Liberty LATAM bails out of convergence ambitions

Liberty Latin America has terminated its conversations regarding a potential acquisition of Millicom International.

Details are relatively thin on the ground, though the pair has been in discussions over a possible acquisition which would have made Liberty LATAM the largest convergence player in the Americas. What this means for the Liberty business, which has targeted growth in Latin America in recent years, remains to be seen.

“The Company remains focused on its growth strategy to deliver value for shareholders and provide market leading products and services to its customers,” Liberty said in a statement.

The acquisition talks only emerged in the last couple of weeks, though it would have been a complete takeover from Liberty Latin America. While the Liberty business is certainly in a stable position in the region, competitors have bought into the convergence buzz in recent years, with Telefonica and America Movil offering what would be considered in today’s terms as a more complete connectivity offering.

Operating in 21 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, Liberty offers consumer and B2B cable and fixed internet services, as well as operating a subsea cable network. On the other side of the coin, Millicom commands mobile operations in eight markets, in most of which it is a market share leader. Theoretically, there was a very handy dovetail between the pair.

Latin America is certainly a market which can offer significant rewards, albeit there are notable risks as well, but it seems the convergence dream was a short-lived dalliance for Liberty LATAM. At least for the moment.

Huawei uses Davos to defend itself

Huawei Chairman Liang Hua has turned up at the World Economic Forum jamboree in Davos to defend his company over security concerns.

Addressing widespread allegations that Huawei is under pressure to collude with the Chinese government, Liang said “We operate our business globally, and in every country we fully comply with local laws and regulations,” according to Reuters. “We don’t see any evidence … to say that Huawei is not safe. Cybersecurity is a common challenge. It is not an issue about any single company.”

To show how open and transparent Huawei is Liang apparently invited foreign officials to visit Huawei’s labs. It’s not clear what that will achieve, however, as they’re hardly going to leave any potentially incriminating stuff lying about the place. On the flip side it’s hard to see what else Huawei can do to convince the rest of the world that its gear doesn’t constitute a security threat.

Liang also addressed the matter of Huawei’s CFO, who is currently stuck in Canada on bail, waiting to see if the US is going to get around to applying for her extradition on charges of violating US sanctions. Understandably he wants them to get a move on.

Meanwhile the BBC is reporting that Liang had also used the event to imply Huawei might just not bother with countries that are giving it a hard time and only go where it’s welcome. If Huawei faced further obstacles to doing business “…we would transfer the technology partnership to countries where we are welcomed and where we can have collaboration with,” he is quoted as saying.

That seems like a slightly redundant statement as it’s already being banned from participating in some of the infrastructure of those countries, so maybe he’s saying Huawei would pull out entirely. If so that threat would appear to be a bit of an own-goal as it would serve to illustrate how disruptive Huawei could be to the markets in question if it feels like it.

Nerves jangle as Aussies delay TPG/Vodafone merger decision

The Australian regulator has pushed back the deadline for its decision on whether Vodafone Australia and TPG can move forward with the proposed £8.2 billion merger.

While this far from a definite sign the merger will be blocked by the watchdog, the longer the evaluation process goes on for, the stronger the feelings of apprehension will get. If the Aussies were happy with the plans to create a convergence player, they would have said so, but perhaps the regulator is just making sure it effectively does its due diligence.

The tie up between the pair is supposed to be an effort to capitalise on convergence bounties and reinvigorate the competitive edge of the business. That said, last month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) weighed into the equation raising concerns a merger would de-incentivise the market to offer low-cost services.

According to Reuters, the ACCC has extended its own self-imposed deadline to evaluate the merger by two weeks to April 11. If the watchdog cannot build a case to deny the merger by that point it probably never will be able to, but you have to wonder whether the additional time is being used to validate its position of opposition.

All regulators are supposed to take a balanced and impartial position when assessing these transactions, though its negative opinion last month suggests the agency is looking for a reason to deny as opposed to evaluating what information is on the table. Giving itself an extra couple of weeks will only compound this theory in the mind of sceptics.

