Fibre-laying tools aid rural broadband rollout

Infrastructure firm Openreach is using a range of tools, including ditch diggers and diamond cutters, to speed up the rollout of ultrafast broadband services to hard-to-reach rural areas.

Laying fibre can be disruptive, slow and expensive, so labour-saving devices can play an important role, it said.

The firm is adding more than 200 market towns and villages to its full fibre rollout.

But it still wants the government to do more.

Openreach’s chief executive Clive Selley said: “Openreach has always been committed to doing our bit in rural Britain – delivering network upgrades in communities that are harder to reach and less densely populated. We intend to build a significant portion of our full-fibre network in these harder-to-reach areas of the UK, and are announcing 227 locations today.

“Our ambition is to reach 15 million premises by mid-2020s if the right investment conditions are in place. Currently, the biggest missing piece of this puzzle, is getting an exemption from business rates on building fibre cables, which is critical for any fibre builder’s long-term investment case.”

Matthew Howett, founder of research firm Assembly, sympathised with Openreach’s frustration over business rates.

“It’s a barrier that the whole industry is behind removing. Currently in England the exemption only lasts for five years, and 10 years in Scotland, but for the operators the business case for rolling out fibre is over a much longer period, often over 15 years.”

He also acknowledged that “broadband, while digital, can still be a very analogue and labour-intensive job to install”.

“As much as 70% of the cost of rolling out broadband is in the civil works – the digging, manual labour and road closures that go with it. So, any innovations that reduce these costs will ultimately result in broadband being deployed faster, and to more people.”

Tools helping to speed up the job include:

  • Diamond cutter – a giant rotating blade with diamonds embedded in the metal coating means it can slice through roads and pavements, leaving a neat channel to feed fibre-optic cables into
  • Ditch witch – a blade carves a narrow trench, eliminating the need to dig manually
  • Ground-penetrating radar – pulses of high frequency radio waves are sent through the ground

Broadband choices

There are three main types of broadband connection that link the local telephone exchange to your home or office:

  • ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) uses copper cables to a street-level cabinet or junction box and on to the house
  • FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) uses a faster fibre-optic cable to the cabinet, but then copper cable from there to the house
  • FTTP (fibre to the premises or full-fibre) uses a fibre-optic cable to connect to households without using any copper cable

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Article 13: UK will not implement EU copyright law

Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore has said that the UK will not implement the EU Copyright Directive after the country leaves the EU.

Several companies have criticised the law, which would hold them accountable for not removing copyrighted content uploaded by users, if it is passed.

EU member states have until 7 June 2021 to implement the new reforms, but the UK will have left the EU by then.

The UK was among 19 nations that initially supported the law.

That was in its final European Council vote in April 2019.

‘Terrible for the internet’

Article 13 is the part of the EU Copyright Directive that covers how “online content-sharing services” should deal with copyright-protected content, such as television programmes and movies.

It refers to services that primarily exist to give the public access to “protected works or other protected subject-matter uploaded by its users”, such as Soundcloud, Dailymotion and YouTube.

Copyright is the legal right that allows an artist to protect how their original work is used.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticised the law in March, claiming that it was “terrible for the internet”.

The new reforms have been widely criticised by tech giants such as Google.

The company had campaigned fiercely against them, arguing they would “harm Europe’s creative and digital industries” and “change the web as we know it”.

YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki had also warned that users in the EU could be cut off from the video platform.

Kathy Berry, a professional support lawyer at Linklaters, welcomed the government’s stance on the law, claiming it will “allow the UK to agree to more tech-friendly copyright provisions in free trade deals with other countries”.

The law sparked suggestions from its biggest critics that it would end up “killing memes and parodies,” despite it permitting the sharing of memes and GIFs.

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GM’s Cruise unveils its first driverless vehicle

Cruise, the self-driving car start-up, majority owned by General Motors, has unveiled its first vehicle designed to be driverless.

The electric-powered Cruise Origin was developed by Honda, which also has a stake in the company.

The launch of the vehicle, which has no steering wheel or pedals, had been delayed from last year.

Cruise said it was designed for shared ownership: “It’s not a product you buy, it’s an experience you share.”

Chief executive Dan Ammann wants drivers to move away from individual ownership to a sharing model, to help reduce emissions, accidents and congestion.

Speaking at the launch in San Francisco, he also said the Cruise Origin was not a concept vehicle: “It is self-driven. It is all electric. It is shared. It is a production vehicle.”

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UK’s first full-size ‘driverless’ bus tested in Glasgow

This is not Cruise’s first foray into driverless cars. For years it has been testing modified Chevrolet Bolt electric cars with test drivers at the wheel.

