Monday, 30 June 2014

Cycling in Bracknell

I was coming in to Bracknell town centre, on my bicycle, approaching along the path in this picture, from the other side (i.e. towards the camera).

I was accosted by a pedestrian insisting it was illegal to cycle there.

I pointed to the sign showing the start of the pedestrian zone and pointing out that the other way the sign clearly says the pedestrian zone ends (as per picture).

She was having none of it, insisting she had spoken to police about this before.

What do you do?!

Personally, what I think we need is a "cyclists give way to pedestrians" zone for the town centre so that careful cyclists can cycle in to town. Sadly I don't think such a thing exists in the road traffic laws.

Update: Apparently they have something like that in Cambridge, Thanks Julian Huppert

Friday, 27 June 2014

Odd comment from the ICO

"The resources we use are publicly available; we do not have privileged access to information that is not also available to the general public. Tracing calls is instigated by the police in the event of an allegation of a criminal offence.  As a breach of the PECR is not a criminal offence we do not have the authority to trace calls."


Is it just me, or am I just missing the point or what.

If breaches of a PECR are not a crime, what is the point of the PECR.

But more to the point, the PECR amends the Data Protection Act and allows the ICO to send information notices to anybody they need to requiring information relating to a breach of these regs. So they have means to ask a telco to trace a call or provide details of a subscriber or anything. It even looks like they have powers to get a court order to seize things. Have I mis-read these regulations or something.

Why are the ICO not bothering to use the powers they have?

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Now OFCOM ignore the PECR

Seriously, what the hell is the point in that law?
  • The law says that for a corporate registration in the TPS we have to be sent an annual reminder.
  • We were not sent an annual reminder (the TPS admit this).
  • So the law was broken.
  • As a result I did not know if still listed so I had to contact the TPS to confirm.
  • Contacting the TPS has costs in paper, ink, envelope, postage and my time.
  • Those costs were a result of the breach of not sending a reminder.
  • The law says I am entitled to claim my costs for a breach.
OFCOM think otherwise, and keep telling me they will not even reimburse my postage, and every letter they send I send another back which increases the costs I am claiming.

I wonder if I need to sue OFCOM now. Probably safer to sue the TPS.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Good girl

I am going to be told off for a lack of tact here, but I am just trying to say it how it is, sorry.

My youngest daughter just passed her driving test - first time, and I am proud of her, but what she did next was impressive.

She went and got herself a loan and used it to buy herself a car.

This was, to my surprise, as per the deal when I got her a pony a while ago. She does equestrian studies at college and loves her pony (Jupiter). I really was not expecting it, after her elder sisters both borrowed a shit load of money and never paid back a single penny. They can hate this post as much as they like, but it it true - they have not paid back anything of the money they borrowed, not a penny.

So I am really proud of my youngest daughter. Well done for not taking the piss and doing what you agreed. I am almost tempted to find the money to buy the car for you, it would be a under tenth of what one of your sisters borrowed. Maybe if they ever pay me back I will. Well done G.

ICO get worse

One of the first times I encountered the ICO was over ten years ago when the The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 first came in to force on 11th Dec 2003.

The reason was that telcos have to offer Anonymous Call Rejection (for which they may charge) and the mobile operators were not offering it.

I complained to OFCOM and the ICO and got nowhere. Basically, the end of the line was the ICO admitting they were not following the rules (i.e. they were breaking the law) but saying they would do nothing about it!

Sadly over 10 years on the story has not changed, with one of my customers just getting an answer from the ICO on the matter.

Their excuse (like they need one) is: "we are aware that automatic network-level call rejection is currently not feasible on all categories of service (e.g. on mobile services)."

Since when has "not feasible" been an excuse for not following the law. The mobile operators have had over 10 years to make it feasible and still done nothing. This is an EU wide requirement.

Think about that - 10 years was enough time to build the large hadron collider! The entire GSM mobile network was devised, specified and deployed in well under 10 years.

Obviously it is not only feasible but incredibly simple to add ACR as a service. Andrews & Arnold Ltd offer services on mobiles with ACR even, and this is being pointed out to the ICO to refute their bogus argument.

This is just another example of the ICO treating these laws as a total joke.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Mobile roaming

There are a couple of interesting news items of late, which talk of mobile roaming charges.

One is MEPs vote to scrap mobile roaming fees in Europe which basically says you would pay the same for calls/data/etc when roaming within the EU as you do at home. Another is 'National roaming' plan to tackle mobile phone blackspots which calls for UK inter-operator roaming.

