» June 3rd, 2013
More fun with Orange and their utterly insane billing system. This time, it’s not the amounts that they’ve got wrong. But the sheer stupidity of the way they present information on their online billing system, which makes it incredibly hard to work out exactly what this month’s bill is.
I have two Orange account numbers; one is my phone, on a normal tarrif. That’s all paid up to date, and the other is my mother’s phone, on the old ‘Virgin Mobile’ tariff, which means it costs next to nothing. I forgot to pay the bill for her phone last month, so wanted to see how much I should be paying now. It’s not easy!
First, I signed in to the billing system; my account was correctly shown, with the number (I’ve removed account numbers and bill reference numbers from these screens.) The amount on my own bill for this month is £20.78. But what do I owe on the other? Should be simple to find out, no? From the account drop down in the centre of the screen, I selected the other account. And this is what I saw:
According to this screen, when I select the account for my mother’s mobile, “your current balance” is “£20.78 – 3.35″
I honestly don’t know quite what that means; I could take a stab that the actual amount on the bill for this second account is 3.35 – the small print below says that’s the overdue amount, because I forgot to pay last month’s bill on time. So, let’s click “view your bills” and see if I’m right.
OK, this is weird. I’m still looking at the second account. But the “your current balance” screen now shows me just “£20.78″ which is the amount on the other account, not this one. There’s no mention of the overdue amount, though I can see that it was the bill total for the 1st May bill, further down.
Under “Your latest bill” it says the bill total is £1.86, though. So maybe I did pay last month, and forgot? I can’t view this month’s bill online yet, though, because this is the 3rd of June and it was created on the 1st. That makes sense, doesn’t it? I can download a PDF, though. So let’s click on that.
Of course, clicking the link for the PDF doesn’t actually get me the PDF. It gets me this screen, still showing the balance from my other account at the top, with a link for the PDF.
Have you worked out what I have to pay yet? According to the PDF, it’s £5.21.
That’s not a number that’s appeared on any of the web pages. It’s certainly not the “bill total” the website says represents the bill for June. In fact – and you might have figured this out – it’s the total of the amounts billed in May and June. But the actual PDF invoice – what most people would, surely, consider the “bill” is £5.21. Not £1.86. Not “£20.78-3.35″ or the £20.78 that the “current balance” figure suggests.
It’s a figure that you only actually get to see if you click through extra screens to download a PDF and open that on your computer, or get out a calculator to add up the numbers on the screen.
Orange’s billing system remains not fit for purpose, in my view. By misrepresenting information and not properly calculating what you’re supposed to pay, you run the risk of either paying extra – someone in a hurry could easily send that £20.78 to settle a bill, leaving a credit of £15.57 sitting on the account – or pay the £1.86 that the site says is the “bill total” for June, leaving arrears remaining on the account.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed out to Orange customer service that there are problems like this with their site. No one ever does anything – though the Twitter team have asked for my password and account number to be DMd to them, which is not something I’m prepared to do.
» May 21st, 2013
IPTV service Acetrax – one of the first to appear on smart TV sets from the likes of Panasonic – is to wind down across all the territories in which it operates.
Unlike LoveFilm, Netflix and Sky’s NowTV, Acetrax was a pay as you go service, so users could dip in and out as little as they liked. It had a moderate range of films, something also offered by Tesco’s Blinkbox.
Back in January I wondered ‘what now for Acetrax‘, which is owned by Sky, and this seems to be the answer. According the the PR, Acetrax is shutting in all territories. If you were hoping that this might presage the return of PPV movies to NowTV, which was something I previously wondered about, you’re out of luck – I’m told there are no plans to do that, so if you want the material that’s on offer from Sky, you’ll have to pay a monthly charge.
That leaves Blinkbox as the only significant UK IPTV service where you can dip in and out without any committment at all.
» April 24th, 2013
This morning’s Telegraph carries a story about David Cameron’s latest venture into the realms of internet censorship. Responding to pressure from a coalition of probably well meaning, though certainly technologically challenged, children’s organisations, Cameron is floating the idea of a porn block on public WiFi services.