General Motors had aimed to launch a commercial, self-driving vehicle service in San Francisco last year but delayed the plan saying the vehicles needed more testing.

The Cruise Origin faced unexpected technical challenges due to difficulties in identifying whether objects were in motion.

Honda took a 5.7% stake in Cruise for $ 2.75 billion (£2.1bn) in 2018. As part of that deal General Motors announced plans to develop a self-driving vehicle in October 2018. Japan’s SoftBank’s Vision Fund has also invested in the company.

Other car makers are in a race to launch self-driving cars using the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technologies although they are being held back by safety concerns and regulations. A number of fatalities involving autonomous vehicles have led to greater government intervention and calls for more development.

German car maker Volkswagen has been struggling with the development of self-driving cars and has complained about the ”huge complexities that we are facing”.

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Can Microsoft’s ‘moonshot’ carbon goal succeed?

Tech giant Microsoft has announced two bold ambitions: firstly, to become carbon negative by the year 2030 – meaning it will be removing more carbon from the air than it emits – and secondly, to have removed more carbon by 2050 than it has emitted, in total, in its entire history.

In an interview with the BBC’s Chris Fox, Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the plan was a “moonshot” – a very big idea with no guaranteed outcome or profitability – for the company.

He stressed there was simultaneously a sense of urgency and a need to take the time to do the job properly.

He also said that the tools required don’t entirely exist yet.

Mr Smith talked about tree planting, and direct air capture – a way of removing carbon from the air and returning it to the soil – as examples of available options.

“Ultimately we need better technology,” he said.

But don’t expect Microsoft to roll up its sleeves: “That’s not a business we will ever be in but it’s a business we want to benefit from,” he added, announcing a $ 1bn Climate Innovation Fund, established with the intention of helping others develop in this space.

Microsoft makes ‘carbon negative’ pledge

He expects support from the wider tech sector, he said, “because it’s a sector that’s doing well, it can afford to make these investments and it should.”

But historically, isn’t it also one of the worst offenders?

CES in Las Vegas, the huge consumer tech show, has just ended. It was attended by 180,000 people most of whom probably flew there, to look at mountains of plastic devices clamouring to be the Next Big Thing.

From gas-guzzling cars and power-hungry data centres to difficult-to-recycle devices and the constant consumer push to upgrade to new shiny plastic gadgets – the tech sector’s green credentials are not exactly a blueprint for environmental friendliness despite much-publicised occasional projects.

There was no immediate announcement from fellow tech giants about any collaborations with Microsoft, or indeed similar initiatives of their own – but the aim is ahead of the current ambitions of many, including Facebook, Google and Apple, which have not (yet) made a “carbon negative” commitment.

That said, software-maker Intuit has pledged to be carbon negative by 2030, and Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 that Amazon would be carbon neutral by 2040.

Mr Smith made an open offer to share Microsoft’s carbon-monitoring tools.

“Competition can make each of us better,” he said of the notoriously rivalry-fuelled industry.

“If we make each other better the world is going to be better off and we should applaud each other as we take these new steps.”

Mr Smith agreed that “the switching on of an Xbox”, Microsoft’s games console, was as much part of the firm’s carbon footprint as the carbon that went into creating the cement used in its buildings.

However, he did not suggest scaling back on collaborations with the big energy firms – on the contrary, we are going to need more power rather than less in the coming decades, he said – and that has troubled campaigner Greenpeace.

“While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft’s announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed – Microsoft’s expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine-learning and other AI technologies,” commented senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.

Environmental awareness, especially among the under-30s, will ultimately prove to be a big driver for market change, Mr Smith believes.

“I think it’s interesting to think about a future where buying a product and understanding how much carbon was emitted to create it is like going to the supermarket and looking at what’s on the shelf and seeing how many calories it contains,” he said.

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Microsoft makes ‘carbon negative’ pledge

Microsoft has pledged to remove “all of the carbon” from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975.

Chief executive Satya Nadella said he wanted to achieve the goal by 2050 .

To do so, the company aims to become “carbon negative” by 2030, removing more carbon from the environment than it emits.

That goes beyond a pledge by its cloud-computing rival Amazon, which intends to go “carbon neutral” by 2040.

“When it comes to carbon, neutrality is not enough,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith.

“The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world’s climate,” he added in a blog.

“If we don’t curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic.”

Carbon neutral v carbon negative

When a business says it is carbon neutral, it aims to effectively add no carbon to the atmosphere.

