Indian government strives to save its dwindling telco industry

Government officials have reportedly been having meetings to figure out how the prospects for Vodafone Idea can be improved and three-way competition can be preserved.

Rumours have been circling the Indian telco space over recent weeks as it appears the industry is sleep-walking towards the death of Vodafone Idea and the creation of a defacto duopoly. One potential outcome in the immediate future would be invoking banking guarantees, a precursor to termination of telecom licences, according to the Economic Times, though this would be a worrying move.

With finance and telecoms ministers meeting in private, the objective could be to preserve a level of competition which is deemed adequate. Three private telcos should be considered the absolute minimum, though this is arguably too few for a nation the size of India. If the status quo is to continue concessions will have to be made.

What is actually being discussed behind closed doors remains to be seen, though reports are suggesting the Indian Government is seeking remedies to the precarious situation. This may well mean deferred or staggered repayments for the €7 billion spectrum bill being faced by both Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel.

The seriousness of the situation in India should not be taken lightly, though whether the Indian Government has the foresight to appreciate the damage which could be done in pursuing immediate repayment remains to be seen.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Reid has repeatedly stated he would not be prepared to invest more capital in the market, or at least the vast sums which are being discussed today. It does appear Vodafone is prepared to wrap-up the joint venture between itself and Idea Cellular. Reid is perhaps looking at the big picture.

Vodafone is under pressure in several markets across the world. In the UK, it is spending significantly to bolster its current market share, while both Spain and Italy are presenting challenging environments thanks to heightened competition. India offers great potential, but $7 billion is a significant investment to remain in the hunt. At some point, executives will have to question when the end is nigh.

The ‘Chase Theory’ is usually associated with compulsive gambling, but it is also applicable here. As one of the simplest forms of gambling, the punter doubles down to recoup losses in pursuit of a theoretical gain. India is a market which offers great rewards due to a massive population and rapid digitisation, but it is proving to be a very costly pursuit. The last thing Reid will want to do is bankrupt his business chasing the hypothetical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If the Indian Government does not introduce some flexibility into its mindset in dealing with the telcos, the market will soon devolve into a defacto duopoly. Admittedly, there are two state-owned telcos still in the fray, but these are providing next to no genuine competition. For a sustainable and healthy telecoms industry in India, the existence of Vodafone Idea should be considered priority number one.

The trickiest aspect of this discussion will be how to maintain credibility as an authority; the Indian Government needs to help Vodafone Idea, but it cannot be held to ransom by divas in the telecoms space.

Texas Judge rules for White House over Huawei

Huawei has faced a setback in its pursuit of legitimacy in the US. as a Texas District Court ruled against its lawsuit directed towards the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Judge Amos Mazzant of the US District Court in East Texas ruled that section 889 of the NDAA was valid and legal. Huawei had argued the clause, which effectively banned it and ZTE from working with any company receiving federal funding, was unconstitutional on the grounds it presumed guilt without a fair trial.

While a Huawei victory was hardly going to make an impression with the single-minded White House policy makers, this is a victory for the Government, seemingly validating its decision.

“Contracting with the federal government is a privilege, not a constitutionally guaranteed right – at least not as far as this court is aware,” Judge Mazzant said in the ruling, first reported by Reuters.

This is an interesting nuance which has been put forward by Judge Mazzant. Huawei has argued the clause banning service providers from spending federal money on Chinese equipment is unconstitutional, though Judge Mazzant has stated that the Government should have the right to control how its money is allocated and spent. The Act does not prevent Huawei from doing business in the US entirely, which keeps the Government on the right side of the line.

The lawsuit, which was filed in March 2019, stated that Congress was acting in violation of the US Constitution as it was denying the firm the right to bid on both Government and private sector contracts. Huawei suggested the Act was a Bill of Attainder, as it presumed guilt without trial. Under Article I Section 9 in federal law, and in state law under Article I Section 10, US Constitution forbids such actions.

For the US, this could add some momentum to the already existing propaganda campaign against China and seemingly all companies from China. This ruling could add buoyancy to the Simple Resolution which has recently been passed in the House of Representatives.

