What’s this, a Bank Holiday?

Sometimes, just sometimes, the weather and the occasion come together. Even in Scotland.

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Ofcom 2010 Communications Market report

If it’s August, it must be Ofcom’s CMR – a regular part of my summer reading, stuffed as it is with facts and figures about the UK communications world. The 2010 version came out last week and I’ve been picking my way steadily through it: it’s the usual authoritative source of details and opinions about the changing ways in which modern communications is influencing our lives: as Ofcom’s press release points out, we now spend half of our waking hours connected to some communications device or other, be it TV, mobile or pc – often simultaneously, with the current phenomenon of social viewing – and we’re also doing a lot more networking.

All this demands increasing amounts of bandwidth, which places additional demands on communications network providers. Yet – as the press release also points out, broadband prices continue to fall, forming an unhealthy backdrop to what is an extremely costly investment and an illustration that markets occasionally produce misleading signals and are not always the efficient allocators of investment resource that they are claimed to be.

Here’s my illustration of the data contained in Figure 5.92, buried at the back of the section on Telecoms and networks, on p. 354:

From a communications provider’s point of view, it doesn’t look good: ever-increasing bandwidth at ever-decreasing prices (albeit that they are no longer falling as fast as they were). In fact, these years (set at constant 2009 prices) have seen a 33% fall in the monthly price we pay for bandwidth, while average connection headline access speeds have dramatically risen (actually, by 1,267%). Earlier in the report (Figure 5.64), Ofcom had reported that monthly household communications bills also continue to fall, with the fixed voice and broadband component (i.e. all household communications bills excluding mobile) falling in the same period by 17%, and fixed voice bills by over 26%. This is important since network providers looking to upgrade their networks and replace the old and increasingly redundant copper pairs with costly (glass-)fibre are having to do so on the back of falling prices, both in the direct market and in potential cross-subsidising ones. At the same time, the future – marked by falling broadband bills despite more and more bandwidth – is looking somewhat inauspicious from the point of view of building a convincing case around the scale of returns that can be made on that investment.

Apart, additionally, from the effects of any double dip recession in making any investment case even more uncertain.

Public policy seeking faster and better communications networks (and for all citizens) makes sense both economically and socially. Equally, however, we have to recognise that BT – the vehicle by which that public policy can most effectively be implemented – has not been in the public sector for some years and that private sector investment environments, not least of all those in regulated industries, tend to be fragile and frequently capricious things.

In this light, politicians need to recognise that carrots as well as sticks are a good tool; while regulators need to recognise that competition in the direction of achieving cheaper prices is not the be all and end all of regulatory policy – that investment is important and that it may be crowded out in circumstances where falling prices make the case for that investment harder to sustain. One reason to re-visit the dropped parts of the old Digital Economy Bill putting a new statutory requirement on Ofcom to take account of the impact of its decisions on investment, I think.

[Edit 27 August:  Analysys Mason comments this week that the average price of a fixed broadband bundle dropped by €5 per month across Europe during the past six months (despite an increase in speeds), but was still more expensive than mobile broadband. So, it looks likely that there will be further pressure on fixed broadband prices right across Europe – where all fixed line network operators are facing similar expensive investment decisions. And while mobile broadband is cheaper, it doesn’t deliver quite the same user experience, being slower, with more drop-outs and less reliability. And market forces dictate that fixed broadband prices need to drop further to compete, even though fixed network operators to invest to deliver quicker, more reliable connections. It’s a mad world out there.]

Love And Its Opposite

I spent the early part of my 20s in a severe state of depression about the state of human relationships and it was all the fault of ‘Too Happy’, a track on ‘A Distant Shore’, Tracey Thorn‘s first solo album.*

So, any return to an acoustic collection, while a welcome change from the electronica which mar(r)ked the last album, was viewed by me with a certain amount of trepidation – not least when the theme is divorce and heartbreak.

I needn’t have worried – our Tracey’s in rude health both personally and professionally. The title of this third solo album itself is both thoughtful and clever – what is the ‘opposite’ of love? Lust? Fear? Possessiveness? Worry? Loneliness? All, quite clearly are possible opposites to the conventional one in a mature world – and all are dealt with in a set of songs that feature tenderness, humour and Tracey’s trademark wry, but sharp, observation and compassion. As well as guitars, piano and strings and, over-riding it all, that voice – which remains as rich, deep, evocative and coolly analytical as ever: the embodiment of exhilarating sadness. Some of the lyrics might jar occasionally, but the vignettes presented are timeless and honest studies of people’s instinct and thirst for survival, whatever the mess they make of their lives and their relationships: the desire to get back on the dancefloor and have another go, to keep on trying.

And if all this lyricism sounds a bit much, the tunes are largely upbeat, hummable and recall the rhythms and beats of the electronica with which Everything But The Girl revived its career and which dominated Tracey’s last set – but, essentially, without its plinky-plink tinniness. In short, this seems like a progression: going back to go forwards. More please, Tracey – and soon.