These both have some interesting consequences.

Firstly, if the cost of using a phone on your home network really does end up the same as roaming for normal phone contracts, then the huge advantages that foreign visitors already get by being able to use any UK network becomes even more crazy. It means it will be better to deliberately get a mobile on another EU countries network even if you only ever use it in the UK - it will give exactly what the second article talks about, which is being able to use any UK operator on your phone. In fact it would be better as there would be no need to force operators to do that (already done by roaming agreements) and it would not just be in "rural areas" where coverage is poor, but everywhere.

One of the things that concerns me is how it may affect the services A&A offer, as we now do SIMs, and from next month expect to have roaming SIMs as well.

We are expecting that out cost prices for roaming and non roaming will be different, so I do have to wonder how the legislation will be drafted.

Our prices are simple, for calls on O2 in the UK is is 2p/minute for the mobile leg, and we expect roaming costs to be simple too, the same price for all EU roaming, but a higher price than 2p/min.

If we are actually forced to make roaming the same price as non roaming that means we will be forced to increase the cost of non roaming, which is crazy. Hopefully the way we do things will fall outside the rules by some means and we won't be forced to increase prices.

Of course we have even more complexity as to what is and is not roaming as our roaming SIMs can either have "O2 UK" as their "home network" or switch to "Vodafone NL" as their "home network" if no O2 coverage (or on a menu), so we have cases of a UK user "roaming" to a UK network on a SIM they buy from a UK company, but only some of the time. The calls/text/data costs depend on which setting the SIM is using at the time.

I wonder if I need to have a chat with OFCOM. There is also stuff about 0800 being free from mobiles some time soon, and that may be an issue too as we don't charge differently for any number dialled. The mobile leg is to get you to your choice of SIP gateway, and if that allows "normal calls" then an 0800 would work but we'd still charge for that mobile leg.

I do hope these rules are not going to stifle innovation. I think we have a really cool service with SIP2SIM and it would be a shame if regulations got in the way.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Watson, come quickly...

Summoning help?!

When telephone services first came in to being it was one of the first times that we had a communications medium that would allow people to summon help in a timely fashion.

It made a lot of sense for the state monopoly telcos (such as GPO in the UK) to provide a means to summon help by calling 999, free, from a payphone or even (if you had one) your home phone.

But times have moved one, and the whole concept of a "phone line" and "traditional voice telephony" is getting somewhat blurred.

OFCOM have insisted that VoIP providers provide access to 999, which, in itself, may have some merit. The issue I have is that VoIP is really no different to any other protocol using IP (Internet Protocol). We don't expect everyone that runs a web site to have a "999" button on the site in case you have an emergency, for example. VoIP is not really much different.

There are a lot of things in progress to try and get VoIP and emergency services working well together. It largely revolves around "location information" so that when you have an emergency it is possible to locate you quickly and easily.

With landlines the records for a phone number had details of where that phone was located, and if you were on the phone you were there.

With VoIP there is no location data in the network. If there was, then how would it get there and how accurate would it be? Unlike the old days of an analogue phone line, not only is it possible that my UK VoIP phone number is in use from a device that is not even in the UK, but increasingly likely. Tunnels for IP level data, and VoIP platforms being simple software that anyone can, and do, run, means that you really have no way to know by "the network" where a VoIP user is located.

So, my initial views on this are that the end equipment being used for VoIP should be trusted to report where it is located, in VoIP headers. It would not be rocket science for location data to be default in PPP and DHCP and where handsets have location information (smart phones and the like). Technology could all work together to provide that.

However, the more I think about this, the more I think the link between "summoning help" and "telephony" needs to be broken once and for all.

Telephony is increasingly becoming just one of many types of communication that we use. I use irc, iMessage, SMS, email, FaceTime and such things more than I use phone calls, and whilst I may be a techie, this is a changing trend.

How long before the concept of a "VoIP provider" is moot - where people call their friends using a link on FaceBook, and businesses using a link on the businesses web site using webRTC. There won't be a "VoIP provider" to provide access to 999. Even now, you can call me using sip:a@k.gg without any intervening "voice telco".

What we need is standards that allow an "emergency app" on smart phones. That can use the GPS and location services in the phone, contact the local emergency services operators by voice, video, whatever, and provide location. It does not make use of any "voice provider" in any sense, it uses IP.

Indeed, an emergency app can not only provide location, but video, stills, and other monitoring of the situation - much more data to help emergency services and allow assistance to be offered. Way more than just the old style voice call.

