As the weather starts to warm up, the hives are starting to wake up. Each bee knows what to do. The queens are starting to lay eggs. The few new young workers are keeping the hive tidy and the others are out foraging for pollen and nectar when the sun gets up and it’s not too cold or wet to go outside.
Yet, as a society, most of us are in the equivalent of October or November, going into hibernation – or as we call it “self-isolation”. The bees don’t know that. They can’t get our kind of virus (though they have plenty of their own to contend with).
However, just as in the beehive, there are those workers who are stretched to the max. The health workers. The supermarket delivery folk. The engineers working out novel ways to make vital equipment with 3D printers. Those lucky enough to have a job where they can work from home.
But for many (particularly those over 70), the next few months might become lonely and frustrating. As humans, we all have an innate need to serve society and be useful. I’ve just volunteered to the UK’s National Health Service – but the system itself is just not designed to take on a flood of volunteers. The old systems can’t cope with taking on a flood of volunteers. There are too many rules and the processes are too slow.
The bees don’t work like that. If something needs doing, it gets done. As a bee goes through life and picks up new skills, it applies those skills to the job in front of it. They are a complex society driven by a much simpler and more effective set of rules than the way we are organised in our so-called modern global economy. I’m going to be writing about my thoughts on this in the coming weeks.
Additionally, next week, at 17.00 GMT every day, I’m running a half-hour Zoom call to swap ideas on effective volunteering in the lock-down. Spaces are limited. Please like or comment below if you want an invitation.
We met twice in 2019. Lunch boxes at the Embassy. He was once a beekeeper. We had fascinating and ranging discussions, All listened into by unknown ears From a foreign country. Last time I saw him was in court After they arrested him. Now he’s in Belmarsh Prison. We pray for him every day.
As a New Year’s Resolution, I’ve decided to re-join the local writing circle. This week’s exercise is a short story in 55 words. This is my contribution
It was the turning of the 89/90 decade. I was in Berlin for New Year’s Eve. Fireworks were only allowed then To celebrate the turning of the year. I was at a party well away from the wall But had this urge to move up on up to it.
We made it just in time! A large crowd swarming Five hundred metres way up to the Brandenburger Tor. That symbolic centre of both the wall and Berlin herself. There was a determined push towards the gate Both in front and behind us, surging like a tidal wave As if the whole crowd moved with a collective psyche.
And then the fireworks began. Lighting the sky above. The dark shadow of the gate ahead, I could move Neither back, nor left, nor right, but only forwards. As more and more people joined the push Towards the tiny gap only created a few weeks before On, on, on, there was no going back.
I then realised I had no passport. My friend from Berlin Was allowed to go through with no papers, but I should not. Too late! The powerful crowd took that decision for me. We were pushed through the tiny gap and there – On the other side were two 12 ft replica cans of Coca-Cola! The American marketing machine had beaten us to it!
Illegal or not, there were no guards: it was a surge to freedom. We were discharged out onto the Unter den Linden, The boulevard of lime trees on the Eastern side of the gate. A calm peace after the hectic push and scrabble. We spent an hour or so soaking up the atmosphere Before returning back home to the Western side.
Elias Canetti, summed up in his 1960s book “Crowds and Power”: The crowd always wants to grow – it has no natural boundaries. Within the crowd there is equality. Differences … are irrelevant. The crowd loves destiny … it can never feel too dense. The crowd needs direction … and moves towards a goal. And so it was. The wall collapsed to create modern-day Europe.
We all love them, don’t we? Whether it is the weather, election results or even horoscopes, the human psyche is intrigued by those who believe that they can predict the future.
Yet, in the past few of years, things that seemed to have been stable and predictable have had an uncanny knack of not being so! Brexit, the rise of Trump, global weather patterns, crazy valuations for Tech companies. Some trace this unpredictability back to the financial crisis of 2008. Others pin it to the rise of globalisation. Yet others believe that the real culprit – climate change – can be attributed as far back as the industrial revolution.
