Pompeo reiterates intelligence threat over Huawei

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on another European road trip just to make sure those rational and pragmatic Europeans understand the threats from the US.

Speaking at a press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Pompeo underlined the US stance with the thickest of marker pens and reiterated the US threats with serious authority.

“We also had part of conversations about other elements of China,” said Pompeo. “We’ve been pretty clear about how we view the risk connected to Huawei and 5G infrastructure. The internet of the future must have Western values embedded in it.”

Pompeo’s first mission is to address the Chinese threat, of which Huawei is considered a major cog, but that is not taking up all of his time.

“We have a second mission which is to educate our friends about these risks as well,” said Pompeo. “We talk to them plainly and openly. They’ll make their own decisions, Germany is thinking about it, but we will speak to them openly about the risk we see and how we think they can be mitigated. In the case of Huawei, our concern it that it is not possible to mitigate those [risks] anywhere inside of a 5G network.”

Pompeo clearly feels his European counterparts do not comprehend the severity of the Huawei threat, and he has taken it upon himself to lead the crusade in educating the world on the risk.

And if the world doesn’t understand, access to US intelligence will be withdrawn.

One of the issues which might cause further friction is the inability for the US Government to distinguish between core and non-core elements of the network. This is what Europe is basing its decisions on, allowing Huawei to operate in the ‘dumb’ parts of the network but not the core. For the US, this is not good enough, and never will be.

We expect a lot more huffing and puffing from the White House propaganda machine and the fear-mongering puppets of Trump over the next couple of weeks, though it will be interesting to see whether the US follows up on threats to reduce visibility of its intelligence data.

Wearables are on the up – IDC

Global shipments of wearable devices are increasingly healthily increasing, according to IDC estimates, up 55% to 49.6 million over the first three months of 2019.

Wearables are a tricky segment for the technology and telco world. So much is promised, a new revolution in digital society, but for years it has failed to deliver on the potential. That said, the last couple of quarters have looked a lot more promising.

“The elimination of headphone jacks and the increased usage of smart assistants both inside and outside the home have been driving factors in the growth of ear-worn wearables,” said Jitesh Ubrani Research Manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers.

“Looking ahead, this will become an increasingly important category as major platform and device makers use ear-worn devices as an on-ramp to entice consumers into an ecosystem of wearable devices that complement the smartphone but also offer the ability to leave the phone behind when necessary.”

This was perhaps the watershed moment for wearables; standalone connectivity. Smart watches, the flagbearer for the segment on the whole, struggled to gain traction due to a lack of standalone connectivity. These certainly weren’t fashion accessories in the early days and tethering the devices to a smartphone largely undermined the selling points.

With standalone connectivity there is now attention on the devices, and the increasing adoption of voice user interface, the devices more appealing for a wider range of applications. That said, the fitness niche is still proving to be a profitable one.

“Shipments of wristwear – including watches and wristbands – grew 31.6% year over year, and continue to dominate the wearables landscape,” said Ramon Llamas, Research Director for Wearables at IDC.

“While the functionalities and capabilities have grown and changed, the one common thread is the relentless focus on health and fitness. This has resonated strongly with users and health insurance companies alike, and new health and fitness insights attract a larger audience.”

Brand Shipments (million) Market share Year-on-year growth
Apple 12.8 25.8% 49.5%
Xiaomi 6.6 13.3% 68.2%
Huawei 5 10% 282.2%
Samsung 4.3 8.7% 151.6%
Fitbit 2.9 5.9% 35.7%
Others 18 36.3% 26%

Interestingly enough, over the last few quarters the top five manufacturers have been consolidating their position in the market, with the ‘others’ category claiming less and less. Like the smartphone space, this is increasingly looking like a market which will be tough for new-comers to crack, with market preferences shifting towards those who have an established brand in the space.

Trump set to raise the stakes over Huawei during UK visit

US President Trump will reportedly threaten to withdraw some intelligence cooperation with the UK unless it bans Huawei, when he visits.