Maybe the few remaining landlines need to carry on supporting 999 and perhaps even conventional mobiles with cell location, but why pick on one IP application "VoIP" to jump through unnecessary hoops here when they will not really work anyway and just add cost and hassle.

The world needs to change, and not in the way the various standards bodies are heading. By the time they have the standards, and the legal framework to enforce those standards, for VoIP location data, the idea of a "VoIP provider" will be long dead. Lets make new standards that move forward.

ICO refuse to take action

Even when provided with evidence of a breach (a complete call recording, which they can finally now play with the help of their IT dept) and with caller's number and date/time and so on, they are REFUSING to actually take action.

"As mentioned in my previous correspondence, we will not be taking any further action in relation to your complaint."

What is the point in the ICO existing if they won't take action, and what is the point of the law saying I can ask them to take action if they are not expected to act on my request...

I have pointed out that I will continue to send call recordings and request that they take action as long as the law says I can.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Uptime

I just explained "uptime stats" to my Dad! He got it, and laughed!

He is feeling a lot better, by the way... Though it apparently took three attempts to reboot him.

Thanks all for the nice comments on the previous post.

Our favourite telco

I used to say "our favourite telco" as a euphemism for BT :-)

We had a really good meeting with another telco today, and it was really nice to be able to talk to competent technical people, and commercial people and have a good and productive conversation to further business for both of us. We even had some good surprises with some of their technical suggestions.

The good news is we hope to have roaming SIMs next month, and we are expecting several of the minor technical niggles to be tidied up.

Update: Yes, I am using a roaming SIM that roams to other UK networks when no O2 coverage now. Testing. We should get tariffing next month.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

ICO unable to play a call recording

To my surprise the ICO claim to be unable to play a call recording. I have sent them details of junk calls, as a simple WAV file. I offered to send as MP3 in future, but they say they are unable to play an audio file.

I have to wonder what sort of IT kit they have that is unable to play such a file!

They also want me to tell them what is in the call recording and so on.

I have pointed out that, unlike them, I am not paid to enforce this legislation, my time is valuable. Sending the call recording with date/time and numbers gives them all the evidence in the most efficient way for me (the victim of the crime).

I'll keep sending them until they get the necessary IT to be able to play a recording. After all the law says I can ask them to exercise their enforcement action, and that is all I am doing. If they don't like that they can get the law changed. It is not like I am spamming them. I'll try MP3 files anyway, we'll see.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Catching junk callers

I posted recently on some annoying junk callers, who, like most now, seem to call with a pre-recorded message and the you press a key to be put through to someone.

These are illegal for two reasons - firstly it seems they do not check the Telephone Preference Service, and secondly because they are calling with a pre-recorded message without agreement from the called party. Both are illegal.

What is interesting is that they are smart enough not to call from withheld numbers now. The latest lot are calling from 0843 numbers, which are somewhat unusual and expensive numbers to call back. They are also calling from different numbers within a large range, presumably to bypass the blocking services offered by some telcos.

So what I did was identify three blocks of numbers that had managed to get calls to me personally (and I am on TPS). In fact they managed to hassle me so many times I got annoyed, hence taking action.

The three blocks so far are 0843960, 0843410, and 0843724. I have made these a "known spammers" list and added a feature to A&A VoIP to allow blocking of such calls. This is default on all unallocated numbers, and was briefly for new numbers.

Now, there have been a couple of queries on this. The lack of transparency of the numbers (as I had not published the list) or the process for getting on the list. No process for how someone appeals to get off the list, and so on.

This is not surprising - and is ironically all of the reasons why we don't block access to some web sites. Being the custodian of the "bad people" list, or even subcontracting that list to someone, is problematic. For email spam, there are well establish software systems for scoring spam that are pretty impartial, and do not generally rely on one source of badness rating.

Even so, I feel these criticisms are valid for the junk callers stuff, and I welcome comments on how to proceed?
  • Should I scrap the idea (apart from my own numbers and unallocated numbers)?
  • Should have per person sets of junk callers to block (hard work, but possible)?
  • Should have some system to crown source junk caller numbers - maybe even a way you press keys on your phone or dial something after the call to mark as a junk caller?
  • Could I automate it at all? These junk callers use a pre-recorded message - could I make a system to hash the first few seconds of the callers voice and look for duplicates? Quick, lets patent* that :-) 
What do people think I should do?

Whatever I do I'd like it to be transparent, optional, and impartial.