It can do this by:

  • balancing its emissions, for example by removing a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere for every tonne it has produced
  • offsetting its emissions, for example by investing in projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world
  • not releasing greenhouse gases in the first place, for example by switching to renewable energy sources

Until now, most companies have focused on offsetting emissions to achieve neutrality.

This often involves funding projects in developing economies to reduce carbon emissions there, for example building hydroelectric power plants, encouraging families to stop using wood-based stoves, and helping businesses make use of solar power. These reductions are then deducted from the main company’s own output.

The result of this slows carbon emissions rather than reversing them.

To be carbon negative a company must actually remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits.

Microsoft says it will do this using a range of carbon capture and storage technologies.

The announcement was largely welcomed by environmentalists, who said it showed Microsoft was thinking about the bigger climate change picture and not just its own role.

“It’s a hat trick of sustainability leadership,” said Elizabeth Sturcken from the Environmental Defence Fund.

“But to really shift the needle on climate change, we need 1,000 other [companies] to follow-suit and turn rhetoric into action.”

However, Greenpeace warned that Microsoft still needed to address its ongoing relationship with oil and gas companies.

“While there is a lot to celebrate in Microsoft’s announcement, a gaping hole remains unaddressed: Microsoft’s expanding efforts to help fossil fuel companies drill more oil and gas with machine-learning and other AI technologies,” said senior campaigner Elizabeth Jardim.

Microsoft’s plan is still more aggressive than those taken by other tech firms, including Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, which have not made “carbon negative” commitments.

How will Microsoft achieve its goal?

Microsoft has suggested a range of ways it could remove carbon from the atmosphere, including:

  • seeding new forests and expanding existing ones
  • soil carbon sequestration – a process of putting carbon back into the ground. This could be achieved by adding microbes and nutrients to parched earth, which should have the added benefits of making the soil more fertile and less susceptible to erosion
  • direct air capture – sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, possibly by using large fans to move air through a filter that can remove the gas
  • bio-energy with carbon capture – growing crops and then capturing the CO2 they emit when, for example, they are burned to produce heat or fermented to make fuels such as bioethanol. Negative emissions become possible if the amount of CO2 stored as a result is greater than that emitted during production, transport and use

Tech companies’ manufacturing and data-processing centres create large amounts of carbon dioxide.

By one estimate, the sector will account for up to 3.6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions this year, more than double the level in 2007. And it has been forecast that in a worst-case scenario, this could grow to 14% by 2040.

Microsoft has said it plans to halve emissions created directly by itself and those involved in its supply chain by 2030.

One way the company intends to do this is by increasing the carbon fees it charges its internal business groups.

Since 2012, Microsoft has forced its divisions to set budgets that take account of the cost of emissions created through electricity use, business travel and other activities.

Now that charge will incorporate indirect emissions such as those created by customers using electricity to power the divisions’ products.

And since Microsoft cannot avoid producing CO2 altogether, it will invest in technologies to capture and store the gas to reduce the amount in the atmosphere.

Mr Smith said this would involve tech “that doesn’t fully exist today”.

The firm added that its data centres and other facilities would use 100% renewable energy by 2025.

How do Microsoft’s plans compare to rivals?

Software-maker Intuit has also pledged to be carbon negative by 2030.

The Californian company has said it will reduce emissions by 50 times more than its 2018 carbon footprint.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced in September 2019 that his company would be carbon neutral by 2040.

His pledge included plans to buy 100,000 electric vehicles for the online retailer’s delivery fleet.

Google has launched a set of digital tools to allow cities to track and reduce emissions. The search giant also offsets its own emissions by investing in green projects.

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Microsoft ends Windows 7 support: What should you do?

Cyber-security experts are urging Windows 7 users to upgrade their operating system.

Microsoft is going to stop supporting Windows 7 from Tuesday so that it can focus on “newer technologies”.

As a result, Windows 7 users will no longer receive the all-important security updates and patches that keep their machines safe.

One in four Windows users is running Windows 7, according to statistics website StatCounter.

What does this all mean?

It means that Microsoft is ending the cat-and-mouse game with hackers seeking to exploit software bugs in the Windows 7 operating system.

If perpetrators find a flaw in Windows 7, Microsoft will not fix it.

Without continued software and security updates, Windows 7 machines are more likely to be infected with viruses and malware, Microsoft wrote on its website.

“Running an unpatched machine means that the flaws in the code will never be fixed and as exploits for those flaws become known and widespread, your chances of being successfully attacked grow very rapidly,” said Rik Ferguson, vice-president of security research at Trend Micro.

David Emm, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, added that people need to move to a supported operating system as soon as possible.

What are the risks?

Hackers use malware to invade, damage or disable computers.