To be even handed though, the consolidation argument is perfectly logical and completely absurd depending on who you are. There are benefits and negatives on both sides of the equation, irrelevant as to how passionately supporters and detractors preach to you. For all the arguments and evidence which are presented, a bucket-full of salt will probably be required.

4G roaming traffic doubled globally last year – BICS

Regulatory changes and increased competition continue to drive massive growth in LTE roaming around the world, according to new data from BICS.

The precise increase is 95%, with a major catalyst still being the European Union’s regulation that banned European operators from charging a premium for roaming within the bloc. While we’re not seeing the ridiculous increase in European roaming that took place in 2017, the first full year after roaming was abolished, growth is still pretty steep.

“European subscribers have enjoyed being able to ‘Roam Like at Home’ and now seek high quality, affordable roaming services, wherever they travel,” said Mikaël Schachne, VP of Mobility Solutions at BICS. “This is forcing operators in other regions outside of the EU to match the European offering by coming together to offer more cost-effective packages to subscribers, while optimising traffic flow at the back-end.”

We had a chat with Schachne to get some further insight into this trend. He reckons that changes in the regulatory environment have forced operators to rethink their approach to roaming. This more competitive environment has been self-reinforcing and it looks like operators worldwide are now inclined to offer much more attractive roaming packages than they did a few years ago.

Another major reason for them to curtail their roaming profiteering is the growth in dual-SIM as a smartphone feature. This makes it much easier for people to buy a local SIM when they’re travelling and this circumvent roaming entirely. On top of that public wifi is improving all the time so the simple fact is that if roaming is too expensive, most people just won’t use it.

BICS is forecasting global 4G roaming growth of around half the rate of 2018 this year, which is hardly surprising considering how extreme it was previously. Another major driver is expected to be IoT over cellular networks, for which global roaming is a key feature, with billions of embedded SIMs expected to hit the market in the near future.

Huawei facing US trade secret theft indictment and ZTE-style ban

The US Department of Justice is rumoured to be pursuing charges relating to trade secrets theft against Huawei, while four politicians have tabled a bill for a ban similar to what ZTE faced last year.

Leaving the Department of Justice for the moment, a bi-partisan collection of politicians have tabled the so-called ‘Telecommunications Denial Order Enforcement Act’, a proposed bill which would compel the White House to ban Huawei from using US components and IP within its supply chain. The ban would be the same punishment ZTE faced early last year.

“Huawei and ZTE are two sides of the same coin,” said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen. “Both companies have repeatedly violated US laws, represent a significant risk to American national security interests, and need to be held accountable. Moving forward, we must combat China’s theft of advanced US technology and their brazen violation of US law.”

Aside from Van Hollen, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, as well as Representatives Mike Gallagher (Republican) and Ruben Gallego (Democrat) are also supporting the proposed bill. This should hardly come as a surprise as the ZTE ban was imposed for violating the exact same trade sanctions which Huawei has allegedly ignored.

The saga surrounding the ZTE ban was short-lived, incredibly volatile and almost fatal. After being found violating trade sanctions, US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) imposed a denial of export privileges order against the firm, denying it access to any US suppliers. President Trump stepped in to save the firm, which looked doomed as a result of the ban, before Congress blocked his efforts. Eventually a resolution was reached, though ZTE has been skating on thin ice since.

If precedent is anything to go by, Huawei should face the same punishment should it be found guilty of the same activities. Last month, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada, accused of violating the same trade sanctions with Iran using a suspect firm known as Skycom. Meng has been released on bail and awaits trial, though it appears the four politicians are already presuming guilt. Or maybe they are just being prepared.

Perhaps this is a sign the politicians do not believe President Trump is committed to precedent and appropriate action. The actions against ZTE smelt suspiciously like one of Trump’s strategic moves in the on-going trade war with China, though perhaps he did not realise he would have to do the same 12 months later, potentially antagonising the Chinese government with a move which is not in the grand plan.

The politicians might be tabling this bill to make sure Trump can’t find a reason not to ban Huawei. Following the arrest, Trump seemed to suggest in an interview with Reuters that he would be willing to make the Canadian charges go away if it would help him the US in its dispute with China.

