Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

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To discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Does the network need a "black box" as well as user data-retention?

What is the network equivalent of an aircraft's black-box? Is there an argument for governments pushing for more regulation on telco-side data-retention?

As far as I know, telcos are not under any obligation to maintain full logs of the state/operation of their network elements, either hardware or software – or make them available for authorities to inspect. As networks become more virtualised and complex, with NFV, orchestration, AI-led automation of network policies, slicing and so on, what happens if something goes seriously wrong? 

The industry is hoping that 5G and other networks will be used in safety-critical verticals, with "ultra-reliable" requirements, but that brings risks and responsibilities too.
That could mean authorities may need to do a diagnostic “post-mortem” if a network fails - or perhaps as a way to spot if the network is doing something it shouldn’t, such as discrimination in wholesale, or net neutrality violations.

Aviation has rigorous rules about flight data recorders (“black boxes”), and has an admirable record of learning lessons from catastrophe, and changing inspection and certification regimes, if needed. Air travel is a one-way ratchet, becoming ever-safer, because of this.

So, if a commercial 5G or FTTX network is being used for ultra-reliable uses (such as managing a power grid’s control, or a telemedicine app, or perhaps connected vehicles), is there a basis for countries having a “Network Accident Investigation Board” and better international cooperation? And would this not also imply a better way to store crucial background data is required? If a plane crashes, investigators can examine the physical wreckage, but this problem is much harder for software-controlled networks with no moving parts.

This is also an issue if a network gets compromised by hacking or a bug - who is responsible, how can it be fixed, and what prevents re-occurrence? And something similar applies for keeping records that may prove/disprove competition problems, eg did a virtualised network resource do something illegal, perhaps on a temporary basis? How could a complaint be investigated, or a prosecution brought?

The problems get multiplied massively if AI is involved, as any issues with underlying machine-learning algorithms are potentially a single point of failure, if that system is used widely (eg for coordinating 100’s or 1000’s of network-slices in an automated fashion).

Do regulators have the legal rights, obligation or ability to forensically analyse what’s gone wrong in such situations? Or the various cybersecurity agencies, or police forces?

One option might be to encrypt network configuration and operational logs, and keep them “in escrow” using blockchain to ensure anti-tamper properties, so that they could only be examined after a warrant or other legal instrument ordered decryption. There are likely numerous other technical approaches to consider as well.

In either case, as public networks become part of critical systems, this topic will only rise in importance. Policymakers should start thinking about it now - and the telecoms industry should face up to its responsibilities here, rather than push back without thinking. Do Boeing or Airbus complain about the need for data recorders?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Quick thoughts on 5G