It can be used to steal personal and financial data, spy on other users without them knowing, and to hold companies to ransom until a payment is made.

In May 2017, the NHS was hit by the WannaCry ransomware attack.

A government report in 2018 concluded that the attack could have been avoided if NHS Trusts had updated their computers and applied the necessary security patches.

Hackers exploited weaknesses in unpatched versions of Windows 7, as well as to a lesser extent the earlier Windows XP, which Microsoft had stopped supporting.

What should you do with your Windows 7 PC?

Computers running Windows 7 will still function after Tuesday but they will become less and less secure.

Microsoft is urging people to move to Windows 10, a newer operating system that it sells for £120.

“Going forward, the best way for you to stay secure is on Windows 10,” it said. “And the best way to experience Windows 10 is on a new PC.”

It is possible to install Windows 10 on old PCs but Microsoft warns that it may not run smoothly.

In order to run Windows 10, PCs must have a 1GHz processor, 16GB of hard drive space, and 1GB of RAM memory.

“While it is possible to install Windows 10 on your older device, it is not recommended,” Microsoft said.

That said, Windows 7 users do not need to upgrade if they use their PC offline.

What do UK officials say?

UK authorities have warned Windows 7 users not to do internet banking or send emails after Tuesday.

The warning was issued by the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of Britain’s intelligence agency GCHQ, and first reported by The Telegraph,.

“We would urge those using the software after the deadline to replace unsupported devices as soon as possible, to move sensitive data to a supported device and not to use them for tasks like accessing bank and other sensitive accounts,” an NCSC spokesperson told the BBC.

“They should also consider accessing email from a different device.”

What about for businesses?

Some companies rely heavily on applications that only work with Windows 7.

Businesses can pay Microsoft if they want to continue getting updates for Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Enterprise.

The Windows 7 Extended Security Updates will be available until 2023 for businesses of all sizes.

Charges range from $ 25 (£19) per device to $ 200 per device and increase each year. The costs will mount quickly for organisations with lots of computers.

For businesses, it is not always easy to upgrade to a newer operating system, Mr Ferguson said.

“There may be business-critical applications that will not run on newer operating systems, or there may be significant costs associated with upgrading those applications,” he said.

Places like hospitals and factories may have equipment that is designed to run exclusively on Windows 7.

“The user is not always able to upgrade without voiding the warranty,” said Mr Ferguson.

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CES 2020: Quibi aims to change how we watch shows on phones

A new video-streaming service that limits the length of its programmes and shows to bite-sized chunks will launch in the US in April.

Quibi also keeps the action full-frame however viewers hold their phones.

It will feature exclusive entertainment content made by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Bill Murray and Reese Witherspoon.

And unlike Netflix, it will also screen specially-made news bulletins made by the BBC, NBC and Telemundo.

But will audiences pay $ 4.99 (£3.80) a month to watch it with adverts or $ 7.99 to go ad-free?

BBC Click’s Spencer Kelly met founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and chief executive Meg Whitman at the CES trade show in Las Vegas.

Catch up with all the BBC’s CES 2020 coverage

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CES 2020: Restaurant cat robot meows at dining customers

A robot cat designed to ferry plates of food to restaurant customers has been unveiled at the CES tech expo in Las Vegas.

BellaBot, built by the Chinese firm PuduTech, is one of a number of wacky robotic inventions being shown off at the event this year.

There is also UBTech’s Walker, which can pull yoga poses.

And Charmin’s RollBot. It speeds a roll of toilet paper on demand to bathrooms that have run out of the stuff.

One expert said it was likely that robots exhibited at CES would only continue to get more bizarre in the future.

BellaBot, the table-waiting robot cat, is a service bot with personality.

It updates a previous model that had a more utilitarian design. BellaBot, in contrast, features a screen showing cat-face animations.

It mews when it arrives at tables to encourage customers to pick up their food.

And if the diners stroke BellaBot’s ears, it initially reacts with pleasure.

“The owner’s hand is so warm,” the bot is programmed to say in response.

But if customers continue petting it for too long, its expression changes.

“It gets mad to remind you not to interrupt its job,” explains the firm.

The Chinese company is targeting the machine at restaurant owners in China, who often struggle to employ enough waiting staff, according to PuduTech.

The firm’s existing robots are already in use at 2,000 restaurants worldwide.

It plans to show off the new device at a booth designed to look like a futuristic restaurant when the CES show floor opens on Tuesday.

But BellaBot may find it harder to operate in the real world, commented tech consultant Paolo Pescatore from PP Foresight, because of the challenge of navigating restaurants at busy times.

He added, however, that restaurants are expected to become increasingly dependent on automation in one form or another.