“If I think it’s good for the country, if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made – which is a very important thing – what’s good for national security – I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary,” Trump stated.

Not only does this completely undermine the standing of the Canadian judicial system, but also suggests Trump is willing to bend (or break) rules to bring the Chinese government to its knees. Perhaps Congress does need to be proactive to make sure the President follows the rules, taking appropriate action instead of whatever ludicrous idea floats in the breadth between his ears.

What is worth noting is the stance of Huawei executives. Clearly, they do not agree with anything which is going on, but both Rotating Chairman Guo Ping and Rotating CEO Ken Hu put across messages stating the resilience of the business. Ping and Hu suggested a ban would not impact the Huawei supply chain in the same manner as it did ZTE.

Heading back to the Department of Justice, the Wall Street Journal has reported the agency is pursing charges against Huawei concerning theft of trade secrets.

An indictment should be heading over to the Huawei offices in the near future, focusing on allegations the firm stole robotic mobile-testing technology from T-Mobile. The technology, known as Tappy, mimics human fingers and is used to test smartphones. A civil case between T-Mobile and Huawei over the technology was filed in 2014, though after a criminal investigation the Department of Justice feels it is appropriate to step in and raise criminal charges.

This case is a separate concern from all the other chaos which has surrounded the firm in recent months, though it will be just as concerning as the punishments can be incredibly severe.

The primary federal law that prohibits trade secret theft is the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which allows the US the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute a person, organization, or company that intentionally steals, copies, or receives trade secrets. If the case if brought against an individual, the punishment could be as much as 10 years in prison or a $500,000 fine. However, we suspect the government would want to punish the firm not an individual, as Huawei would simply claim that person did not represent the company culture, in-line with White House aggression against China.

If a conviction is made against a company the fine can be increased to $5 million. However, if the Attorney General can prove the theft was made on behalf of a foreign government, this would be considered the silver bullet for the White House, corporate fines can be doubled, imprisonment could be 15 years and proceeds derived from the theft can be seized.

In short, Huawei has found itself in another uncomfortable position in the US. It does not appear 2019 is going to be any better than 2018 on the US side of the pond for Huawei.

Apple draws level with Qualcomm after Germany win

A German court has dismissed Qualcomm’s efforts to block iPhone sales in the country as ‘groundless’ as Apple hit back in the on-going global patent dispute.

According to Reuters, the regional court in the city of Mannheim threw out the case stating the patent in question was not violated by Apple’s installation of Qualcomm chips in its smartphones. Qualcomm has already said it will appeal the decision, as the pair trade blows in various courts throughout across the world.

This case focuses on the use of Intel-chips in certain Apple devices, with Qualcomm suggesting one of its patents had been infringed. The patent in question relates to power management.

Back in September, Qualcomm effectively accused Apple of corporate espionage, questioning how the gulf in performance when measuring its own chips against Intel’s could have been bridged so quickly. However, this argument clearly wasn’t enough to convince the Mannheim judge of wrong-doing.

Having already secured an order to block the sale of certain iPhones through a ruling in Munich, as well as a similar decision in China, Apple needed a win to halt the Qualcomm momentum. The pair have been trading blows over patents and royalties for years now, though the on-going case in the US could prove to be the most significant battle of the dispute.

The chipmaker is currently facing a FTC antitrust investigation, which has escalated to trial, currently being heard in the US District Court in San Jose, California. As you can imagine, Apple, Intel and various others have been playing the part of very proactive cheerleaders, urging on the FTC from the side-lines.

This trial has now concluded for the sixth day, with the FTC calling various witnesses from tech companies such as Apple, Samsung and Ericsson, as well as IP experts from consultancies and universities. The aim is to prove Qualcomm is effectively a monopoly, abusing this prominent position through excessive royalty payments and unreasonable licensing agreements for years.

With the FTC now taking a seat, the next couple of days will see the Qualcomm lawyers preach their case. Here, the team will aim to prove the royalty payments are justified, such is leadership position Qualcomm has worked up in the segment, and the licensing arrangement is the most beneficial and simplistic way to do business. The Qualcomm lawyers are certainly well practised in the art of arguing against antitrust accusations, so it will be interesting to see which way this trial heads.

