Interesting technology

The Mobile Network – a more competitive and fair approach

I am on the whole a great fan if Vodafone. Their service and reception us second to none, especially here in the North Wessex Downs where mobile services from any other provider are either non existent or so patchy that it's too unreliable to use. The news that Vodafone have successfully trialed femtocells in Garston to boost signal to not spots is a great idea. The thought of our local MP, Richard Benyon, begging on his knees to a Vodafone exec to get the service up an running, makes it seem even more interesting.

But Vodafone are always going to get bad press whilst they forget two key things:

-Customers want data these days.

-Citizen's of our country want corporates to do the right thing – like paying their fair share of tax.

The second part of this is obvious – all corporate should be compelled to do the right thing. Not only for the company and it's employees, but for the country and our society overall. Corporates must understand that they have a responsibility that expends beyond their balance sheet – it's a social responsibility that should be mandatory for all companies in the UK. But it's the data aspect that I want to discuss today in this blog.

As with most other mobile providers, the Vodafone data network in the UK leaves a great deal to be desired. Often slow and unreliable, especially when travelling, our mobile networks are often pot luck and not a sure thing. I may be especially sensitive to these things as I travel on trains & buses quite often and see either the dreaded GRPS only marker (so slow, even basic web pages refuse to load) or a full five bars of signal but no internet at all.

This is not just a Vodafone thing, but is indicative of what is missing – aiming for only populated areas limits the availability of the service and often brings data not spots to large sections of the country. This is often more apparent for people on the train – who you can see frustratingly saying they may loose connection (and often do) or who are desperately struggling to send email's, read web pages or do anything else on the data networks.

These often train journeys are a perfect bit of down time – somewhere between breakfast and the commute nightmare that's London, or between work and the rush home. These are valuable bits of time that could be regained and re-used by the population. Perhaps by facilitating working from trains, buses etc people could leave work an hour early? Missing a good deal of the rush hours, spreading the commuting load and, by implication, allowing people to spend more quality time at home. Perhaps though, it's just about using the time to contact people, say hi, discuss their day on Facebook, tweet the things that are important to you.

So we could help return a little bit of the day to people with a fully integrated communications strategy. 90% land coverage is not good enough, but neither are hundreds of new phone masts covering some of the best parts of our country. Perhaps though the re-use of some of the current TV spectrum will help – lower frequencies can travel further and often through obstructions that force the use of large numbers of small comms towers.

One thought though could be re-use of the existing spectrum in a more efficient way. Old GPRS spectrum could be re-used for 3G, LTPA or similar. But this brings in a competition problem. For the multitude of companies to compete effectively in the current system, they need to have a level(ish) playing field. OFCOM attempt to do this by handicapping the larger companies and letting the smaller players have a few competitive advantages. This wasn't helped by selling off the spectrum to the highest bidder. Those that won, did so at a huge cost, further crippling true competition and limiting expansion of existing networks. It should not be about how big your bank account is to provide service to the citizens of this country – especially as ultimately it is will be the citizens who pays for this cost through their mobile bills anyway.

So what's Adrian Hollister's big idea for the mobile communications network? How can, in my simple mind, fix the problems of availability, competition, cost effectiveness and in the world stage, ensure that the UK is state of the art, highly efficient and helping it's citizens return part of their day or improve their quality of life?

I would look at three key approaches:

1. Move critical infrastructure into public hands

2. Allow comms towers to be shared between providers

3. Move to a high availability service – blanket coverage of voice and data

Let's look at these in a bit more detail. The first is an obvious one. Depending on your political leanings you may related to this or not, but in terms of something highly efficient it cannot be disputed. Just in terms of the duplication of comms towers there is a level of duplication waste that could be removed and reinvested in other areas in need of service support. But by covering the whole of the UK, you gain the ability to architect (plan and design) service coverage that helps our citizens, protects what is part of our critical national infrastructure (something I am not sure is fully recognised yet by HMG) and provides a base for fair competition and high quality blanket services.

I don't think there are too many people who would dispute the National Grid's role in providing an essential service throughout the UK, and more recently the rail infrastructure was moved back into a public owned company. These are examples of key and critical infrastructure for the country that is most efficiently served though a centralised, co-ordinated and designed from the ground up to provide the most efficient and effective service to the citizen.