For now, this is no longer default for new lines.

What happens to these calls? Well, they get to a pre-recorded answer saying they will be recorded and published and then sending DTMF, and then asking who the calling company is before telling them they are breaking the law and to f-off. The recording then goes to me to vet (they were warned it would be recorded), which I can usually do by looking at the wave form and not even listening to the call - if it is clearly one of these junk callers, I forward to the ICO as a formal complaint asking them to take enforcement action.

Today the ICO responded saying they will keep the complaints on file but were not able to identify the caller. I pointed out that the calls have a CLI which is almost certainly valid as it is expensive / revenue generating and so nobody would fake someone else's expensive CLI. I even provided the number ranges from the OFCOM list for them and asked them to contact those telcos to identify the callers. I can't be sure the CLI is not spoofed, but it seems unlikely.

The plan is to keep sending to the ICO until they do something.

* I know I can't patent an idea I just made public - you don't need to say.

[update] Oddly ICO say they cannot investigate individual calls! Well why the hell not - the law says I can ask them to exercise their enforcement action and I'm going to keep asking them until they do or the law changes. Grrr.

Friday, 13 June 2014

💩

For those that cannot read it, the subject of this post is the Pile of Poo character (U+1F4A9). [Actually, blogger has messed it up as my iPhone won't show it even].

I have managed to get the pile of poo to correctly display on my iPhone as an incoming SMS text (i.e. using normal GSM SMS not iMessage or some such).

This is actually quite a milestone. There are various gateways to send texts but they all seem to have limitations or ways in which they translate to/from the GSM SMS protocol.

We can usually manage to handle multi-part (i.e. very long) texts, just about. Most of the time we can even handle something called a User Data Header (UDH) which is extra binary data sent with the message.

Getting UDH right is actually crucial for iMessage registrations to work at all. Otherwise you iPhone would not believe you had the number you have (it sends a text and expects a response that has a UDH).

Getting those key things to work is hard enough, but character set coding is a nightmare. This is because texts can be sent in one of three character sets.
  • GSM 7 bit character set. This has 128 characters, which include the normal letters (A-Z,a-z) numbers, punctuation, and a load of accented characters as well as upper case Greek. A text can have 160 characters using this coding. There are then extra characters using ESC (escape) as a prefix to get things like a Euro symbol (using two characters). Even just getting the @ character to work can be a challenge as it is coded on character 00 and not its usual place which breaks some things.
  • USC 8 bit characters - the first 256 unicode characters. You can have 140 of these in a text.
  • USC 16 bit characters - the first 65536 unicode characters. You can have 70 of these in a text.
Each of these can be used for any part of a multipart text, but the whole of each individual text is in one character coding system. The use of UDH makes for less space, and multipart texts use an extra UDH as well. So it is not simple.

The big issue is most text gateways are ASCII or some such, and do not map to/from these character sets. Even when XML is used that handles UTF-8, teh systems rarely give enough attention to detail to translate characters correctly. We have taken the view that the only right way to do things is to use UTF-8 coding for our interfaces with customers for texts and for us to do the translations right! For this reason we have been nagging the mobile operator, and they have finally come through for us.

The good news today is that the low level raw interface has been opened up allowing texts to and from our voice SIMs to use any of these character coding and UDH.

But even with all of that, the Pile of poo is extra special. It is 1F4A9 which is too big even for UCS16 coding. The trick is to use UTF-16 to use two of the UCS16 codes (total 32 bits) to code it. To my utter surprise this actually works and iPhones handle it!

We are gradually integrating various aspects of our new texting system now. The clean interface to and from our mobile SIMs is a really good start. If we can get other mobiles and even land line numbers all integrated more seamlessly, that will be even better.

The DSR is dead, long live the CCICACR!!

Today's the day...

The familiar Distance Selling Regulations repealed, and now we have The Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 which came in to force today.

I have already complained to my bank over their 0845 customer service number. Not sure if 0845 is "basic rate" or not. I see Sky still have an expensive 0844 customer service number.

Section 41 says: Where a trader operates a telephone line for the purpose of consumers contacting the trader by telephone in relation to contracts entered into with the trader, a consumer contacting the trader must not be bound to pay more than the basic rate.

No idea what basic rate is, but really you would have hoped people would be a tad more aware of laws like this in advance. They have had 6 months to sort this.

