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Mis-engaging with social networks

BD Embraer 145 being de-iced at MAN

As you might expect, there are a few places on the Interwebs where people who fly now and then meet up to discuss the important things in life; destinations; routes; fuel surcharges, and how to maintain status with as few flights as possible.

But it’s interesting to see how the airlines and airports approach engagement with these communities of informed, eloquent, often high-spending and influential people.

Some airlines have created official representation on the forums. Often it’s someone with a passion for the web, who is pretty connected in their own life and works in or around the customer facing bits of the company. They participate in the community like anyone else, are subject to the same rules and moderation, but make it clear that they’re representing the airline/airport.

My experience is that these airlines are brilliantly super-serving their most influential customers, and also helping their own companies. They can see gripes arise, and often offer solutions or answers within hours, before pens have gone to complaint letters and grouses have spread around. Some of them will help people out with specific problems, and I can’t tell you how valuable I’ve found that personal attention when the system has gone wrong. (Incidentally, I always send those airlines a hardcopy letter to commend their online rep, and the airline’s commitment to engaging with the on-line community).

But the airline benefits from to it too. Now and then, someone might spot a loophole in the rules of a fare or routing, which allows people to accumulate vast numbers of miles, or fly on ridiculous routes, for tiny amounts of money. Those loopholes get quietly closed, and whilst there is sometimes a little “oh, don’t talk about that here, they’ll close the loophole”, generally it’s accepted that the airline rep is only doing their job by bringing it to the airline’s attention.

Some airlines/airports have unofficial presence. That’s where someone in the airline/airport is probably acting unofficially, and so has to stay very guarded in what they say. It’s nonetheless very valuable for them to watch what’s happening, and occasionally intervene with a salient point. The regular contributors know who they are, and the lurkers rarely come out from under cover.

But this week, one of the airlines is in the process of getting it spectacularly wrong. I’m not going to name the airline, but they’re a leading global brand and they ought to be smarter than this. For a start, the contributor has as his handle the name of the airline, correctly spelt and punctuated. He’s assured people he’s not connected with the airline, but then occasionally refers to information that would be hard to source from anywhere else. But what’s really annoyed people is that he’s not authentic. He’s always talking up the airline, saying how great the promotional fares are (even when they’re stinkers), how great the on-board experience is, and how well they compare against other airlines. (He seems to fly a remarkable range of airlines).

He’s being rumbled as a stooge because he chipped some information into a thread that could only have authoritatively come from within the airline. He is getting pilloried (for which I feel sorry for him personally), and his airline is a facing a mixture of laughing for being so cack-handed in their engagement, and indignation that they “have sent a spy into the camp”. Their failure to be authentic and upfront with their presence is backfiring on them.

I can’t understand what they were thinking. Surely they must have understood what the outcome would eventually be? Maybe these are the companies who need consultants to advise them how to engage with the web? That’s pretty sad, when all the have to do is be real, honest and authentic.

Interestingly (and with that exception) no matter how irate, heated or insulting the conversations on-line become, rarely does anyone attack the airline/airport rep. Indeed, the community will often turn savagely on those who start having a go at the rep. And it’s interesting because that’s often not the case when radio gets discussed on-line; in those situations, often the poor radio person who sticks his head in the door will get it torn off and thrown back at them. It’s a shame, because it means that it’s that much harder for the people who are passionate about radio to have a decent engagement with those people who are making radio. I don’t know how to change that.

Footnote

Tangentially linked, I was playing around with SQ’s IFE on the A380 this week, and stumbled across their “The Chart of XXXX” albums. They’re pseudo-albums listing the 10 most-popular tracks, by UK Chart sales, of each year from 1960-2005. Whilst many of them are really very good, it became clear just how useless the charts had come by the 1990’s when around 5 out of the 10 tracks were novelty songs. When I reached 1989, the warning signs were set – 3 entries from Jive Bunny. That’s where radio programming trumps sales stats.

Economy Crashes, Digital Radio Keeps Going

Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (cc) Fred Dawson @ flickr

The DRDB has released Christmas 2008 sales figures for DAB Digital Radio, and I think they tell a remarkable and positive story.

Obviously, if you were a bit bitter or a bit cynical, you’d focus on the fact that growth slowed down in 2008, and that “only” 2.08m Digital Radios were sold in 2008, rather than the target of 2.6m which was set in January 2008

I think they’re remarkable numbers.

