KaiOS shows why it is critical to Africa’s digital ambition

Working in tandem with Vodacom, KaiOS has brought another smart-feature phone to the market, this time in Tanzania for the remarkable price of $20.

With an install base of 80 million already, the alternative operating system is proving to be a very viable and attractive alternative for the development markets. The latest push forward is in Tanzania, with the $20 Smart Kitochi connected-feature phone, which has sold out already. Vodacom said 5,000 devices were sold in the first four days, while the team is waiting for another shipment to land next week.

The device is built on the MediaTek chipset and powered by the KaiOS operating system, enabling 3G and 4G connectivity, access to a new KaiOS app store and many slimmed-down features which we take as commonplace today.

The emergence of KaiOS, and the enthusiasm of the telcos to embrace a new dynamic, is helping the team tackle a major hurdle for shrinking the digital divide in Africa; affordability of internet connected devices.

When you consider the monthly take home salary of an individual in Africa could be as little as $100, the internet becomes an unachievable dream. Who can spare money to invest in a smartphone when you have to pay the rent and feed your family? This is where KaiOS fits into the equation; it has driven the creation of an ecosystem to manufacture feature phones with 3G and 4G connectivity features. It is a compromise. A no-frills device which allows some of the world’s poorest individuals to benefit from the digital economy.

What is worth noting is this is not a direct threat to the dominance of Android in the operating system segment. KaiOS should be seen as complementary to Google’s efforts.

Firstly, what is always worth bearing in mind is that Google is a KaiOS investor. It was one of the four companies which funnelled cash into the business to drive development in the early years.

Secondly, Google services will continue to run on KaiOS devices. The team has no intention to create alternative products in-house, such as mapping or messaging features. Although it is a different operating system, the more successful KaiOS is, the more exposure Google products get.

Finally, the monetization model at KaiOS is completely different to Android. Whereas the Google team drive revenues by placing products as default applications on Android devices, KaiOS generates cash through revenue sharing models and commission earned through in-app purchases.

Like Android, KaiOS is free of license fees for the telcos, an important aspect of the model. As soon as licensing fees are introduced, there is a risk of telcos charging more for the devices, which will lead to a smaller install base for KaiOS. Charging licensing fees would undermine the very concept of the business.

Google has once again invested very intelligently. To drive future revenues, Google needs to gain exposure to more individuals. Unfortunately, Android is a smartphone OS and not entirely applicable to the developing markets. It could be re-imagined, but then again it might be much more efficient to simply invest in a company which can specifically build an OS for smart feature phones. The slimmed down version of Android looks to be living on limited time and it would not be surprising to see the OS culled.

With more and more affordable devices flooding onto the market, more people are taking into the digital economy. If KaiOS continues to grow its user base, Google’s products such as Maps and YouTube, which are installed as default on the devices, are used by more people. By investing in KaiOS, Google has gained an extra 80 million customers, and these are still the early days.

KaiOS has already launched in several markets, though India is the most successful to date. In partnership with Reliance Jio, the Jio phone has proven to be very popular allowing KaiOS to surpass Apple iOS as the second most common OS in the market. There will be launches in the near future, but this all depends on the appetite of the telcos.

KaiOS highlighted during a press conference that it is the telcos who decide future launches, as they have the retail presence to push the smart-feature devices out to the market. Although handing over control to a third-party is not the most comfortable position to be in, there is drive from the telcos.

If the telcos are going to secure additional revenues, they will need more people to be connected. Device affordability is one of the biggest challenges to connect the unconnected, so expect to see some aggressive moves forward with new device launches. Vodacom is a very good partner for KaiOS, with the telco maintaining a presence in 32 African nations.

Connecting the unconnected is still a monumental challenge in African, though the creation and aggressive deployment of new ideas is generating momentum. Underpinning all of this success is the emergence of affordable, internet-connected devices, and an operating system which is perfectly designed for the unique connectivity landscape in Africa. KaiOS has a very bright future and the importance of this business should never be undervalued.

Handsets are now the biggest hurdle to adoption in Africa – MTN CEO

Connecting the African continent is always going to be a complicated job, but the availability of handsets is now the biggest challenge according to MTN CEO Rob Schuter.

When most people visit the continent of Africa, they are likely drawn to touristic countries such as Morocco, South Africa or Tunisia, and while some scenes might jar, the picture is misleading. These countries might not be as advanced as those in Europe or North America, but they are not a fair representation of the wider continent either, as Schuter highlighted at AfricaCom 2019.