This insight into Trump’s intentions comes courtesy of the FT, which says it has been chatting to people involved in organising the visit. Those people told it that the Prez will definitely raise the matter when he’s over here and he’s not happy about the UK’s current refusal to do what it’s told by the US and ban Huawei outright from its 5G network.

“The president is preparing to repeat the message that Chinese involvement in 5G could pose significant challenges for US-UK intelligence co-operation. He is prepared to go hard on this issue,” an unnamed insider told the FT. Trump has always been a ‘go hard or go home’ kind of guy, so it doesn’t really come as a great surprise that he intends to persist with this approach when he’s over here.

Any awkwardness between Trump and out-going UK PM May will be significantly amplified by the leak, a month ago, that the government was planning to go US advice and let Huawei be involved in UK 5G to some extent. This was so embarrassing to May that she sacked her own Secretary of Defence on suspicion of being the leaker – an allegation he emphatically denied.

No more surprising than the FT story is the revelation from AFP that Huawei has long been the recipient of generous state assistance from China. Huawei has apparently received hundreds of millions of dollar in grants, been given land at a discount and even cheap loans to use as incentives for customers to sign on the dotted line.

Apparently Huawei annual reports reveal $1.6 billion in back-handers from the Chinese government over the past 10 year, at least half of which don’t seem to have come with any strings attached. The export credit side of things is supposed to be regulated under international rules, but we’re told that China has refused to abide by them.

While none of this behaviour comes as a big shock, it does feed into the broader US narrative of China cheating at global trade. Once more Huawei is being used as a proxy in this dispute and it’s hard to see what it can do about it. It’s no secret that China has done a lot to support internal champions, but it’s hardly alone in that respect.

So this particular side of the trade dispute comes down to degree. The US and Europe will claim their protectionism is within international trade rules while China’s isn’t. It could be that even the security concerns that have been the main stick to beat Huawei, and by extension the UK, with are just a proxy for this broader drive to force China to abide by international rules and that they won’t go away until it does.

Amazon rumoured to be rummaging around Boost

Amazon is rumoured to be one of the parties interested in purchasing Sprint’s prepaid Boost, and while it might be a long-shot, all rumours eventually seem lead back to Amazon at some point.

According to Reuters, two individuals have suggested Amazon is in the market to purchase the prepaid brand, a casualty of concessions put in front of the telco if it is to realise its merger ambitions with T-Mobile US. While any divestment in Boost is only a potential outcome for the moment, if Sprint and T-Mobile US want to get the merger greenlight from the FCC, ditching one of the prepaid brands would be one of the three conditions.

Of course, what is worth noting is that Amazon is not the only interested party. Boost founder Peter Adderton has also shown interest in buying back the company he sold to Sprint in 2006. Funnily enough, Adderton has been one of the critics of the merger, though his tune seems to have changed since the opportunity to get a deal on Boost emerged…

This is nothing but speculation for the moment. Any divestment in Boost would depend on the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile US being approved, an outcome which is far from guaranteed considering alleged objections from the Department of Justice on the grounds of competition.

That said, a yes is a distinct (but fleeting…) possibility. And Amazon would of course be in the picture.

If Amazon is good at anything, it is a master at selling the brand and draining customer’s wallets for an extra couple of quid each month. Connectivity is an interesting prospect for Amazon, as while some might question why it would want to get involved in such a messy and decreasingly profitable industry, but there is an opportunity to create innovative products through bundling.

According to Ovum’s lead analyst for fixed and mobile Dario Talmesio, this could be an option for disruption. For the core eCommerce business, Amazon offers a premium delivery service for physical goods. For its digital assets, such as the content offering, why couldn’t it do the same? Connectivity is the delivery function of online services, so it is a similar concept.

The big idea here is adding value. Amazon might not necessarily make a significant profit from connectivity, but connectivity as a value add could have a compounding effect on the digital content business.

“Amazon is known for regularly screening the horizon for all kind of opportunities,” said Talmesio. “When it comes to MVNO-like connectivity, Kindle was in industry-first example of providing free (data) delivery, which was included in the cost of the subscription or purchase of the electronic books being downloaded. There is a reason why there should not be looking at replicating the same business to other services.