“Leaders of Hope” require a good dose of “back-to-front thinking” to inspire people to follow their vision of the future – only to become disillusioned and frustrated by the system. The pendulum swings and “Leaders of Fear” take over and simply look in the rear view mirror to say how things were great in the past and that “Back to the Future” is the answer.
With linear thinking, we tend to post-rationalise decisions and make them look logical after the event. Ever more so in large corporations and national governments. Steve Jobs put it so well when he talked about connecting the dots in his Stanford commencement speech:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”
So we come to trusting the dots that will connect us to a positive future – and also trust in “gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever….” to get us there! That’s not very precise or scientific. Certainly not terribly rational and not very easy to measure either!
So, maybe all this objective setting stuff we strive for is baloney?
In my experience, Jobs was correct. Most decisions are made from spinning around looking at various alternatives and then having an intuitive hunch that things would be better if they lined up in a direction where you have a fuzzy idea of the target zone or outcome. As time progresses, things become clearer.
I call this the “White Javelin” approach. We have a Javelin that we can throw in any direction, but we choose to throw where the light shines brightly. Once we have thrown it, we move along to pick it up and then decide where to throw it next. It is better if you keep going in one particular direction. Otherwise, you keep going over old ground and spinning around like a dog chasing its tail!
Fulfilment becomes an intuitive sense of progress towards a fuzzy outcome, which needs to feel good before each throw.If your daily work does not give you the autonomy to decide the direction of throw or they give you a needle instead of a javelin, then I suggest you quit!
As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve also become increasingly aware that everything is connected. Literally. So the desired outcome in one country, system or domain will have undesired consequences in another. The current North Korean-US war of words is but a simple example.
So, with all the unpredictability and variability of system outcomes, maybe we need a new set of meta-objectives or meta-goals that we can start to organise ourselves around so we can work out best where we throw our white javelins.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals were a noble attempt to do this. Yet a global, top-down approach is probably only going to help fix a minor part of the problem. As Arnold Schwarzenegger stated in his message to Donald Trump on reneging the Paris climate agreement: “Like all the great movements in human history, our (clean) future starts with a grassroots movement in our communities, our cities and our states.”
It gives hope to mere mortals that there is a clear path to a cleaner, brighter future through grassroots activism, clear personal intent and envisioning end-results that are for the betterment of our local communities.
Whereas linear-thinking approaches had a good chance of succeeding in more stable and predictable systems, we need new ways to shape a purpose, objectives and outcomes for a particular problem set – outside the boundaries of corporate self-interest. (what Ian Ure in an article on LinkedIn calls his “magic ingredient” – which inspired me to write this one).
Asking lots of “W” questions is a good place to start. Why?, What?, Who?, When? and Where?
Too many “How?” questions asked too early on creates early “solution-thinking syndrome” which gets in the way of exploring alternative approaches and landing points.
Equally, too many “Why?” questions too early on can also be counter-productive because the answer might simply be: “Just because!”.W can also stand for “Wait” – like“all good things come to those who wait”.Counterintuitive, perhaps, but powerful, nonetheless.
I believe that the world is a mysterious, magical and mystical place, well beyond the ken of any single human being. Science and reason are useful tools, but by adopting the Zen-like “beginner’s mind” with an inquisitive sense of discovery, prediction becomes less important. Each day brings magic moments with new discoveries and new areas to explore with our individual throws of our uniquely crafted white javelins. We need to stop listening to the Merchants of Doom and become our own Leaders of Hope.
Go on! Throw it as far as you can and see where it lands! It will only be good!
The arguments raged for ten hours in the House of Commons. The vote was cast. The MPs agreed by a sizeable majority that it was a good thing to let the Royal Air Force bomb Syria. A few hours later, the Tornado Jets were set loose like the dogs of war.
The rest of the country stood by like a confused onlooker. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your fears, however good your knowledge of the situation: none of those would count. In May, the UK’s democratic system transferred our voting rights for another five years to a bunch of elected MPs to take nearly all decisions on our behalf. We’ll all get a vote on whether or not we want to stay in Europe – but that will be equally confusing too. Just like the Scottish No vote last year.