The resolution, which can be used to influence administrative actions and foreign policy, stated that the House of Representatives believed all Chinese countries were effectively under Government control, state-owned or private. Such a broad-brush approach to condemnation is a very dangerous and small-minded approach to take, though the anti-China rhetoric could be offered a new lease of live…

Etisalat goes big on OpenRAN with Parallel Wireless

Operator group Etisalat is trialing OpenRAN tech across its markets in Middle East, Asia and Africa in partnership with ORAN specialist Parallel Wireless.

One of the reasons for this sudden keenness on ORAN, which seeks to unbundle the components and software inside the radio access network with a view to making it cheaper and more flexible, is apparently the concept of ‘All G’. That refers the convergence of all generations of cellular technology onto a single software platform, which would both save cash and simplify network management.

“Today’s announcement is a global achievement setting a technological benchmark across our markets,” said Hatem Bamatraf, CTO of Etisalat International. “This is in line with our long-term strategy and vision of ‘Driving the Digital Future to empower societies’ that has translated to provide the best-in-class customer experience and deliver best value to our shareholders.

The global trials of OpenRAN with Parallel Wireless reiterate Etisalat’s commitment to our vision encouraging us to take the lead in OpenRAN by conducting field trials with various leading technology partners to create an innovative ecosystem in all of our markets. This is also the world’s first ‘All G’ OpenRAN set to provide efficiency and cost benefits for 4G and 5G in addition to setting a roadmap for the next generation of telecom networks.”

This looks like a significant win for Parallel, which is all-in on ORAN. Most of the telecoms industry (bar, maybe, the big RAN vendors) is keen on the concept of commoditising the RAN such that you can pick and choose your components and software. But we still seem to be some way from ORAN being able to support commercial mobile networks, so the key for companies like Parallel is to maintain momentum and interest while the technology evolves.

“As one of the leading communication providers in the emerging markets, Etisalat understands the true potential of greater leverage to their business, in both high end and low-end markets with a greater buying power by shaping the telecom ecosystem and embracing new network architectures, such as OpenRAN,” said Amrit Heer, Sales Director, MENA at Parallel Wireless.

“We are proud to have partnered with Etisalat for these engagements to deliver coverage and capacity without making extensive capital investments associated with legacy network deployments. We are proud to have been selected to support Etisalat in reimagining wireless infrastructure to be much lower cost ensuring access to innovative digital services in the region.”

ORAN is one to keep an eye on in the coming months and years. It represents a significant threat to the business models of the big RAN vendors, who sell ‘closed’ RAN solutions that require you to go all-in with them. At the very least the prospect of ORAN is a useful stick for operators to beat their vendor partners down on price with and we had expected it to be a major talking point at MWC 2020.

BT finally unveils its reimagined TV proposition

The aggregator model has taken centre-stage at BT, leveraging its existing capabilities instead of trying to beat the content industry at its own game.

Under Gavin Patterson, BT tried to do something which almost looked impossible. It attempted to disrupt the content industry by not only owning the delivery model for content, but the content itself. It attempted to muscle into an established segment and compete with companies which were built for the content world. It was expensive, complicated and messy, and it failed spectacularly.

BT has not given up on content under new leadership, but it is taking a seemingly more pragmatic and strategic approach. Aside from its own content, Now TV will also be embedded in the BT interface, meaning that customers can now watch, pause, rewind and record premium Sky Entertainment and Sky Sports content. Customers will also be able to integrate Amazon Prime Video and Netflix onto their BT bill, while each element of the bundle can be scaled-up or -down month-by-month.

It is making best use of its assets, and it looks to be a comprehensive and sensible pillar of the convergence strategy.

“Life doesn’t stand still from month to month, so we don’t believe our customers’ TV should either. Our new range of TV packs bring together the best premium services, fully loaded with a wide range of award-winning shows, the best live sports in stunning 4K and the latest must-see films – all with the flexibility to change packs every month – with  quick and easy search to find what you want to watch,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division.