I've been doing a lot of work - and events - on 5G recently. 
I've noticed a few recent shifts in perception and focus amongst vendors, regulators and operators. Some quick take-outs (a few more than appear on my similar LinkedIn post, as I'm not limited to 1300 characters!)
  • 5G smartphones launch in 2019, but will be low-volume until 2020/21. Expect the first 5G iPhone towards the end of 2020
  • Fixed-wireless use cases for 5G are high on the agenda in some markets (eg US, S Korea, Turkey, Germany), but seemingly almost absent in others.
  • Commercial, large-scale, automated network slicing only becomes real from around 2023 onwards. A few "hand-carved" slices will be sooner, for example for internal use by MNOs' own business units, or perhaps public safety
  • URLLC (ultra-reliable low latency) use-cases seem to have shifted from sci-fi fantasies around automated vehicles and surgical robots, to industrial IoT and factory automation... 
  • ... but industrial use will often be controlled by industry itself, via one of several forms of private network, either using shared spectrum, private cores or private slices / enterprise MVNOs. MNOs' role may be minor
  • Some claim that NB-IoT is the 5G version for "massive IoT", despite it being developed as a 4G variant. This is revisionist nonsense; if it was true then DT, VF and others would have been putting out PR 2+ years ago, claiming to be first to launch 5G
  • 3.5GHz should be OK-ish outdoors but will struggle with outdoor-to-indoor coverage. mmWave will be worse. Beware of demos showing good indoor performance - ask about uplink from inside-out, or whether signals penetrate double-glazing, or at oblique angles to walls/windows. In any case, #WiFi will continue to dominate in the home.
  • There will be some small-cells and neutral-host deployments for 3.5GHz (and similar bands) in enterprises and other large buildings, but this will take a long time to become widespread. 
  • Existing in-building DAS systems will need some serious upgrades to support higher 5G frequency bands - most of today's top out at 2.6GHz and can't handle MIMO very well.
  • Despite it not being an "official" 5G candidate band, 28GHz seems to be the most popular option, at least for test networks. This is partly because of chipset support, notably Qualcomm's X50. The European-proposed 26GHz hasn't seen much action yet
  • Two of the largest 5G "verticals" associations, for Automotive (5GAA) and Industrial (5GACIA) seem to be heavily driven by German companies - and the German regulator looks like it's going to award 100MHz of spectrum to verticals directly (not 100% certain but getting clearer). In other countries apart from the US (CBRS) and China (Huawei's enterprise LTE), there doesn't seem to be as much action from large firms knocking on the regulator/governments doors.
  • The 5G New Core is getting a lot of discussion and attention... but given that some of the existing NFV deployments have been slow, and the cost-savings somewhat illusory, I don't expect much near-term action on this.
  • Some of the visions for 5G seem to lean heavily on automation and AI back-office for optimising radio, core, user-plane etc. Yet those are also still at an early stage - and few telcos have many skilled engineers -  so could act as a brake. There are also some emerging questions on security of network AI, and whether the algorithms might be single points of failure, especially when used for networks used for critical national infrastructure. 
  • Connected-car companies are interested in 5G, but not as enthusiastic as some might imagine. One told me "it's a nice-to-have" - especially as vehicles will need to be able to work offline, and have prodigous on-board compute capabilities.
  • I'm more positive about some of the discussion around Cloud RAN for 5G. In many ways, it's going to be necessary, given the complexity of NR. That said, there's some serious practical challenges about the radio, such as the size/weight/cost of the massive-MIMO antennas.
  • There's lots of talk about network-slicing for 5G, but nobody has really thought about whether today's MNO wholesale departments are up to the task of selling "slice as a service". Speaking to some of today's MVNOs, it seems like they will have to do a lot of homework before they can become effective slicemongers.
That's a quick list of things off the top of my head. Plenty more observations and comments to come, or on my Twitter feed from various events I've attended.

If you'd like me to give an unvarnished presentation at an event, on "5G opportunities, realities & myths", please get in touch via:  information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com
And if you're interested in my last point, on 5G+MVNOs+Slicing+Wholesale, please look at my upcoming workshop doing a deep-dive on this (link)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book now! MVNOs + 5G + Network-Slicing: Small-group Seminar & Workshop, London, 4th December

NEW: 5G, MVNOs, Mobile Wholesale & Network-Slicing Workshop

On December 4th 2018, Dean Bubley will run a small-group workshop in London, covering one of the most interesting topics in telecoms technology and mobile business models: 

What does 5G, NFV & Network-Slicing mean for MVNOs & other wholesale models? 

The day will have a maximum of 25 attendees to ensure a high level of discussion and interaction. 

Expect a diverse mix of telcos, MVNO/E/As, network vendors, software developers, regulators and other interested parties such as enterprises, IoT specialists, investors and consultants. It is suitable for C-level executives, strategists, product management, marketing functions, CTO office, analysts and regulatory affairs specialists.

The event is being run together with partners Mobilise Consulting (link)

The workshop will run under Chatham House rules (link), to allow candid & confidential discussion, without external attribution of comments to individuals or their employers.

It will cover:
  • Technology, including 5G New Radio, New Core, network-slicing and NFV/cloud
  • Business models, spanning consumer, enterprise & IoT markets
  • Regulatory and economic aspects of both 5G and MVNO domains

We'll be highlighting our current thinking - and outstanding questions - on topics such as: 