David Cameron’s timing for the bombing Syria vote was lucky. The Paris atrocities a couple of weeks ago certainly added considerable weight to the case. His party held the line, and increased a narrow Tory majority by doing whipping deals with selected allies and the vote for the “ayes” was further buoyed-up by the schism in the Labour party. So the “ayes” had it and the NATO alliance held together because that’s what allies do. Stick together in hard times.
What other solutions were put forward? What other creative ideas were framed? What other, more effective ways of preventing further bloodshed were considered? What were the real options to stop further escalation the a tit-for-tat of a bomb in a beach resort or another vulnerable European city versus drone attacks and bombing raids on strategic Daesh targets in Syria?
I remember visiting Beirut for a day in 1978. I was in transit from Egypt to Cyprus. Middle East Airlines put me up for a free night in a four-star hotel as part of the deal of flying via their country. It was a great deal for the penniless student that I was at the time. I took a taxi around the central part of the city on the way back to the airport. On every street corner there was a burned-out armoured car and a different faction guarding their patch. Nothing much seems to have changed since then.
The UN Climate Change Conference, which started in Paris this week, has given some hope that we might be reaching a level of consciousness that understands that climate change is going to continue to hit random parts of the world as a knight moves around in a game of chess. Although ridiculed by some newspapers for his views, I can see the connection that Prince Charles made about climate change causing drought in Syria which in turn causes a shortage of natural resources (like water), which in turn cause a refugee problem in South Eastern Europe. The world is so connected now – more than it ever has been, perhaps. It is the butterfly effect in action.
We need to think differently and organise ourselves differently if we are going to solve the complex problems that the world is currently facing. I used to think that X causes Y was the only way to think. I’m not so sure anymore. Just look at the weather. Everyone’s weather in the world is apparently affected by changes in water temperature just off the West Coast of South America with the El Niño effect. And so it is with international politics and relations: everything is connected.
I’m sure computer modelling and technology can help here – but we need a lot more than “big data” and analytics and advanced aerial killing machines directed from many thousands of miles away to solve these problems. In particular, we need to understand that each of the world’s primitive fragile systems of fresh water, clean air, natural energy resources and inhabitable land are themselves so interconnected that together they will have the greatest impact on the world’s population migration and quality of life of all of us in the coming twenty to thirty years. Southern Europe is currently under siege from migrants who themselves are refugees from a part of the planet that is fast burning-up. Areas which have traditionally sustained life, but which can no longer do so.
What to do? Commentary by analysts simply isolate the issues. Linking them together does not seem to happen so much. It might be my associative mind, but the inter-dependencies BETWEEN the systems mean that the gaps between the systems might just hold the answers. As regular readers will know, one of my favourite expressions is that: “the answer lies in the space between”.
On first glance, it was very encouraging to see Mark Zuckerberg give up 99% of his fortune to charitable causes. Line up all the rich kids and strip them of 99% of their fortunes. Job done! Yet, reading between the lines, the vehicle Zuckerberg will use will be a limited liability partnership (LLP), not a charitable foundation. The LLP will be allowed to lobby, make a profit and won’t have to give away a pre-determined amount of cash to other charities every year. Smart man, Zuckerberg. Maybe he is onto something.
It is time to think afresh about how we take decisions and how we control the excesses – whether they be banking bonuses, lobbying for vested interests or pollution. Relying on individual human nature won’t solve these problems. Traditional economically-driven regulation won’t hack the course either. The current systems are so stuck in the past; they need a complete rethink.
Waging war by throwing deadly flying machines at an enemy who can only fire back with machine guns and suicide bombers will only dig us deeper into the proverbial. It may well take Zuckerberg, Gates and a few others with purposeful family-centric LLPs to crack many of the problems that our more outdated institutions have failed to solve.
Then again, I suppose that rich families and the dynasties that they create have always ruled the world. All other structures are impermanent, insignificant or mouthpieces of the ruling classes. Mr Zuckerberg for President, anyone?
In 2011, a Scottish couple, Colin and Chris Weir bought five EuroMillions tickets. The tickets cost £2 each.
Colin and Chris won £161,653,000 pounds
and celebrated the fact!
So how on earth did that change the landscape of UK politics?
