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EE lifts the lid on hidden testing labs: in pictures

20 Jun 2014

A short train ride from London lies the commuter town of Borehamwood. Tucked away among the numerous trading estates, high-streets shops and Wetherspoons pubs that are worryingly busy for a Thursday morning, lies a nondescript building with no outwardly obvious role.

But step inside and the familiar aqua and yellow branding of operator EE is immediately visible, for this is one of the firm's two network service delivery department (NSDD) testing labs (the other is in Bristol).

V3 joined a small gathering at the facility on Thursday in a rare chance to peek inside such an environment and to hear from EE about what goes on behind such innocuous-looking doors.

The labs are where EE carries out much of the testing on its network and the devices and services that it will host, to ensure everything is hunky dory before it goes live. This means manufacturers are often to be found lurking inside with never-before-seen devices, as they work with EE to ensure the phone and its components will work on the EE network when its released to the public.

Sadly we didn't see any iPhone 6 devices lying around, but we did spot a few other interesting things that we snapped as we had a look around.

Blast from the past
As you may expect, testing labs are not the sexiest of places, with most of the floors covered in various boxes filled with kit from firms ranging from Sun Microsystems to Nokia and Huawei. However, the below box from long-defunct Canadian telecoms firm Nortel did catch our eye.

Kit from the long-defunct Nortel Networks is still in use to test all kit in use

EE explained that it has to keep such old kit around to test devices and services on all possible technology that they could come into contact with, as while they may be old they still serve their purpose.

A waterfall of wires
Another common sight at any testing facility, or data centre, is wires. Lots of them. Even so, V3 was quite impressed to see a waterfall of wires running through the facility. Quite beautiful in a way.

A waterfall of wires at the EE testing labs

Moore's law in the base station
One other thing that caught our eye was just how much the telecoms kit that powers the mobile world has changed over the past 20 years. We all know that phones have reduced from great bricks to svelte, pocket-sized things, but the same is true of base stations.

The image below shows the unbelievable size that base stations used to be, and getting them installed to deliver nothing more than a 2G services was no easy task, as EE director of Network Services Tom Bennett explained. "You used to have to close the roads and get cranes in and hoist them into position, it was fairly demanding stuff," he explained.

Old base stations that were needed for 2G services

Now, as the Huawei base stations below demonstrate, far smaller units that provide both 2G and 4G coverage, are available. "These are light enough for engineers to carry up onto the roof themselves for installation," added Bennett.

New Huawei base stations providing 2G and 4G services

Tech industry shines in 2014 Honours list

16 Jun 2014

A number of UK tech heroes have been recognised in the Queen's honours list and rewarded for their work in the industry.

The Honours were announced last week and saw a decent number of industry types given gongs. Knighted and commended were games developers and pioneers, industry figureheads and entrepreneurs.

David Braben, of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and the creator of classic PC game Elite, was awarded an OBE.

"Heartfelt thanks to all those that have sent congratulations on my OBE. This award is for all of us at Frontier that have worked very hard," he said on Twitter.

Braben is one of Raspberry Pi's founding trustees. Earlier in June, during an event at Buckingham Palace, the Foundation was able to reveal that it had shipped three million Raspberry Pi units.

Also awarded the OBE is Dr Paul Hawkins, the sports technology pioneer whose work led to the creation of ball-tracking kit Hawk-Eye. The technology will be used at the tennis championships in Wimbledon this summer.

Belinda Parmar, campaigner and founder of the Lady Geek group, also received an OBE, and was commended for her services to women in technology.

"Thank you so much for all your OBE congratulations," she commented. "This award is for all of you who tirelessly work to get more women in tech."

Prosthetic limb pioneer Dr David Gow was awarded the CBE, his work on the I-Limb hand and his services to upper-limb prosthetics. Alastair Lukies, founder of Monitise, was also appointed a CBE.

Black cabs take umbrage at Uber with London gridlock protest

11 Jun 2014

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.

BT remembers historic role in D-Day landings

06 Jun 2014

omaha-beach-landing-craft

As the world commemorates the bravery and sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers and airborne troops who took part in Operation Overlord 70 years ago today, the technology that made much of the invasion possible has also been celebrated.

BT, then the Post Office and a public organisation, was instrumental in laying a telecoms network right along the south coast of the UK and then over the Channel and on into Europe as the Allied forces marched towards victory.

BT head of heritage and archives David Hay explained more: “Preparations for the Normandy invasion required the laying of a new network of hundreds of miles of cable as well as the installation of switchboards, telephones and teleprinters at numerous points along the south coast of England.

“Once the invasion was under way, new cross-Channel cables were laid and, by VE-Day, Post Office engineers had made direct communication possible by telephone or teleprinter to all allied forces in north-west Europe.”

These efforts even earned the praise of General Eisenhower, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, who wrote:

The build up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the engineers and staff of the General Post Office.

Colossus code breaking machine at The National Museum of Computing

As well as this vital work, the Post Office also played an instrumental role in helping the Allied forces gather knowledge of the Nazi’s plans, thanks to the Colossus computer.

It was developed by telecoms research engineer Tommy Flowers, working at the Dollis Hill research station, now BT’s Adastral Park research laboratories. The computer first sprang to life on 5 February 1944 when it was let loose on messages that had been sent by German units and encrypted using the Lorenz machine.

The Colossus could read 5,000 characters a second, far in advance of anything else available at that time, and this meant it could take just four hours for it to find the first key in a code, the most important part in any code-breaking.