  • When should MVNOs expect 5G networks to launch & become important? What  changes, compared to 4G?
  • What needs to be done NOW to align with future 5G/NFV wholesale models?
  • Can existing "full" MVNOs with 4G cores upgrade and integrate easily?
  • What's happening with 5G smartphones & IoT devices? What new / different relationships are needed with OEMs?
  • Is “network slicing” really an evolution of today’s wholesale and MVNO model? 
  • What 5G use-cases hold the most promise for wholesale: fixed access, mobile broadband, massive IoT or low-latency / ultra-reliable?
  • Are 5G standards bodies, regulators & vendors giving enough (any?) thought to the needs of MVNOs? 
  • Will we move from a 2-tier MNO/MVNO model, to a 3-tier Infrastructure / Network Service / Tenant model? How would that change the role of today’s full MVNOs and MVNE/As?
  • Will 5G mean more enterprise, IoT and vertical MVNOs? 
  • What are the impacts of changing 5G spectrum & wholesale regulations? What new areas that policymakers should consider?
  • Will we see hybrid MNO/MVNO/WiFi operators? 
  • What are the main consumer 5G use cases for MVNXs? Will it enable more video streaming, AR/VR, gaming or other applications? Or just more data?
  • Will the new 5G core network architecture make a difference?
  • What changes to service provision, billing and QoS will impact MVNOs with 5G?
  • Where do neutral-host networks (eg for in-building or rural coverage) & private 5G networks fit in to the story?
  • Along with 5G, what does NFV, SDN, cloud-native, eSIM and edge-computing mean for MVNOs?
  • Will we see new charging/rating models with 5G or will it be much the same as 4G?
  • Will it be possible to be a 5G-only MVNO?
It is probably too early to give definitive answers to all these questions - but the workshop will cover all these areas, and certainly outline the gaps in today's knowledge, wholesale enablers and regulation. 
The workshop will take place at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, central London [link]. It will run from 9am-5pm, with plenty of time for networking and interactive discussion. Come prepared to think and talk, as well as listen – this is a “lean-forward” day. Coffee and a nice lunch are included. A full agenda will be circulated nearer the time. 

The workshop facilitators will be Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis, plus Hamish White & Amr Houssein of Mobilise.

Booking & Payment

There are PayPal Buy Now buttons below, which can accept card payments as well as PayPal transfers. Alternatively, contact information at disruptive-analysis dot com if you want to be invoiced directly, and use purchase-order & bank-transfer. Payment can also be made in EUR or USD.

Pricing for attendance:

  • Early bird £499+VAT booked before Nov 1 (now expired)
  • £699+VAT after Nov 1
  • 15% discount for 2 attendees booked at the same time (max 2 from any one company)
  • (UK VAT @20% must be charged to attendees from any country, as the service is delivered in the UK. There are two separate payment options below, as PayPal only automatically adds VAT for UK accounts

UK Payments:

Non-UK Payments:

Friday, September 28, 2018

I got it slightly wrong - NFC mobile payments are not a complete dud

I have long been a critic of NFC-based mobile payments from smartphones. It was originally touted as a mobile operator service, debiting value (or adding to your monthly bill) with a tap. I was deeply skeptical.

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote that for it to work, "I ought to be able to check my balance from the phone screen, look at recent transactions and so on. At present, the UI/app side of NFC appears woefully weak to me". (link)

Six years ago, I was more emphastic still: "the tap-to-pay thing is a nonsense, a solution looking for a problem. The involvement of a telco adds zero value and lots of friction". (link)

I have to admit to being partly wrong. Yes, I know, it's rare for me to issue a mea culpa, but here, I have to hold my hands up!

I do actually see (some) people paying for things with their smartphones, as well as using them for stored tickets / travelcards. I also know that in China, South Korea and some other places, QR codes are popular, but that's a different technology. But for the most part, I was right about MNOs being an obstacle rather than a catalyst.

A few things have changed:
  • Linking NFC chips to native-OS capabilities like Apple and Android Pay, allowing the creation of good apps & UIs.
  • Integration with on-device biometrics, notably fingerprint- and facial-recognition
  • People commonly carrying charger cables or USB power banks, so there's less fear that running out of power = running out of money.
  • Very wide adoption of contactless plastic-card payments. In many UK and other European countries, a huge bulk of low-value retail and services-sector payments have moved to this model. This has allowed the broader concept of tap-to-pay to be normalised with plastic, and then a (currently small) % switch further to phones. It has also catalysed merchants to move to tap-to-pay terminals.
  • Most telcos bowing out of the payments value-chain, replaced by banks (old & new fintech ones), plus Apple, Google & Samsung. This has taken out cost, friction - and put the user back in control with familiar, mostly-trusted payment brands.
But it's still definitely not a "revolution". It's one of those secondary things that some people have adopted, without becoming universal. It's a bit like wearing a FitBit - people don't look at you weirdly any more, but they mostly don't intend getting one themselves. (If you pay with a watch, though, you're definitely still weird). 