With the assumption that the wireless network throughout the UK has been move into a single public owned company, then the reuse of comms towers and communication bands between providers is a simple thing to facilitate. If companies are truly allowed to compete in the market place, then this is one step that would level access and availability for the smallest and largest providers. It would move the question of consumer value to a different playing field. Vodafone, 3, O2 and the others would have to offer higher value services (perhaps contention ratio, internet bandwidth etc). These services would better suite the consumers than basic price – though I'm sure some would compete on raw price alone.

But neither of the top two will work unless the country moves over time to good quality, redundant, blanket coverage of voice and data services. Clearly this would take time, but investment in the services could be provided by auctioning off value add service elements or pre-payment from the mobile company for useage on the new network. How ever we arrive at the investment profile, it's key that the public owned infrastructure company must aim to be not for profit over a fair business cycle. It is a service that critical for our citizens and must be cost effective on that basis.

So what would we end up with?

a. We would have a mobile network owned by the citizens of the country. We control the areas of core investment and we aim to make no profit from it.

b. Each of the mobile providers would have a level playing field and they can differentiate their services though the use of value add services or price. Competition would be opened up to many new providers that could purchase core service directly from the public infrastructure core.

c. We could move to blanket coverage. High availability services. High data services.

In summary though, we could create a UK with a significant competitive advantage compared to our competition. Our country would have a much more cost effective and personally effective service. We could return quality time to people and facilitate new ways of work (such as from home or on public transport). We would have a competitive landscape that would be the envy of the world.

It's also clear though that the Conservatives and their poodle Liberal Democrats do not have the vision for this. Richard Benyon's begging at Vodafone's door clearly shows the limitations of our current service, and whilst I appreciate the investment Vodafone has made in one of our Downland villages; there is a more efficient and effective approach available.

Vaguely Live Train Tracker

I do like this type of technology – without backing from the train operators some very ingenious programmers have come up with a way of showing where trains are on the network in real(ish) time. I don't suppose it's hugely accurate, but it's good to see what innovation can create without the need for competition. Each train operating company is in vague competition, but there is still no incentive to excel. This is where private individuals come along. I wonder when the government of the day will realise that our 'profit' and 'greed' based public service models just don't work.

Can traditional IT service providers survive Cloud Computing?

The use of cloud computing could ultimately and fundamentally change the delivery model for traditional IT service delivery companies. With the assumption that services can be chosen from a catalogue of on-demand technologies and that storage of information and the desktop will be virtualised (see Googles model) the traditional delivery and support organisations like CSC and Fujitsu will have a problem – their current role will no longer exist.

Will they survive the change?

The likes of these smaller outsource providers are based upon revenue from outsourcing/hosting, applications and development. If we assume that cloud computing will take the vast majority of outsourcing/hosting from them, it doesn't leave them with a lot and put's them fighting directly with the tier 1 providers like IBM (and a battle they are in a less suitable position to win).

If you take a look at the application space, even with fundamental changes to their business model to support virtual or cloud application, desktop and office suite deliverables, they will be put in direct competition with their traditional suppliers like Microsoft, SAP, IBM and Google who are and will be offering their application suite and services as SaaS and cloud based services. So if we assume this is also a low profit/commodity battle, even if they do win these bits, there will be nothing in it for them and their business will collapse.

Lastly development. I'm using this term loosely as clearly this needs to cover aspects of design and architecture – someone will still need to pull together all these bits of the cloud. But why would you go with a tier 2 provider, when the real architecture, the designs and the plans are being handled by the largest companies, the Microsofts, IBM's, SAP's and Oracles? and if this was their only real revenue stream, would it be enough for them to survive?

Certainly, if cloud takes off and if it is the way forward (and logic dictates that this is highly probable) then companies can look forward to shopping for virtual services at commodity prices (if market forces take place).

Change for the tier 2 providers is likely to be too much. I would imagine that they will merge, be bought, or have to make massive redundancies to stay afloat.

Change for the largest IT providers and potentially the cloud services providers is also going to be a shock. Why do you need fleets of sales people to sell what is essentially a cots service? Why do you need a fleet of business partners selling your hardware and software if businesses can purchase something that works straight from the cloud? The quickest and cleanest business model must be to change to giving software away free, but charging for support or use of the software on a commercial basis each month. IBM of course have long term experience with this model for their Mainframe product line.