Since January 2008, the bottom has fallen out of the world’s economy. I’d love to know of any comparable sector that has achieved its annual sales figures set “pre-crash”. People are losing their jobs, and even if they’re not losing their jobs, they’re reining in their spending to be on the safe side. Consumer electronics, as a sector, is down 5% in value (year on year), despite a slew of “must-have” gadgets.

But amidst the economic turmoil, the uncertainty, and the cutbacks, people are still buying radios – digital radios. 510,000 sets in the run-up to Christmas, and by all accounts, catching some retailers unaware. The sector shrank 5%, but DAB sales grew by 3%. That’s not a blip, that’s bucking the trend.

It’s interesting, because 2008 couldn’t have been a worse year in Medialand for DAB. The headlines have been dominated with sad, bad, and depressing stories on the fate of DAB. It’s been a struggle to find the shafts of sunlight.

Some of the DAB turmoil has been felt in the real world too. theJazz and a number of other stations disappeared off the dial. FUN Kids had to drop its coverage on DAB outside of London after being disposed of by GCap. Planet Rock’s future was uncertain, also when GCap announced its disposal. More and more voices were heard extolling the virtue of connected radios.

I hope that 2008 was DAB’s Annus Horribils, and that 2009 will mark the starting point of a new phase of DAB in the UK (of which more as soon as I find out what I can talk about publicly). There’s no doubt that whatever sales predictions were created for 2009 will need revising in the light of the current economic situation, and it will be miraculous if we manage to beat 2008’s numbers in 2009.

But maybe this is the point where we see that DAB is resilient, and something that consumers really want to have in their lives.

Photo: Woolworths New Malden the Last Days (CC) Fred Dawson @ flickr

On the road with my PURE Highway

Skating at Sparkasse Platz, Innsbruck, Austria

I was given a PURE Highway some time ago, to do some road-testing with. It’s been in the car since then, but I’ve only just got round to mounting it properly and pulling the cabling through. I also took the opportunity to upgrade the firmware to the latest version (1.3).

In all honesty, the firmware upgrade was not fun. The device driver installation took absolutely ages, which I suspect was a combination of Windows not quite believing what was connected, and the device driver being hard for Windows to find. Lots of disk searching. The upgrade application was quite happy to backup the existing firmware, but kept freezing when blowing the new firmware to the device. A bad thing. After some fiddling, I ended up falling back to connecting the device to a USB 1.0 port which meant it ran slower but did finish properly. So, new firmware installed, we’re on the road.

Great Britain – Bristol to Dover

The reception of DigitalOne and the BBC muxes was really pretty good, and consistent along the M4/M25/M26/M20. The usual problem areas (D1 is punched out by adjacent channel interference from NOW Digital Swindon on the approach to Membury Services, nothing is very happy around Folkstone and Dover).

The local muxes were much more hit and miss. Bristol benefits from having a hefty site at Dundry, which really helps. Swindon/Wiltshire is a pain, because it’s split across two frequencies which means rescanning at 10 minute intervals. Berkshire is not great along the motorway. There’s a dead chunk of local coverage between Reading and Slough. London I was OK around the M25, London III not good. Really not good. In fact, pretty much only got good London III on the sector from the M23 to the M26, and that’s largely because of Bluebell Hill and Reigate. Kent is pretty good until you get near Folkstone.

The lack of DAB-DAB service linking (on the mux and on the device) is a pain. If I wanted to stay with XFM, I kept having to rescan. I shouldn’t need to do that, but the service linking is not properly signalled.

France – Calais to Strasbourg

Total blackspot. Not a thing. I kept scanning the Highway, and it kept having a good old go at decoding the many Band III television signals. Honestly, when was Band III cleared for DAB? 10 years ago? If I was being harsh, based on what I heard on FM, I probably wouldn’t want to listen to the same stuff on DAB either. What on earth do they do with their audio processing? I’ve never heard anything as aggressive even in the United States, and that’s saying something.