What is interesting is the enforcement. Apart from relevant authorities having power, we also have options for civil enforcement which are perhaps more useful than some other regulations. In this case: If in those circumstances a consumer who contacts a trader in relation to a contract is bound to pay more than the basic rate, the contract is to be treated as providing for the trader to pay to the consumer any amount by which the charge paid by the consumer for the call is more than the basic rate.

So, it becomes part of the contract to pay the extra cost back to the consumer. That could be deducted from payments, reclaimed, or sued for... What fun.

That is all before we consider the serious implications of not having an "order with obligation to pay" button for your on-line orders.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Turing test

I was intrigued by the news of something passing the Turing test today.

Convincing people that you are a person when you are a machine is not easy.

But convincing a machine you are a person when you are is also not easy. I mean seriously, WTF ?


When a machine can pass a captcha like that, I'll side with Turing on this one.

[update] Oddly, when scaled down and blurry I can almost read digits now! Even so, it is meant to be "two words"?!

Monday, 9 June 2014

More Sanity

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/05/internet-users-cannot-be-sued-for-browsing-the-web-ecj-rules?CMP=twt_gu

"The court ruled that browsing and viewing articles online doesn't require authorisation from the copyright holder, settling a row between the PRCA, the industry body for Britain's PR industry, and the Newspaper Licensing Authority (NLA), which had raged for five years. The fight began in a copyright tribunal between media monitoring firm Meltwater and the NLA."

Yeh another ruling providing some sanity and clarity on these issues.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

revk.uk

Nominet (who run the .uk name space) are opening up the second level of .uk domains, which means you will start seeing domains used for web sites and email addresses and so on that end .uk without the usual .co.uk or .org.uk or the like. This is happening on Tuesday.

For example, the domain revk.uk will be mine.

It was never really clear why they are doing this apart from adding confusion and making more money for registrars. Nominet itself is a non-profit company, but its members are registrars that make money from domain registration (like we do). So diluting the domain space to allow domains ending .uk makes more money for us all. The down side is it means yet more confusion for normal people. Even now the owner of a .co.uk and a .org.uk domain can be different.

Of course, we have the issue of who gets first choice of the new domains. One proposal, which made perfect sense to me, was the oldest of any of the third level domains gets first choice. This would have meant A&A getting aa.uk as we had aa.net.uk before any other third level aa.something.uk domain. It would have also meant that I personally would have got windows.uk as my windows.me.uk domain pre-dates windows.co.uk. But sadly the rules are not such.

The rules allow someone, at a specific deadline, with a .co.uk to have the corresponding .uk domain, or if there was a unique third level domain that was not .co.uk. Well, that is how I understand it. Basically, if you do a whois on the domain you want, it will confirm which of the existing third level domains is entitled to it, and they get several years to take that up. Some would argue this basically means anyone with a .co.uk domain have to pay again for the .uk version.

Whatever I think of the rules and the way it has been done, it is now happening, and from Tuesday you will be able to get a .uk domain.

I was rather pleased that a friend of mine, today, asked for a domain and none of the .uk third levels existed with that name (surprising these days). So he has registered the .co.uk version now, so that he can be sure of getting the .uk version on Tuesday.

I have updated the control pages (clueless) for domains on A&A to have a "Check .uk" button. This does a whois lookup and confirms if you can have the domain. If you can, it does a one-button copy of the existing domain and tries to register. Bear in mind that this will not work until Tuesday (there is a warning on the page). It remembers the outcome and shows a "Reg .uk" if you can register. So you can check today and tomorrow, and actually register the domain come Tuesday if you want. Once Nominet open the registrations we'll be testing this to make sure it all works as planned. Thankfully the domains matching existing registrations are reserved for some years, so no mad rush.

There will be things to watch out for though. Someone has registered some interesting .co.uk domains, thereby securing the second level domain. E.g. 0rg.co.uk, 1td.co.uk. Some already existed such as c0.co.uk and Itd.co.uk. These will all allow some interesting look-alike domains, such as something.0rg.uk and something.1td.uk, which will cause some confusion and could be used for scams.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Arrrg! Why do people work for these criminals?

When the hell will the ICO get some teeth?

We need these laws beefing up somehow. I did suggest an amount that could be used in a civil case rather than proving damages. Sadly my blood pressure going up does not count as damages.

Latest bozo calling me, rather than a honey pot - no idea where he got my details: recording here.

I note they used a mobile number as well, but did not sound like a mobile calling, so may be breach of OFCOM Numbering Plan rules as well.

Oh, well, recording forwarded to ICO who will no doubt ignore it.

