Australia sues Google for misleading users over location data

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has taken Google to court over allegations that it misled consumers over the collection of their location data.

The ACCC reckons that from 2017 at the latest Google broke the law when it made on-screen representations to Android users that it alleges misled consumers about the location data Google collected or used when certain Google Account settings were enabled or disabled. In short the ACCC is claiming Google gave users insufficient information to ensure their location data wasn’t collected if they didn’t want it to be.

“We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations, Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

The problem is that Android has multiple settings that need to be adjusted if you don’t want your location data collected and the ACCC is alleging that Google didn’t flag up all of them. That will have resulted in some consumers thinking their location data wasn’t being collected when it still was. At the very least it seems Google has been insufficiently clear in communicating with Android users about this stuff.

Underlying a lot of the current wave of litigation towards internet giants is the desire by regulators and governments to retrospectively address the personal data land grab that characterised the first decade or so of the modern mobile device. Free services such as Android and Facebook have always sought payment in kind through the collection of personal data but have usually been very opaque in the ways they have gone about it. Regulators are now trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

NBN answers critics with construction to finish on time and on budget

Australia’s NBN is a company which has taken its fair share of criticism over the last few years, but it is difficult to argue with the concept as well as the progress which is being made.

Having laid 216,000 km of optical cables, build 27,000 street cabinets and deployed 2,200 fixed-wireless towers across the country, the construction phase of the project is drawing to a close.

“In less than nine months, the major construction component of the NBN network will be complete, on-time and actually on budget,” said NBN CEO Stephen Rue at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam.

Founded in 2009, the National Broadband Network is a government-funded infrastructure project designed to a deploy nationwide, future-proofed broadband network. Despite being a very logical and worthwhile project, it has attracted considerable criticism both politically and from the media.

Some of the critics will be quietened by Rue’s statement there will be no overrun or overspend, though questions will remain as to whether this was the best way to allocate tax dollars in the first place.

That said, perhaps the answer to this question is the very concept of the initiative in the first place. If private industry was offering the government confidence that connectivity infrastructure would be taken to every corner of the country, the scheme would not have gathered pace in the first place.

And from Rue’s perspective, in a decade this criticism will be completely forgotten. Over the years to come, Australian’s in the less commercially attractive regions of the country will benefit from the infrastructure. Rural locations will be afforded the opportunity to participate in the digital economy, while healthcare and education can also be revolutionised.

This is one of the interesting aspects of Australia as a country. At 7.692 million km², it is the sixth largest country in the world, but with a population of 24.6 million, it is one of the most sparse. Rue pointed to the complications of delivering connectivity across the country when population density is 3 people per km², creating the digital divide which NBN is attempting to bridge.

Some around the world might turn up their noses at the remote healthcare or education usecases which have been championed by the digital enthusiasts, but in a country as vast and sparse as Australia there is genuine potential. However, the network has to be there in the first place.

Many critics of this initiative will point to download speeds which do not match-up with other countries, Ookla ranks Australia as 59th in the world, however Rue has issue with these rankings. According to research which commissioned by NBN, which it claims is a representation of the population on the whole not just those who have access, NBN ranks Australia as having the 17th best connectivity worldwide.

These results have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but perhaps the research will help calm the waves of criticism which are flowing around the country. NBN might be expensive, but in 10 years’ time, Australians will realise this was a very sensible and forward-looking investment.

Perhaps a few other countries will take note, maybe even the US. Although such an initiative conflicts with the capitalist nature of the US, public-funded infrastructure looks like the most realistic means to close the digital divide.

UK, US and Australia demand security delay from Facebook

Politicians from the UK, the US and Australia have penned an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting the team delay end-to-end encryption plans.

Signed by UK Secretary of State Priti Patel, US Attorney General William Barr, Acting-Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, the letter requests that before any encryption technologies are applied to messaging services Facebook includes a means for enforcement agencies to access the content transmitted across the platforms.

Once again, politicians are defying logic by requesting the creation of a backdoor to by-pass the security and privacy features which are being implemented on messaging platforms and services.

“We are committed to working with you to focus on reasonable proposals that will allow Facebook and our governments to protect your users and the public, while protecting their privacy,” the letter states. “Our technical experts are confident that we can do so while defending cyber security and supporting technological innovation.”