Switzerland – Basel to St. Gallen

Yay for the Swiss. The moment we went over the non-border (The Swiss joined the Schengen Agreement recently, which means the border is a principle rather than a 5km queue. If the Swiss can do it, still can’t understand what our problem is), the Highway picked up 12 services. It seemed to (correctly) ignore the DAB+ services without a hiccup. Drove all the way through Switzerland listening to Swiss Pop (CH-POP), because I’m a bit of a sucker for bubblegum pop when I’ve been driving for 13 hours. Coverage was superb, and the audio quality was great too, demonstrating that with the right codecs even 112kbit/s can sound very very good. Lucky them for being able to upgrade to the latest Coding Technologies codecs.

One area that isn’t covered yet is the tunnels. FM coverage is repeated through them, but DAB isn’t yet. I suspect if I had a hybrid DAB-FM radio it probably would have swapped between the two correctly, but I don’t, so can’t say. Boo to Ford for putting integral radio units into their cars and not leaving anything resembling a DIN slot for something else. (At least Ford have announced that DAB will be a line-fit item from 2009. I’ll probably buy another Ford, as this one is good, and DAB line-fit swings it for me).

Austria – Hohenems to Tirol

Austria has a somewhat token involvement with DAB. There are two DAB sites on-air. One in Vienna, and the other on Patscherkofel, which is the primary site for Tirol. The Patscherkofel site covers most of the A12 motorway which links Germany and Italy. If one was being curmudgeonly and uncharitable, one might say that it’s there so that people driving from Bayern (DAB) to Alto-Aldige (DAB) don’t find reason to surmise that Austria is stuck in the past – 1976, for example. No. It’s a remarkable mux, as it’s only carrying 5 stations, creatively encoded to make sure that they almost completely fill the mux. If you’re an audiophile, I’d recommend going and sitting yourself down in Tirol to enjoy the 192 and 224kbit/s of Ö1, Ö3, FM4 or Radio Tirol. (But just overlook the fact that I suspect the site is satellite fed at 256kbit/s, OK?).

The coverage is patchy, and really only kicks in once you get within sight of Innsbruck (if you’re coming from Voralaberg). There’s also no DLS – not even a default message – which is a bit of a surprise.

It would be unfair to criticise the DAB coverage in Austria. It’s not a launched service (only a trial), and coverage on FM is a real challenge in Tirol. In a former job, the station I worked at had 16 sites, on 16 different frequencies from 89MHz to 107MHz to cover 500,000 people (badly). RDS AF was invented for Austria. At my ultimate destination, there is virtually no FM coverage whatsoever – all radio is received via satellite to TVs.

Total distance – over 1,500kms. Percentage covered by DAB : ~50%.

(To be fair, if I’d gone the other way – Calais – Aachen – Stuttgart – Ulm – it would have been closed to 85%, but I have more to do in life than sit in queues of Germans over the Fernpass. Although it would have been £120 cheaper in tolls).

And the same on IP?

Well, what would have happened if I’d done the same trip listening to the radio on IP? We’re clearly spoilt for 3G coverage in the UK, because it was very very patchy through France, in-between in Switzerland, and pretty horrid in (an admittedly less populated part of) Austria.

Coverage issues aside, I was in the car listening to the radio for 15 hours, of which 12 hours was outside the UK. Assuming a bit-rate of 48kbit/s, that’s a total data consumption of 253 Mbytes outside the UK. (I have a 3GB bundle inside the UK). Despite Mme. Redings rantings, my roaming data still costs me £3 per MB, so that would have been a bargain £759 for a day’s radio. aAnd £759 for the journey back.

However, I “benefit” from having a local pay-as-you-go SIM in Austria, which charges at “just” €2,50 per MB. So based on using a local SIM, that would have been €633,-.

The ability to drive across Europe listening to the radio is not something we should ignore lightly. It is often overlooked, because radio companies in Europe are all singularly nationally focused, and rarely look beyond the borders (and to be fair, when they do, it’s usually not a success). Maybe as an island-nation we don’t put much thought to it? But I’m a listener, a Britain and a European, and I do travel across the continent. I can’t imagine doing a 15 hour drive without radio.

Conferenced Out? You need fast acting RATE!

(cc) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Autumn is certainly the conference season. If you’ve trooped round Le Radio, NAB Europe and The Digital Radio Show, all in the last week, you’re probably feeling like you’ve had enough death by powerpoint, and thinly disguised sales pitches for “strategic consultancy”.