NOTE: I realise that "normal" is a very geo-specific culture judgement. Within a country or even city, you may find greater levels of acceptance or scorn depending where you shop or drink coffee / beer. 

NFC phone-payment is now somewhere on the geek spectrum in between using a voice assistant (fairly normal), and wearing an AR/VR headset in public (not). There are some fairly clear demographics about who does/doesn't use NFC, as well.

This morning, for an entirely unscientific experiment, I counted 9 out of 100 people exiting my local tube station in central London using a phone rather than a card. Among card users, I couldn't tell how many used a proprietary TFL Oyster card vs. a normal credit/debit card that is now accepted at Oyster terminals. 

On closer inspection however, some of those people had phone-cases which also held some plastic cards as a physical wallet (like these - link), so given not all had been thumb-ing the screens, the actual number of proper NFC users was probably 5-7%. And that is among commuters who mostly travel every day, at 9am, so we can perhaps expect routines to be optimised. I might try another time to see how daytime "casual" usage differs.

Without having done a similar count at shops and restuarants, but having been generally observant over recent months, I'd guess that about the same percentage applies for retail transactions. Common-ish, but certainly atypical.

(As a sidenote - I'm writing this in a very nice cafe in London, which is having to apologise to customers that its card/NFC reader isn't working at all. Cash is still a critical backup).

Personally, I don't use my phone for retail payments. I use my contactless bank or credit cards, and I have a proper pre-pay Oyster. I prefer to keep my various payment and online relationships completely separate - Apple doesn't even have my credit card details.

I'm curious what the situation is elsewhere, and I'll keep an eye out when I'm travelling. My expectation is that phones will become somewhat more common for payments over time, but there's not going to be a sudden flip, as there was with contactless cards. I think geographic differences will persist too - I'd be surprised if Germany was a fast adopter of phone-based NFC, while China could well move much mor decisively. 

There might even be one or two places with telcos in the NFC-payments loop, as they are in some developing markets for messaging-based payments - but I don't see that in markets with existing high % of banking and card adoption.

Bottom line: I was definitely a bit too negative 10 years ago about the long-term future of NFC. But the transition remains slow, patchy, and dependent on the UX skills of the smartphone manufacturers. Also, few saw the behavioural acceptance of consumers being driven by tap-to-pay plastic cards as a first (and for many, last) step.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Thoughts on roaming, local SIM cards and eSIMs

I spend a large part of my life travelling, both for work and leisure. But while I find connectivity to be hugely important, I refuse to pay ludicrous per-MB data roaming prices.

So until a couple of years ago, this meant that I had a large collection of (mostly non-functioning) local mobile SIM cards I'd bought in various countries. Typically, I'd use them in a spare phone, so I could keep me normal phone on my home SIM to get inbound SMS or missed voice-call notifications. I'd also often use the second phone as a WiFi tether for my primary iPhone.

At one point I found old SIMs from the US, Singapore, Mozambique, Vanuatu, UAE and Australia in my wallet. In some places it was easy to get local SIMs, while in others it involved cumbersome registration with a passport or other documents. Places like India and Japan were a real pain, and I just didn't bother, relying on WiFi & an occasional extortionate SMS.