It is as if the politicians do not live in the real world. We understand governments have a duty to protect society, and part of this will include monitoring the communications and activities of nefarious individuals, but this is not the right way to go about doing it.

Using the argument of security to undermine security and make citizens less secure is a preposterous idea, almost laughable. The ‘technical experts’ might be confident a backdoor can be built, but how do you protect it? This letter is requesting the construction of a vulnerability into security features, and once a vulnerability is there, it is only a matter of time before it is exposed by the suspect individuals in the rotting corners of society.

What is being suggested here is similar to building a high-security facility in the real world, with 15-foot, electrified walls, guards and watch-dogs, helicopters patrolling overhead, but then asking to leave the backdoor unlocked. It doesn’t matter how good defences are, eventually someone will find their way to the backdoor, open it and then let all his/her friends know how it was done. Chaos would eventually find a way.

This is of course a theoretical situation, the hackers might never find a way to or through the backdoor, but why tempt fate? No-one leaves their home believing they might be burgled that night, but they lock the door in any case. Why create a situation where the prospect of chaos is a possibility, irrelevant as to how faint? This seems like nothing more than simple logic.

As mentioned before, police forces and intelligence agencies are being tasked with keeping society safe. This is a very difficult job, especially with the progress of technology. Facebook, and others in the technology industry, should assist wherever possible (and legal), though this is not the right way to go about the situation.

This does put Facebook in a difficult position. The company is currently attempting to repair the damage to its reputation, as well as re-gain trust from both governments and wider society. However, it is increasingly looking like an impossible situation to satisfy both parties.

In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg outlined a new focus for the company; it would hold the concept of privacy dear, and all new services will be built with privacy at the forefront of demands. Thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s reputation as a guardian of personal information has been severely damaged, thus this new approach is critical to regaining credibility in the eyes of its users.

However, end-to-end encryption is a key element of this privacy strategy. Facebook cannot fulfil its promise to the user and satisfy the demands being laid out in this letter. If it was to build in a vulnerability, it could not tell the user in all honesty it has done everything possible to ensure security and privacy.

As the letter states, Facebook is doing more to clean-up its platform.

“In 2018, Facebook made 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) – more than 90% of the 18.4 million total reports that year,” the letter states. “As well as child abuse imagery, these referrals include more than 8,000 reports related to attempts by offenders to meet children online and groom or entice them into sharing indecent imagery or meeting in real life.”

This is the situation which Facebook is in. It is never going to be able to remove all the hideous conversations and activity on its platform, but governments will demand it does. Something will always slip through the net, and the sharp stick of the law will be there to punish the company. Facebook will never be able to do enough to satisfy the demands of governments, and therefore will always be a defensive position.

However, you should not be distracted by the rhetoric which is being put forward in this letter. Yes, there are some horrendous activities which occur on the platform. Yes, Facebook should, and probably could, do more to assist police forces and intelligence services. Yes, the digital economy has largely shirked responsibility in the years leading to today. But no, building vulnerabilities in the system is not the right way forward.

These politicians are saying the right things to gain public support. These actions are in the pursuit of catching child molesters and terrorists; who wouldn’t want to help? But you have to look at the collateral damage. Users would be left open to identify theft, fraud and blackmail. These messaging platforms are used to have private conversations, exchange bank account details and discuss holiday plans. The number of criminals which could be caught is nothing compared to the billions who would be exposed to hackers on the web.

The idea which is presented here does have good intentions, but it pays no consideration to the collateral damage. The negatives of introducing a backdoor vastly outweigh the positives.

Quite frankly, we are still surprised to be having this conversation. Undermining security is no way to improve security. Governments need to understand this is not a viable option.

Vodafone Australia and TPG told to wait three months for merger decision

The final arguments have been presented to the Australian courts and now Vodafone Australia and TPG will have to wait until early 2020 for the decision on whether the $15 billion merger will be allowed.

This is a saga which has the potential to cause some long-term friction between the regulator and industry. Wherever you are around the world, best-case scenario would be collaboration between all elements of the ecosystem, but it does appear this is far from the case.

In a court case which has been on-going for just over three weeks, Justice John Middleton will now take into consideration all the arguments which have been presented. Unfortunately for those who are seeking a swift conclusion to the litigious chapter will be disappointed. Justice Middleton has said to expect a decision in January 2020, or potentially February.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the decision to block the merger between Vodafone Australia and TPG on the grounds it would negatively impact competition in the future. The telcos are arguing this decision should be over-turned, suggesting it is the only way to ensure competition in a world which is quickly being defined by convergent operations.