But let me encourage you to come to a conference with a difference. Well, many differences in fact.

Radio At The Edge (RATE) is the radio conference which looks at how technology is changing the business of radio today, and what the leading-edge trends are that we could be exploiting in the coming year(s). This is where we discuss the new world order, whether the new world order has in fact already collapsed in a heap, and if the new world order is a complete load of rubbish and we should all go back to sending status updates as smoke signals and poking using sharp sticks. And leave tweeting up to birds.

So it’s not your normal, dull, play-16-songs-in-a-row-and-have-nice-jingles type radio conference.

It’s also darned good value as radio conferences go. £200 for a day’s worth of high value information, and a fair amount of entertainment too. With names like Iain Lee, Richard Herring, Andrew Collins, you’d pay for the comedy alone – if it wasn’t also that the bill includes the world’s most tech-literate reporter and prolific blogger, Rory Cellan-Jones, Peter Davies (Head of Radio from OFCOM), and Leo Laporte – Chief TWiT.

Lastly, there’s drinking at the end, and drinking in a proper pub, with proper beer – not a god-awful overpriced chain hotel dribbling sad pints of generic beer at a crowded bar staffed by communication-challenged staff. Did I mention I’d been to NAB Europe this week?

So I can’t recommend it enough, other than to say you should probably attend for the novelty of being at a conference on radio’s future that I’m not talking at – but my good colleague Robin Pembrooke most certainly is.

Radio At The Edge, Monday 10th November, Westminster. All the details and that all important registration form are here http://www.radioattheedge.com/

Photo (CC) This guy is boring by Narisa at Flickr

Hat tip to Andy on my team, for pointing out that it’s not this Monday…

Fares, Yields and Recessions

Our Easyjet Boeng 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol

Regular acquaintances of mine will know that I have an interest (“Bore for Britain”, I hear you shout) in aviation, and I have infrequently peppered this otherwise technology orientated blogged with occasional aviation events of note.

Aviation has some parallels with radio. It’s got big fixed costs, you need relatively skilled people to make it work, and the inventory is highly perishable. Once your plane has taken off / once your adbreak has started, you’ve made all you’re going to make from it.

Inventory management has been revolutionised in both industries, but the aviation industry is way ahead of radio and provides some useful pointers for radio. I know many people in aviation, at the big airlines, who laughed openly at the idea that someone would hop onto the web and buy their own ticket. That, they said, was far too complicated. That’s what we have agents and sales people for, because ordinary passengers could never cope. Big – BIG – mistake. Their failure to provide a low-cost entry point allowed Easyjet and Ryanair to enter the market and bring aviation to whole new demographics. Google Adsense for Audio is doing the same, and every radio company needs to think about self-provisioned audio advertising, and quickly.

But back to aviation. Unlike radio ad breaks, you can’t stretch a plane to stick a few more seats on when demand rises, so yield management is absolutely paramount. The algorithms that manage yield in aviation are e=mc2 compared to radio’s 1+1=2 inventory management (and yes, that’s even taking into account the most clever ad revenue management systems). Aviation algorithms process with thousands of inputs – absolutes, and trends. Current and historic. Your radio station may keep track of major sporting events, but airlines track events, conventions, and more.

The recession / economic slowdown is going to test those algorithms to the limits.

LOCOs (LOw COst Airlines) work absolutely on a high load factor, low seat-cost basis. Their central marketing pitch is “fly somewhere for £1”. If they sell 50 seats on a 150 seat plane at £1, the perception is “wow – cheap airline”, and never mind the people who are buying the last 10 seats at £150. Industry analysts watch LOCO load factors like a hawk, because they know that LF’s below 80% are seriously into danger zone for the whole LOCO business model. Not only do the last 10 seats make all the money, the last 30 passengers would also have paid £300 to check bags in, and about £100 for in-flight beverages. At some airports, the “marketing assistance” (backdoor discounting) only happens above certain numbers of passengers.

Full service airlines work differently. Yield is the key here. If a flight pushes back at 50% load factor, that’s fine, because that aircraft might have 3-4 business passengers onboard paying £500+, 20 passengers paying £350, 20 passengers connecting into long-haul flights paying £700-£800, and only 10-15 passengers on the £39 promotional fare. Promotional fares for full service airlines are marketing devices, not the foundations of the business model.