[update] A&A have just launched a new feature which is a softer Anonymous Call Reject which only catches known junk caller calling numbers. These are then recorder against a monologue that tries to get information ("what company are you calling from") and then the recording will (eventually, after we check it) be emailed to the Information Commissioners Office asking them to take action. This is enabled on all new numbers as well as all invalid numbers.

Have you tried turning it off and back on again?

Slightly worrying news about my father, who is going in to hospital to have a procedure that involves stopping his heart, and then starting it again to get it to beat properly.

I know nothing of the medical procedure, but it does sound an awful lot like the sort of thing we do in IT.

Anyway, I hope it all goes well and he feels a lot better after a reboot. Maybe they should install linux at the same time :-)

Get well soon Dad.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Can't fix your fault, I have a hospital appointment...

A phone line installed in a slightly odd site up in Scotland, never worked, so we get BT engineer out to fix it, as you do.

It is complicated because the site is unmanned, and the actual customer is based in London. They sent their chap up to Scotland to be there for the engineer and arrange access. Massive inconvenience for them, obviously.

BT engineer turns up, does very little and leaves because he has a hospital appointment, so "we'll just have to book another appointment for another day" WTF!!! We are escalating in BT, obviously.

I am at a loss as to what to say. I just hope shit hits fan in BT somewhere over this.

Some days you really do feel like you are just banging your head against a brick wall.

BT charging for fixing a fault

It seems BT are officially charging money for fixing a fault in the BT network.

If there is a fault, and an engineer goes out, fails to find or fix the fault so that another engineer is needed - even if that second engineer does find and fix the fault and confirms it is a fault in the BT network, BT will still charge for the first (arguably incompetent) engineer visit. The charge is a lot of money - more than most ISPs will make on the broadband line in a year, possibly several years.

[update] I should point out that the charge for one such engineer visit is actually more than it would cost us to get a brand new phone line installed with broadband.

This is, of course, in my opinion, totally unreasonable and unfair in every respect. We could not pass on this in our customer contracts (not that we would want to) as it would fall foul of unfair contract terms legislation. Sadly, in a commercial contract with BT, it is tough!

At the end of the day this means we ultimately have to absorb the extra cost and ultimately pass this on to customers in our pricing.

[update] one may argue that if not us doing that, BT would have to absorb the cost and increase overall prices - but in that case BT have a commercial incentive to fix faults first time. Currently they have a commercial incentive to deploy incompetent engineers.

This is not the first case of apparently unethical charging by BT, at least in my opinion.

We currently have an ongoing battle where BT will charge two ISPs for the same service for the same time. An FTTC line has a 12 month term, arguably because BT plc t/a Openreach charge BT plc t/a BT Wholesale a 12 month minimum term. But if migrating an FTTC from one BT Wholesale ISP to another during that 12 months, which is purely a billing exercise by BT Wholesale and does not involve Openreach they will charge the old ISP for the remainder of the 12 month period and charge the new ISP for the same period, as well as restarting the 12 month term. This is clearly just charging money because they can, and not based on charges they have to pay suppliers or costs in any way. This is also clearly anticompetitive in that when it is BT plc t/a BT Retail that is the ISP that is stitched up by paying this arbitrary extra charge to BT plc t/a BT Wholesale, it has no impact on my BT Group plc shares.

Sadly, telcos like BT don't have to be ethical or fair, do they? If you are a BT Group plc shareholder and don't agree, please tell the board.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Keeping secrets

As I am sure you all know we like to be open and honest at A&A.

For no particular reason I was looking at the Crime and Courts Act 2013 schedule 7 part 3 today.

It lists things that one is not meant to disclose. Well, it says "must not" further disclose some stuff.

Is it me, or does it not list an offence for breach of part 3? The offences (part 5) relate to paragraph 2(2) (further disclosure of HMRC information, personal customs information or personal revenue customs information), or (ii)paragraph 3(2) (further disclosure of social security information) only.

So what happens if someone ignores the "must not" in part 3?

Any lawyers reading that can explain that one to me?

New penknife

I got myself a new penknife.


A penknife is always useful, whether opening parcels, or cutting my nails. I use almost everything on it one time or another, and, of course, being geeky it has a USB memory stick on it. This one also has a pen and tweezers!

I got a new one as the old one had a knackered blade. The old one had extra gadgets including a laser pointer and blue-tooth buttons for doing presentations. Sadly the small batteries fell out and the battery cover bit got lost meaning new batteries did not stay put, and so it got used once for a presentation. When it worked it was very cool. I went for the simpler model this time.