This is a decision which will certainly disappoint someone. As patiently as Justice Middleton could look, there is no middle-ground between the feuding parties. The regulator is effectively accusing TPG of lying and the Vodafone/TPG representatives are suggesting the watchdog is not living in the realms of reality.

Looking at the perspective of the ACCC, the regulator believes the merger would prevent a fourth mobile player from emerging in the country. This is of course presuming TPG still has the appetite to deploy a network, and considering the telco has said it does not, the regulator is making a bold assertion.

Another interesting statement made by Michael Hodge QC, the lawyer representing the watchdog, is that its persistence to block the merger is based on “regulatory paternalism”. This is effectively a more acceptable way of saying ‘we know what better for you than you do’.

On the other side of the aisle, Vodafone and TPG are questioning whether the ACCC is looking at the same conundrum.

TPG did have an interest in diversifying revenues to enter into the mobile space, it was potentially going to do a ‘Jio Job’ to cause chaos, but the Huawei ban effectively put an end to this. Huawei was being touted as TPG’s main supplier of network infrastructure equipment, though the Australian ban for the vendor made financially unviable to pursue the network deployment, according to the telcos.

“Indeed, on the Commission’s evidence, TPG dodged a bullet that the network that they were rolling out would have been one of the great white elephants of Australian telecommunications history,” said Peter Brereton QC, representing Vodafone Australia at the trial.

If you believe the telcos, TPG is no-longer interested in building its own mobile network. It is not a financially attractive. Should the ACCC’s blockage of the merger stand, Australia will continue with three mobile network owners, though Vodafone will be in a weakened position to compete with the likes of Telstra and Optus.

This is the question which Justice Middleton needs to ponder. What is the best course of action for enhanced competition in the future? Three strengthened, converged telcos, or a fingers-crossed situation that TPG will be able to source CAPEX to fuel its own network deployment.

There are of course good and bad arguments on both sides of the aisle. The ACCC is potentially right to push for a disruptive fourth mobile provider, though is it reading the environment correctly? The telcos are of course correct to pursue a more comprehensive converged player, three top-tier telcos is certainly favourable than a duopoly, but there might be some nuanced language over the TPG appetite for network deployment moving forward.

The risk which could emerge is potential animosity. The UK’s connectivity landscape suffered due to friction between BT and regulator Ofcom, and there is potential for the same outcome here. Vodafone Australia and TPG only have one thing on their mind right now; a tie-up to challenge Optus and Telstra. The ACCC has taken somewhat of a patronising and stubborn stance, and seemingly does not want to consider the opportunity for increased competition with three converged operations.

Neither party is willing to budge, and it seems the loser will have to swallow a lot of pride to ensure a smooth relationship in the future.

Aussie regulator not in the ‘real world’ over Vodafone and TPG

Lawyers representing Vodafone Australia and TPG have suggested the Australian competition watchdog is not living in reality as it continues quest to force in a fourth MNO.

Last year, Vodafone and TPG announced intentions to merge operations in pursuit of creating a business which can offer comprehensive services in both the mobile and fixed segments. The pair were searching for ‘synergies’, seemingly a play to compete in the world of convergence, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission disagreed, blocking the merger four months ago.

The ACCC rationale was relatively simple; if the pair are forced to continue to operate independently, they could potentially fund their own fixed and mobile networks, broadening competition across the country. Vodafone and TPG suggest this is not the case.

“What TPG wants is for this merger to go through but when you step back and look at the options and approach it had before August 2018… it is entirely commercially realistic that TPG will return to rolling out a mobile network,” said Michael Hodge, representing the ACCC in court.

However, the opposition hit back.

“There isn’t a real chance that TPG will pursue the rollout of a mobile network. There is not a real chance that TPG will become Australia’s fourth network,” said Inaki Berroeta, Vodafone Australia CEO.

The dispute here is simple. The ACCC wants four, independent MNOs across the country. TPG made some noise about deploying its own network prior to the merger announcement, though these ambitions were seemingly quashed by the ban on Huawei technology in the country.

“TPG did try to build it, but it was thwarted by community objections, by technical difficulties but ultimately by the federal government’s security guidance,” Ruth Higgins, the legal representative of TPG, said.