Ryanair, Easyjet et al. claim they’ll do better in a recession, because they’ll stay cheap and people will move from full service airlies. I beg to differ. The experience on the LOCOs is below that of a proper airline, and the majority of fares are moving towards parity. The kind of people who discretionally fly on Ryanair or Easyjet will keep their money to pay for electricity, petrol and food. No more jetting off to Prague for the weekend.

For what it’s worth, I suspect Easyjet and Flybe have been clever enough avoid the “Value Brand” perceptions of a LOCO, and have the right routes and additional benefits to hold business travellers in, although they’re still going to be paying more to fly. And the full service airlines can hold onto yield, because they treat their customers relatively well, and offer proper services like interlined tickets and unified schedules.

If Ryanair go under, I’ll be up the front cheering. Never has an airline (and its Chief Executive) treated its customers with such disgust and disdain. And they don’t do much for their staff too, by all accounts. Michael O’Leary’s “gobbier than thou” approach might have been acceptable a few years ago, but now it just personifies Ryanair as the yobs and louts airline, which doesn’t care a sh*t. I hear from more people who have paid “not £1” fares and had terrible service – when for £20-£30 more, they could have flown on a reputable airline. When the Chief Executive of an airline accuses BAA of being “rapists”, you know he’s gone too far – too much pressure, maybe?

There will be far fewer airlines in Europe in three years time. The Boeing idea of thousands of direct routes, used to justify the development of 787, is looking very shaky. In that respect, the concept of Airbus’ hub-to-hub future on which A380 is centred looks much more realistic, and environmentally sound. In broad terms, Europe will centre on a few hub centres, operated by either OneWorld or StarAliiance. (I have my doubts about SkyTeam’s strength beyond KL-AF). Once the airline industry has consolidated, and has optimised the size and capacity of its fleet, it might look commercially attractive again.

Maybe that’s another lesson for the radio industry too?

Photo: Our Easyjet Boeing 737-700 on the tarmac at Bristol Airport by alistairmacmillan@flickr

The Radio Festival 2008

Where are we going again?

Radio Festival – the three days where the entire UK radio industry gathers to discuss the future of the radio industry, address the topics of the day, and indulge in the unprecedented transfer of value from wallets to bars. (Although this year’s free bars have been widely praised).

So where and how did Digital feature in this celebration of radio, and what did Lesley Douglas (Controller, BBC Radio 2) say that was the most insightful and valuable contribution of the whole event?

Twelve years ago, DAB warranted a token primer session in Techcon. (“Here is a picture of a mul-ti-plex. You can transmit many stations on one mul-ti-plex. It uses au-dio en-cod-ing called Emm-Peg Two”). I drove people around Birmingham in a Black Thunder demonstrating a DAB radio the size of a small beer fridge.

This year, ITIS and Fraunhofer presented useful and interesting applications for DAB. ITIS explained the many varied uses of TPEG, including the very topical FPI (Fuel Pricing Information) service (complete with early 2008 diagrams with references to sub £1/litre fuel – how we sniggered). If GPS mapping is the next big thing in terms of mobile technologies, then DAB allows those maps to be populated with large amounts of really useful real-time data. My hunch is that POI (Points of Interest) will itself become a Point of Significantly Valuable Commercial Interest to commercial radio stations (can I register the acronym POSVCI? No?). Fraunhofer demo’ed their Journaline applications, which is a lightweight browseable text service, something like a RSS Reader but delivered over DAB. Neat, but I wonder if it’s aiming at a class of radio (simple text display) that the radio industry is trying to get beyond now?

Festival proper started on Tuesday, with brilliantly produced an fabulously creative session on the Digital Radio Working Group (producer, Nick Piggott, GCap Media plc). Ahem. Look, it was never going to wow people when the report had already been out a week. The discussion (when it finally got going – the crowd took time to warm up this year) focused a lot on in-car receivers, and I felt that Peter Davies got away rather too easily with side-stepping the question about what to do about the punitively high transmission costs being suffered by commercial broadcasters at the moment. There also wasn’t enough discussion about coverage strengthening. But then, it was the first session, and the bar had been open the night before.