BT will ‘own’ some content, it still has the UEFA Champions League broadcast rights after all, but it is picking its battles. The BT TV proposition failed in years gone because it tried to go it alone, but without the broad range of content genres, it looked like a poor attempt to compete with the likes of Sky. In reality, it didn’t need to.

The telcos have a significant advantage over many content companies around the world; they have an existing and trusted billing relationship with the customer. According to the Ovum World Information Series, EE has 30.6 million mobile subscribers and BT has 9.1 million broadband customers. These relationships can be leveraged through the partnership model to realise new profits in a low-risk manner.

BT is in a position of strength. The streaming wars are raging, and the service providers will do almost anything to gain the attention of the consumer, as well as build credibility in the brand. By bundling services into the BT, the OTTs are leveraging the trust which the customer has in the telco billing relationship and gaining eyeballs on the service itself. All they have to do is offer BT a small slice of the profits.

This is the symbiotic relationship in practice. The OTTs gain traction with customers, while BT can complete the convergence objective in a low-risk manner through the aggregator model.

That said, it is somewhat of a retreat from its previous content ambitions.

“This well long overdue move feels like a last-ditch effort to be successful in TV,” said Paolo Pescatore, founder of PP Foresight.

“Aggregation is the holy grail. BT has done a superb job of introducing some novel features and bringing together key services all in one place. This will strongly resonate with users. However, it is unlikely to pose a considerable threat to Sky who in turn will be able to bundle BT Sport into its own packages. In the future expect this new TV platform to be bundled with BT Halo which will further strengthen its premium convergent offering.”

Convergence is a strategy which should be fully embraced by the BT business. Not only has it been proven in other European markets, see Orange in France and Spain, but the depth and breadth of BT’s assets should position it as a clear market leader. With mobile, broadband, public wifi hotspots and content tied into a single bill, as well as partnerships to bolster the experience, BT is heading down the right path. If it can start to build service products on top, such as security, this could start to look like a very competent digital business.

The issue which remains is one of price. The Halo bundle is one few can compete with, but if it is not priced correctly it will not be a success. This does seem to be the issue with the BT consumer business right now, it is pricing itself out of the competition. Convergence is attractive to customers when it is convenient and makes financial sense, but right now it doesn’t seem to.

BT is slowly heading in the right direction. It might have taken years, but it is slowly creating a proposition for the consumer which few should theoretically be able to compete with. If it can merge the business into a single brand and sort out the pricing of its products, it should recapture the market leader position.

US Ambassador to Germany starts making intel sharing threats

Richard Grenell, the US Ambassador to Germany, has starting the intimidation game with his host nation over Huawei, hoping the same tactic used against the UK will reap better yields.

In a series of tweets through the weekend, Grenell made his position on Huawei very clear, aligning himself with the anti-China rhetoric lobby which is beginning to verge on xenophobic. The Ambassador has now reiterated the intelligence embargo which was promised to the UK should it offer Huawei opportunity to do business.

Perhaps one of the most ironic elements of this story is the phone call itself. President Donald Trump has reportedly refused to use encrypted phones, due to the inconvenience, so any conversation he has is completely unprotected.

Irrelevant of whether the concepts of irony gain traction in the US, Grenell is effectively declaring that he has been given permission to take a firm stance against Germany. Although there has been no official confirmation, Germany will most likely be offered an ultimatum; access US intelligence data or have Huawei equipment in the communications network.

Although most of the transatlantic-lobby has been directed towards the UK in recent months, thanks to the now-concluded Supply Chain Review, Germany is another influential voice in Europe which is yet to formalise its position on Huawei. The US might have lost the political battle in the UK, but it still has until the EU Summit in March to convince the Germans China is the enemy.

There might have been some noises that Germany would head the same direction as the UK, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has previously said Germany would not make a decision until the EU Summit in March. Like the UK, Germany has a valuable trading relationship with the US, but it also has one with China. There is also the ambitions of the wider European Union to consider, where Germany is one of the leading voices.

Looking at the relationship with China, Germany’s highly influential automotive sector will not want to lose out because of issues with the telecoms industry. In 2018, almost one-quarter of all cars sold in China were German. In the first nine months of 2019, BMW delivered more than 500,000 vehicles to China, its largest single market.