While the win in Germany is certainly a positive for Apple, which has been on the losing side of a few of the recent skirmishes, the FTC trial is the big one for both parties.

Orange steps further into the convergence game

Orange has announced a new partnership with Groupama, adding another branch to the convergence strategy with a home telesurveillance service.

Everyone in the industry is talking about convergence as a means to improve revenues, but few have created quite a splash in the deep-end as the cannon-balling French telco. This latest partnership with Groupama will see the creation of Protectline, a joint platform for the operation and management of home telesurveillance services.

“The upcoming launch of our home telesurveillance service is an important part of Orange’s multi-service operator strategy,” said Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange. “To deliver the best product possible, we have again chosen to work with Groupama to pool our skills and resources, following on from our Orange Bank partnership.”

With Orange owning 51% of the new venture, it’s a very clever way for the telco to diversify revenue streams. Groupama is already a well-established player in this segment, but Orange has something which every business wants; a humongous subscriber base to potentially sell added-value services into. This is where this partnership is a stroke of genius and an excellent foundation for future convergence growth.

Orange has built a successful business and large customer base through doing what it does very well. Until recently it has focused exclusively on markets which it has a pedigree in; connectivity. Recently it has explored banking, cyber-security, entertainment and smart home services, though each has relevant-industry partners under-pinning the venture, as well as a direct tie back to the core business.

Protectline is another example of how the Orange business is embracing convergence in a low-risk, high-reward manner. Groupama has the expertise while Orange has the sales and marketing capabilities. Each is supplemented the other, leaning on the skills which are brought to the table. Its sounds incredibly simple, because it is, but it is effective. Of course, you have to wonder why there aren’t more in the industry doing this and the answer is relatively simple.

When splitting the risk, you have to split the spoils. If Protectline becomes a roaring success, Orange can only collect 51% of the riches. This might not sound attractive to other telcos, some of which have chosen to go solo on diversification to varying success; just have a look at BT’s attempt to rock Sky’s dominance in the premium TV segment.

Sky is another which has proven to be successful in the convergence and diversification game, branching out from the core TV services to offer broadband and mobile connectivity offerings. However, similar to the Orange example, the risk has been somewhat removed as the broadband offering runs over Openreach infrastructure and the Sky Mobile is a MVNO. The high-risk elements of these diversification ambitions, the CAPEX heavy infrastructure, has been removed from the equation. Sky focuses on what it does best, maintaining a relationship with its customers.

The buzz around convergence has been dying down a bit recently, as while it is an effective strategy few has realised the bonanza which was initially promised. Orange is one of those few who are reaping the considerable benefit, but only because it is not going alone.

The question which remains is whether Orange can nail the customer experience element. This would have been the big hurdle for the banking product, though it seems to have passed with flying colours. Groupama can take the operational risk away from the telco, but customer experience is slightly different in every vertical; Orange will have to prove its worth by being engaging and intuitive if this is to be a success.

Orange has realised where its strengths are and by offering this massive subscriber base as leverage is any future partnerships, it is proving the low-risk convergence game can be a very profitable one.

Loon bolsters connectivity credentials with advisory board signings

Alphabet’s latest X graduate Loon has added industry heavyweights to its advisory board as the business searches for commercial credibility in the world of connectivity.

As the ludicrous dream starts to become a reality, Loon has added three industry veterans to its ranks. Former McCaw Communications CEO Craig McCaw, Evernote CEO Ian Small and Verizon EVP Global Media & New Business Marni Walden will all be added to the roster, bringing with them years of experience and, perhaps more importantly, connections in the telco space.

“As Loon transitions to a commercial business and looks to partner with MNOs worldwide, we’re adding some serious expertise to our ranks with a new Advisory Board that brings together top wireless innovators with decades of experience in the industry,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post.

For those who have missed out on this blue-sky thinking idea, Loon is Alphabet’s latest attempt to branch into the connectivity segment. Previous efforts might have been a flop, just have a look at the success brought through Google Fiber, but this is something slightly different; its attempting to create a new segment rather than steal business from established players.