“Connectivity is a mean to an end: if you want to provide a frictionless retail shopping experience, for instance, why not include connectivity as part of Amazon Prime or Prime video or, in B2B why adding it to AWS services.

“The boundaries between connectivity and cloud are blurring, and the timing could be right for Amazon to redesign the connectivity business the same way they redesigned logistics, retail, and public cloud businesses.  Amazon is all about introducing excellence in processes that need to be turned into customer-first and digital first, adding connectivity to their existing plans makes sense, as long as it also makes financial sense.”

A new approach to telecommunications and connectivity is perhaps something which the industry, or more accurately, customers are craving.

Some might consider the telcos are in a slightly precarious position. For years, customers service and experience has been considered an afterthought, and it shows. This has the potential to create a scenario where the retail business of the telcos can be disrupted by those who take a more attentive approach to customer service.

A recent survey from Matrixx suggests 85% of UK and US consumers would consider switching to an Amazon mobile connectivity contract if the option was available. 64% also said they would switch providers to get a similar experience to their favourite apps. The internet giants might not be set up to manage infrastructure, but there may well be interest for alternative brands to manage the customer relationship.

Over in the US, Google Fi is looking like it could be a success as an MVNO, though it is still early days, while in the UK, Giffgaff is gaining traction month on month. Both of these brands demonstrate that an attentive approach to customer service and delivering an innovative service to customers will gain interest from bewildered and frustrated consumers.

Of course, what is worth noting is that this is not the first time Amazon rumours have focused on the connectivity world. Back in 2012, Amazon launched an MVNO service in Japan. In 2014, it launched the Amazon Fire Mobile, though this was pretty much a disaster. In 2015, there were rumours of a US MVNO service. Earlier this year, it was revealed Amazon had partnered with low-orbit nanosatellites firm Kuiper Systems. And of course, customers can buy embedded connectivity with Kindle products.

This is nothing but market speculation for the moment, and while it would surprise a few to see Amazon connected with connectivity, there is a nice fit with other aspects of the business.

How long can Uber keep bleeding cash?

It is becoming increasingly popular to invest in money-bleeding technology giants in preparation of an inflection point in profits, but you have to wonder how long Uber will be able to hold on for.

Uber is a massive brand, an innovator and genuine disruptor to the status quo. There are few examples of a concept riding the wave of digital to create such a severe disturbance to the traditional world. And while Uber might be the biggest transportation brand in the digital era, it is haemorrhaging cash quarter-on-quarter. Other segments have demonstrated there will be an inflection point, the moment of glory horrendous losses are turned into monstrous profits, but that scenario might be a long-way off for Uber.

Looking at the quarterly results, revenues grew to $3.09 billion for the period, a 20% increase year-on-year, but net loss from operations was $1.03 billion. This is 116% more than it lost in the same period of 2018.

The losses are certainly starting to mount as well. In the final quarter of 2018, Uber reported a net loss of $865 million. In Q4, the loss was slightly worse at $939 million. In this period of 2018, the firm reported net loss of $478 million from operations.

In the digital economy, investors are seemingly happy to swallow negatives, Uber’s share price following the announcement of the financials is holding steady, though how long can the potential remain potential?

Encouraging these investors are companies like Amazon and Netflix. In both of these cases, the firm build a dominant position in the respective segments, scaled globally, attracted millions of customers and then turned attentions to profits. Uber might be able to do the same thing, it is following the same trends, though there are sceptical voices.

Some might suggest Uber will continue to be a loss-making company until autonomous vehicles emerge. The theory is sound, after all a company’s biggest overhead is staff. Uber will be able to free up billions once the technology is perfected, making it a very profitable company. However, it might be decades before autonomous vehicles are a realistic prospect on the streets.

The technology might not be far away, but there are so many other moving parts which need to be factored in. Firstly, will people trust handing control of vehicles to machines? Are regulations and legislation in place to facilitate the introduction of this technology? How long will it take parallel industries, such as insurance, to ready themselves? Is the infrastructure, both roads and mobile connectivity, ready for autonomous vehicles? Have safety concerns been appropriately addressed?