As it stands, the automotive industry in China is not in the greatest of positions, sales have slumped over the last 18 months, while the US/China trade war has impacted the ability for these automotive giants to source some parts. The conflict between the US and China is not good for the German automotive trade, and this is a very powerful organisation in the German economy.

Germany may not want to say no to Huawei and anger the Chinese, but then again it might not have to.

The US, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, had been very aggressive towards the UK in the weeks leading up to the conclusion of the Supply Chain Review. When the carrot didn’t work, promising a favourable trade agreement, the stick was favoured. The threat of an intelligence data embargo for security agencies was pushed towards the UK, like Grenell is doing today.

The issue that Grenell might face here is that the US didn’t follow through on that threat to the UK.

The conclusion of the Supply Chain Review saw a 35% limitation placed on the telcos for Huawei equipment in the different segments of the network. This has proven to be awkward for some, having to reconfigure deployment strategies, though it is far from the apocalypse scenario of an all-out ban which was being demanding by the US.

The UK defied the US, but the US is yet to cut off the UK from valuable intelligence data for security and enforcement agencies. Considering this outcome, some in Germany might not take the US threat as seriously as before.

New York ends resistance to T-Mobile/Sprint merger

New York Attorney General Letitia James has announced her office will not pursue an appeal against the courts decision to approve the $26 billion T-Mobile US and Sprint merger.

While the other states involved in the lawsuit to prevent the combination of the two telcos are yet to formally make their position public, James was the primary driving force behind the legal opposition. Others might try to step up, but without one of the US’ fastest growing political forces at the helm, responses look relatively pitiful.

“After a thorough analysis, New York has decided not to move forward with an appeal in this case. Instead, we hope to work with all the parties to ensure that consumers get the best pricing and service possible, that networks are built out throughout our state, and that good-paying jobs are created here in New York.

“We are gratified that this process has yielded commitments from T-Mobile to create jobs in Rochester and engage in robust national diversity initiatives that will connect our communities with good jobs and technology. We are committed to continuing to fight for affordability and access for all of New York’s mobile customers.”

James’ opposition to the $26 billion merger first emerged in June 2019 when, alongside California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, support was raised for a multi-state lawsuit against the corporate transaction. James managed to convince 12 State Attorney Generals to oppose the deal, questioning whether it would be beneficial for the consumer and attempting to disprove that Dish would not be adequate as a fourth mobile operator.

In a 173-page opinion, Judge Victor Marrero effectively said the merger was a good idea as Sprint was not worthy of being called competition. The combined entity would be a much better representative, while Marrero believed Dish plans to scale rapidly were viable, even if few others do. His ruling effectively killed the resistance to the merger.

Although some will be disappointed the lawyers are giving up the fight, it might simply be a case of looking at the bigger picture. James has pointed to job creation promises in her state, though now the attention will turn to ensure these jobs are actually created. Back in October, Colorado and Mississippi both did the same; the legal opposition was dropped as agreements were forged with T-Mobile US and Dish to offer benefits to the states.

While there will be some benefits to the transaction, it is impossible to avoid the negatives. T-Mobile US and Sprint will be able to realise efficiencies to better compete with AT&T and Verizon, while Dish will offer more jobs. However, there will be a rationalisation project after the transaction leading to job losses in shared business functions (finance, legal etc.) and also in areas where the retail footprint overlaps. Redundancies are unavoidable.

The question which remains is who will get the best slice of the benefits?

Colorado agreed to drop the lawsuit against the merger if Dish was to create 2,000 jobs in the statey and will also keep its corporate HQ in the city of Littleton for at least seven years. The Attorney General has also negotiated an accelerated 5G deployment timeline with T-Mobile US in exchange. Over in Mississippi, former-Attorney General Jim Hood also negotiated an accelerated 5G deployment plan and also a ceiling on tariffs for consumers for a five-year period.

