web analytics

At Tech.pinions Carolina Milanesi writes about remote working during the COVID-19 epidemic:

There has been a lot of talk over the last week of how COVID-19 might be the pivotal moment for remote working to really take off. China, Silicon Valley, Japan and even Italy are all adopting remote working at various degrees to limit the spreading of the virus. There is such excitement around remote work that brands like Zoom have seen their stock value climb up.

While I really hope people are right and we will see remote working remain relevant once the threat is removed, I cannot help but be skeptical because we have been here before.

Source: Why Does it Take the Threat of a Pandemic to Support Remote Working? – Tech.pinions

Teleworking has been a perennial technology story for well over a generation. I’ve written about the idea since the late 1980s. One of the first posts on this site was Will bosses accept telecommuting?

Telework in 2000

In the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 I was working for The Australian Financial Review.

In Avoid the rush and take up teleworking I wrote about Sydney’s plan to keep workers from commenting into the city during the games. From memory there was a lot of extra traffic at the time, in part because businesses took precautions.

ORTA, the Olympic Roads and Transport Authority, is promoting teleworking as a strategy to help companies beat anticipated transport problems. Teleworking happens when people carry out work at a location other than their normal office, but remain linked to the office. The connection might be as simple as a phone or a fax, but increasingly it involves remote computers linking to an office network.

In practice, Sydney companies using teleworking as a temporary measure during the Olympics will continue functioning more or less as normal. In many cases their customer and suppliers will not notice much difference.

This was such a long time ago that businesses still took fax machines seriously.

Better networks, better tools

With fast fibre networks, mobile phones, cellular networks, better software tools and better portable hardware, teleworking is so much easier today. Millions of people do it. It’s been part of my working life for 30 years. Yet it is still not as widespread as you might expect.

In the linked story Carolina Milanesi rightly says the technology is ready. Yet much of the time business culture isn’t prepared for remote working. She mentions trust as an issue.

Remote working needs trust

Trust isn’t a problem for consultants and other professionals who are paid for their output. It is an issue for command and control style managers. Those dinosaurs will need to give up some of their control as COVID-19 spreads.

The sad thing is that even if companies switch to remote working to get through a pandemic, or epidemic, there’s a good chance they’ll change back later. For years IBM encouraged employees to remote work, only to have second thoughts and drag everyone back to the office.

Another issue mentioned in the linked post is that remote employees can feel isolated. That needs to be managed. Bosses won’t be able to do much during enforced periods of teleworking in a pandemic or other crisis. At other times there need to be strategies to make sure people feel part of a team.

Telework was a technology story when I wrote about it in 2000. It isn’t any more, today it’s a management story. Management need to think more in terms of employee output and less about time serving.

Vodafone’s new Pay Monthly and Business mobile plans mean customers no longer run out of data

Source: Vodafone serves up endless data for data-hungry customers

Vodafone’s new mobile plans are a clever charm offensive.

Instead of letting you get to the end of your monthly data and turning off the tap, Vodafone’s new plans slow the stream to a trickle. In the phone business this is known as throttling.

This, in itself, is hardly new. Spark and 2degrees both have high end plans where they throttle speeds when customers use too much data. The difference is this applies to all monthly account customers.

Vodafone calls this ‘endless data’.

For some people reading this, the second part is even more interesting. The new plans all allow hot spotting at no extra charge. Hot spotting, sometimes called tethering, is when you, in effect, turn your phone into a Wi-Fi router. Then you can hook up a tablet or a laptop to you phone.

Throttling means that when you’ve used all the data in your plan, you can still download. But those downloads take place at a much slower rate. The press release says speeds are up to 100mbps at normal times, but will drop to 1.2mbps.

As the release points out this is more than enough to check mail, messages or maps. It won’t be enough to stream HD video or play demanding games. If you use your phone for work and that work doesn’t involve video conferencing, you’ll probably be sweet.

The new plan is a kinder, gentler way of dealing with people who run over their paid-for data. It should pay off for Vodafone which seems to be have something of a renaissance at the moment with its early 5G launch and other initiatives.

It also gives Vodafone another rod to beat Spark with. As things stand the more generous plans are a reason to switch carrier. That is until Spark sharpens its pencil.