There are so many factors to consider, the progression of autonomous vehicles is much more than technology. It might be decades before self-driving cars hit the streets; can investors wait that long for the Uber inflection point?

There is also an interesting, and slightly nefarious, philosophical question to consider when it comes to programming the artificial intelligence component of the technology.

Let’s say a car is driving down the street, travelling at 20 mph when a child steps into the road. The child is within the braking distance of the car therefore it is physically impossible to stop the vehicle in time. There are three options for the AI to choose from:

  1. Continue driving forward and potentially kill the child
  2. Turn sharply left and potentially drive into pedestrians
  3. Turn sharply right and potentially drive into on-coming traffic

In each of these scenarios, there is the potential for a fatality. But here is the issue; the AI will have to make a ‘conscious’ choice, the outcome might mean death, and the software engineer will have to write the software deciding how the AI will react.

The reason why this is different to today’s driving condition is because a human reacts without thinking through the possible outcomes. We cannot assess the information fast enough and react with a logical action, but AI can.

This scenario is of course highly unlikely, sensors and cameras on street furniture might be able to warn the vehicle of the on-going hazard, but it is a possibility therefore the AI has to be programmed to decide. There is no right answer here, but the AI is flawed unless a decision on what course of action to take is made.

Some might suggest the option with the smallest percentage chance for a fatality should be taken, but the risk of a fatality is still there. Because the vehicle has made a decision, should someone be held accountable if someone dies as a result of the action? This is a very complicated area.

So, if autonomous vehicles are out of the question for years to come, Uber will have to think of other ways to make money.

Uber Eats is proving to be a profitable venture for the firm, while the management team has promised to cut back on promotions which might carve into profits. But will these side ventures compensate for the way the core business and R&D businesses are churning through cash. What is clear, Uber needs to stop bleeding cash in such a dramatic fashion or credibility with investors might start to run dry.

Trump and UK PM May to discuss Huawei ban as firm limits US contact

President Trump and UK PM Theresa May will discuss a Huawei ban during a state visit, as firm limits contact with Americans.

Theresa May will step down as PM on June 7th but will be in her post for Trump's visit. As the UK is a crucial US security partner, May's government has been under pressure from Trump's administration to ban Huawei over national security concerns.

A leak from a National Security Council meeting last night month suggested May's government was minded to allow Huawei's equipment in non-core parts of 5G networks. The leak prompted a threat from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that it would result in reduced security cooperation between the long-standing partners.

"Insufficient security will impede the United States’ ability to share certain information within trusted networks,” Pompeo said. “This is just what China wants – to divide Western alliances through bits and bytes, not bullets and bombs.”

UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright responded to Pompeo’s comments that no decision has yet been made. If deemed necessary, Wright does not rule out a delay to 5G’s rollout to protect national security.

Huawei was added to a US ban list earlier this month, resulting in a severe impact on both its B2B and consumer businesses. The company is set to be cut off from access to Google's services and Android updates, ARM and Qualcomm’s chips, as well as exiled from the SD Association, WiFi Alliance, and the IEEE.

Amid the escalating tensions, Huawei has requested its employees to cancel all meetings with US contacts. Meanwhile, American workers at Huawei's headquarters in China have been told to remove laptops and leave the premises. Visitors to Huawei's campuses are being checked for American passports.

Trump and May's discussion over the fate of Huawei in the UK is scheduled for June 4th.

(Image Credit: The White House under Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this? Attend the co-located IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo, and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London, and Amsterdam.

Tech giants hit back against GCHQ’s ‘Ghost Protocol’

GCHQ’s new proposal to supposedly increase the security and police force’s ability to keep us safe has been slammed by the technology industry, suggesting the argument contradicts itself.

In an article for Lawfare, GCHQ’s Technical Director Ian Levy and Head of Cryptanalysis Crispin Robinson presented six principles to guide ethical and transparent eavesdropping, while also suggesting intelligence officers can be ‘cc’d’ into group chats without compromising security or violating the privacy rights of the individuals involved.