MTN has roughly 220 million subscribers across the region, though only 87 million are mobile broadband customers. Like traditional banking, only a third of the African continent is connected to the internet. Deployment of connectivity infrastructure might be motoring along, but adoption of these services is not.

There is of course a myriad of reasons for this, but according to Shuter, the affordability of handsets is at the top of the list.

Average monthly earnings in Africa are as little as $100 a month. ARPU is $4, which is perhaps on the steep side, though most entry level smart-feature phones cost $40. This is where it becomes difficult for an individual to take the step into the digital economy; how many individuals can justify 40% of their monthly income to purchase a device?

That said, the situation is not as dire as it used to be. MTN has launched the Smart S device, a hybrid device with the appearance of a feature phone but with some internet services capabilities, Vodacom has launched a number of different alternatives such as the Vibe 4G or the Smart Kicka 3, while Nokia and Alcatel have debuted their own devices as well. But despite the efforts to decrease price, more work needs to be done.

During one of the keynote panel sessions, Shuter’s point was echoed by Schalk Visser, CTO of Cell C, a challenger MNO in South Africa. Visser said there as still a remarkable number of unconnected individuals in the connected areas. Infrastructure has been deployed, addressing one of the key barriers to digital inclusion, though it is clear only a fraction of the problems are being addressed.

But while this is a significant challenge, it should also be noted the African connectivity conundrum is a tapestry of complication.

CHASE is a useful acronym to bear in mind here. Coverage, Handsets, Affordability, Service bundles and Education. The mobile ecosystem cannot exist with infrastructure to provide the coverage, handsets to act as the interface, affordable tariffs, and ecosystem of services and individuals who are educated in the ways and means of the internet economy.

Digital inclusion is of course a significant challenge for anyone based on the African continent, but affordable and reliable handsets are now the top challenge.

Fingers pointed towards 3G work for Three network outage

While the full-extent of the network outage has not been unveiled just yet, some are suggesting maintenance on the firms 3G network is the root cause.

Three has confirmed it was a change to the network which was being made overnight on Wednesday [October 16] which caused the outage, but it is being elusive with the specifics. Either it doesn’t know, which we doubt, or it doesn’t want to say.

There does appear to be customers who are struggling to connect to voice, SMS and data services, though the majority of the issues seem to have been settled. Networks appear to be up-and-running, and now the work begins to understand the cause of the outage. Perhaps more importantly, the team will also want to figure out how to ensure this incident does not occur again.

“Following the technical difficulties with our services yesterday, the majority of our customers can now make calls, send texts and use data,” Three said in a statement.

“Our engineers have worked overnight and are continuing to iron out a few remaining issues from a technical perspective. While voice and text have returned to normal, unfortunately a small number of customers may continue to experience intermittent issues with data.

“To help with the process we advise our customers to turn their phones off and on or turn airplane mode on and off, which will in most cases resolve the issue by resetting your phone’s connection to the network.”

Although the ‘turn it off and turn it on again’ request will infuriate a few, it is usually the best way to get things fixed. Three is suggesting the problems are in the past and it will be hoping its reputation has not taken too much of a hit.

Unfortunately for the team, there was a bit of a misguided attempt at humour during the saga. In one tweet, Three suggests O2 had unplugged its 3G network when plugging in its own 5G infrastructure, though a few commentators noted that it might have been a bit funnier if there weren’t customers continuing through the data-less struggle.

Looking at the root cause of the issue, there is still some ambiguity. Some have suggested it might have been teething problems for the new cloud core, being supplied by Nokia, though Three has denied this. Other reports have emerged suggesting maintenance and repairs on 3G infrastructure could be the reason.

The 3G work is an interesting angle, as while Three is attempting to switch-off 3G in pursuit of re-farming valuable spectrum for 4G and 5G, this is still a work in progress.

Interestingly enough, while the process of switching-off 3G networks is one which is gaining popularity, spectrum is a valuable resource after all, it might have a negative impact on the 2G networks which are still running.

Although it might seem unusual to discuss 2G in today’s world, a report from Tech UK suggests the need for 2G services is likely to continue into the 2030s. The services are still being made use of by the elderly, rural users and M2M applications, this will not change in the immediate future. If telcos are switching off 3G, the demand of these areas cannot be offset meaning 2G networks will have to be maintained for the foreseeable future.

“We sometimes focus on technology without fully understanding the impact on services people rely on,” said Tony Lavender, chair of the Spectrum Policy Forum Steering Board.