Laurence Millar:

I do all my banking, travel booking, shopping and communicating online.  Surely in the 21st century, I should be able to vote online? If you are voting to elect the president of your sports club, then online voting is convenient and easy. But it should never be used to elect our government[…]

Source: Online voting? No thanks! – NZRise

It’s comforting to see someone as knowledgable and experienced in government computing as Laurence Millar choses to speak out about the dangers of online voting.

He makes all the points you might expect: the risks are too high and the rewards for ratbags are too tempting. We know for certain that criminals and unfriendly governments have intervened in election campaigns. Some even boast about it. So it’s realistic to assume they will turn their attention to an actual vote.

The reality is almost no computer system is foolproof. And few are immune from attackers who are prepared to throw enough resources at breaching security.

But there’s more. Millar writes:

…the chimera of manipulated votes is in itself sufficient to undermine confidence in the result of the election.

And this is just as likely to be the goal of those who would attack elections. Yes, they’d love to manipulate the vote. But they also want to undermine the very idea of a democratic vote.

This suits their purposes almost as much.

Millar’s other points are all valid. It’s worth reading the original post.

Yet something else bothers me about the idea of an online election in New Zealand. Typically projects of this nature are put out to tender and awarded to the lowest bidder.

Tender writers may talk about how the project won’t just go to the cheapest bid, but also about the values, privacy, security and yada, yada, yada that need to be embodied in the system.

We all know the reality. Lower prices win.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Tender responses may be full of piety and goody two-shoes language about protecting this and respecting that.

Words are cheap.

When push comes to shove, saving a few bucks here and there will impress the organisation issuing the tender more than anything else.

It always does.

And even if money is no object and the first tender goes to a first class bidder who does everything right, when it comes up for renewal someone else will be purchasing.

Or the next time. Or the time after that.

Sooner or later cheapskates or, just as bad, companies that are better at lobbying governments than delivering on promises will get the job.

Before you know it there will be an argument for, say, using an overseas cloud provider or a well known brand that hasn’t done a sterling job managing its own digital security in the past.

It is in the nature of these things. Sooner or later we are disappointed.

CommsDay reports on the TelSoc NBN Futures Forum held yesterday in Melbourne. The focus was on ‘Learning from International Experience’.

Former Telstra executive and telecommunications consultant Dr Jim Holmes says looking at New Zealand’s UFB project from Australia was like “watching the carnival over the hill”.

Holmes says: “NZ is declaring victory. They have produced some very good results with much less overall government pain and suffering than we’ve had”.

He added that the country provided a model example of bipartisan policy development.

This is not the only reason UFB succeeded and outperforms NBN, but it is an important one. As former Chorus CEO Kate McKenzie told me in an interview two years ago; this country is good at “New Zealand Inc.”. That’s where everyone puts aside rivalries and works together for the national good.

New Zealand’s UFB project started under a centre-right National Party government. A centre-left Labour-lead coalition government finished the job.

It was a National election promise in 2008, but Labour went in to the election with a similar plan.

Although there were political rows, the UFB was never under a political threat.

This compares with Australia where the NBN was, and to a lesser degree, still is, a political football.

Australia’s usual narrative goes on to compare its low rank in international indices.

There is no question it under performs against other countries. Although this is often overstated.

And we should remember New Zealand’s UFB had a head start. When New Zealand began its fibre to the premises roll-out, a fibre to the node network was already in place. Australia, in effect started from zero.

What should be of more concern to Australia is the sheer amount of money it wasted with NBN. New Zealand’s project came in under budget. The government money used for the fibre build was in the form of soft loans, so the net cost was negligible.

Compare that with the NBN. The total cost depends on who you talk to. The official cost A$51 billion. That’s a lot of money for a network which underperforms the carnival over over the hill.

Last week Spark announced its first half results for the six months to December 31. It is a solid report showing strong revenue growth.

Spark looks to be heading on the right track. Yet there is an interesting angle on one of the company’s strategic moves.

Nine paragraphs into the market release there is this quote from CEO Jolie Hodson:

“We made a deliberate decision to limit wireless broadband sales in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, as a conservative measure to ensure customers had a great viewing experience while we introduced our new streaming service. Our capacity was more than sufficient, so we expect this to be a one-off and connection growth to return to trend in the second half.”