By the end of the war, it is estimated that Colossus had deciphered 63 million characters of German messages, helping shorten the war and save countless lives. Despite this, its existence was kept secret for 30 years after the war.

Google adds top UK tourist spots to Street View

27 May 2014

Byland Abbey on Google Street View

Given that skies full of dark, forbidding rain clouds make up the majority of British summers, finding the weather to go out and visit some of the country’s cultural and historical sites can be pretty rare.

But with the announcement that popular tourist destinations will be added to Street View in Google Maps, sightseers will not need to wait for the sun to make an appearance before they can glimpse the majestic ruins of Byland Abbey (pictured above), for example. 

Google has added famous destinations ranging from grand historical structures such as Alnwick Castle and Gardens, through to renowned racecourses including Epson Downs and Newmarket (below).

Newmarket race course

In order to fill Google Maps with 3D views of these tourist hotspots, the search giant needed to look beyond using its traditional Street Views cars as it had to get up close to some of the UK’s most popular attractions without damaging treasured parts of British heritage or alarming bemused onlookers.

So, working with partners, Google used a combination of trekker backpacks and trollies to capture many of the various sights and vistas of Britain, making them viewable on the screens of PCs, tablets and smartphones through its same Street View interface.

Now Google maps users can effectively tour the sights of Britain without even leaving the comfort of their own homes.

Plus, with virtual reality technology becoming more of a reality, thanks to the Oculus Rift and Sony Project Morpheus headset hardware, perhaps this could this be the end of real-world tourism?

Bletchley Park Trust to set up Turing fund

21 May 2014

bletchley-park-learning-programme

The Bletchley Park Trust is to fund an educational 'Turing Education Officer' role at its site in Milton Keynes and will support teaching experiences for young and disadvantaged children.

This is the third such position created at the Trust in the past two years, and the organisation said that it could afford to fund the role for three years. This latest hire, once installed, will work on educational efforts for primary school children and disadvantaged and special needs students.

According to the park people, Bletchley's code breaking pedigree is just one facet of the experience.

"Bletchley Park is about so much more than a museum. Of course, what was done at Bletchley Park by Alan Turing and others is of huge importance," said Sir John Dermot Turing, Bletchley Park Trustee.

"One part of Bletchley Park's mission is to use the achievements of the codebreakers to stimulate school students and complement the formal STEM curriculum in an interesting and relevant way.

"The education team at Bletchley has been hugely successful in this. In fact, so successful that the schools programme has been sold out many months in advance for the last few years.

"All this is why the Turing family has been very pleased to support the creation of a new post in the Education Department at Bletchley Park, called the Turing Education Officer.

"We think this is a very fitting tribute to Alan Turing's contribution here at Bletchley and something which we hope he would himself have been keen to support."

Bletchley says that it pulls in some 8,000 schoolchildren a year, and welcomes its place in science and technology learning. It added that it is looking to double the amount of young visitors.

 

Twitter silences the witterers with Mute button

13 May 2014

Man with fingers in ears

Social network Twitter is offering its users a mute button that they can employ to filter out annoying people for a limited time, without having to unfollow them.

First to get the feature will be iPhone, Android and Twitter for Web users, who will now be able to silence tiresome users who perhaps post updates just a little too often.

"Today we're beginning to introduce a new account feature called mute to people who use our iPhone and Android apps and twitter.com. Mute gives you even more control over the content you see on Twitter by letting you remove a user's content from key parts of your Twitter experience," it said in a blogpost.

"In the same way you can turn on device notifications so you never miss a Tweet from your favorite users, you can now mute users you'd like to hear from less. Muting a user on Twitter means their Tweets and Retweets will no longer be visible in your home timeline, and you will no longer receive push or SMS notifications from that user."

The system sounds a lot like a block on another user, but one that will not apparently insult or offend the blocked person.

"The muted user will still be able to fave, reply to, and retweet your Tweets; you just won't see any of that activity in your timeline," added the firm. "The muted user will not know that you've muted them, and of course you can unmute at any time."

The feature will be rolled out to all users in the coming weeks, according to Twitter.

With the World Cup just around the corner those who follows avid football fans could find it a major blessing to help avoid endless tweets about how games are unfolding, or those tweeting manically about the final of Britain's Got Talent, without offending friends or colleagues.

NSA gets cryptic with coded job ad in Twitter post

06 May 2014

magnifying-glass

The US National Security Agency (NSA) posted an intriguing message on its Twitter account over the weekend, in a novel way to appeal to those who have an aptitude for cracking codes and ciphers.

Usually the NSA's careers Twitter account posts up short, bland opportunities for applications, but this one is very different.

It is very obviously a cipher, and looks a lot like one that uses substituted letters. The question mark is something of a clue and suggests that the NSA is happy to leave such hints.

There are various ways and means of cracking substitution ciphers and one of them is to start with the letter E - the most commonly used of English letter characters, and work back from that.

You can do this manually, automatically or in your browser using Javascript. The end result should be the same, the time spent working on the solution may differ radically though.

We can confirm that the advert is not actually a job ad, but is more of a knowing wink in the direction of people that like codes and ciphers, want a job with the NSA, and are not Edward Snowden. You can see the solution to the NSA code puzzle in this YouTube video.

Last year the UK agency GCHQ carried out a similar experiment to help it in its search for the next Alan Turing. At the time GCHQ's head of resourcing, Jane Jones, said that modern threats require new ways of finding talented people to help crack complex codes.

"We want employees who have evolved with the ever-changing digital world and therefore have the right skills to combat these challenges," she said at the time. "It's a puzzle but it's also a serious test - the jobs on offer here are vital to protecting national security."

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