That has changed in recent years - and there are now multiple options for travellers:
  • Local SIMs are often easier to obtain. Booths at airports are well-practised at registering documents, sorting APN setting and so on, in a couple of minutes
  • In the EU, roaming prices have fallen progressively to zero - often including non-EU European countries as well. Various other groups of countries or regional operator groups have also created free-roaming zones.
  • Some operators offer customers flat-rate or even free roaming to other countries, such as T-Mobile US's free (but 2G-only) international data, or $5/day for capped LTE (link). I use Vodafone UK's £6/day "roam further" plan quite a lot, especially when visiting the US (link).
  • Many travellers can get dual-SIM phones, so they can easily switch between home and local SIMs without fiddling about with trays & pins. (There's no dual-SIM iPhone though. Grrrr. More on this later). 
  • Various companies (eg Truphone) offer global/roaming SIMs, and have hoped that frequent travellers would use these as their primary/only SIM. The problem with this is that they typically rely on MVNO relationships in each country, including the user's home market - which often means poorer data plans than can be bought domestically from the main MNOs. You also don't get to benefit from multi-play plans, bundled content and so forth. I'm also not entirely convinced that MVNO traffic always gets as well-treated as the host MNO's own customer data - and that's likely to get worse with 5G and network-slicing.
  • Some providers pitch global SIMs alongside rented/bought portable WiFI hotspots, such as TEP Wireless (link). The problem is that these often just cover the same countries as the better roaming plans from normal mobile operators. 
So... in July I went on holiday to the Cape Verde islands, off the coast of West Africa. Beautiful archipelago of 9 inhabited islands, with beaches, mountains, volcanoes, hiking trails and small villages nested in sheer-sided valleys. Neither Vodafone nor any of the travel-SIM companies seemed to cover either of its two main networks. So I went and bought an unlocked WiFi hotspot (from TP-Link), and hoped to get a local SIM on arrival, as I'd read a few suggestions it was possible.

It wasn't just possible, but remarkably easy. Walking through the arrivals door from customs at the airport, I was handed a free SIM by a representative of one of the operators (Unitel) within seconds. When I unwrapped it later in the day, I found it had 200MB of data included for free. No registration needed, no upfront payment, nothing. 3G network only, but that was fine to assure myself it worked OK. The next day I found a branded store & decided to stick with that network rather than check the other one (good marketing / customer acquisition strategy!) as the price-plans seemed fine. 

I paid €12 for 5GB of data, valid for a month. There was also a 7GB and maybe a 10 or 12GB one, but I wasn't planning on streaming video. In other words, €1 a day with about 500MB available per day, for normal mobile usage during my 11-day visit. The helpful lady in the shop sorted it all out for me, including temporarily switching my new SIM into her phone to send the setup / dataplan-purchase messages, which were tricky from a device with no keypad.

This compared to the roaming-advice SMS telling me that data would cost £0.60/MB [about €0.70]. In other words, roaming data was about 300x overpriced - quite astonishing, in 2018. And the mobile industry wonders why users have such little loyalty and respect.

(It's also worth noting that WiFi was ubiquitous in any hotel, cafe, restaurant or other places that visitors might go. There were telephone cable strung along all the valleys on poles, and decently-fast broadband was common. Given the moutainous topography, you could sometimes get WiFi more readily than cellular).

How would eSIM change things?

But this experience got me thinking about how the experience might be different in the coming era of eSIMs and remote-provisioning. Firstly, let's assume that one or both Cape Verdean operators actually had the requisite server-side gear for RSP. And let's assume that my future iPhone either has a multi-profile eSIM capability, or has dual removable/embedded SIM capability. (Remember, I still want to get my normal SMS's from my UK Vodafone number). Potentially, a future WiFi Hotspot could be eSIM-enabled too.

But then the question is, how does the user find out about the available networks, and the available plans on those networks? What's the user journey?

And there are lots of other questions too:
  • Would I get a popup alert when I switched my phone on after the flight? 
  • Would it give me menus for all the available plans or just a subset? 
  • Would I need to have signed up in advance, either with a local CV telco, or perhaps facilitated by Apple, Vodafone or a third party? 
  • When and how would I download the new profile? What data would that require me to send back (or what would be collected automatically?). 
  • Would it be easier to get an eSIM-capable WiFi device? 
  • But would that just be the same global MVNO providers who didn't have a Cape Verde relationship for roaming?
  • What happens if something goes wrong, or you need to buy more data? Can local stores give you any help, or top-ups?
Bottom line: this whole experience would likely have been worse with eSIM, not better. And probably more costly too. Maybe in a less unusual country, with MVNOs and better roaming partnerships, it could be much more slick.