Update: Also covered on the BBC News site.
This is because, while their parents can control what they do at home, they might roam free and access filth in a café, shopping mall, or somewhere else that WiFi access is provided. So, lest any children unsuspectingly access filth – or perhaps peer over someone else’s shoulder and see them accessing filth – it should not be allowed on public wifi services.
Effectively, then, what Cameron is calling for is censorship of the internet access provided by some access points. He calls it “Good, clean WiFi” as opposed, presumably, to bad, dirty wifi, on which people can look at anything they like.
There will be exceptions, apparently, for WiFi in places that children don’t go, like casinos. They’re not sure about hotels; those might have to be censored too, but no one seems entirely clear – perhaps because, like most government proposals to do with technology, this one is another steaming pile of rubbish that hasn’t been thought through yet, a little like the stupid ‘benefits cash card idea’ I wrote about not so long ago.
What’s wrong with it?
I’m sure there are plenty of people saying “that seems like a sensible idea,” so let’s just see the many different ways in which it falls down, shall we?
First, yet again, it’s censorship; I don’t believe in that, and I also don’t believe that censoring what I look at is going to make any kids any safe. I’ve covered this angle before – in particular the potential consequences of any ‘opt in to porn’ system.
Next, do these people realise how WiFi works? Radio waves don’t just stop dead at the edge of a building; they leak out. I know corners of Soho where I can loiter, instead of having to actually go into an office and make smalltalk with clients, and use their wifi to check something quickly. If some venues, like casinos, aren’t restricted, guess what? People can hang around them and use the wifi outside. I’m sure all those keen on child protection will agree that encouraging kids to hang around outside gambling dens will be much better.
Of course, you could insist WiFi is installed in such a way as to make sure that it’s not accessible outside the building. Great. So who’s going to check that? Are you now suggesting that we also employ Public Inspectors of WiFi, whose job will be to ensure that when someone has been permitted (by the good grace of the government!) to operate an uncensored WiFi network, it is only available within the specified area of their premises?
Really? Do we really want, as a “free society” led by a man who claims the state shouldn’t interfere, to be licensing and verifying WiFi access points?
It seems that some people presumably think we do – because otherwise, what are the alternatives? You could automatically block porn on all connections when someone tells you they will be offering public WiFi; and for that to work, you’ll have to require that everyone is asked what they will be doing with their internet connection when they buy it, and check to make sure they don’t change their mind later.
Will there be penalties for not doing so? Will there be a phone line to ring up and shop the café owner round the corner, because you think you saw something bad and dirty via their WiFi? Congratulations on your reinvention of the Stasi, if you think that’s a good idea.
And, of course, who’s going to define what venues can and can’t have uncensored internet? Take a coffee shop on Old Compton Street, heart of London’s gay community. It’s not an adults only venue, but you probably don’t get many children in there. It’s possible, yes, of course – but does that mean that the patrons of a coffee shop there should be forbidden from accessing a gay dating service on their smartphone, or from looking up information about sexual health?
There are, at least, two ways in which this deeply unsavoury idea will suffer from mission creep. The first is that, given the various ways in which, short of an all encompassing licensing or reporting regime for internet use, it won’t actually work. It will remain easy to set up a wifi service that is not filtered, and those will have to be policed.
And so, inevitably, there is likely to be pressure. “We can’t stop these WiFi points from being set up” will cry the campaigners. And they’ll raise the pressure to do what they’ve wanted all along – mandatory internet filtering across the whole UK, whether public WiFi or not. They may graciously allow an opt-in for filthy perverts like me who want to be able to see whatever they like online. It’s wrong, stupid, and ill-conceived.