Vodafone and TPG do not believe they can compete with Optus and Telstra without a merger, though the ACCC is under the impression a fourth MNO will emerge organically.

TPG did announce in May 2018 it was planning to launch its own mobile network, learning from the success of Reliance Jio in India. The idea to attract subscribers was to offer six months of data and voice services for free, though this idea was killed off due to two developments.

The first development was the merger between Vodafone and TPG. Why would it build its own mobile network when it could dovetail with Vodafone, bringing its own fixed network to the party to complete the convergence dream.

The second development was the banning of Huawei technology in Australia.

“It is extremely disappointing that the clear strategy the company had to become a mobile network operator at the forefront of 5G has been undone by factors outside of TPG’s control,” TPG Executive Chairman David Teoh said at the time.

Following the decision, TPG decided against building its own mobile network as Huawei was the main supplier to the firm. This is an instance which backs up the Huawei claims it will improve competition in the 5G vendor ecosystem, bringing down the price of equipment investment and speed of deployment.

The decision to end TPG investment in a mobile network might have been enough to convince the ACCC the merger could be approved, but it seems the competition watchdog is clinging onto the hope it would do so on its own. TPG statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, it wouldn’t be the first-time executives changed their minds, but it does run the risk of negatively impacting competition.

One thing which is not healthy for any market is a tiered ranking system. If Vodafone cannot compete with Optus and Telstra without the converged business model the TPG assets offer, it might well fall further behind. If it dwindles to the point of irrelevance, the Australian telco market will be in a worse position than it is today, or with the combined Vodafone/TPG company offering increased competition. The risk the ACCC runs is effectively creating a duopoly.

Realistically, there is no right or wrong answer here. We do not have a crystal ball, and we cannot read the minds of TPG executives. It might well pursue the deployment of a mobile network if the prospect of a merger is killed off all together, but then again, it might just double-down on fixed line investments. It does currently have an MVNO, but that is a poor substitution for a fourth MNO to increase competition.

Huawei hasn’t given up on Australia as it plugs 6G smarts

Even though Australia blindly followed the US down the Huawei-accusation rabbit hole, the Chinese vendor hasn’t given up on the country, using the 6G carrot to tempt the Aussies back into the fray.

Speaking at the Emerging Innovation Summit in Melbourne, a Huawei executive suggested Australian decision-makers have been short-sighted in addressing cyber-security concerns.

“The current approach being taken towards cyber-security on 5G mobile networks solves absolutely nothing – and that will be exposed further in 6G,” said Huawei Australia Chief Technology and Cyber Security Officer David Soldani.

This is of course assuming Huawei is an innocent party, though as little (if any) concrete evidence to prove guilt has been presented to date, the fair position would be to maintain this assumption of innocence.

“Blocking companies from certain countries does nothing to make Australia any safer from cyber-security issues – in fact it just makes things worse because they are not addressing the real issues on cyber-security.”

This is a point which has been raised frequently but those who advocate the inclusion of Huawei in communications infrastructure moving forward. Banning a certain company or technology from networks does not tackle the issue. For some, the most sensible route forward would be that of risk mitigation, an approach Vodafone in the UK has been very vocal about.

“Huawei is already way ahead of our rivals on 6G research and we can see that the way in which we will be gathering and consuming data on those 6G networks means the cyber security risks will increase,” Soldani added.

Although it might encourage moans from some corners of the industry, 6G is becoming a very real and increasingly important facet of the connectivity mix. 5G is of course not a reality yet, but for the R&D engineers, the job is complete. Work has moved out of the research labs and into production; for these employees it is onto the next task; 6G.

This is another common message which has come out of the Huawei ranks over the last few months; it is critical to work with us, not ignore us. And many of those on the technology side would agree also.

The reason the prospect of a Huawei ban is such a divisive and persistent topic is relatively simple; Huawei produces excellent products. Not only are these products cheaper, while the field support offered to telco customers is largely unrivalled, the products are genuinely at the top of their field. There are large crowds who would suggest Huawei is market leader on in the radio and transmission segments.

“The communique from the Five Eyes was absolutely clear that countries need to ensure entire supply chains are trusted and reliable to protect our networks from unauthorized access or interference,” Soldani said.

“This means there is absolutely no point in simply banning companies from certain countries – it actually makes Australia less secure because it means we have to then increase our reliance on just one or two other vendors – neither of whom are having their equipment tested.”