But for most "normal" countries, I'll probably stick to the £6/day plan from Vodafone for ease, even if that's 5x overpriced and should really be £1-2/day. It's annoying, but basically the equivalent of  beer, and there's probably other ways I can save money faster when on a trip. That said, now I've got my new WiFi puck, I might switch back to SIMs sometimes though, if they're easy and available at the airport. I'll certainly take it along with me as a Plan B.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Telecom regulation and blockchain - is #RegTech the killer application?

One of the most interesting developments in telecoms technology for a while occurred this week – India’s telecom regulator TRAI issued a set of draft regulations aimed at combating spam and nuisance calls. (link)

At first glance, you could be forgiven for asking why anti-spam rules could possibly be more important than all the hoopla about 5G, market consolidation, network-slicing and, especially, “digital transformation” or RCS messaging (I jest).

The reason is in the details: TRAI has stipulated that telcos should use blockchain-based technologies to enforce its proposed rules, creating a tamper-proof and encrypted ledger of consent records, given by users for opt-in telemarketing. If the rules translate to reality, this is a major step forward in commercialisation of digital ledger technology, and at scale.

"Access  Providers  shall  adopt  Distributed  Ledger  Technology  (DLT)  with
permissioned and private DLT  networks for  implementation of  system, functions and processes as prescribed in Code(s) of Practice: -
(1) to  ensure  that  all  necessary  regulatory  pre-checks  are  carried  out  for  sending
Commercial Communication;
(2) to operate smart contracts among entities for effectively controlling the flow of Commercial Communication;
Access Providers may authorise one or more DLT network operators, as deemed fit, to provide technology solution(s) to all entities to carry out the functions as provided for in these regulations."

But in my view, this could be just the tip of a quite large iceberg. I'm starting to think that regulatory uses for blockchain (especially private/permissioned versions) could be central to the technology's success in telecoms.

Innovation in Regulation Technology, or RegTech, is already a huge domain, especially in sectors like financial services and healthcare. Historic methods for regulatory enforcement, from money-laundering rules, to certification of professionals, have often used reams of paperwork and had cumbersome processes. There is a huge need for automation, better provision of security and authentication, and simpler online access to regulatory resources and approval.

Obviously, telecoms has itself long had technical means for creating and enforcing rules, from spectrum-monitoring and radio-coverage tools, through automated platforms for telecoms licensing, to software aimed at checking broadband QoS and spotting net-neutrality violations.

But given that a lot of telecoms rules tend to involve multiple parties (eg user, telco, advertiser as here, or multiple telcos doing interconnect or wholesale agreements), requirements for "credentials", and there are often registries and other databases involved, the whole sphere looks like an archetypal match for the types of capability normally found in blockchains.

In particular, I think there are many potential use-cases for regulators to assist - or keep tabs on - telco activities that relate to regulatory policy. Adding unarguable timestamps to tamper-proof data storage has huge potential, in particular. Ones that immediately leap out to me include:
  • Number portability databases and porting requests
  • Storage of call detail records, that may be subject to lawful request at a later date
  • Spectrum allocations and permissions, especially for shared, local and dynamic spectrum models.
One other that I think has longer-term potential, but which nobody has talked about yet, is in secure and encrypted storage of network configuration and log files. One of the problems with regulating wholesale interconnect, peering, net neutrality and other rules, is that it is exceptionally hard to prove what happened retrospectively, if someone makes a complaint. This issue will be exacerbated with NFV/SDN, and the move to network slicing, when network configurations will be temporary and highly dynamic.

Given that law-enforcement insists that ISPs retain theur users' data records, it doesn't seem unreasonable to retain the ISPs' own information as well - obviously in a form that's secure and encrypted unless needed for evidence in the case of a legal intervention. It could also make a clear distinction between a problem of network failure (or happenstance in the way the maths of contention works), and deliberate actions.

The Net Neutrality angle here is particularly potent - it would allow any egregious behaviour to be dealt with post-hoc. Most anti-neutrality lobbyists dislike ex-ante regulation, but few could argue against allowing competition authorities or others from investigating alleged infringements that occurred deep inside the network's configurations and policies.

I'm just musing here, but I definitely feel that there's a lot more to telecom #RegTech using #blockchain than just tracking spam calls and SMS. 

This is one of the topics that will get discussed at my upcoming workshop on telecoms blockchain, on July 3 in London. Full details are here (link) or email information AT disruptive-analysis dot COM