The cuts in work force for the largest IT providers could be massive and often would involve many layers of management rather than the people on the ground (if the produce sells itself via a service provider, then electronic license controls can mostly replace many of the sales and sales process managers). Marketing, R&D, Architecture and Application Design would be the key points of revenue for the organisation. It is likely that none of the largest organisations are nimble enough to flex to this way of working though and they will experience many years of pain and many years of senior managers justifying their job roles. At least though the largest providers are in a position to survive it – if only through their case reserves and longer term customer contracts.

So what about real business, what changes are needed there?

In part 2 of this blog I will discuss the changes that businesses will need to consider and implement to be ready for the benefits of cloud whilst shielding themselves from any dangers that may be present.

Sixth sense and Web 3.0

I've been fascinated by the social technologies out there for some time. Wondering which direction they are going in and watching as community forming sites such as facebook and twitter are on the rise. Whilst these are generally known as Web 2.0, it's Web 3.0 and beyond that is interesting. It's difficult to explain to people what convergence of technology could do (good and bad), but here is an example of a futuristic view of Web 3.0.

Of course as information (formally a strong hold of power bases such as the USA) become more widely available, how will the governments around the world seek to control, manage and censor what we see and know. There already loads of examples of the US, China and Australia blocking access to materials that their governments do not like – I wonder when this will extend to the personal, community and social technology world.

New Photo Gallery

I've added an online photo gallery for those interested in Finnish Lapphund dogs. You can find my gallery in Photobox here. This includes some pictures of our show dog Rauhan and the West Berkshire downland countryside.

Greening Government ICT doesn’t go far enough

The Greening Government ICT Strategy, posted in July 2009 claims to have made significant steps to improve the environmental impact of ICT in government. I'm not completely convinced though.

A good summary can be found from KableDIRECT "The chief information officers and chief technology officers have responded well to the first set of targets but they must now be increased," the reports says. "The strategy itself acknowledges there is a need to work with departments and industry to explore and invest in radical green ICT solutions for the ICT problem, but also consider issues relating to the life cycle impact and disposal of old IT hardware."

There are some nice things in there – such as extending the procurement cycle to 4 years and reducing duplication; but there seems limited commitment to renewable energies, re-use of technology, and the adoption or recognition that software has a great impact on hardware choice. If they were really thinking about this they would make each supplier's carbon targets as important as their service levels.

I would like to see West Berkshire Council take the lead here and help define policy that the whole of government seek to follow. Let's make IT value for money and value for the environment. They could easily start with: 5 year procurement cycles; re-use of hardware; procurement of software on environmental grounds; and local employment of staff and contractors.

Is Social Networking viable for the UK Government?

'Five Million People Around the Water Cooler' by Adrian Hollister and Dan Bailey is one of my new papers, it discusses how the UK public sector could benefit from social networking and bottom up knowledge management. You can read it here.

"Social networking has the potential to be the most important emerging enabler of government over the next five years."

"The potential of social networking for the public sector transformation agenda is exciting. The effective delivery of any major transformation relies on the strength of communication throughout that organisation. With the right attention to data security, government could harness this new technology to break down communication barriers between departments and locations."

The Vista Upgrade

Took the plunge into the great unknown today and upgraded to Vista. I've seen a whole bunch of mixed reviews out there, but as someone interested in technology and an owner of Linux and Mac machines, I though the old Windows PC could do with a refresh. XP is fine, just about, but it does crash, it's slow after six months of use and needs to be rebooted every day to be sure of a good service. Vista claims to do away with all of these annoyances and be more Mac like for availability and eye candy.

Well no surprises with the Vista install. All went well with my fresh new install of Vista, but so many programs and drivers don't work that it's driving me insane. The damn 'local only' networking feature that seems to be designed to pop into 'unidentified network' mode every few hours is utter madness. The only way around it seems to be to turn off all the power saving features. I don't want to trawl support forums for days finding solutions, I just want it to work.

I'm still using Vista, but I hate it, and I think I've been conned into buying it. My mac just works, why won't vista work on a machine with 10 times the power, disk space and memory?