In other words Spark back-pedalled on fixed wireless broadband sales because senior management didn’t want customers to have a disappointing Rugby World Cup streaming experience.

Fixed wireless alternative

Spark pushes fixed wireless broadband to its customers as an alternative to fibre. It’s a strategic move because Spark owns its wireless network. That means the company doesn’t pay a wholesale fee to a fibre company. It keeps all the money and that makes for a higher profit margin.

Investors love that.

Downplaying fixed wireless broadband in the run up to the Rugby World Cup made sense. Although fixed wireless broadband should be able to give customers enough bandwidth to watch high definition streaming video, that’s not always the case in practice.

Unlike fibre, which has consistent and predictable performance, fixed wireless broadband performance varies from place to place. In some cases it also varies at different times of the day.

Fixed wireless broadband bandwidth is shared. So if a lot of people connect at once, speeds can drop. The Rugby World Cup saw data traffic peak across the nation. That put pressure on more marginal fixed wireless broadband connections.

Good at times

Fixed wireless broadband can be good. I’ve heard from happy fixed wireless customers who enjoy decent speeds and uninterrupted connections.

There are others who say their service does not do an adequate job with streaming video.

One common complaint is that wireless broadband speeds are not consistent. In some cases speeds vary in a regular pattern over the course of a day. Others say they get intermittent slow downs.

Conservative on fixed wireless broadband

Spark describes the decision to back-pedal on selling fixed wireless as conservative. That may be the case. But it underlines that the company is not confident about its fixed wireless performance.

There was no conservatism about selling fibre broadband to customers in the run up to the Rugby World Cup.

The message is clear: Spark knows fixed wireless broadband is a lower quality product. It knows customers get a better experience on fibre.

That said, fixed wireless broadband is often an acceptable alternative for customers living in areas that are not served by fibre. It is the main technology for Rural Broadband Initiative customers.

Again, going by user anecdotes, some people who can’t get fibre find fixed wireless performs better than their local copper broadband service. Others do better with a fast copper connection.

SamKnows

This is all anecdotal. Yet there is some evidence in the Spring 2019 Measuring Broadband New Zealand report prepared for Commerce Commission by SamKnows.

Broadband download speeds peak versus 24-7 performance

Customers with a 100 mbps fibre plan saw average download speeds of 99mbps. During peak time the dial barely moved. Samknows reported peak speeds at 98.6 mbps.

With fixed wireless broadband the average speed is 25.8 mbps. At peak times this drops to 22.7 mbps. That’s not a huge drop, but it squares with the anecdotal evidence that some customers see big drops while others see little or no drop.

Fixed wireless broadband latency

The SamKnows data also looks at latency. This is the time it takes for data to do a round trip. If latency is high, online users of applications like video conferencing and gaming can expect stuttering and dropouts. SamKnows says 30 ms is high.

SamKnows found nine in ten fibre connections had latency below 20 ms. In comparison 95 precent of fixed wireless connections had latency of over 30 ms. The average latency is around 50 ms.

Of all the latency tests performed on Fibre connections, 92% were below 20ms. At the other end of the chart, 95% of Fixed Wireless latency results were above 30ms.

Dropouts

That’s past the point where dropouts start. With everyday TV streaming, buffering can shoulder some of that load. Even so, it is a worse customer experience.

SamKnows’ summary says:

“…many fixed wireless connections will experience issues with latency-sensitive applications such as video calls and gaming.”

VDSL2+ can deliver near fibre speeds and in some cases is consistent and reliable. Before fibre came down my road I had a Spark VDSL2+ connection that delivered a consistent speed of more than 70mbps.

In three years it never wavered. You can read about my fixed wireless experience in this post. The speed was never anything like as fast as the VDSL2+ connection.

Fibre most reliable

Of course VDSL2+ is not as good as fibre. In the report summary SamKnows says:

“Households with multiple user should consider fibre, if available, for the most reliable performance.”

Spark knows all of this. The reason it pushes fixed wireless broadband is that the margins are higher. That’s because there is no wholesale charge.

For many Spark customers fixed wireless broadband is the right product. But let’s not pretend it isn’t an inferior product to fibre. Spark is willing to let its investors know that.

Disclaimer: I edit The Download magazine for Chorus as a contractor. It covers the company, the telecommunications industry and fibre broadband. These are my views and not those of Chorus.