These were the only two states to drop out prior to the conclusion of the lawsuit, though now the lobbying for attention can begin as T-Mobile/Sprint and Dish are wooed by each of the states for their own benefit. James has said the deal offers new jobs to citizens in Rochester, New York, though with other states considering more legal action, T-Mobile US and Dish might have to hit the negotiating table elsewhere.

In California, Attorney General Becerra is considering his options, while Ken Paxton, the Attorney General for Texas, has not stated whether he will pursue an appeal to the decision. These might not be the catalyst for opposition that Letitia James is, but they will certainly be able to cause a problem. T-Mobile US, Sprint and Dish executives want this deal done, are will probably be willing to negotiate some attractive deals.

Indian Supreme Court takes another step towards telco duopoly

The Indian Supreme Court has rejected a plea from Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel to defer disputed spectrum licence fee payments, making the collapse of Vodafone Idea a realistic outcome.

While the dispute has been on-going for more than a decade, it has intensified considerably over the last few months. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel are liable for roughly $7 billion each in payments, thanks to penalty fees and interests, and have been attempting to negotiate better terms.

The plea to the India Supreme Court, where the telcos asked for interest fees to be dropped and the sum to be payable over a ten-year period, has now been officially rejected. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel now have until March 13 to make the payments to the Indian Government in full.

The question which now remains is whether the death of the Vodafone Idea business is anything more than a matter of time.

The dispute in question concerns license fees which the telcos are liable for. As part of the licence, the India Government is entitled to a slice of the profits, though what this percentage is and what it is a percentage of is the centre of the argument. As this disagreement has been on-going for more than a decade, the penalty and interest fees have been adding up to an eye-watering amount.

Despite pleas to ease the financial burden of these penalties, the Indian Government and regulator have remained stubbornly resolute. Now it appears in might be a case of ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’.

The Indian Government has always looked quite self-serving when it comes to working alongside the telecommunications industry. It has seemingly looked at the market as a short-term money-tree, as opposed to a long-term stimulant to the greater economy. Spectrum auctions are another example of this, with the valuable, scarce and limited resource often going unsold at auctions as the telcos complain of the financial commitments.

Now the greediness of the Indian Government is seemingly coming back to haunt it as the threat of competition being dwindled to a duopoly, a very dangerous position to be in, becomes much more realistic.

At the time of writing, shares in Vodafone Idea were down 22%. Vodafone Group CEO Nick Reid has already suggested the business would not be prepared to invest anymore capital in India without assistance from the Government, with the latest ruling adding another nail in the coffin. The financial liabilities being placed on Vodafone Idea could very realistically cause the firm to shut up shop in the near future.

For the Indian telecommunications industry, this would be a disaster.

Telco Market share
Reliance Jio 32%
Vodafone Idea 29%
Bharti Airtel 28%
BSNL 10%
MBNL 0.2%

BSNL and MBNL are effectively being propped up by the Government currently, meaning the market has in-effect three mobile players. There of course used to be much more competition, but thanks to the Reliance Jio pricing disruption, Telenor, Tata and Reliance Communications exited the market, while Vodafone and Idea Cellular merged into a single entity in 2018. Competition is at a very weak point, and it now looks like it will become even more feeble.

If Vodafone was to cash in its chips, Idea Cellular will unlikely be able to revive its business. The merger was driven by survival after all, meaning the collapse of the third major MNO. A market duopoly is not healthy, especially when one of the competitors is already battered and bruised and facing the same monstrous fine as Vodafone Idea.

Bharti Airtel has suffered as much as any other telco since the arrival of Reliance Jio. As India is the domestic market of the telco, it is highly unlikely doors will close, but the Supreme Court decision will also hold Bharti Airtel to payments of roughly $7 billion. As the market heads towards an informal duopoly, the former-market leader could be weaker than ever.

On the other hand, as Reliance Jio only entered the market in 2016 its own spectrum fee bill is considerably less. It is still an uncomfortable amount, though the firm managed to sell off its tower assets to settle the amount. It might be a bit poorer for the saga, but it is in a considerably healthier position than any of its rivals.