“Among other things, 2G enables smart metering and the mobile phones used by many vulnerable people in society. We need to think through the alternatives for these services before switching them off.”

While hiccups are rare in the connectivity world, they are certainly not unheard of. Last year, inadequacies from Ericsson resulted in an expired software license crashing O2’s network in the UK and Softbank’s in Japan. At the time of writing, Verizon is also entering the domain of damage control after users faced the connectivity baron land in the North-east and the Mid-west.

What is unclear is what the financial impact of the outage will be. As has been shown with the O2 network outage last year, consumers do not immediately flood towards the exit when services crash for an extended period of time. Three’s network does not crash regularly, therefore customers will likely tolerate this incident, but it might end up costing the firm a few million in compensation.

Europe takes another chunk out of Qualcomm profits

The European Commission has announced it will once again fine Qualcomm for market abuse, with the investigation this time focusing on 3G baseband chipsets.

It seems time does not heal all wounds as this investigation focused on market abuse between 2009 and 2011, and a concept known as ‘predatory pricing’. In short, Qualcomm used its dominant market position to sell products to strategically important customers, below cost price, to effectively kill off any competition before it had a chance to gain momentum.

“Baseband chipsets are key components so mobile devices can connect to the Internet,” said Margrethe Vestager, the Commissioner in charge of competition policy. “Qualcomm sold these products at a price below cost to key customers with the intention of eliminating a competitor.

“Qualcomm’s strategic behaviour prevented competition and innovation in this market and limited the choice available to consumers in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies. Since this is illegal under EU antitrust rules, we have today fined Qualcomm €242 million.”

Although the European Commission affords the opportunity for companies to use market advantages to seek profits, but when it becomes anti-competitive the bureaucrats draw a line. This is what has happened in this instance.

At the time, Qualcomm controlled roughly 60% market share of the UMTS baseband chipset segment, three times as great as the nearest competitor, though this position was used to kill competition before it had a chance to emerge. Using its relationships with Huawei and ZTE, Qualcomm sold products at low enough prices no-one could compete.

This is the challenge with segments which have such high-barriers to entry, key customer accounts are critically important, such are the investments which need to be made in R&D. Qualcomm effectively created a loss leader of these products to stem the critical flow of funds into any competition which could develop from the smallest glimmer of hope. In this case, the firm in question was Icera, which was eventually acquired by Nvidia.

The fine in this case represents 1.27% of Qualcomm’s turnover in 2018 and will hopefully deter companies from engaging in anticompetitive activity in the future.

For Vestager, this is another parting shot as she wraps up her tenure in the competition policy office, a position she has held since 2014.

The Commissioner has built a reputation of taking on big tech who make a habit of practising in anti-competitive activities. Qualcomm has been a frequent combatant of Vestager, though she has got plenty of experience dealing with the likes of Google and Amazon also, the latter of which is the subject of the latest probe.

Assuming the tech giants will be happy to see the back of her would be very reasonable, though it remains to be seen who will replace the feisty and combative Vestager.

EE wins the grand slam in latest OpenSignal UK report

The latest OpenSignal report shows EE has come on top in all five categories, though the winning margin in video experience was narrow.

The latest report on the UK’s mobile network experience published by the network rating firm OpenSignal pitted the country’s four nationwide operators against each other on five measurements: 4G Availability, Video Experience, Download Speed, Upload Speed, and Latency. EE has won every category.

Although EE has been in a leading position in delivering mobile experience, the competition was closer in previous OpenSignal assessments. A year ago EE and Vodafone tied in two out of four categories. Half a year ago, Vodafone was still on par with EE on delivering the lowest latency. But the BT-owned operator has opened up a gap over its competitors in most measurements lately.

The one area that EE was not a comfortable winner was video experience. As we reported earlier, higher download speed does not necessarily deliver the best video experience, according to OpenSignal’s analysis. Other technologies including traffic management and latency minimisation also feature in the evaluation. Therefore although EE’s download speed is more than 40% faster than its closest competition (Vodafone) and it also has registered the lowest latency, EE only marginally beat Vodafone in video experience. It actually came the last if video experience had been judged on 3G only (3 came on top). But thanks to the superior 4G availability EE customers would not need to fall back on 3G much when streaming video.

The report also provides regional comparison, with the country broken down to twelve regions: Eastern, East Midlands, London, North East, Northern Ireland, North West, Scotland, South East, South West, Wales, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber. The report dismissed the so-called “North/South divide” as a myth, with some of the “top scores appearing in the North East, North West, West Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber regions”. In an earlier report measuring 4G speed, the firm also noted that London was only mid-table, with the highest 4G download speeds registered in places like Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham.

