I bought BT’s offer of an upgrade to ‘superfast’ broadband because the standard service seemed to be deteriorating just as the daily quota of sales calls from India was increasing. But the improvement is barely perceptible. The blue light that tells me the hub is working turns orange to tell me it’s not with irritating frequency, while the sales calls keep coming. Am I pleased with new service? ‘No, not really.’ But wouldn’t I like to buy an even more elaborate contract? ‘Click.’
All this provokes a thin smile when I read the claim of the new Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, that ‘the UK’s digital landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years’ with superfast broadband reaching ‘95 per cent of homes and businesses’. The inadequacies of our internet services are a stain on BT and its Openreach division as well as a drag on the economy; no amount of ministerial rhetoric makes it better.
Call me an old cynic, but I suspect Wright and his colleagues were ordered to go out and babble about anything but Brexit this week, and I’m not seduced by his ‘blueprint’ that promises full-fibre broadband (fibre-optic cable to your house, replacing the last copper wires) for 15 million households by 2025 and the whole country by 2033. We’d still be more than a decade behind the likes of Spain and Portugal, but is our distracted government, reliant on one quasi--monopolist network operator, really capable of making it happen? I wish I could think positively, because better broadband means higher productivity and more fertile conditions for entrepreneurship. But if I receive a sales call from the Culture Secretary telling me how confident he is that the project will be delivered, I’m afraid I’ll just hang up.
Still asking ‘Who are we?’
When it comes to cyber-mischief, we worry more about state-sponsored Russians than about whatever our vaunted Chinese trading partners might be up to, or capable of. And we seem to have forgotten the unsolved mystery of Huawei — pronounced, at least by me, ‘Who are we?’
This Shenzhen-based telecoms giant with alleged military antecedents became a focus of controversy in 2012, when there were fears that the kit it was supplying for UK networks, including those connected to GCHQ, might contain ‘backdoor’ features (hidden chips that allow data to be siphoned out) or otherwise constitute a security risk. A solution was concocted in the form of the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre at Banbury, overseen by UK officials, to conduct tests on the Huawei black boxes that are now part of our ‘critical infrastructure’.
Elsewhere, politicians in the US and Australia warned against awarding government contracts to Huawei and some congressmen objected to its funding of US university research. But the company’s mainstream manufacturing business has gone from strength to strength: it is on target this year to sell 200 million smartphones around the world, almost as many as Apple.
Now concerns have been revived by a report from the Evaluation Centre, in coded language, which has found ‘technical issues… in Huawei’s engineering processes, leading to new risks’, with particular reference to components supplied by third parties. To which Huawei replies politely: ‘We are grateful for this feedback.’ The company also says, as always when asked, that it is privately owned by its employees and not under state control or the influence of the People’s Liberation Army. To be fair, no concrete public evidence has ever been produced to the contrary.
But the aura persists. When I wrote about Huawei in 2012, I quoted a respected Hong Kong/China-watcher who described its ownership as ‘completely opaque’ and a Canadian investigative journalist who labelled it ‘the People’s Engineering Army’. In response, Huawei sent a plummy English PR man round to Old Queen Street to reassure me that there was nothing to worry about. He was watched by an unsmiling Chinese lady who remained silent throughout the meeting; it seemed impolite to ask her seniority in the organisation, but I’m guessing she was at least a colonel.
Brits at the wheel
Another British manager rises quietly to the top of the automotive industry: Mike Manley — described as a no-nonsense leader with a fierce work ethic — is to succeed the charismatic Italian Sergio Marchionne as head of the Fiat Chrysler group. Manley made his reputation by transforming the fortunes of Jeep, which Chrysler owns; having studied engineering at South Bank Poly, he made his way upwards as a sales manager for several UK distributors before joining DaimlerChrysler in 2000. Now he’s at the high table of car-making alongside Linda Jackson, the chief executive of Citroën, who began her working life as an accounts clerk at Jaguar. Another who would have been with them if he had not died young (in a fall from a hotel window in 2014) was Karl Slym, head of Tata Motors and an alumnus of Derby technical college. We think of the UK as an island on which foreigners used to build car factories when it was advantageous, in trade, tax and supply-chain terms, to do so; let’s remember that in the current generation we have also provided a gritty training ground for world-class executives.
At home in Yorkshire we’re in the midst of our wonderful Ryedale music festival — and the highlight so far has been the Bratislava Hot Serenaders, a 20-piece jazz band led by trumpeter Juraj Bartoš, who charmed us with his diffident comic patter before blowing the roof off our community hall. His band has a seductive old-world style, but if you missed their last tour gigs this week I fear you may never get to see them: what chance, after Brexit, of work permits for a busload of middle-aged Slovaks dressed like 1920s nightclub bouncers?