UBTech’s newly-updated Walker bot is also being shown off at CES this year.

The model can perform a series of Tai Chi and yoga poses, demonstrating a “huge improvement in motion control”, according to its maker.

“It’s continuously tracking its overall centre of gravity throughout the yoga positions – the kind of dynamic [artificial intelligence] you would expect of a robot that ‘lives’ in your home alongside your family, going up and down stairs, carrying heavy objects for you,” explains UBTech spokesman Jeff Gordon.

Walker’s other abilities including being able to push a cart, draw pictures and pour liquid into a cup.

And Procter & Gamble’s American loo roll business, Charmin, has attracted a flurry of attention with an unusual droid designed to complement toilets and bathrooms: RollBot.

“Imagine yourself there, you’ve run out of toilet tissue, nobody hears your call,” P&G researcher Gregg Weaver told the BBC.

“The robot will find you in the home and deliver you a fresh roll.”

RollBot is summoned via Bluetooth on a smartphone.

However, P&G currently has no plans to make it commercially available – which may mean waiting a little longer for that desperately needed roll.

Thanks to improvements in hardware and software capabilities, robots will gradually become better and better at expressing themselves and mimicking human capabilities, predicted Mr Pescatore.

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He also suggested that in commercially competitive, consumer-facing settings, quirky robots were likely to stand out from the crowd.

“It is one of the fast-growing tech trends,” he added.

“Expect far more wackier robots in years to come.”

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GirlsDoPorn: Young women win legal battle over video con

A US judge has awarded $ 12.8m (£9.8m) to 22 unnamed women, ruling that they were tricked into appearing in widely distributed online porn videos.

Some of the models duped by the owners and operators of the GirlsDoPorn website had become suicidal, he said.

They were told the videos were for a private collector or overseas DVDs, according to the 181-page judgement.

The women – aged 18-23 when they shot the videos – were also assured the videos would never appear online.

But they were uploaded to GirlsDoPorn’s subscription-based amateur porn website, and clips were shared on some of the world’s most popular free-to-view adult websites.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright ordered GirlsDoPorn chief executive Michael Pratt, 36, videographer Matthew Wolfe, 37, and porn actor Ruben Garcia, 31, to take the videos down from GirlsDoPorn and take steps to get them removed from other sites too.

GirlsDoPorn markets itself on the premise that the women in the videos are not professional porn stars.

‘One-time-only’

It claims to feature women filming their first and only porn videos, and many of the women on the site are students in need of extra money, according to court documents.

Due to the one-time-only amateur paradigm, GirlsDoPorn required a constant stream of new models to keep the content on the website fresh.

The San Diego court ruled that the site used fraudulent practices to recruit new models including taking “calculated steps to falsely assure prospective models that their videos will never be posted online, come to light in the United States, or be seen by anyone who might known them”.

The website operators had also assured models that their real names would never be linked to the videos.

However, the court heard evidence that the accused had shared private and identifying information about the models on third-party forums that resulted in some of them and their families, being harassed online.

Complex contracts

In a bid to recruit new talent, GirlsDoPorn persuaded former models to text words of reassurance to prospective models who were worried that the videos might be posted online.

On the day of the shoot, models were often given alcohol and cannabis before being asked to sign an eight-page contract.

Judge Enright awarded the 22 women $ 9.48m in compensatory damages and $ 3.3m in punitive damages. Each woman will receive $ 300,000 to $ 550,000.

He said that the videos had become common knowledge to the women’s friends and family due to the tactics used by those behind GirlsDoPorn.

“As a result, plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences,” he wrote.

“Collectively, they have experienced severe harassment, emotional and psychological trauma, and reputational harm; lost jobs, academic and professional opportunities and family and personal relationships; and had their lives derailed and uprooted,” he continued.

“They have become pariahs in their communities. Several plaintiffs have become suicidal.”

Judge Enright gave both sides 15 days to appeal against his decision.

‘My heart just wept’

The defendants also face criminal charges filed in federal court in October.

The allegations filed against them are the same as those in the civil case.

Wolfe and Garcia are currently in federal custody. Pratt is a fugitive believed to be in New Zealand, his home country.

“Our clients were real,” said Ed Chaplin, the lawyer representing the women, according to CourtHouseNews.

“They had similar stories because the defendants told the same lies to everyone,” he said.

“I sat and talked to a lot of women. My heart just wept for them, how their lives have been impacted by this and how they were sucked into doing what they did.

“The attitude these defendants expressed when the women complained [and] the scheme to shut them up was despicable.”

CourtHouseNews reported that lawyers for GirlsDoPorn declined to comment when approached.

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