Here are the countrywide results:

OpenSignal_chart 4G Availability April 2019

OpenSignal_chart Video Experience April 2019

OpenSignal_chart Download Speed April 2019

OpenSignal_chart Upload Speed April 2019

OpenSignal_chart Latency April 2019

Money is piling up in the US 24 GHz auction

Over 30 companies have put more than $560 million in bid money on the table at FCC’s auction for the 24 GHz frequency. And this is only the beginning.

Following the underwhelming auction of the 28 GHz (dubbed Auction 101) spectrum, which only returned $703 million, the new auction of the 24 GHz (dubbed Auction 102) is heating up quickly. The auction started last Thursday and has gone through 11 rounds of the first phase of the auction, or the “clock phase”, when participants bid on a Partial Economic Area (PEA) blocks. By the end of round 11, the gross proceeds have reached a total amount of $563,427,235. There are still two days, or six more rounds to go, before the winners can move to the next phase of the process.

The “assignment phase” will allow the winners from the first phase to bid for specific frequency licence assignments. The total bid value for the 24 GHz frequencies could go up to between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion, according to the estimate by Brian Goemmer, founder of the spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, when he spoke to our sister publication Light Reading.

The key difference the has driven up the interest from the bidders for Auction 102 is the locations where the frequencies are made available. While major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, were absent from 28 GHz auction, they are all on the current 24 GHz auction together with other major cities that would be the candidates for the 5G services to roll out in the first wave.

Bidders have included AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and more than 30 other companies. The FCC will announce the winners including those from Auction 101 only after both phases of Auction 102 are completed.

In addition to bidding for mmWave frequencies, operators like AT&T are also actively refarming the lower frequency bands in their possession that are used to provide 3G services. AT&T sent a notice to its customers in February that it will stop 3G only SIM activation, urging customers to move to LTE. The company said “we currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.” Specifically the company is planning to refarm the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands, saying “it may be necessary for us to turn down one band of our owned and operated 3G network, such as 1900 MHz or 850 MHz service”.

Considering the AT&T only switched its 2G networks off at the beginning of 2017, this is a clear sign that the generational transition of mobile telecom services is accelerating. Earlier in the middle of last year, Verizon confirmed that it will shut down its 3G CDMA networks by the end of 2019. Even earlier at the MWC in 2017, T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray said the company was looking to sunset both GSM and WCDMA.

Cuba enters mobile internet age with 3G few can afford

Cuba’s telecom operator will offer 3G data service to prepaid users, but with high-tariffs one question remains; can any of the locals actually afford it?

The previously isolated communist state has undergone gradual reform since the more pragmatic Miguel Diaz-Canel took over at the helm, and one of the goals is to catch up the rest of the world on internet adoption and to develop an information society. As an important step towards this direction, Cuba’s the state-owned telecom operator ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.) announced (in Spanish) that the company will start offering 3G data services to its prepaid customers from 6 December, one year after it started offering internet connections to residential locations. Before that, most Cubans could only go online from internet cafes.

The monthly packages (in Spanish) start at 600 MB data which will cost 7CUC ($7), going up to 1 GB (10CUC), 2.5 GB (20CUC), and 4GB which will cost 30CUC. Another 300 MB will be granted for free on top of all packages for visiting local website (domain .cu). Otherwise, 1CUC can get 50 MB For email use only (on ETECSA’s email service Nauta). The service is on 900 MHz only, meaning handsets will have to be compatible to that specific frequency. Users applying to use the service can activate directly over-the-air with the operator.

internet_movil_planes

There is no recent data on Cuban income from sources like the World Bank. Earlier data showed the average monthly salary was about $27 to $32, though independent survey and research have indicated that many locals do make extra income through different channels. Even with the additional income, the data packages are way too high for most users. Research in other emerging markets has shown that the adoption of broadband will take off when the cost of the package reaches below 5% of monthly disposable income.

The operator could be pricing its packages to limit the number of users, as its networks are not capable of coping with high traffic volume yet. As the national monopoly, ETECSA has installed 1,078 2G base station, and 789 3G base stations, according to its published data. In its announcement the operator also warns users that in the first days of the service there may be down time, and asks consumers to inform the operator through official channels.

According to research by Ovum, mobile penetration in Cuba went just over 44% by the end of Q2 this year. The country’s internet population (“permanent internet accounts”) has reached 1.9 million.

