new SME-targetted virtual service delivered from the cloud.

If true, this makes all kind of sense. The GSAs have always been an odd fit with Google’s strategy, involving a very labour-intesnsive sales and implementation process. One can see that the high-end product is necessary in large enterprises to preserve data privacy, but smaller orgs tend to be less sensitive to these issues and can easily be served by a cloud-based service. Hence the transfer of focus away from the tin is logical all round – the customer doesn’t need to maintain it, Google doesn’t need to have it manufactured; the service can be switched on pretty-much instantaneously. A much lower barrier to entry.

Lets’ see if it’s true.

May 16, 2008 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

VoIP credentials for sale?

The BBC and others are reporting the ‘news’ that VoIP (I expect they mean SIP) credentials are often passed in the clear (encoded but not encrypted), leading to potential sniffing and replay attacks in (for example) non-encrypted wifi networks.

What this actually seems to be, though, is the re-hashing of a ‘sponsored’ article in Commsbusiness (no permalink available), which seems to be not much more than scaremongering by Newport Networks, who coincidentally sell a range of secure Session Border Controller devices for VoIP.

Now, the BBC article does quote Skype and a researcher from Jupiter playing down the issue – I guess there’s no smoke without fire, but is this a solution looking for a problem?

Update: Newport Networks have posted some more background to this article in their blog.  Thanks to Dave Gladwin of Newport for pointing me to this.

May 14, 2008 at 5:56 pm 1 comment

Planet Rock – the height of irony

Despite all the argy-bargy about GCap closing down and/or selling off its DAB-and-online-only specialist music brand Planet Rock, the station managed to bag the Gold award for Best Digital Station in the Sony Radio Academy Awards.

Huge kudos to the station’s staff for keeping the thing together in troubled times.

May 13, 2008 at 1:52 pm Leave a comment

Can they do that?

Brian Butterworth alerted the BBC Backstage mailing list to this post on the informitv blog. It seems that P2P IPTV operation Zatto now carries the UK terrestrial channels (BBC ONE, BBC TWO, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five) as well as various other UK digital channels. The article has quotes from all of the broadcasters saying they have no agreement to do so, and a Zatto high-up indicates that they’re relying on the protection of the PSB regulations.

Personally, I wouldn’t see this lasting…

May 13, 2008 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

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