* An album I still play plenty, by the way – though I’m better now 😉

Welcome back, Andy

The Beeb has gone public today with the news that Andy Kershaw, god-like genius of the airwaves, is to return to Radio 3 as the home of the previously announced Music Planet series of eight world music programmes by AK and Lucy Duran (see also a follow-up story in The Indy).

Some of the Music Planet stuff fills me with a certain amount of dread, as I like my world music to have shall we say a less diverse tonal quality than seems likely from some of the available clips and reported destinations for the series: musically, I’m a straight-forward 4-4-2 man based on guitars, bass and drums, supplemented by a solid brass section and an occasional strings unit, rather than in more esoteric structures filled by Tibetan nose flutes and Chinese alt-country dub fusion. Regardless, and I will of course be tuning in to all the programmes in the series, it’s great to have AK back at least dipping his toes in the radio broadcasting water.

Hack down those jungles, Andy – and then let’s hope those dulcet tones are allowed once more to range over the rest of the territory you’ve already cleared so well.

The Hand That First Held Mine

Maggie O’Farrell‘s fifth novel is a typically O’Farrell-esque relationships-based psychological drama, depicting the lives of two separate couples some fifty years apart. The drama progresses steadily within the two stories more or less in parallel, and O’Farrell manages extremely successfully to switch between the two, aided by the use of sound, well-researched period detail, such that the atmosphere in both is convincingly distinct. (The earlier-set story appears to this indirectly-informed observer to be more 60s swinging London than the same city in the 50s, but let that pass – the key remains that the two stories are quite separate in their environments.)

O’Farrell captures extremely well the shocking impact of a new baby on a reasonably new, and somewhat uncertain, relationship and portrays well the questions that such a dramatic change bring to what had previously been held secure. In the two female leads we have two extremely strong, well-drawn characters and O’Farrell has undeniable skill with crafting believable women on the pages of her novels but, in contrast, the male leads are somewhat less strong here being, in the one case, straight from central casting and, in the other, and on whom the tale spins, unfortunately rather faint. The minor characters are also rather two-dimensional (regardless of gender). O’Farrell spends less time on dramatising her male characters and, in this instance, given the plot, the result is a slightly less successful development than the book’s themes deserve; a stronger, better drafted male character would have resulted in a better realisation of her aims for the novel.

Nevertheless, this is a very readable  novel which enhances O’Farrell’s reputation as a gifted crafter of cleverly-written, engaging and satisfying stories which both hook the reader fully into the telling and which pack a compelling punch.

Craig Bellamy: it’s all wrong

So Craig Bellamy is to grace the Championship for the rest of this season. He may well ‘sprinkle stardust‘ on the League (though Henry Winter is guilty here of at least a touch of Premiership blindness, as good a player as Bellamy undoubtedly is), but the question is really one of whether Cardiff should be allowed to sign him at all – a fact clearly not lost on Motherwell, owed debts by Cardiff in respect of a player transfer which took place in June 2009.

If Winter is right, and Bellamy has not taken a hit on his £95,000 per week wages (yep, that’s £5m per year) while Man City, to which he remains under contract, are picking up little of the tab, this is a massive investment by a club which was barely able to survive the 2009/10 Championship season intact from an HMRC winding up order. (About Man City’s involvement, Stuart James in The Guardian has the reverse view to Winter in the Telegraph although the same paper was reporting quite differently on Sunday.) Cardiff’s new Malaysian owners are thought to have injected £6m in cash to pay off the immediate debt, and the club’s statements are likely to see that Motherwell are also paid what they are owed, and quickly, but the club remains heavily in debt. Bellamy himself, plus loan signings on a scale which also encompasses Jason Koumas and Seyi Olofinjana, clearly both easily good enough at this level and likely to be on Premiership wages, are likely to produce significant distortions to this season’s Championship race (an issue which is apparently lost on Winter, although it ought not to have been). Odd seasons apart, the Championship tends to be an open, unpredictable competition with any number of teams in the race (unlike the Premiership) and a loss of competitiveness there associated with such distortions is regrettable. Inevitable speculation apart, the takeover of QPR by some of the world’s richest men has not led to a similar, and unwelcome situation in the Championship.

And that’s not just sour grapes from a supporter of a rival club (which has itself in the past been charged by rival fans with ‘buying the League’ (at the level below this one)). Football remains financially in deep trouble within the context of an economy whose immediate future is uncertain, while the involvement of foreign sugar daddies in the domestic game is at best mixed (the continuing laughing stock that is Pompey, anyone?). Whether or not Cardiff’s new owners see Bellamy’s wages as sustainable, it remains true that the glamour and the hype of the Premiership make ‘chasing the dream’ the stuff of addiction – and the cost, both to the clubs we support and to the level playing field which makes/made football competition a compelling spectacle, is likely to be immense.

The UEFA financial fair play regulations are likely to have some effect at the level of European competition (eventually…) but football, and those in charge of it, needs to take steps to control the addiction if the game is not to eat itself. A limit on the proportion of club turnover that can be spent on wages (and this from a committed trade unionist) would be a start and might start to return a semblance of normality and fair competition to the game. You know, it might just not be too late.