This is another point which, once again, has been thrown around quite often by Huawei, but is also valid; no-one is 100% free of cybersecurity risk. By reducing the number of attack points for cyber-criminals, arguably it becomes more difficult to defend and the chances of a breach increase.

These are all perfectly valid points, but Huawei is trying to prove a negative here. Nothing which can be said or presented to the world would completely exonerate the firm of suspicion, especially with the US Government constantly hinting there is evidence of wrong-doing. The fact that no-one outside the White House or the Foreign Department has seen this evidence does appear to be irrelevant to some, though that is not to say it does not exist.

This issue is quite frankly becoming tiresome. Of course, governments around the world have a duty to ensure companies are acting responsibly through the sourcing and deployment of secure and resilient products, but the issue is become tedious to discuss week on week. Unfortunately, as the UK Government continues to kick the can down the road, the debate is likely to continue.

Although the UK is finding it difficult to maintain friendships with its peers inside and outside of the European Union, it is still an incredibly influential voice. The Supply Chain Review has attracted interest from numerous parties around the world, and the decision will be carefully scrutinised. It might be rubbing nations up the wrong way with Brexit, but its opinion still matters.

Some nations of course benefit from the on-going stand-still and some don’t. The UK doesn’t benefit as telcos are still no wiser whether supply chains will be in tatters and numerous other countries that rely on Huawei, Germany, Spain or Italy for example, are in the same boat. Australia is in a tricky position as banning Huawei limits the options which are out there. This present complications from a resilience and competition perspective.

The US appears to be one of the few nations which is not going to be impacted. Deployment might be a bit more expensive due to decreased competition, but the telcos have never had the opportunity to include Huawei in plans so there is no disruption from this on-going saga. The US might well be a lost cause, but it does appear Huawei believes it can charm Australia back on-side.

Huawei might not have given up on Australia, but as long as the White House is singing from this hymn sheet, it is likely to be nothing more than a Sisyphean task.

‘Five Eyes’ align security objectives but where does this leave Huawei?

After a meeting in London, the members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance has released a communique to reinforce the relationship and outline quite generic objectives.

As with all of these communiques, the language sounds very impressive, but in reality, nothing material is being said. In this document, the UK, US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada have committed to countering online child sexual exploitation and abuse, tackling cybersecurity threats and building trust in emerging technologies.

Although nothing revolutionary has been said, the reinforcement of this alliance leaves questions over Huawei’s role in the aforementioned countries.

“There is agreement between the Five Countries of the need to ensure supply chains are trusted and reliable to protect our networks from unauthorised access or interference,” the communique reads. “We recognise the need for a rigorous risk-based evaluation of a range of factors which may include, but not be limited to, control by foreign governments.”

Government officials will never be so obvious as to point the finger at another nation, at least not most of the time, but it isn’t difficult to imagine who this statement is directed towards.

So where does this leave Huawei? Banned in Australia and the US, denied work in New Zealand and on thin ice in Canada. The only market from the ‘Five Eyes’ where is does not look doomed is the UK. But can the other members of the intelligence club trust the UK while Huawei is maintaining a presence in the country’s communications infrastructure?

The US has already spoken of withholding intelligence data should the partner nation allow Huawei to contribute to 5G networks, and this alliance is already very anti-Huawei. In re-affirming its position to the alliance, the UK is certainly sending mixed messages only a week after a statement which suggested Huawei might be safe.

Of course, this might mean very little in the long-run, but it is another factor which should be considered when trying to figure out what Huawei’s fate will actually be.

For its own part, Huawei is doing as much as possible to disprove collusion and security allegations. Aside from the cybersecurity centres opened to allow customers and governments to validate security credentials, it has recently signed up to the Paris Call.

“The quest for better security serves as the foundation of our existence,” said John Suffolk, Global Cyber Security & Privacy Officer at Huawei. “We fully support any endeavour, idea or suggestion that can enhance the resilience and security of products and services for Governments, customers and their customers.”

The Paris Call is an initiative launched by the French Government in November 2018. It is a call-to-action to tackle cybersecurity challenges, strengthen collective defences against cybercrime, and promote cooperation among stakeholders across national borders. To date, 67 national governments, 139 international and civil society organizations, and 358 private-sector companies have signed up to the collaborative initiative.