The ‘Exceptional Access Debate’ is one way in which GCHQ is attempting to undermine the security and privacy rights offered to consumers by some of the world’s most popular messaging services.

Responding in an open letter, the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Government Accountability Project, Privacy International, Apple, Google, Microsoft and WhatsApp have condemned the proposal.

“We welcome Levy and Robinson’s invitation for an open discussion, and we support the six principles outlined in the piece,” the letter states. “However, we write to express our shared concerns that this particular proposal poses serious threats to cybersecurity and fundamental human rights including privacy and free expression.”

Levy and Robinson suggest that instead of breaking the encryption software which is placed on some of these messaging platforms, the likes of Signal and WhatsApp should place virtual “crocodile clips” onto the conversation, effectively adding a ‘ghost’ spook into the loop. The encryption protections would remain intact and the users would not be made aware of the slippery eavesdropper.

In justifying this proposal, Levy and Robinson claim this is effectively the same practice undertaken by the telco industry for years. During the early days, physical crocodile clips were placed on telephone wires to intercept conversations, which later evolved to simply copying call data. As this is an accepted practice, Levy and Robinson see no issue with the encrypted messaging platforms offer a similar service to the spooks.

However, the coalition of signatories argue there are numerous faults to the argument. Firstly, technical and secondly, from an ethical perspective.

On the technical side, the way in which keys are delivered to authenticate the security of a conversation would have to be altered. As it stands, public and private keys are delivered to the initiator and recipients of the conversation. Both of these keys match, are assigned to specific individuals and only change when new participants are added to the conversation. To add a government snooper into the conversation covertly, all the keys would have to be changed without notifying the participants.

Not only would this require changes to the way encryption technologies are designed and implemented, but also it would undermine the trust users place in the messaging platform. Levy and Robinson are asking the messaging platforms to suppress any notifications to the participants of the conversation, effectively breaking the trust between the user and the brand.

While GCHQ can think it is presenting a logical and transparent case, prioritising responsible and ethical use of technology, the coalition also argues it is contradicting its own principles laid out in its initial article. Those principles are as follows:

  1. Privacy and security protections are critical to public confidence, therefore authorities would only request access to data in exceptional cases
  2. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should evolve with technologies and the technology industry should offer these agencies greater insight into product development to help aid this evolution
  3. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies should not expect to be able to gain access to sensitive data every time a request is made
  4. Targeted exceptional access capabilities should not give governments unfettered access to user data
  5. Any exceptional access solution should not fundamentally change the trust relationship between a service provider and its users
  6. Transparency is essential

Although the coalition of signatories are taking issue with all six points, for us, it’s the last two which are the most difficult to grasp.

Firstly, if ‘Ghost Protocol’ is accepted by the industry and implemented, there is no way not to undermine or fundamentally change the trust relationship between the platform and the user. The platform promises a private conversation, without exception, and the GCHQ proposal requires data interception without knowledge of the participants. These are two contradictory ideas.

“…if users were to learn that their encrypted messaging service intentionally built a functionality to allow for third-party surveillance of their communications, that loss of trust would understandably be widespread and permanent,” the letter states.

The sixth principle is another one which is difficult to stomach, as there is absolutely nothing transparent about this proposal. In fact, the open letter points out that under the Investigatory Powers Act, passed in 2016, the UK Government can force technology service providers to hold their tongue through non-disclosure agreements (NDA). These NDAs could bury any intrusion or interception for decades.

It’s all very cloak and dagger.

Another big issue for the coalition is that of creating intentional vulnerabilities in the encryption software. To meet these demands, providers would have to rewrite software to create the opportunity for snooping. This creates two problems.

Firstly, there are nefarious individuals everywhere. Not only in the deep, dark corners of the internet, but also working for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Introducing such a vulnerability into the software opens the door for abuse. Secondly, there individuals who are capable of hacking into the platforms that developed said vulnerability.

At the moment, encryption techniques are incredibly secure because not even those who designed the encryption software them can crack them. If you create a vulnerability, the platforms themselves become a hacker target because of said vulnerability. Finding the backdoor would be the biggest prize in the criminal community, the Holy Grail of the dark web, and considerable rewards would be offered to those who find it. The encryption messaging platforms could potentially become the biggest hacking target on the planet. No-one or no organization is 100% secure, therefore this is a very real risk.