Germany frees up the whole of C-Band for 5G and the GSMA approves, sort of

The German government has decided to make the entire 3.4-3.8 GHz band available for 5G use, which is a good idea.

For 5G to do its thing, it needs big chunks of continuous spectrum to ‘fatten the pipe’. Piecemeal auctions of 3.4-3.8 GHz spectrum (otherwise known as C-Band) such as we had in the UK earlier this year, are not as useful as offering up the whole lot in one go. The eventual outcome may end up being the same, but the whole process is a lot more complicated.

This decision has been met with approval by the mobile industry trade association, the GSMA. “The C-Band is the most vital frequency band for 5G,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Germany is demonstrating 5G leadership in the timely release of this vital spectrum, but risks undercutting its 5G future with unnecessary obligations. Spectrum is a limited resource and it must be used and managed as efficiently as possible to ensure a 5G future that will benefit all.”

Among the GSMA’s regulatory gripes are proposed coverage obligations for 3.6 GHz spectrum, which it says disregard the laws of physics. Since the time of Isaac Newton this had been frowned on by polite society and the GSMA has chosen to use this emotive concept to point out what short range these high frequencies have.

They do seem to have a point here. 5G is all about capacity and surely coverage obligations can be left to earlier generations in the short term and 5G over lower frequencies in the long term. As characterized by the GSMA this stipulation seems to be gratuitous, counter-productive and a classic example of regulation for the hell of it.

Other than that there are some inevitable whinges about roaming obligations and high reserve prices for the auction. In the latter case we have sympathy for the GSMA position as any attempt by the German government to push up the price of spectrum is a blatant cash grab and an indirect tax on mobile subscribers.

EE holds onto Opensignal MNO crown

EE has held onto its position as the best performing UK MNO according to the latest figures from Opensignal.

For 4G download performance, EE maintained its leadership position with average download speeds of 29 Mbps between June and August, while it also led in upload speed, latency and availability. This is not to say there weren’t improvements elsewhere, Vodafone grew its average 4G download to 21.9 Mbps, though Three’s dropped with the telco slipping down to third place in the performance rankings.

4G might not have been a fruitful playground for Three, but it did steal the top-spot for 3G speeds off EE. With average speeds of 7.8 Mbps it edged just ahead of EE at 7.2 Mbps, though this will come as little comfort as telcos increasingly look to re-farm 3G spectrum to bolster 4G performance.

Interestingly enough, O2 is still maintaining its position as the leading telco in terms of market share, despite a damning review of the telco from Opensignal. O2 sat in last place for all categories aside from latency (3G and 4G) and availability, where it was second behind EE. O2 might arguably have the weakest network in the UK, the power of promotions seems to counter this position. The Priority loyalty programme is perhaps proving its worth in gold here.

While many will preach the benefits of having the best network, these figures show it’s not always about being the fastest.

Opensignal Awards

Ofcom isn’t happy with EE and Vodafone’s coverage predictions

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has opened separate investigations into coverage predictions offered up by EE and Vodafone.

In what seems like a fairly pedantic move Ofcom has announced it’s looking into information provided by the two MNOs when it asked them to say how much of the country they expect to cover. Bizarrely EE is suspected of overestimating its 3G coverage, while Vodafone may have under-predicted its 4G coverage.

Why any of this matters is unclear. Ofcom uses these estimates for its own studies into UK mobile coverage, which are ultimately politically sensitive due to the tendency for politicians to grandstand on behalf of those people with dodgy coverage. It’s possible that Ofcom is getting political heat and is looking for scapegoats. Here are the two Ofcom statements.

“On 1 October 2018, Ofcom opened an investigation into EE’s compliance with requests for 3G mobile coverage predictions across the UK under these rules. This followed on from the identification by Ofcom of errors in the 3G/2100 MHz coverage data that EE provided which meant that its 3G coverage was over-predicted, particularly in rural areas.”

“On 1 October 2018, Ofcom opened an investigation into Vodafone’s compliance with requests for 4G mobile coverage predictions across the UK under these rules. This followed on from the identification by Ofcom of errors in the 4G/800 MHz coverage data that Vodafone provided which meant that its 4G coverage was under-predicted, particularly in rural areas.”

As indicated by the beeb, the operators will claim some combination of innocence, mitigation and contrition, so it’s hard to imagine anything significant resulting from these probes. Maybe Ofcom just likes to throw this sort of thing at operators every now and then just to keep them on their toes.