I am quite impressed with the way things like USB memory sticks have moved on. The old one had a 16GB stick. It was complicated with some sort of controller one side, a big flash memory the other, as well as some small active and passive components...


The new one is way simpler. One "chip" with contacts on it on one side that are the USB contacts, and that it it. It is thinner (half shell on USB). Even so the chip only takes half the stick. It is also 32GB.


But even that is clearly 3 years old from the date on the chip! It looks like the previous one is 2009 so 2 years difference between these two solutions.

When I think back to the computer we had at school, we were lucky to have 16K of RAM, and that was probably slower than this :-)

There is, of course, still one invaluable tool I carry which Victorinox do not do in their penknives...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

What's special about fibre

In light of my recent blog posts it is about time I was a bit less ranty and a tad more educational, so I decided to try and explain why fibre is important when talking about "fibre optic broadband".


Virgin's explanation of copper being bad and fibre being good talks of your broadband slowing down as it gets further from the exchange (using copper). This is not a bad start to explaining it, but I think I can do a little better.

When we are talking about an Internet connection it means computers passing digital signals over the distance between you and somewhere else in the world (e.g. a web server). Whilst you might see web pages, emails, pictures or movies, it all boils down to ones and zeros carrier over some form of communications link.

There are two main physical communications link that are used (we're not really considering radio / WiFi at this point). The two types of link are copper or fibre.

The picture above shows the two -

The copper is metal, shiny orange-ish metal that conducts electricity. As you know, metal can carry electrical signals. In this picture you see coaxial cable, it means there is a thick copper wire in the middle, an insulation around it, and then a wire mesh around that, which the white plastic around that. This is one common means of carrying electrical signals. The other common means twisted pairs which is two wires, insulated and twisted around each other. These are often with other pairs in a protective outer coating, and usually are colour coded to identify which pair is which.

The fibre looks thin and what you can see in the picture if 4 colours strands. In actual fact that is four glass fibres which themselves consist of an inner and outer layer of glass, and then a protective coating and a colour coding so you can tell which is which of the four, on the left you can see that is all within a further protective coating, and the whole lot goes in plastic tubing. This is one typical way of handling fibre.

Obviously both of these come in various styles. You can get extra thick cooper coax cable for going long distances. You can get different grades of fibre, and they can come in different protective coatings. There are fibres under the sea that need armour coating to avoid damage.

So, it comes down to how these different communications systems carry the digital signals.

When we talk of speed, that si a tad deceptive. The speed of signals is different. The fibre is literally the speed of light (in glass). The copper is a little slower. But that is not actually what concerns you - what matters is the data rate. This is how many bits of digital signal can be carrier per second. So we talk of megabits per second (millions of bits a second) and gigabits per second (billions of bits) and so on. That is what most people think of as "speed" when talking of Internet connections.

Fibre uses light, in fact it uses lasers. The light is not usually visible, and can actually be lots of different frequencies (colours) of light all mixed together in a signal fibre. There are some clever ways to get more signals down a fibre, but even the simplest, which is a single laser that flashes on and off for the ones and zeros, is very reliable and very fast. Whilst the light does get dimmer over distance, the light can go a very long way without any sort of repeater or amplifier and the light can flash very fast allowing very high rates for sending data. It is kind of intuitive that light can go a long way - just look up at the stars and think about it.

Copper, on the other hand, uses electrical signals. These work very well over short distances, and are used for most networking - the cat-5 cables you may see use 4 twisted pairs of copper, and work up to 100m. But making copper carry signals any longer is harder work. There are clever tricks (such as ADSL) for getting signals to go for miles - but the data rates are lower for the longer cables. It is not that the signals slow down as such, but that what you can achieve - how much data per second you can send - is lower on longer lines.

For a copper pair, or coax, going 100m can allow quite respectible data rates. A 100m cat5e cable can easily handle a gigabit per second, and do so very reliably. But going further is hard work, and if you went 10km you would be lucky to get one megabit per second on a copper pair using ADSL.

For a fibre you can easily go 10km, and in fact fibre will quite happily do speeds of gigabits per second at distances of 70km. With more modern systems and multiple lasers a fibre cable can carry terabits per second. So, the distance from an exchange to your home, even if that is 10km, would easily be able to do 10 gigabits with relatively simple equipment these days.

Most of the Internet involves fibres. Any link between any two places that is more than around 100m will almost certainly be fibre (there are point to point microwave links and satellite links in some cases). Often, in equipment racks, the links between equipment, going a few metres, will be copper network patch leads, but even these will sometimes be fibre.