After all these considerations to security vulnerabilities and breach of user trust, another massive consideration which cannot be ignored is the human right to privacy and freedom of expression.

Will these rights be infringed if users are worried there might be someone snooping on their conversation? The idea creates the fear of a surveillance state, though we will leave it up to the readers as to whether GCHQ has satisfied the requirements to protect user security, freedom of expression and privacy.

For us, if any communications provider is to add law enforcement and intelligence agencies in such an intrusive manner, there need to be deep and comprehensive obligations that these principles will be maintained. Here, we do not think they have.

T-Mobile/Sprint merger might be heading towards a ‘no’ – report

The merger approval process is heading towards the business-end of proceedings, and the omens are not looking particularly healthy for T-Mobile US and Sprint.

The longer the process takes to complete, the more of a feeling there is the transaction might be denied. As it stands, the FCC has seemingly lit the green light, though it does not appear the Department of Justice (DoJ) is on the same page.

According to reports from Bloomberg, the DoJ is considering additional concessions which would force T-Mobile US and Sprint to create a fourth national MNO to preserve competition. How this would be achieved is not detailed, but it is difficult to see how the duo would be happy with this outcome.

If reports turn out to be true, the concessions bar might be set too high for the parties to be comfortable. This is of course assuming the DoJ is happy with the plans laid out by T-Mobile US and Sprint to satisfy the alleged concession.

The long-standing justification for this merger is to create a more competitive alternative to AT&T and Verizon. To do this, T-Mobile US and Sprint executives have argued combining the network and spectrum assets is imperative. This is where the details of how a fourth nationwide player are needed.

A fair assumption would be the DoJ would insist T-Mobile US and Sprint would spin-off some of their assets to create this fourth alternative. Considering the vast investment which would have to be made, both monetary and time, to establish another MNO from the ground up, it is realistically the only option.

However, spinning-off network and spectrum assets to create a fourth nationwide MNO would most likely weaken the position of the newly combined business. Surely this would undermine the initial justification for the merger? If the merged business does not have access to all the current assets of the pair, would it still be in the same league as AT&T and Verizon?

Critics of the deal are already suspicious of the claims the merged business would be able to satisfy the coverage obligations of the FCC, 97% 5G coverage within three years with no price increases, and what would they say if the DoJ forces the pair to release assets?

These reports also compound theories about the different approaches from the FCC and the DoJ. It would appear the two approving agencies are offering different opinions on a merger for the first time. This can perhaps be explained by the objectives of the agencies.

For the FCC, it does appear improving mobile coverage and quality of experience is the main objective, while the DoJ is focused on preserving competition and choice for the consumer. While there might be some common ground between the two objectives, there is also room for opposing opinions.

For T-Mobile US and Sprint, the situation is not looking the healthiest. Accepting these reported concessions might be difficult if the pair are to remain true to their stated objectives, and that is of course assuming the DoJ accept the response on how they will meet the obligations.

It’s all starting to look a little messy for T-Mobile US and Sprint, and we are starting to get stronger feelings no will be the answer at the end of this prolonged saga.

EE spares no expense in hyping official 5G launch but coverage is mixed

UK mobile operator EE has finally flicked on the 5G switch in six cities but not everyone is as excited about it as Stormzy.

To commemorate 5G being switched on EE floated a stage out into the middle of the river Thames and put rapper Stormzy on it to perform a special set that culminated in warm sentiments towards EE and 5G, which you can see below. “Big up EE, thank you for letting me launch your 5G network in the UK,” said Stormzy. “Tonight was sick, I’m honoured to be part of history.” His agent is presumably no less pleased.

“We wanted to mark the arrival of the UK’s first 5G network with something spectacular,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer business. “Tonight, we made history, not only by becoming the first network to launch 5G in the UK, but also using 5G to live stream this event to thousands of fans across the UK. Stormzy lit up the Thames and his fans’ faces with the energy, passion and charisma that he always brings to his live shows.”