The other issue is what counts as not “good, clean WiFi”? What sort of material will be filtered? I made allusion earlier to gay dating sites, and sexual health. As pointed out on the excellent Law and Sexuality blog, where I first read about this lunatic proposal, things are far from clear. An app like Grindr is – in accordance with app store policies – only allowed to have ‘safe’ images on it. But people can privately send each other all the explicit photos they like. So should that be blocked? Should the HardCell site, which talks to those who enjoy some less main stream sexual activities in frank terms, to promote safety and awareness, not be available? What about other sexual health resources for young people? Advice on coming out as a teenager? Support forums for people who have been abused?
Internet filtering very often has side effects, and often just those sorts of resources are blocked, even though the ostensible reason for the filtering is to stop porn. One of my own sites, which has no explicit imagery at all on it, is blocked by many filters, because its description includes gay and leather, as far as I can tell. No matter that it’s member’s only, and has no nudity. It’s blocked.
Update: Jules Matteson’s Tumblr shows the sort of thing that’s already blocked by public WiFi; now imagine you’re a teen struggling with sexuality, or wanting advice about pregnancy, and your parents have blocked this material at home. You can’t unlock mobile data without being over 18, you can’t ask your parents to do it for you, and you can’t use public WiFi. It’s enough to remind me of Section 28 – in fact, let’s call it that, as a stark reminder of the sort of people that this will affect, and the nasty history of the party proposing it. This is a chilling proposal, and its almost inevitable side effects mean that this is a new media version of Section 28.
Censorship has side effects; and once it’s in place, it’s also very easy to add extra things – like copyright infringement, or unsuitable political views. We should resist it strongly – both because it is a deeply unsavoury idea in a free democracy and because these proposals – as with so many others involving governments and IT – are stupid, ill thought out, and pretty much unworkable.
» April 8th, 2013
Read some of the reports around the web, and you’d be forgiving for thinking that Facebook has decided to charge people to send messages to celebrities. And, you probably think, that doesn’t bother you because you’re not the sort of person who does that.
But what they’re really doing is charging for communications to people who aren’t in your friend lists, and that has rather wider reaching implications; I responded to a blog post on the Which? website, and this is an edited version of my comment there.
I believe this is a dangerous precedent, and one that can make Facebook – and especially its ‘groups’ functionality, a lot less useful for a lot of people, especially small clubs, groups and organisations.
I run a club, which is a free organisation, with no membership fees. As well as a forum on our own website, we also have a closed group on Facebook where our members can also discuss and share information.
To ensure that it’s not full of spam, we approve each member who wants to join the group, and the details of the group indicate that people should message an admin with their membership details. However, the way the facebook groups interface works means that’s not terribly visible, and many people don’t. So, we’re often left needing to contact them.
One reason for that is that, by the nature of the group, many people may not be using the same name or email address on Facebook as they do on our private site. And, with a few thousand people in our club, there will be many whom we don’t know personally.
It is, of course, possible to simply add people as Friends – though Facebook has limits on how many times you can do that, especially if people don’t respond. Just as I might not recognise some of those wanting to join the group, because of a different name, they may not necessarily recognise me when I send a friend request. After sufficient people have turned down what may seem to them to be random friend requests, you end up blocked from sending any more, which isn’t helpful if you’re trying to verify membership of a group.
Another reason why we don’t want to become friends with everyone just to message them about group membership is the inevitable cluttering up of timelines, which then necessitates setting what stuff you want to hear from each person, and dealing with the almost inevitable further requests that you play some annoying game that they’ve decided to share with everyone. In short, it would create a lot more work for people trying to simply control who can and can’t join the group that we have on Facebook.
So, a consequence of this new policy, spun as if it’s only going to affect those who want to message celebrities, is that more and more, we as admins of a group, will be expected to pay to send someone a message to verify their membership of our club; I’ve had this message pop up a couple of times already, and my reaction has been to ignore it, and with it the Facebook member’s request to join the group.
I’m sure I won’t be the only person in this situation. Talking of it as a fee to message celebrities may well get headlines, but in fact like many such stupid ideas, the biggest effect will likely be felt by small organisations who will be penalised a bit at a time for wanting to reach out and contact people, whether over things like group memberships in my case, or because they want to contact someone who may be knowledgeable and able to help with a problem.