The Indian authorities have done what can only be described an atrocious, amateur and absent-minded job of managing its telecommunications industry over the last few years. It seemingly favoured Reliance Jio to the long-term detriment of competition, was unable to price spectrum appropriately for decades, and in this example, is stubbornly demanding its dues. The authorities cannot be held to ransom by a diva-like demands of telcos, but the risk of a Vodafone Idea collapse is very high.

Vodafone Idea looks to be at breaking point, Bharti Airtel doesn’t have two rupees to rub together and Reliance Jio is laughing. The Indian Government is proving to be incompetent at managing a healthy and sustainable telco market.

Essential’s attempt to reinvent the wheel has predictably failed

When Android creator Andy Rubin started a new company, big things were expected, however it now appears the ideas were far too glorious to have any basis in reality.

Essential has announced it has taken its ideas as far as it can, and it will now cease operations.

In years gone, Rubin was known as a revolutionary. The founder and creator of Android was held in high esteem, with a reputation which grew each year the operating system become more dominant in the mobile world. This was the enthusiasm which was placed in Essential, but it has been a disastrous journey.

The company was founded in 2015, with funding from Playground Global, and in 2017 Rubin revealed the company was working on a new smartphone which was dubbed the Essential Phone. The delivery of this device was full of chaos thanks to the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, supply shortage, a customer data leak and accusations of trade secrets theft. But this was only the beginning of the disaster.

Despite the rocky start, it was reported that Amazon, Tencent and Foxconn had invested in the company in August, valuing it at more than $1 billion. The belief was there, but it wasn’t until October 2018 that Rubin teased the world with the launch of another device, known as Project GEM. Unfortunately the world had to wait a year for any more information, and it was not good.

The device attempted to reinvent the shape of the smartphone, creating a device which was much slimmer. The smartphone was also designed to be more of a voice-interface device, a novel idea but perhaps miles ahead of what is technically capable or what the consumer wants.

This is the issue which Essential seems to have been facing. Rubin tried to invent a device which he believed was revolutionary rather than listening to what the consumer wants. Sometimes you have to ignore popular opinion to redefine an industry, Henry Ford famously said “if I was to listen to my customers, I would be breeding faster horses”, but this is not one of those cases.

Video consumption and mobile gaming are two of the biggest trends of the mobile world today, especially for the younger generations, those more likely to spend the big bucks on devices. However, Rubin’s devices ignore these trends, not offering enough screen real estate for such content to be relevant.

Essential’s vision got in the way of understanding what the consumer actually wants, and now the company will soon be non-existent. This should perhaps be a lesson to the innovators in Silicon Valley; revolutionary ideas have to be built on the realities of today.

Vodafone and TPG win appeal for $15bn mega merger

The Australian Federal Court has overturned a decision by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), paving the way for Vodafone and TPG to create a converged telco giant.

The ACCC had originally opposed to decision on the grounds of weakened competition, believing TPG would create a mobile offering while Vodafone would expand its broadband offering independently, however the courts disagreed. Both the telcos argued the financials did not add up to pursue convergence strategies independently, with the courts now greenlighting an AUS$15 billion merger after an 18-month wait.

Vodafone and TPG have said the merger is set to be complete by mid-2020, subject to approvals from other regulators and other shareholders, as well as the likely appeal from the ACCC.

“The ACCC’s concern was that with this merger, mobile data prices will be higher than they would be otherwise,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims. “These concerns were reinforced by statements from the industry welcoming the merger and the consequent ‘rational’ pricing.

“We stand by our decision to oppose this merger. If the ACCC won 100% of the cases we took it would be a sign we weren’t doing our job properly; by only picking ‘safe’ cases and not standing up for what we believe in. The future without a merger is uncertain. But we know that competition is lost when main incumbents acquire innovative new competitors.”

Theoretically, the ACCC has a point, but it has been ignoring some very significant factors. Firstly, deploying a mobile network in a country so vast as Australia is incredibly expensive. Secondly, in banning Huawei as a supplier of RAN equipment, TPG’s business case was undermined. And finally, introducing additional competition and encouraging a race to the bottom does not necessarily create a healthy and sustainable telco industry.