There was the obligatory session on music rights, where PPL and PRS/MCPS explain that they’re really only trying to help, but then get nailed (quite rightly) by everyone who asks a question from the crowd, and big kudos to Jay Crawford for exposing the levels of desperation to claw money from people to such an extent that they set up call centres to do mass enforcements of “workplace” music licences. A quick conversation with the landlord of the local hostelry confirmed that he’d been strong-armed into getting a licence because his chef occasionally has the radio on in the kitchen. Madness, from the people who brought you “let’s sue 12 year olds”.

But the really interesting thing about Festival now is that Digital crops up everywhere. It’s just part of life. (I don’t think it got mentioned in Matthew Bannister’s amusing session on compliance, made even more hysterical by Muff Murfin using at least three words from the seriously banned list unaware that two school kids had been ushered into the hall behind him for the next session).

On Wednesday, we had a session on visualising radio, which just served to highlight the commonality of the vision for radio in the future. I was on the panel next to Ben Chapman (Radio 1), and the fact is that we pretty much agree. Ben’s got different ideas on what his visuals will be, and in that respect it’s the very embodiment of “agree on technology, compete on content”. Radio is going to visualise, so the race is on to see who does it first, and who does it best (clearly, GCap will do both). There were some slightly random contributions from Westwood about his YouTube successes. (I wonder if he’s called that because of Westwood Hill, Sydenham, SE26). Chris North of Wise Buddah reminded us (as only an agent can) that artistes have finite time, so we need to bear that in mind when we come up with endless digital extensions to work on.

However, it was Lesley Douglas who really contributed significantly to the digital debate this year, in the dying moments of the festival. In a session where a panel of key industry people (Andrew Harrison, Tony Moretta, Lesley Douglas) take questions from the audience, one question prompted the discussion “has the UK picked an out of date digital technology?”. The conclusion, as usual, is no – when you properly consider all the elements that lead to success, there’s no better choice than DAB/Eureka 147. But Lesley closed the panel by saying something along the lines of:

I hope that this is the last year we have to discuss the technology, and that next year we’ll be talking much more about the content of digital radio, which is what matters far more to listeners.

I couldn’t agree more.

Why In-Car DAB isn’t yet here

JD Power Survey by nickpiggott @ flickr

Of all the questions surrounding the DAB strategy, the “How do we get DAB in-car?” must surely be one of the most contentious (along with “Do we need to set an analogue switch-off date?”).

I must admit, I don’t share some of my colleagues’ concerns about the progress of DAB towards being a standard line-fit item on Europe’s cars. I remember how long it took CD players to be ubiquitous in cars, almost a decade after we all had them in our houses (and quite a few of us had them to carry around). I think the evidence is there that things are moving along OK, and once there’s a more defined commitment to DAB from Germany, France, Scandinavia et al., the market-size requirements seem to be fulfilled.

But now I’m a bit more concerned that the automotive industry is making decisions based on incorrect research, to the extent that they might well be getting a completely inaccurate picture of people’s desire to have DAB in their cars.

About a year ago, I bought a new car. Nothing remarkable, a particularly dull brand and a particularly dull model. Of course, I asked if DAB was a dealer fit option. The dealer said that wasn’t possible, but that he’d had a lot of people asking about it. (Good sign). Annoyingly, it’s one of those “fully integrated” dashboards, which makes it virtually impossible to fit a radio myself. Thankfully the PURE Highway arrived, and that solved that problem rather neatly.

Now, a year on, I’ve received a JD Power survey to complete. If you’re not aware, the JD Power survey is the Gold Standard of car surveys, and it is relentlessly thorough. (If timing had been better, I would have scanned the blank one in). It’s clear that a lot of the data goes straight back to the manufacturers.

So let’s be clear; a UK based survey company (Guildford), sends a UK based customer a survey form about a UK purchased and registered car.

To say I was taken aback by Question 14.7 would be an understatement

JD Power survey Q14 by nickpiggott @ flickr

Does your NEW vehicle have…

Satellite Radio : (factory/dealer fit OR aftermarket installed)

After diligently crossing “Satellite” out and writing in “DAB Digital”, I ticked the “aftermarket installed” box.

