20 Mar 2015
Back in December 2013 when Amazon announced it was going to start trailing the use of drones to provide rapid delivery of certain items a few eyebrows were raised.
Not only was the idea somewhat fanciful but the fact it was announced in the run-up to Christmas and so would gain Amazon plenty of digital column inches was also notable.
However, it appears Amazon wasn't just out to grab headlines and has now secured permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly such devices.
Specifically it received an “experimental airworthiness“ for “unmanned aircraft (UAS)” certificate, with some provisos.
“All flight operations must be conducted at 400 feet or below during daylight hours in visual meteorological conditions. The UAS must always remain within visual line-of-sight of the pilot and observer. The pilot actually flying the aircraft must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.”
Amazon must also provide monthly data to the FAA on topics including the number of flights conducted, pilot duty time per flight, unusual hardware or software malfunctions, any deviations from air traffic controllers’ instructions, and any unintended loss of communication links.
“The FAA includes these reporting requirements in all UAS experimental airworthiness certificates,” it added.
Amazon is not the only tech company to take to the skies, with Google and Facebook both donning their flying jackets to test the use of hot air balloons and gliders to deliver the internet to far-flung regions of the globe.
In the UK the rise of drones is causing some concerns among the powers that be, with a House of Lords report suggesting a full database of users and flights should be created to help track their use.
The disparity in powers between the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Ofcom has once again been highlighted after the latter was able to fine BT £800,000 for the late launch of a text-to-speech service – far in excess of anything the ICO can issue for data loss incidents.
The ICO can issue fines to a maximum of £500,000 for breaches of the Data Protection Act – breaches that often result in sensitive personal information being lost or stolen, causing huge distress for those concerned.
However, Ofcom – which in 2013 fined TalkTalk £750,000 for some nuisance calls to customers – has been able to issue a far larger fine to BT for the late launch of the Next Generation Text Service (NTGS).
The NTGS helps people with hearing or speech impediments to either type what they want to say and have it relayed to the person on the other end, or, if hard of hearing, to have what someone says to them translated to text to read on screen.
Ofcom issued the fine because BT was five months late in launching the service, putting it live in October, when it was slated for an 18 April launch.
BT explained that the delay was caused by a problem with the sound quality of emergency calls, something that came to light at a late stage of the development process.
Claudio Pollack, Ofcom’s consumer and content group director, said the size of the fine showed how seriously the organisation took this failure.
“The size of the penalty imposed on BT reflects the importance of providing an improved text relay service to its customers with hearing and speech impairments,” he said.
BT must pay the £800,000 penalty to Ofcom, which will then pass it on to HM Treasury.
In a statement BT apologised for the delay but said that since going live it was please to hear positive feedback from users.
“We’re sorry we had to postpone the full launch of the Next Generation Text service. This was because of a safety issue with the quality of emergency calls that could have put users at risk," it said.
"The service has been warmly welcomed by users. Hearing and speech impaired people can now make faster, more fluent phone calls using ordinary smartphones, tablets, laptops and PCs, as well as existing specialised terminals.”
While no one would disagree that providing such a service is important and that BT’s failings warranted some form of reprimand, the scale of the fine when set against the ICO’s powers once again shows the madness of the current data protection regime.
The only hope is that when the new European Data Protection Regulation comes into force – which looks increasingly likely – the proposal for data watchdogs to be able to fine firms a portion of their annual turnover will make it to the statute books.
This should make the financial penalties for data protection breaches far more terrifying to big businesses, making data protection a more important consideration, and giving the ICO the chance to issue fines that will really make people sit up and take notice.
Cloud computing is heralded by many as the future of IT, but it's an occasionally obtuse subject despite the government wanting the public sector to embrace cloud migration.
However, selling cloud services to the public sector, often seen as stuck in the analogue age of paper documents and Windows XP, can be a bit of a challenge even for hardened IT suppliers.
So, in a creative attempt to solve this, the Government Digital Service (GDS) has created three fictional 'government buyers' for cloud vendors to target.
With names as everyday as Gareth Holmes, Patricia Greene and Jess Clarke these are three characters that have been assigned persona-specific ‘buys', ‘hopes' and ‘fears' when it comes to cloud procurement so vendors know how to pitch their products accordingly.
GDS also indicated how evangelical the three are when it comes to technology, procurement processes and desired outcomes.
I just don't want to get into trouble
First up is Gareth, a tech architect working for the government. Gareth is a cloud buyer who has good technical knowledge but needs a helping hand with procurement, according to Mark Branigan, a researcher at the Cabinet Office and Gov.uk blogger.
"Gareth wants a straightforward process he can follow which will reassure him that he's following the right procurement steps," he said.