Although we are surprised it has taken Huawei so long to sign up to the initiative, it is another incremental step in the pursuit to demonstrate its security credentials and build trust in the brand.

Even with this commitment from Huawei, you have to question how the UK can continue to be a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance and work with the Chinese infrastructure vendor. The concept of the alliance is to align activities and this communique talks about managing risk individually but also about supporting the efforts of other partners.

It does appear the UK is attempting to have its cake and eat it too. We suspect there will be pressure on the newly-appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fall into line before too long, and it will be interesting to see how the newly formed Cabinet manage expectations externally with international partners and internally with British telcos who rely on Huawei.

Vodafone Australia admits to misleading carrier billing service

After an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) investigation, Vodafone Australia has admitted misleading consumers through its third-party Direct Carrier Billing (DCB) service.

The investigation looked into transactions made between 1 January 2013 to 1 March 2018, though it is most likely Vodafone broke the rules upon the introduction of an Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act in 2015.

“Through this service, thousands of Vodafone customers ended up being charged for content that they did not want or need, and were completely unaware that they had purchased,” said ACCC Chair Rod Sims. “Other companies should note, money made by misleading consumers will need to be repaid.”

The service was first introduced in January 2013 allowing customers to purchase digital content from third party developers such as games, ringtones and apps, with charges being applied to pre-paid and post-paid accounts.

The issue which Vodafone seems to be facing is the service was automatically applied to customer accounts, with purchases being made with one or two clicks. As the customer was not suitably informed, the service has been deemed to be misleading.

Vodafone has already begun the process of contacting impacted customers and will be offering refunds where appropriate. The telco has phased out the majority of the service already, owing to an increasing number of complaints during 2014 and 2015.

While a final judgment has not been released just yet, a confirmation and fine will likely follow in the next couple of weeks, other Australian telcos have been found guilty of the same offence. Both Telstra and Optus have been fined AUS$10 million for their own misleading carrier billing services.

Although it is hardly rare for a telco to be found on the wrong side of right, especially in Australia where the ACCC seems to be incredibly proactive, such instances will create a negative perception at the worst time for the telcos.

In an era when the telcos are searching for additional revenues, carrier billing initiatives are an excellent option. Assuming of course the telcos don’t mess it up.

The digital economy is becoming increasingly embedded in today’s society though there are still many consumers who will begrudgingly hand over credit card details to companies with whom they are not familiar. This mistrust with digital transactions could potentially harm SMEs while providing more profit for the larger players who have established reputations on the web.

In this void of trust and credibility, the telcos have an opportunity to step in and play the intermediately as a trusted organization; how many people have an issue with handing credit card information over to a telco?

There are plenty of examples of this theory in practice; Amazon or eBay are the most obvious and most successful. These are online market places which allow the flow of goods and cash between two parties who may not have had a prior relationship. The consumer might have an issue paying Joe Bloggs Ltd. as there is little credibility, though many trust the likes of Amazon and eBay, allowing the third party to manage the transaction and take a small slice of the pie.

Carrier billing can be an excellent opportunity to add value to a growing digital ecosystem, using the consumer trust in the telcos to drive opportunities for those businesses which want to grow online. However, should there be a perception that the telcos do not act responsibly with a customers’ bill, this opportunity will dry out very quickly.

Aside from costing Vodafone a couple of million dollars, this also dents the credibility of the telco (and overall industry by association). This example suggests it is just as risky purchasing goods through the telco as it is an unknown supplier online.

Telstra confirms 6000 jobs to be cut by the end of this year

Australian telco Telstra has announced steady progress for its T22 restructuring plan, allowing it to retire AUS$500 million of legacy IT equipment and bring forward 6,000 job cuts to 2019.

The restructuring plan, T22, was introduced during June 2018 in an effort to simply the structure of the business and improve profitability. The plan is to remove 8,000 roles in total from the business, through replacing legacy systems, digitising certain processes and simplifying the management structure of the business.

According to Telstra executives, who’s jobs are seemingly secure, the firm had become a burdensome beast and needed streamlining. This plan was set in motion not only to reduce the complexity of the organization, but also deliver AUS$2.5 billion in cost efficiencies by 2022.

In today’s announcement, 6,000 of the planned redundancies have been brought forward from 2020 to 2019, increasing the restructuring costs for this financial year by AUS$200 million and introducing a AUS$500 million write down of the value of its legacy IT assets. Investors might not have expected such a hit in 2019, but the news should not have come as a surprise.