By floating these massive balloons 18-23km above the earth for periods of up to 100 days, the Loon team claims each balloon can create a connectivity cone with coverage to a ground area 80km in diameter. The balloons are fitted with a broad-coverage LTE base station and a high-speed directional link used to connect between balloons and back down to the internet infrastructure on the ground.

In an industry which has constantly struggled to bridge the digital divide due to the expense of deploying infrastructure, this is a genuinely innovative approach to providing connectivity. It helps lessen the financial pressures of delivering the internet, adding to the connectivity mix.

Back in November at AfricaCom, Westgarth gave some insight into the business on the main conference stage. At the time he announced the beginning of a commercial relationship with Telkom Kenya, as well as outlining the wider ambitions of the business. This is an idea which has big commercial potential, most of which will be in the developing markets. These are after all areas where ARPU is low and deployment is staggered. It would appear to be the perfect mix for Loon’s proposal to bring the internet to the masses.

These appointments however perhaps suggest Loon is not a firm satisfied with the developing markets alone. These are three US executives who have considerable experience in the domestic market. Of course, there will be connections in the international space with telcos in the developing nations, but perhaps Loon has spotted an opportunity in the US. These executives would certainly help pave the way for conversations across the homeland.

Of course, this is just a theory and the PR team have been, just as you would expect, pretty evasive when asked the question. However, the digital divide is certainly a challenge in the US. For those who are lucky enough to live in the cities, they’ll have no concept of connectivity challenges, but the vast expanses and challenging terrain of the US open up numerous, huge not-spots, despite what the telcos actually tell you.

Loon has been touted as an innovation for the developing markets but seeing as the US telcos are clueless as how to solve the domestic digital divide, why not. These executives will certainly know the right people in the right places.

Helios Towers expands footprint into South Africa

Helios Towers has entered into a partnership with Vulatel to form a joint venture to build out wireless and fixed line open-access infrastructure in South Africa.

Helios will take a 66% slice of the venture as the firm readies itself for the 5G revolution. While it might seem strange to talk about 5G on a continent which has constantly struggled to bridge the enormous digital divide, South Africa is certainly a different landscape than what would be expected as the norm.

“I am thrilled to announce our entry into South Africa, which delivers against our stated strategy of providing MNOs with open-access infrastructure to meet the growing demands of their customers in Africa for fast, stable and available networks,” said Kash Pandya, CEO of Helios Towers. “We are delighted to be partnering with Vulatel, a business with impeccable telco sector expertise and deep local credentials in South Africa.”

For Helios, expansion into the South African market makes perfect sense and partnering with a local business will provide suitable foundation. Helios’ footprint currently covers four markets across the African continent, while Vulatel came to existence in 2017 on the back of acquiring Dimension Data’s fibre and wireless division. Helios brings the international experience and capital, while Vulatel holds its own with contacts and relationships in the South African market.

“There is a significant infrastructure gap in South Africa today, which means the demand in data services is not being met,” said Tlhabeli Ralebitso, CEO of Vulatel.

“We are convinced this provides an unrivalled opportunity to build a leading open-access infrastructure platform to address that gap. Our vision has always been to establish a nationwide service network before entering into the open-access telecoms infrastructure market on the back of our trusted relationships with the telecoms operators in South Africa.”

Looking at the South African market, this is a country which is expected to lead the 5G euphoria on the African continent proving this is a good time for Helios to make its move. With 6,500 towers in four markets (Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo Brazzaville), contracted revenues of $3.1 billion and average contract life of 8.4 years remaining across the group, it is certainly in a stable position to make such a bet.

Where is the evidence of Huawei espionage?

Before we get carried too carried away with the recent arrest in Poland, let’s remember something; this is a Huawei employee accused of espionage, not Huawei.

Right now, Huawei is the world’s whipping boy. This is a company which is taking the punishment for the nefarious activities of the Chinese government. In Poland, a Huawei employee and another from Orange have been arrested, accused of espionage. But the condemnation should be directed towards the Chinese government and these individuals, not necessarily Huawei.