Poor Gareth is made out to be a bit of a feckless coward, desiring "short and convenient processes" and shunning anything that requires innovative thinking and investment in time.
Still, he's noted for his rock climbing and love of the great outdoors, so perhaps he's simply wasted in the stuffy confines of government IT.
Two chickens and an eye for procurement
Meanwhile Patricia (pictured right) is an IT procurement specialist but lacks Gareth's technical prowess. She hopes to end up with the right cloud service to suit her department's needs, and fears the opposite result.
Branigan, perhaps erring on the side of patronising, explained that customers like Patricia need to "understand how services are described by suppliers so that she can find services that will meet her requirements".
GDS felt it was important to note that Patricia enjoys spending time looking after her two chickens, something V3 was not aware of as having a direct influence on cloud procurement desires.
'She enjoys Zumba and vampire books'
Last, but by no means least, is Jess (pictured), a project manager who cares about services that are delivered on time, on budget and provide direct outcomes.
Branigan paints Jess as an uncompromising customer. "Any delays caused by a procurement process are unacceptable to her, and she is very price sensitive," he said.
Jess does not like to waste her time understanding technology or procurement, either, instead preferring to dedicate herself to Zumba and vampire books.
"Jess needs a service which allows her to very quickly analyse her options and find the right product. She does not want to concern herself with the intricacies of the procurement process, and relies on others around her to look after this part," he said.
It's interesting to see the government exploring ways to simplify the process of selling cloud and IT services to the public sector, particularly given the focus on digitalising public services.
However, Branigan added: "We know that users don't always fit neatly into boxes and we test these personas regularly against the buyers we talk to in the lab."
With a get-out clause like that, V3 is left wondering whether the whole exercise was really worth it. We are, however, curious to learn more about this 'lab' Branigan mentions.
Politicians, eh? The incoming digital economy and society commissioner for the European Commission, Günther Oettinger, has not even set up his office with a plant and a picture and already he's in hot water for ill-considered comments.
During a meeting earlier this week he said that celebrities were "dumb" for putting nude pictures of themselves online.
"If someone is dumb enough as a celebrity to take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can't expect us to protect them," said Oettinger. "I mean, stupidity is something you can not - or only partly - save people from."
This statement, blaming the victims of a breach of their privacy and showing a slight misunderstanding of the cloud, has been rounded on by digital activists who see it as clear proof that Oettinger is not the right man to take on such an important digital post.
Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda has posted a blog criticising Oettinger, noting that it is somewhat worrying - as V3 would agree - that someone set to be in charge of European digital policy has either a misguided moral stance on the issue or a worrying lack of understanding of technology - or both.
"The person applying to be in charge of shoring up trust in the internet so that Europeans do more business online just victim-blamed people whose personal data was accessed and spread without authorisation," she wrote.
"By picking this example to make that point despite lacking an understanding of the facts, by making a mockery of what he should recognise as a serious problem and by doing it in this aloof and insulting tone, Oettinger is seriously calling into question whether he is qualified for the job of shaping our digital society for the next five years."
The BBC reported that a spokesperson for Oettinger said he was trying to make a point about cloud security, although he denied the chance to apologise for the remark.
"Everybody has a right to privacy. The EU Commission wants to make cloud computing safer." A noble aim, sir. But perhaps we may be so bold as to suggest that starting this mission by siding with the victims of a theft rather than blaming them tends to help.
One thing is for sure, Neelie Kroes would never have said any of this.
22 Sep 2014
For many years mobile operators have complained that their ability to make money has been curtailed. This has come from a combination of factors, chiefly falling revenues from phone, text and data services, and, conversely, the need to spend billions upgrading networks.
As such, the rollout of new services, such as 4G around the UK over recent years, has been seen as a chance for operators to finally start recouping some of these losses by charging consumers more for data.
However, there is one issue with this. Consumers still don't spend huge amounts of money. Well, not the amounts operators need to start turning over serious profits.
But, as businesses become increasingly mobile, there is a silver lining on the horizon in the form of 5G, which will take capacity, speed and coverage and improve them all massively. This could open a whole new possibility for telecoms operators to sell enhanced mobile services to businesses as a key part of their IT and communications needs.
This idea was espoused by Mischa Dohler, the chair professor in Wireless Communications at King's College London, while speaking at the 5G Huddle event in London on Monday, attended by V3.
His argument was that because the speeds and capacity of 5G are likely to be so far beyond the needs of consumers, many operators will gain more financial joy by focusing on B2B industries, such as oil and gas, construction, nuclear energy or transportation.
“The good news is that these sectors have lots of cash,” he added. "They all complain about a shortage of cash but really they have huge revenues and margins."
Dohler said the downside of pushing mobile services to businesses would be the high cost of entry to a new market, but he said that any incumbent or new players who do become established should be able to make good money.