Then there are hundreds of questions about every aspect of the car, has it ever gone wrong, do it like it, could I like it more. And towards the end, another killer question:

JD Power Survey Q30 by nickpiggott @ flickr

Q30 Features and Options

Please mark the factory installed features you have on your NEW vehicle now and those you want on your next vehicle (my emphasis)

[massive list of items – DVD players, Sat Nav systems, Extra bottle holders, Power sliding doors, remote keyless entry, memory seats, headlamp washers]

27. Satellite Radio : I HAVE it now (Y/N) I WANT IT on my next radio (Y/N)

What does this mean in the UK? Clearly, they’ve cut’n’pasted the US questionnaire, but what on earth does a UK consumer write here, and more interestingly, how are these answers interpreted by the car companies deciding whether to fit DAB Digital Radio into cars in Europe?

In the worst-case scenario, poor confused UK customer says un-equivocally “NO I don’t have Satellite Radio, and NO I Don’t Want One in my next car…. because I’ve never heard of ‘Satellite Radio’ and I want a DAB one, please”. Of course, there’s no way of capturing the second part of that statement. The form just says “Do you have one – NO, (never heard of it) ; Do you want one – NO (ditto)”.

So under what heading does that answer appear as in the cross-tabs presented to the manufacturer. Does it even make it there if nobody says they’re interested? When running the “Top 10 most demanded features on your next car”, satellite radio isn’t going to rate, but neither is DAB.

Next time a manufacturer tells me there’s no evidence of demand for digital radios in cars, I shall point them at the JD Power survey. In the meantime, I’ve written a letter to JD Power asking them what it’s all about; if I get a reply, I’ll post it here.

(Update – miraculously, I received another, blank, questionnaire today – so I’ve replaced the one I’d scribbled all over).

(In)security through obfuscation

cutting loose by SqueakyMarmot @ flickr

Any security expert worth his salt will tell you that trying to achieve security by hiding things from people is doomed to failure. This week, I had a worrying reminder of how imperfect the security around banking can be.

I have been scanning in credit card receipts from a journey I made recently to a well-developed, technically advanced, Western country. Indeed, I was able to pay for absolutely everything on my plastic, hence the forest size collection of receipts.

Ironically, the trip started with a bump because my bank refused to authorise a withdrawal from a cash machine, necessitating a (long) phone call to their customer service department to get the mandatory foreign roaming block lifted. Apparently I have to do it every time I leave the country.

But it’s the credit card receipts which were most interesting. I’m not going to reproduce them here, because the security risks are extreme.

Once upon a time, all the digits of a credit card and its expiry date were visible on the receipt, which make it a fraudsters paradise. Simply by stealing a receipt, particularly one with a signature on, you could relatively easily make fraudulent transactions until the genuine cardholder noticed and called stop.

So, in the UK at least, the digits are now obscured. Only the last 4 digits remain visible, along with the expiry date, thus leaving somewhere around 50,000,000 permutations to guess my card details. (Assuming that there is a smaller subset of card issuer codes than the 9999 allocated, and that some cards will indeed share the same expiry date as mine). I find the last 4 digits invaluable to work out which card I’ve put something on, so I consider the risks acceptable for the benefit I gain, and obviously UK banks too. I’ve never seen a UK credit card receipt show anything other than last 4 digits and expiry date. (Let me know if you have seen different – excepting the old manually swipe receipts!).

Flicking through my foreign receipts, I noticed that the obfuscated digits varied from receipt to receipt. One of the showed last 4 digits. One blanked out 4 digits in the middle (starting at position 10) and another blanked out 4 digits (starting at position 12). So my three receipts looked like this:

XXXXXXXXXXXXDDDD
DDDDDDDDXXXXDDDD
DDDDDDDDDDXXXXDD

The observant of you will now have noticed that, by holding those three receipts, only TWO digits of my card remain unknown. That’s 100 guesses. And to add interest to the matter, credit cards use a CRC-style validation, so you wouldn’t need to crank this through much of a Visual Basic programme to find the unique number that matched that particular validation code.

I’m amazed that this obfuscation isn’t standardised to prevent this kind of risk occurring. I think that the second and third examples are hideously insecure anyway, giving away the type and issuer of the card (first four digits) allowing an attack on a wider number of vectors. Why does anyone need to see so many digits of a card number?

In none of the above cases was I asked for a PIN number, nor was the CVV of the card checked. Just a simple scribble on the paper copy of the receipt. It’s incredible.