Well, Colin and Chris gave £3m to the Scottish National Party (SNP) and a further £3m to the same party for their independence campaign. This money has accounted for about 80% of the SNP’s funding. With this money, the SNP has radically changed the balance of power in Scotland – and the SNP are likely to win over 50 seats in today’s general election. By this time tomorrow, we will all know the exact number.
In turn, this has devastated one of the Labour Party’s strongholds. The two main political parties – the Conservative party and the Labour party – stand neck-and-neck in the closest run election for 40 years. It has been the first campaign where the minority parties have been invited to debate on the same stage as the two major parties. That, alone, has changed the whole way that people vote. The number of people who have said to me that they are confused and don’t know which way to vote has been many more than previous elections. Should I vote blue, green, yellow, red, or purple? Who knows?
In five years time, in 2020, the SNP could have forced the independence of Scotland. The United Kingdom might no longer exist. Britain might have left Europe. All these things are possible outcomes in a scenario of different winners or losers. Who will win? Who will lose? Who knows?
However, it is very probable that the next election will be before 2020 particularly if there is no party with a clear majority. The same happened in 1974 – a year I remember well. My father was an MP from 1970-74 and gave up his seat in Aberdeenshire, Scotland before that double election year. Several years of uncertainty ensued. It was probably another Scottish butterfly – North Sea Oil – that saved the Union that time around. I’m not sure what the saviour of the Union could be this time around. Maybe another lottery ticket? Maybe the second coming? Who knows?
Many believe that the whole democratic machine is broken. That the UK’s first past the post system is out of date and unfair. The Green Party might win 10% of the National vote – yet only win one seat. The SNP might win 4% of the vote and win 50 seats. Yet neither of the largest parties supports the idea of proportional representation. How can the system be changed for the better when the vested interests of the two main parties don’t support the idea? Who knows?
And yet the eventual impact of the “Butterfly Effect“ of the Weirs’ £2 coin might well not yet be played out. The result of this British General Election might well cause an even bigger set of knock-on effects in the global financial markets and even cause this current bubble to burst. Who knows?
The EuroMillions Jackpot this Friday stands at £29m. We seem to live in a Lottery Society where the only certainty is that someone will win or the game will roll-over. Going to buy five tickets. Much more fun! Game on! Will I win? Who knows?
The recent events in Iraq and the rise of ISIS as a regional power makes one wonder what all of the Western intervention in the region has achieved. It reminded me of reading a book written back in the 1960s – Masse ind Macht (or Crowds and Power) by Elias Canetti.
Canetti was not an academic. He was an intelligent observer. I read the book after visiting Koln for a Beerfest. It made me understand a lot more about why and, perhaps how, Hitler came to Power. I’m not sure if it is a particularly German thing. But if you get a load of folk from that part of the world, give them beer and get them roused by a speech from someone you can barely see the other end of the room who is booming on a loudspeaker, then the binding, tribal atmosphere becomes extraordinary.
The entry in Wikipedia about the book is short:
(The book) is notable for its unusual tone; although wide ranging in its erudition, it is not scholarly or academic in a conventional way. Rather, it reads like a manual written by someone outside the human race explaining to another outsider in concise and highly metaphoric language how people form mobs and manipulate power. Unlike most non-fiction writing, it is highly poetic and seething with anger.
On asking questions: “On the questioner the effect is a feeling of enhanced power. He enjoys this and consequentially asks more and more questions; every answer he receives is an act of submission. Personal freedom consists largely in having a defense against questions. The most blatant tyranny is the one which asks the most blatant questions.”
The thought I particularly like is the idea that, for every question asked, the questioner has an enhanced sense of power and those who give answers are each time submitting to those in power. For me, this is a subtle definition of personal freedom. We have choices to submit or not to submit. To answer questions or to have a defense against those questions.
In the context of the current world order, then, who asks the questions of those who are bullys? Perhaps that is another dimension to the problem. But certainly, in the businesses that I work within, the person asking the difficult and cleverer questions is the person who sees him or herself in authority.
It was brilliantly articulated by a friend of mine this week who related the story of an ex-boss of his (now very senior in a UK PLC).