Yes, it is, so far, a small fee, but if I have to pay to message just one in six of our members, to verify they should be allowed access to our closed Facebook group, that would cost the same as several months of the hosting fees for our main web site.
This is, for many small groups, likely to be an annoyance, and drain on their funds or time, that goes one little step further towards making Facebook less useful as a way of keeping in touch with people, rather than more.
» March 18th, 2013
When I visit other people’s homes, one of the things that often amazes me is how badly their TV is set up. To be fair, it’s often not their fault – they simply use the settings it arrived with, selecting ‘Home’ rather than ‘Shop’ if they’re prompted, and perhaps tweaking the brightness, and nothing more.
But modern TVs have loads of options to set things up properly, and if you don’t tweak settings like sharpness, contrast and saturation, you can end up with images that don’t do justice to the screen, and make some of the channels look a long way from HD.
I’ve written here before about how to set up your TV using test patterns, and if you do want a test card then this weekend is more or less your last chance to grab one of the most iconic ever. The BBC HD channel is closing soon, and the space will become BBC2 HD. You may well wonder what that has to do with anything. Well, because BBC HD doesn’t broadcast 24 hours a day, there’s a loop of preview material shown, and that loop includes both a testcard and some audio signals that can be used to help set up your surround sound system.
According to BroadbandTV News, When BBC HD shuts down at around 0130 on March 26th – that’s next Tuesday – the test sequence will be shown in a loop until BBC 2 HD launches at 0630. So, I’d strongly advise anyone with an HD recorder to record at least part of the sequence to ensure that they have a readily available test pattern and audio signals, to enable their TV to be set up for a better picture and correct surround sound sync.
The BBC’s Andy Quested has more details over on their blog; the test loop is ten minutes long and will include some old historic test cards too. He recommends that you set your PVR for a thirty minute recording any time between the end of the last BBC HD programme and the 0600.
» March 5th, 2013
Off topic for the main part of the blog, but I’ve posted about this before, and I’ve been given an old album with some newspaper clippings, which I thought worth sharing for posterity, as it were. Also, looking back at these I notice – which I didn’t at the time – that some of the basic details are wrong in quite a few. My brother was 23, not 24 when he died. He died on the Tuesday, March 5th, not Wednesday the 6th, and he was a language student, not a law student.
I’m honestly not sure we even noticed these things at the time, as we had so much on our minds, and that makes me wonder how many other small errors simply pass unnoticed because people are too distressed to notice or complain about them at the time.
The Daily Mirror, 13th March 1991:
Cambridge Evening News, 9th March 1991:
Cambridge Evening News, 14th March 1991:
Hampshire Chronicle, 15th March 1991:
» February 6th, 2013
On the Ofcom website today is a set of documents about award of the 600MHz spectrum, with a request that stakeholders notify Ofcom of their intention to apply. The headline news from this, which you’ll probably see elsewhere, is that the proposals will provide two more HD multiplexes on Freeview, with coverage of up to 66% of the population.
Think of it as doing something a bit like the original HD trials and early roll-out, using additional bits of spectrum where available, to give some more channels to people in certain parts of the country.
All well and good, and lots more HD will be appreciated by many people. But don’t get too excited, because a read through the document reveals that this is very likely about something else entirely – a ‘secondary switchover’ that will leave many people with equipment that won’t be much use at all.
Picking apart the proposal
The summary of the proposal makes it clear that this is an interim use of the space – which may be needed for existing services from as early as the end of 2018. Licences will run at least until the end of 2018, but that could still mean only five years of a service, if it were to start at the beginning of next year.
It’s mentioned in the proposal that there could be up to ten HD channels provided in the space, if DVB-T2 and MPEG4 (the technologies currently used on Freeview HD) were used, using two multiplexes – though the space will be awarded as a single lot. At least one stream will be visible to consumers within 12 months of the award of a licence, reaching 10% coverage, with 50% within two years.