There doesn’t seem to be much I can do to reduce this risk, other than keeping a very tight grip on my own receipts (which I do as a matter of course), and check my credit-card on-line every couple of days. But if those three merchants ever get together with my (and other peoples’) receipts, they could have a heck of a party.

Closer to the world

Lufthansa First Flight by nickpiggott@flickr.com

I’ve watched Bristol Airport grow at an astonishing rate over the last decade. On my first flight from BRS, the terminal was a small bungalow, the gate had patio doors to the apron, and you walked to one of the handful of stands to hop on a small, often propeller, airplane.

Bristol has benefited from a low-cost airline explosion, with Easyjet making it their second largest base (something like 19 A319 aircraft are based here), and the terminal is now a mini-version of Stanstead. But whilst the “once a day” flights to places in Europe grew, the options for someone travelling on business were pretty limited, and became more so once BA hauled themselves out of the regions (and they call themselves “British Airways” – more like “London Heathrow Airlines”).

Those of us needing to fly on business (hoping, desperately, to do get out in the morning and back for bed) had to rely on KLM to Amsterdam (errmmmm) or Sabena to Brussels (er, no). After three cancelled flights in a row, KLM got in my bad books and I started heading off back down the M4 to Heathrow. That’s madness – creating unnecessary journeys to the world’s most turbulent airport. (And yes, I did have schadenfreude at BA’s T5 circus).

Slowly the airport has recognised that there are people other than those off to Prague to get plastered for 30p. The start of a Bristol-New York (Newark) route in 2005 opened up the Americas seriously, and I was lucky enough to be on the first CO77 flight back in May 2005. But we still lacked two things; a credible/reliable hub-operation, and a Star Alliance airline.

Now Bristol has both. Lufthansa have started flying 3 times daily out to Frankfurt, their main hub, from where it’s a skip out to most places in Europe and worldwide. I was one of the people who encouraged Lufty to see the benefits of Bristol, and I was very glad to be on the inaugural Bristol-Frankfurt flight on Sunday 30th March 2008.

People underestimate the benefits of hub flying. I would much rather pay £30 more to fly from Bristol, check my bags in in Bristol, have a short walk between gates at Frankfurt, and have the whole lot pop out again at my destination, than flog down the M4 to Heathrow, or even more ridiculously, go to Stansted! I put a real value of having a touchdown-to-front door time of 20 minutes. And it’s unrealistic to expect a place like Bristol to fill a 787 / A330 / 767 to places afar (and at Bristol, the runway is a tad short), so hubbing really does offer the best route availability.

I hope the route works out as planned. I’ll certainly be using it, but it does rely on people seeing the benefits (and relative reduction in pollution*) of flying from Bristol and hopping through Frankfurt.

* If you assume that you were going to fly anyway, the pollution of a short-haul in a small plane to FRA is less than the same journey combined with a round-trip of 240 miles to Heathrow and endless circling to land. But you may disagree with my initial assumption. I would also say that I rarely drive, walk to work every day, and am an enthusiastic user of public transport, so in every other respect I do my bit.

Disclaimer: I am a member of Lufthansa’s Frequent Flier programme “Miles and More”. I received (along with all the passengers on the first flight) a commemorative gift, and I took a complimentary upgrade to business class on the return trip from FRA-BRS.

Who Loves Local?

We Luvs Bristol

I saw this poster on the way home, and immediately wondered which of the radio stations in Bristol was running a poster campaign. Local Radio stations seem to be unique in professing their love for their cities. Local newspapers do it tacitly on their mastheads every day, and of course there’s no local TV. (It’s not wise to profess your love for Bristol if you also cover Swindon, Chippenham, Bath, Taunton and all places in between).

So my immediate reaction isn’t really that surprising. Who else would be out there with gert big posters saying they love Bristol?

Much to my surprise, it’s an insurance company, Liverpool Victoria Equitable. They have a base in the city, right on the strip known locally as “The Centre”, and are one of a number of financial service companies based in and around the West.

So why the “We Love Bristol” poster (which, to be really authentic, ought to be “We luvs Brizzle!”)? They’re recruiting for their call centre, and I’ve subsequently seen national TV adverts touting the benefits of dealing with a company with UK based call centres. So I guess that would be Bristol (home of the high quality call centre).

It seems that local radio stations had better not assume they have the monopoly on expressing their love of life round here.