OK, please show me your plans. How exactly are you are going to achieve your objectives by the end of this financial year?
Stutters, shows plan (covering up the areas that he does not want unpicked). Relief at presenting plan.
OK. thanks for that. Now tell me what question I should have asked you that would have exposed the real weakness in your plan?
Questioners and Bullys. The world is full of them each seeking their own power. The question for the majority of us, surely, is how to expand the footprint of personal freedom whilst ensuring that the spirit drummed-up such as that described in Canetti’s Crowds and Power does not promote dictators, terrorism and crime. The pictures in the video above have an uncanny resemblance to the atrocities that have been happening in Iraq in the past few weeks. Yet the strategies and tactics to prevent such acts seem to have developed little in the past hundred years. Time to think of a better way.
This week three events happened that highlighted to me that the way that the world owns, controls and governs the 7bn people on the planet is under extreme pressure. Yet signs that the new world is responding in sensible and more conscious ways are encouraging.
As the old-world sovereign-states governments try to balance their own budgets and wrestle with their own, unique, local problems, multinational companies increasingly put two fingers up to them to avoid paying corporation tax. Apple is a good example which, this week, apparently saved over $9bn in tax with a “bond manouever”. If you were Tim Cook, you’d probably have done the same. Yet the countries that need the tax revenue to help get themselves out of the debt that they have are being out-manouevered by the multinational tax avoidance network that serve the corporate giants that belong to no country and are accountable to, well, their shareholders, of course. Big companies seem to get it all their own way.
In the middle east, even after all the investigations over the justification of the Gulf War and whether or not Saddam Hussein did or did not have weapons of mass destruction, we are fed confusing news that civilians are being sprayed with nerve gas in Syria – and that West military intervention is, once again, becoming more intellectually justifiable. Soil samples have degraded and there is not enough evidence for going to war. So we have to wait.
Yet there are interesting counter-pressures. As a beekeeper, I have been keenly following developments on the EU which, this week, voted for a two-year restrictions on the nerve-agent pesticides (called neonicotinoids) blamed for the dramatic decline global bee populations. The EU decided on a narrow majority of 15/27 votes. The UK was one of eight countries that voted against the ban in spite of a petition signed by 300,000 people presented to Downing Street last week by fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett. The Independent has also campaigned to save Britain’s bee population. The British government’s choice to vote against the ban was based on the fact that “there was not enough evidence” that bees were being affected – and that the samples in various tests had been contaminated. The uncanny similarity between degraded soil samples from Syria and contaminated samples that voided tests for the bees made me think: how convenient! How convenient it is for a government or a leader to ignore evidence when “tests are inconclusive” or when the “evidence is not clear”. No decision is better than a decision that you could be held accountable for!
However, we beekeepers must thank the internet protest networks – led by Avaaz.org – who managed to get enough support in countries (other than the UK) to swing the vote against the vested interests of Bayer and others who have, until now dominated the decisions taken in our food chain – from the seeds we plant, the agricultural methods we adopt through to the quality of foods we eat.
The bees have a short respite and Avaaz is now pursuing the real Dark Lord in the battle for Mother Earth. Go on. Vote. It can only help a growing wave of public opinion to counter the madness of global corporate arrogance that they are accountable to no one.
I believe that there is hope for us all with this new type of democracy emerging. The vote to ban neonicotinoids was a turning point for me. It would appear that these online campaigns really are starting to get policy makers in multinationals to think again and change their minds. They have a new body that they need to recognise – and a protest can come from nowhere and expose issues is uncontrollable ways. PR companies and even newspapers are becoming less and less effective in this new world of informed internet politics and political activism. Even governments must be encouraged as it gives them a new reason to act, not just sit on the fence because “there is no evidence”. After all, most of them want to get voted back into power.
Interested to know what you think – please do leave a comment below.
I met her once. We had been waiting expectantly for half an hour. She was late. When she finally entered the room, she surfed on a wave of power and authority – like the entrance of the Queen of Sheba without the music.