TPG has said continuously over the last few months that without being able to work with Huawei the commercials of deploying a mobile network do not add up. On the increased competition, India and Italy are two markets which have demonstrated more competition and decreased tariffs can eventually lead to a very difficult position.

Mobile Broadband
Telco Market share Telco Market share
Optus 31.4% Optus 13.6%
Telstra 50.4% Telstra 55%
Vodafone 18.5% TPG 16.8%
Other 14.4%

While it is not guaranteed, there is hope this merger could end up being a positive for the Australian telecommunication market. A merged entity could provide more competition for the Telstra and Optus pair who are leading the market share rankings. Both of these telcos are able to entice customer with bundled service offerings, something which is becoming increasingly popular in the eyes of the consumer. The merged Vodafone and TPG proposition can now theoretically compete on a more level playing field.

“For the first time, Australia will have a third, fully-integrated telecommunications company,” said Vodafone Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta. “This will give us the scale to compete head-to-head across the whole telecoms market which will drive more competition, investment and innovation, delivering more choice and value for Australian consumers and businesses.”

Competition is certainly not balanced in the Australian market currently. Increased competition might well fragment the market further, creating a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy for Telstra. It might have created more value for the consumer, as the ACCC so strongly insists, but it might have also worked out for Telstra, giving it a stronger position as market share is dwindled for the smaller players.

This ruling by no means guarantees the long-term health of the Australia telco industry, but it does create three converged players, perhaps the most logical position in the pursuit of sustainability.

Benign brother has got your back: China launches coronavirus app

China’s government bodies and businesses have jointly launched a mobile app to help detect if people have been in close contact with those suspected of carrying the novel coronavirus.

The app has access to multiple official holders of private data. By registering with his or her name and Chinese ID number, a smartphone user can use the app, called “Close Contact Detector” to check if he or she has been in proximity of those who are later either confirmed or suspected to have the virus. Such close contacts include travelling in the same train carriage or sitting within three rows on the same flight with those carrying the virus.

One registered user can check the status of up to three users by inputting their ID numbers and names. One ID number is limited to one check per day. The app will then return an assessment of which category the individual in question falls into: Confirmed case, Suspected case, Close contact, Normal. Xinhua, one of the major official propaganda outlets, reported that over 105 million checks have been made by users three days after the app was launched.

The app development was led by the government organisations responsible for health which was joined by China Electronics Technology Group, one of the country’s largest state-owned enterprises, as well as the leading smartphone makers Huawei, Xiaomi, OPPO, and Vivo. The backend data comes out of the National Health Commission, the Ministry of Transport, China State Railway Group Company, the state owned enterprise that operates all the rail transport in China, and the Civil Aviation Administration, the aviation regulator.

The fact that private travel data is made readily available to business entities without explicit consent from the individuals involved may raise plenty of eyebrows in places like Europe, but the attitude in China is different. “From a Chinese perspective this is a really useful service for people… It’s a really powerful tool that really shows the power of data being used for good,” Carolyn Bigg, a Hong Kong-based lawyer, told the BBC.

“Close Contact Detector” has been pushed out by the smartphone brands as a priority app to their users in China. It is unclear how or if promoting to users of other smartphone brands, iOS users, or non-smartphone users, will be conducted. Nor is it clear if there are plans to extend the coverage to residents without a Chinese ID number, such as foreign nationals staying in China.

Telecoms.com has learned that over the last few weeks there have been other online tools to help concerned users check if they had unknowingly come into contact with confirmed victims of the new coronavirus. The key difference from the new contact detector is that, in the earlier attempts, backend data was crowdsourced from publicly available information including the flight and train numbers of the confirmed cases published in the media.

Neither is contact detector the only use case where user data is playing a role. A recent video clip making rounds on social media shows a drone flying a blown-up QR code that drivers can scan to register before they enter Shenzhen after the long Chinese New Year break. The method is deployed presumably to prevent cars and drivers registered to the major disease hit regions from going through, as well as reduce human-to-human interaction. Xinhua reported that the Shenzhen Police, which is responsible for managing the local traffic and owns the automobile and driver data, is behind this measure.