That could be superficially appealing to, say, Sky; space to offer ten HD channels, covering a big chunk of the population. But in fact, with only a five year guarantee, it’s likely not enough for anyone to make a good return, especially when with NOW TV they have another way of getting paid for content in front of people, without expensive transmitters.
The real clue is in the phrase
the new services in the 600 MHz band using DVB-T2 and MPEG4 could encourage consumer take-up of receiver equipment which makes use of these more efficient technologies
And that’s what this is really all about. The longer term sell off of the UHF bands to satisfy the needs of mobile operators means that the space available for Freeview will be squeezed tremendously as time goes on; and some experts believe that there simply won’t be the space to provide all the existing services in the amount of spectrum that’s available, when things are shifted to 600MHz.
T2 to the rescue
One way of conserving spectrum is by using what’s called a ‘Single Frequency Network’, where all the transmitters in an area use the same channel, rather than the situation now where to provide coverage across the south of England, for example, there are transmitters on the Isle of Wight, Midhurst that both send out the same programmes, but need different frequencies to do so. Digital TV is supposed to make it possible to just use the same frequency, and leave the receiver to sort it all out, but for very technical reasons, that simply won’t work well in the UK using the first generation of terrestrial receivers, or DVB-T.
That problem is largely fixed in DVB-T2, which is used by the Freeview HD mux in the UK, and allows for very large areas with a single frequency network, which can be much more efficient. Add in the fact that T2 is more efficient anyway – about 50% more capacity than the older version – and you’re some way to solving the bandwidth squeeze.
When Freeview HD launched, it used T2, and also the more efficient MPEG4/AVC (H.264) video codec. The two don’t have to be used together, but it made sense to switch to both at the same time, for even greater efficiency. And while at the moment, the combination is used exclusively for high definition channels in the UK, it doesn’t have to be. You can transmit an SD channel using T2 and H.264 if you want – but no one does that right now, because older SD only receivers won’t be able to pick it up (though of course, some of the IP TV channels on Freeview do use it in SD, just not via broadcast).
Long term, the only way to keep the level of service we have on Freeview, with the decreasing amount of spectrum, is likely to be to move all the channels to T2 and H.264, and to use more single frequency networks (which, of course, will mean some more aerial readjustments for many).
But before that can happen, there need to be many more homes with equipment that will be able to receive it. While the current bundle of HD channels is nice to have, it doesn’t really represent a startling reason for everyone to decide to upgrade their set top box or buy a new TV set.
Make more HD content available, even if only for a short while, and perhaps you can create the conditions where people will decide it’s worth investing in equipment to watch whatever it is.
On that topic, my suspicion is HD versions of more of the main channels, frankly; very likely a pair of muxes operated by the BBC, with space given to other PSBs. Who’s got the money to launch an expensive temporary commercial operation that will only last five years, just at the start of another recession?
So, I think we can expect to see a BBC-backed mux providing HD versions of existing channels, with perhaps a bit of new stuff in the mix, but not much. And the real reason this is happening is not just about bringing more HD into your home. It’s about making sure your technology is up to date, so that a wholesale switch to DVB-T2 and H.264 can happen in time to ensure that most people don’t have their Freeview service drastically reduced when mobile phone networks take up the freed parts of the spectrum.
» Recent Posts
- More bonkers Orange billing
- Farewell Acetrax
- The chilling idiocy of Cameron’s “Good, Clean WiFi”
- Facebook’s communication surcharge
- Grab your testcard while you can
- Old newspaper clippings
- Ofcom’s promise of more HD is a stalking horse for a second DTT switch
- IPTV in the UK, one year after Netflix, and what Now for Acetrax
- Politics and technology don’t mix – the welfare cash card is just another example
- In praise of eInk and the Sony 505
- Smart TVs – why are they so awful to use?
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- More fun with Orange billing