Calm, collected, nose in the air, she frowned with complete disdain for the cohort of journalists who were between us and the doorway. The flash-guns had fired like a set of uncoordinated fireworks as soon as the door had opened.
I remember vividly the soundman for the BBC camera crew who had a long, extended microphone covered in a sausage-shaped, fluffy sound muffler. He was lying on the floor to get out of the way of the cameras that were pointing at her. She virtually kicked him and made a comment (I can’t remember the exact words but it was something like) “that’s where you guys belong – on the floor”. She could easily have said “scumbag” – but I don’t think she did! It was all part of the drama.
She gave her short speech for the evening news and the twenty or so journalists were ushered out of the room with the sense of urgency that a hassled mistress of the house would want when letting her servants sweep the floor after a spill or a mess had been made by the dog.
She said “Are they all gone?” There was silence. A few nodded their heads to affirm they had all left. The atmosphere changed immediately. Less formal. Yet still quite tense. She was on a mission. She wanted answers to questions. She was impatient. Dennis just wanted a drink. He relaxed everyone by saying something like “Good, let’s have a drink”.
She was born the same year as my father, in another era, another age. What was important then is now no longer so important. What was pressing then is now, in hindsight, much less pressing – even trivial. Yet, at the time, she had the power. She had the authority. She had the sense of purpose. She got the attention and wanted change. Yet, for all the words, my longest-lasting memory was the feeling I had when she entered the room. Words cannot describe the electric presence she exuded. I’ve seldom had that feeling from anyone, man or woman, either before or since.
I was very privileged last year to submit evidence to the House of Lord’s Communications Committee on their report “Broadband for All”.
Below is The Earl of Selbourne’s summary of what needs to be done from his speech on Monday evening when the report was debated in the Lords:
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I join others in thanking the chairman, my noble friend Lord Inglewood, for the way in which he chaired the committee and introduced the debate today. From the speeches that we have heard, it is clear without doubt that the future of our economy will depend to a large extent on our ability to connect to broadband throughout all communities and sections of the population. It is not just about wealth creation and social cohesion. The ability to participate in healthcare and whole tranches of public activity will depend on connectivity. The Government must have a policy, and the Government are right to have a policy, but perhaps, as we have said in our report, they have been preoccupied by one aspect, which is to try to be the leader in Europe on superfast broadband.
The first priority has to be to achieve connectivity. If you have excluded populations, you will have a social divide and a lack of social cohesion. The Government need not worry about speed. That will follow. There are not very often market failures when it comes to cities. I therefore agree with those who have said that to spend money on improving superfast provision in cities is not something that the Government need to worry about if the market can do it itself. But there will be market failure in remote areas, where the costs of pushing out the broadband structure are too great. There will be market failure where the incumbents have an advantage, which inhibits other incomers who can help to provide some of the very many solutions that will be required to get this connectivity to all parts of the population. That is something that we are failing to harness—the undoubted innovation and enthusiasm from local communities, small and start-up companies, all of which would have a contribution to make. We go into some detail in the report. It gets pretty dense, I admit, when we talk about things such as passive optical networks and physical infrastructure access. But this is the key to it.
At the moment, we have what my noble friend Lord Inglewood called “the only show in town” for many rural areas. Whether we like it or not, because it is in the very nature of broadband to have high fixed costs, low marginal costs and great economies of scale, inevitably the incumbents will have a strong advantage. I think that we should be proud of what BT has done. It has improved enormously, by technical innovations, the ability to provide broadband on the existing infrastructure. Of course, it is rolling out broadband at great speed. It says that it hopes to achieve 90% coverage by 2017, but that immediately begs the question as to whether in national terms that is a satisfactory objective. I would certainly say, particularly as I am from a rather remote corner of the rural community and likely to be one of the 10% left out, that it is not satisfactory. So let us see what we can do to achieve that connectivity well before 2017. I do not think that anyone has mentioned yet the 4G mobile broadband technology, which is very soon to be with us and will certainly provide greatly enhanced mobile internet access to areas within adequate connectivity.