So, when we look at the Internet service you get at home, the hundreds of miles of fibre in the Internet are not the important bit - that just works - that is "fast". The important bit is the last part that gets to your home. In your home you can use fast short network leads or whatever you like, but the last few miles or even the last hundred meters to your home is what matters.

There are tricks done by BT, Virgin, and others. These are to get the fibre that bit closer - some times within a few hundred meters - by having fibre to a street cabinet. That means the last bit is much improved even using copper, but it is still massively different to using fibre.

Fibre to the cabinet and coax or twisted from the cabinet for the last bit can get speeds at a few 100 megabits if you are close. If you truly had a fibre from the exchange all the way to your home then that could ultimately handle terabits (not that any ISP could afford to sell such a service yet).

There is another factor with fibre vs copper. Whilst glass may seam fragile, it gets well protected, but copper suffers from some other problems which don't affect fibre. Copper can pick up radio interference from thin air, be subject to nearby lightening strikes, and get corrosion of joints. Fibre, on the other hand, just works, and short of someone putting their JCB through it, it will stay working pretty much forever.

So it matters what is in the last bit - the link to your home - and whether it is fibre or not.

Biggleswade Sweet Chilli Crisps

I like these crisps!

Pipers do some rather nice and quiet strongly flavoured crisps.

But why "Biggleswade" sweet chilli? Well, I can only assume that by naming the specific region where the chilli is grown they are giving the impression of having carefully selected the very best chilli to use and are proud of it. Indeed, that may actually be the case, but from a marketing point of view it is all down to perception. They could have said almost any town where chilli is grown and created the same impression.

But really, could I tell if it was some other sweet chilli that was used? No, of course not. I either like the flavour or I don't and I am not an expert and could not tell where the chilli was grown. There may be someone that can tell but I am sure almost everyone buying these will not be able to tell. The people that could tell probably would not stoop to eating crisps :-)

Now, recently I was accused of some extreme pedantry over the whole "fibre optic broadband" thing. My understanding is that they get away with it (both Virgin and BT) because the service they sell is the same whether actually fibre all the way or not. I.e. the customer cannot tell the difference. Obviously there will be those that can tell (without looking at the cable itself) as I believe DOCSIS has different characteristics in terms of latency jitter than a proper fibre service. But for almost all practical purposes they are the same.

Apparently, except for extreme pedants, that is all that matters, and so the ASA are happy for the service to sold as "fibre optic broadband".

So, does that mean that I cannot trust my crisps? Could they be using any old sweet chilli on the basis that I cannot tell the difference and therefore it does not matter. Or is it actually fair and reasonable, and not just extreme pedantry, for me to expect that I get what it says on the packet even though I can't tell the difference?

So...
  1. Is it acceptable for Biggleswade Sweet Chilli crisps not to actually have Biggleswade sweet chilli?
  2. Is it acceptable for fibre optic broadband not to actually be fibre optic?
  3. If not the same answer to both, what is the dividing factor here - why is one OK and one not?
Just curious...

Monday, 2 June 2014

Zebra++

I had a visit from Zebra, which was a couple of guys, one from their Borne End office and one from the US that does development.

They were very interested in what we were doing, and the whole thing about using the printers from linux boxes that were not local. They do not have a linux API/library yet, only Windows, so their current model is around applications on a windows machine working the printer locally.

We do things differently and have what would these days be called cloud services that talk to the printer from machines running linux and web servers based on remote sites and data centres. Our staff access them via web pages and it manages work flow for everything from printing router programming cards to issuing and printing SIMs.

They were impressed with what I had worked out by packet dumping their protocol and how we used it, and were interested in ways it could be used to go to market with printers - e.g. cloud based student management for a colleges with an on-site card printer. The fact we can do the broadband side and IPs and firewall and port mapping was even more interesting. The fact that the printer does IPv6 is a bonus as well for this - well done.

I was pretty impressed that they wanted to see ways of using their printers and software that they had not expected, and took us seriously.

I was even more impressed that they sent me their internal documentation on the Ethernet interface and are working on ways to USB hub the card reader in to the product to allow working via a single Ethernet interface. I have sent them my command line tools and we'll keep in touch. My code is likely to be updated based on their spec, but it seems I was spot on for most of my reverse engineering.

So well done Zebra for being a forward looking manufacturer. We need more like this. I have had to reverse engineer so many things this is refreshing.