“We understand the significant impact on our people and the uncertainty created by these changes,” said CEO Andrew Penn. “We are doing everything we can to support our people through the change and this includes the up to $50 million we have committed to a Transition program that provides a range of services to help people move into a new role. We expect to have announced or completed approximately 75 percent of our direct workforce role reductions by the end of FY19.”

According to Penn, plans are on track and the majority of the work is behind the team. Employees are yet to discover their fate, however the consultation is expected to finish in mid-June

Headcount FY 2018 total revenue Revenue per employee
Telstra 32,293 $20.05 billion $620,877
BT 94,800 $30.01 billion $316,561
Telefonica 120,138 $54.33 billion $452,229
Verizon 144,000 $130.863 billion $908,770

All figures in US Dollars

While Telstra executives might not like the balance of the spreadsheets as it stands, you can clearly see from the table above it is not in the worst position worldwide. Restructuring plans are certainly having more of an impact at some telcos, take BT for example, though some might be aggrieved when being forced into redundancy.

That said, NPAT (net profit after tax) for 2018 was AUS$1.2 billion, 4.1% of total revenues. When compared to Verizon, where profits represented 8.1% of total revenues, or Telefonica where it was 7.4% for 2018, you can begin to see why the management team is under pressure to find efficiencies across the business.

Redundancies, while never pleasant to talk about, are commonplace in the telco industry and will continue to be so. As businesses evolve, more processes become automated and more technology becomes redundant. This will have an impact on any workforce, but when you consider the complexities of managing a network or securing the digital lives of customers, the demand of digitisation becomes more apparent for the telcos.

Unfortunately for Telstra, it also happens to operate in an environment which makes delivering connectivity incredibly challenging and expensive (i.e. the scale of Australia and the geographical isolation of some communities). Add in the fact it will now longer be able to work with Huawei or ZTE, the vendor pool becomes smaller, adding more financial risk to the procurement channels. All of these factors add up to more financial outlay when it comes to the business of delivering connectivity, and pressure to improve operational efficiencies.

Merger of Vodafone Australia and TPG blocked

The Australian competition authority has decided that the telco merger of Vodafone and TPG amounts to excessive consolidation and has blocked it.

This decision comes after months of agonising by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which started looking into the deal last December, several months after it was first proposed. Vodafone is one of three major MNOs over there, while TPG is one of three major fixed-line players.

“Broadband services are of critical importance to Australian consumers and businesses, across both fixed and mobile channels,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said. “Given the longer term industry trends, TPG has a commercial imperative to roll out its own mobile network giving it the flexibility to deliver both fixed and mobile services at competitive prices. It has previously stated this and invested accordingly.

“Vodafone has likewise felt the need to enter the market for fixed broadband services. These moves by TPG and Vodafone are likely to improve competition and future market contestability. TPG is the best prospect Australia has for a new mobile network operator to enter the market, and this is likely the last chance we have for stronger competition in the supply of mobile services.

“Wherever possible, market structures should be settled by the competitive process, not by a merger which results in a market structure that would be subject to little challenge in the future. This is particularly the case in concentrated sectors, such as mobile services in Australia.

“TPG has a proven track record of disrupting the telecommunications sector and establishing itself as a successful competitor to the benefit of consumers. TPG is likely to be a vigorous and innovative supplier of mobile services in Australia, offering cheaper mobile plans with large data allowances, and competing strongly against incumbents Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

“TPG has the capability and commercial incentive to resolve the technical and commercial challenges it is facing, as it already has in other markets. TPG already has mobile spectrum, an extensive fibre transmission network which is essential for a mobile network, a large customer base and well-established telecommunications brands.

“TPG is also facing reducing margins in fixed home broadband due to the NBN rollout. Further, there is the growing take-up of mobile broadband services in place of fixed home broadband services which is expected to increase especially after the rollout of 5G technology. After thorough examination, we have concluded that, if this proposed merger does not proceed, there is a real chance TPG will roll out a mobile network.”

It’s great that Sims offered such a detailed rationale, but he could have just said “We want to force Vodafone and TPG to diversify through organic investment rather than M&A.” He doesn’t seem to buy TPG’s line that the Huawei ban makes it impossible for it to build its own mobile network, but it seems to be a big leap of faith to conclude that blocking this merger will automatically result in a change of heart.