There are many different contributions to be made. The case for government involvement and public funds to be deployed rests, as I say, on achieving this reduction of the digital divide. The long-term solution will, ultimately, be fibre to the premises and the home. As others have rightly said, the cost of rolling out fibre to the home is exorbitant. We have a temporary solution, and a good one—the BT solution of fibre to the cabinet. It achieves the objective of reducing dramatically the costs. Usually, you have copper or some other connection from that cabinet. But whether BT likes it or not—it is in something like denial over this—it has the disadvantage that it does not provide open access, as I would understand it. In other words, as a local access network provider, you cannot simply move in with a compatible bit of machinery, stick it in there and do what you are trying to achieve. It is not an open access hub, as we have tried to demonstrate. That is where you come back to the technology of the passive optical network, which is a bit of a fix, as those will know who have read the report with great care. It certainly does not achieve what some of those independent service providers would have hoped for.
I think that the Government should ask quite firmly that, for the next tranche of money, which we hear will come in 2015, there should be proper open access. It is not beyond the wit of man. Clearly, there is no great financial advantage to the incumbents to roll out proper open access, but that is what is needed. If it is what is required, that is what will happen. It must be future proofed. We know that the technology changes dramatically fast. We know that some of the existing solutions, including the cabinet, will not stand the test of time for very long, but the fibre-optic cable will. Ultimately, it will be able to handle this vast amount of information. Therefore, we must make sure that as we improve the broadband infrastructure, we have the ability to upgrade and upgrade. That is why I say that, frankly, the cabinets are not very easily upgraded. You have to go back to the exchanges and think again. That is why we should look on them only as a temporary expedient.
When public money is distributed to extend the commercial network, as is happening at the moment, the Government should insist on the long-term solution. We took evidence from a particularly impressive consultant, Mr Lorne Mitchell, who is setting up a community scheme in Goudhurst, Kent. I think he was the first to put it to me how important it was for local groups to be able to access the middle mile and to get the backhaul back into the infrastructure. He said that the key to the problem is the openness of the middle mile, which is the connection back to the internet. If this can be designed in a way that gives each community a chance to get to one of these community hubs, it would be a massive leap forward. That is precisely what the committee report has tried to promote. I think it makes a lot of sense. However, the government response simply quoted a report which said that it was unrealistically expensive to have hubs in every community, and so it would be if you were to launch it all overnight. However, ultimately, it would be no more expensive than the cabinets. It is the same technology but it is a question of making sure that when you roll out the hubs, you do what you are not doing at the moment with the cabinets, and that is making them available to all. To say that they will cost far in excess of the funds available to the Government at present, as the government response does, simply misses the point. If the Government can fund any hubs such as cabinets or exchanges, they should be accessible to the community and to other providers. This simply requires a change in specification, not a change in the scale of funding.
I hope the Minister will recognise that, however impressive BT’s record of rolling out broadband is—it has, indeed, been most impressive—the interests of the BT shareholder and of wider society, particularly the 10% in rural communities who will remain without adequate connectivity in 2017 if present policies are continued, are not always the same.
There is a much better and fairer way to make the UK’s telecoms infrastructure truly open and competitive – and also give much better value-for-money to the government’s interventions. The Lords highlighted the way – but the vested interests put a cloud over the path. Many assume because BT Openreach is called “open”, then it is open. It is not. Never has been. Never will be. Clever marketing.
In spite of many other schemes being “rolled-up” by the BDUK closed scheme where only BT can win, we are letting the Government and the English Counties inject the biggest single donation to BT’s balance sheet in a lifetime. Definitely not the best way to invest government money. Definitely not an open debate in the House of Commons on how to do it differently. Only in the House of Lords.
I am really pleased to say that we were told this week that the Goudhurst Broadband scheme that I presented to the Communications Committee is still going strong – with great support from Kent County Council and our Local Parish Council. You can find more at one of my other blogs: http://www.goudhurst.net I also blog about the final 10% (last point above) at http://www.finalninth.com – so for those who wondered what I do outside writing Thursday Thoughts – then this is some of it!
Let’s hope the Lords’ Report continues to be read and championed and that Monday was not the end of the work of trying to develop a new set of really good ideas for next generation internet access distribution for the UK.