As previously indicated, 5G was switched on in bits of London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. Apparently this shiny new 5G tech was used to not just power the performance but beam it to EE stores in the other launch cities in order to create a 360-degree VR experience.

Stormzy kept the crowd rapt with this one-off show, set against the iconic backdrop of London’s Tower Bridge,” gushed the EE press release. “First things first he set the evening’s tone, rising up on stage as night fell to an overwhelming ovation from the buoyant crowd, which included competition winners from across the UK.” Stormzy went on to announce he was launching an ‘EE 5G ting’ apparently.

EE also found a further ally in the unlikely form of state broadcaster BBC. The two claim to have ‘successfully made the UK’s first live TV contribution over a public 5G connection’, in which an outside broadcast was beamed back to BBC HQ over 5G. This marks the first time a public 5G network has been used by a production team for a live TV programme, we’re told.

“This is an excellent example of how the BBC experiments with cutting-edge technology to improve how we make programmes,” said Matthew Postgate, Chief Technology and Product Officer at the BBC. “5G is a hugely interesting area for us to explore, with potential to reduce the cost and complexity of outside broadcasts, and as a way of delivering content to audiences in the future. The internet will play a bigger role in broadcasting and we’re pioneering the techniques, standards and ways of working to truly take advantage of it.”

The mainstream UK media seems to have been broadly as accommodating as the beeb in their coverage of the launch, but not everyone is so unconditionally upbeat. “The rollout of 5G is a welcome step forward, however there’s no reason for most people to rush out and upgrade to a 5G device just yet,” said Alex Tofts of Broadband Genie. “Coverage will remain limited for some time, and the cost of being an early adopter is high. Once more networks deploy 5G and coverage improves, the cost will fall as competition rises.

“But while the potential of 5G is exciting we can’t forget that UK network operators still have an obligation to provide 4G signal to 95% of the UK by 2022. 5G has a lot of promise but the operators should not lose focus on ensuring that coverage for existing technology continues to improve, especially in rural locations where mobile broadband can be used to plug the gaps in fixed line broadband access.”

Ingo Flömer, VP of Business Development and Technology at Cobham Wireless, is also concerned about coverage. “5G will undoubtably unlock a range of exciting new consumer and business use cases,” he said. “However, the new connectivity standard fails to address a more pressing problem: the lack of reliable mobile connectivity in many under-connected areas of the UK.

“Not-spots don’t only exist in villages and rural areas of the country; getting 4G mobile coverage is still a massive challenge for subscribers on major over ground rail routes, transport tunnels, and in infrastructure like sports stadiums, airports and music venues. 5G might present lucrative business and consumer cases, yet there’s a lot of revenue still to be unlocked by deploying 4G. In-stadium services to enhance the fan experience, for example, or ad-supported media and entertainment mobile streaming on commuter trains.”

“There has been something of a rush among operators to claim 5G leadership, in a bid to avoid being a perceived laggard,” said Dr William Webb, IEEE Fellow and CEO of Weightless SIG. “This has unfortunately resulted in a number of premature launches. Initially, coverage will be very patchy – some areas in city centres may have a good connection but little elsewhere. For many, there may be no 5G coverage where they live and work for many years.

“Initial tariffs appear to be significantly higher than 4G, which looks unappealing given the limited 5G coverage. The basic 5G package has 5GB of data. If the promise of 200Mb/s is delivered on – and 5G is aiming for much higher – then this entire monthly allowance will last a total of 200 seconds!

“The only real benefit here is that 5G networks will be virtually empty, allowing congestion-free communications. This is a big advantage when you consider in places such as Waterloo, Kings Cross or other mainline train stations. While lower congestion is a valuable benefit, there is no sign of the services or applications that will deliver the well-documented changes to the way that we live and work that some have promised.”

“It will probably take two or three years for networks to settle down and deliver a solid performance. Only then will we see coverage become reliable and widespread enough to impact those who live or work in cities, and for handsets to be price-comparable with 4G. If EE continues at its current rollout rate of 100 base stations per month, it will take 16 years to upgrade its entire network.”