"With a high entry barrier comes a high exit barrier, so unless you screw it up you shouldn't make a loss on this [5G]."
This will be music to the ears of telecoms operators, if it comes true.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has handed down a huge $7.4m fine to Verizon for failing to give new customers the ability to opt out of marketing calls from the company.
The FCC's scary-sounding Enforcement Bureau’s found that Verizon failed to notify approximately two million new customers on their first invoices or in welcome letters, of their privacy rights. This included how to opt out from having their personal information used in marketing campaigns.
The fine is a huge amount for something so, ultimately, trivial as to be rung a few times by sales reps from the company, but it underlines the vast disparity between the US's stance on data privacy and the UK's.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees issues of data protection and privacy in the UK, has come down hard on marketing firms in recent years, issuing fines of £45,000, £50,000 and £90,000 against companies that bombarded people with calls, despite being told to stop.
Comparing the two situations, the latter error seems the more egregious. While it may be annoying to not be told you have the right to opt out of marketing calls, to actively tell a company not to contact you and have them ignore that, seems so much worse.
Of course, it should be noted that the fines handed down by the ICO were against small to medium-sized companies, rather than a telecoms giant such as Verizon, and the FCC may have been making a point to other similarly sized companies of the seriousness of the situation.
Even so, though, a UK business giant could only face a fine of £500,000 from the ICO for any data or privacy error, so perhaps it's no wonder that, despite fines repeatedly being handed out by the watchdog, data breach incidents continue to happen.
London's Tech City and Silicon Roundabout are beacons of technology industry success, creating jobs in the capital and courting significant investment. But, arguably these achievements come at the cost of tech hubs beyond the city boundaries.
Head up the M1 and you'll encounter several other tech hot spots dotted across the North. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle all have their own takes on east London's Tech City.
Yet independent research by Policy Exchange has indicated that the capital is sucking up the lion's share of investment, and is luring northerners with digital skills to the city bright lights. This could end up putting the success of the North's technology sector at risk.
It noted, for example, that for those who have studied Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (the STEM subjects) 35 percent, 34 percent and 52 percent of graduates end up leaving the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber respectively.
To combat these problems, Policy Exchange believes that setting up a transport infrastructure which better connects the North's tech hubs is the best way to further boost the nation's technology industry.
"Slow journeys make it harder for people to move between clusters to access and share work, ideas and opportunities and is a major barrier for foreign and London-based investors," it said in the report.
This may help, but Stuart Lynn, chief technology officer of Newcastle-based Sage, is not completely convinced. "The North is home to a wide talent pool of skilled business people and entrepreneurs but it's not just transport infrastructure that can help unlock business potential," he said.
Instead Lynn believes that investment in an improved communications infrastructure will be the key to invigorating the growth of technology hubs outside London.
"Technology acts as the bridge to cross any physical boundary. Effective communications infrastructure can link the North to the South and the rest of the world quicker and more effectively than any physical infrastructure ever could, and that should be the goal for these ambitious projects," he explained.
Whoever's recommendation is the correct course is slightly academic, as reworking either a transport or communication infrastructure will require significant investment which the North is failing to secure.
So it would appear that the North is in a catch-22 situation that might require a more innovative approach to give its tech sector a competitive chance against the might of London.
Whenever a disruptive technology arrives on the scene those who are threatened usually respond with anger and derision.
From the Luddite machine breakers of the early 1800s to Steve Ballmer's cheery dismissal of the iPhone, such reactions are commonplace. The outcome, though, is usually the same, as the disruptive ground-breaking technology continues to thrive and the older system struggles.
So, with this short revisionist history lesson, let us turn our gaze to the streets of London where on Wednesday afternoon black cab drivers staged a protest against taxi app Uber, claiming it is unfairly muscling in on their patch.
The cabbies say that because Uber allows unlicensed, untrustworthy individuals to run their cars as private hire vehicles, they are not only putting the public at risk but breaking the law by using a meter to calculate journey costs.
Transport for London referred the situation to the High Court as it said it wasn't sure whether an app generating a fee for a journey did represent an infringement of this law, but the cabbies are protesting anyway.
This means that streets across the capital have been gridlocked, causing mayhem for millions.
The timing of the protest was seized on by Uber for a fairly nifty piece of marketing, as it announced that its service can now incorporate black cabs, so that those seeking the nearest vehicle could end up in a traditional Hackney Carriage.
Whether black cabs want to be included on the service remains to be seen, as judging by today's protests they may well choose to have nothing to do with it in the future. Those who willingly reject the offer could well end up regretting it, though, if history does indeed repeat itself.
With some reports that downloads of the app have increased 850 percent as a result of the protest, the taxi brigade could have inadvertently started their own demise. Time will tell.