For the record, we are not suggesting Huawei is completely blameless. The company might be in bed with Beijing, but as it stands there is no concrete evidence to support this theory. The arrest in Poland is circumstantial, evidence that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact. It most judicial systems, reasonable doubt is tied into circumstantial evidence meaning it can contribute to a verdict, but alone it is rarely enough to assign guilt.

Huawei could well be a puppet with strings attached to Beijing, but evidence needs to be produced to ensure ‘democratic’ nations are not presuming guilt, a contraction of their legal principals.

The prospects for Huawei are not currently looking good. Effectively banned from any meaningful work in the US, banned in Australia and Japan, under close watch in the UK, ignored in South Korea, condemned by the European Union and in a very suspect position in New Zealand. Eastern Europe was one area where it looked like business was safe, but now the Polish are talking about a ban as well.

With all this heart-ache and headaches for the Huawei executives you have to question how much evidence there has been of espionage. As far as we are aware, nothing of note.

This is of course not to say there isn’t any but look at the situation. The US government is trying to rally the world against Huawei and China on the whole, it has been for years now, and you have to think it would use evidence to turn the tides if it had any. Back in 2012, a House Intelligence Committee told the US government Huawei was a ‘National Security Threat’, but in the six years since this point no evidence has been produced to support this statement. Yet this report has been used as the foundation of all negative sentiment directed towards China and Huawei.

This report, which was the result of a yearlong investigation by the committee, came to the conclusion Huawei and ZTE were a national security threat because of their attempts to extract sensitive information from American companies and their loyalties to the Chinese government. The report stated it had obtained internal documents from former Huawei employees suggesting it supplied services to a ‘cyberwarfare’ unit in the People’s Liberation Army, but this evidence has never made it to the public domain.

For most, the sustained rhetoric of espionage could be viewed as politically and economically motivated. Chinese companies are making an impression on the world and Silicon Valley’s vice-like grip on the technology industry is loosening. This would be incredibly damaging for the US economy on the whole, which has partly relied on the dominance of this segment for success in recent years. In recent months it has been flexing its muscles and some are bending to its will. Deutsche Telekom is an excellent example.

Only last month, DT suggested it was reviewing its relationship with Huawei to ease concerns from the US government. It just so happens government agencies are reviewing its US businesses potential merger with Sprint. Breaking ties with the Chinese vendor would certainly gain favour with Washington, but is this culture of paranoia and finger-pointing something we should be encouraging?

Again, this is not to say there is no evidence to support the accusations. However, if the US government had the smoking gun, surely it would have shown it to the world. Some might suggest it had an obligation to inform its allies of such nefarious activities. Some even more sceptical individuals might also suggest that if there was classified evidence, it would have been leaked by someone over this period. In today’s world it is impossible to keep big secrets secret. Just look at Edward Snowdon’s revelations.

Over in Germany, the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) has said it would take this very approach. Arne Schoenbohm, President of BSI, said that for his agency to consider banning Huawei from the country he would have to see evidence. This statement came at the same time a US delegation had been meeting with officials from the Foreign Ministry to discuss a ban. As no ban has emerged, it would appear the US delegation was unable to table any evidence.

Going back to the arrest in Poland, some might suggest this is enough evidence to ban Huawei from operating in the nation. However, governments have been catching spies for decades and punishing individuals. There is little (or any) precedent to ban the company than individual works for unless there is a direct link between the organization and the nefarious government. Over in the UAE, 31-year-old PhD student at Durham University has been arrest for espionage also, but the University has not been punished. MI5 and MI5 catch spies and potential terrorists every year, but the companies they work for are not accused of espionage.

We suspect the Chinese government is obtaining information through reprehensible means, but if the world is to hold China accountable, ‘western’ governments need to stand by their principles and not undermine the foundations of fair society. The principle which is being forgotten today is the assumption of innocence until a party has been proven guilty.

Two wrongs do not make a right, and we have to ask ourselves this question; are we any better than the oppressive governments if we forget this simple principle of a fair and reasoned judicial system; innocent until proven guilty.