Every new generation of mobile technology suffers from an over-promising problem, but it’s arguably worse than ever with 5G. Everyone knows the full benefits of 5G are still years away, but that’s of no concern to the marketing departments of operators keen to capitalise on this once-in-a decade-opportunity. EE has done a great job on the hype, now let’s see how it does on the substance.

 

Google Loon up-and-floating to aid Peru earthquakes

Commercial contract negotiations with Telefonica Peru have allowed Google’s Loon to respond to Amazonian earthquakes within 48-hours of receiving the call.

While the prospect of delivering connectivity via hot air balloons might baffle some, Google’s old-school approach is proving it has a valid and justified place in the digital world. Not only can the balloons deliver connectivity to underserved and commercially-unattractive regions, but the fleet can be quickly mobilised to assist in areas hit by natural disasters.

“Over the past few months, we have been in negotiations with Telefónica on a commercial contract that would utilize Loon’s balloons to extend mobile internet access to unserved and underserved areas of Peru, specifically remote parts of the Amazon region,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote on Medium.

“On Sunday morning, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck the region. After requests from the government of Peru and Telefónica, we quickly re-directed a group of balloons to the impacted area. Early Tuesday morning, the first balloons arrived and began serving LTE to users below.”

While many might see the internet and the digital euphoria as somewhat of a first-world luxury, connectivity is being interwoven into the foundations of society. Disaster management is only enhanced by technological break-throughs, from drones delivering supplies, big data analytics to assess real-time updates, or basic means of communication, connectivity is crucial in every aspect of the efforts.

Following the earthquake in Peru this weekend, Loon was able to establish a network over the affected region within 48-hours. This is not the first time Loon has responded to such an incident, but this time, due to on-going commercial discussions with Telefonica Peru, Loon was already integrated into the MNOs network allowing such a quick response.

Back in 2017, Loon once again aided the Peruvian Government following flooding in the Northern regions of the country. In Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, it took four weeks to deliver a service to the impacted areas with AT&T and T-Mobile. The speed of response this time around was down to already progressing conversations with Telefonica Peru.

“It takes a lot of planning and setup to make balloon-powered internet work,” said Westgarth. “Before we can begin providing service, we need to install ground infrastructure, integrate with a mobile network operator’s (MNO) network, secure regulatory and overflights approvals, and of course launch balloons and navigate them to a desired location.”

The issue which Loon might face in the future is being pigeon holed into a niche aspect of the connectivity mix.

There is of course nothing wrong with being the first-choice option to assist with recovery efforts following a natural disaster, but the team will want to be known for more than that. Loon has ambitions to become one of the key jigsaw pieces in delivering a connectivity solution across society consistently, not only when worst-case scenarios present themselves.

In September, during the AfricaCom conference, Westgarth took to the stage to outline the ambitions of the Loon business. Westgarth pointed out that this is not a suitable substitute for traditional infrastructure, but an opportunity to enhance coverage. The balloons can offer a cost-effective and time-efficient alternative to traditional infrastructure. It might not be as attractive from a technology perspective as fibre or 5G, but it is more realistic.

In proving its effectiveness of Loon in aiding disaster management efforts, Loon might be encouraging people to overlook the opportunities which are available to enhance connectivity in everyday life.

What is worth noting is this is not just an option for the developing markets, but also for the developed ones as well.

In the larger countries, the US for example, delivering connectivity to the rural communities is an on-going challenge. While this might be satisfied over the coming years, there are still regions which will be not-spots where there is no population. The commercial case for traditional connectivity might not ever be justified for some of these regions, though IOT usecases might emerge in the coming years. This is where alternative connectivity solutions, such as satellite or Loon, could plug the gap.

In the developing markets, the business case for Loon as a consistent connectivity option is much more obvious. With ARPU considerably lower, justifying network deployment in the more traditional sense becomes much more difficult. Loon can provide a more feasible alternative.

Loon is crafting itself a useful niche which will appeal to numerous countries who have a history of being impacted by natural disasters, but it will have to be careful not to pigeon-hole itself into this nice.