O2 UK reports steady customer and revenue growth

The UK bit of Telefónica has reported healthy Q3 2019 numbers, with all the key metrics headed in the right direction.

Total revenues at O2 UK grew by 4.1% year-on-year, operating income was up 5.7% and the total customer base expanded by 5.6% to 34.1 million. O2 also reckons it has the lowest contract churn in the sector at 1%. Having said that the net adds were fairly flat, maintaining its mobile customer base at 26 million.

“Our Q3 performance continues the strong momentum we saw in the first half of the year, powered by a relentless focus on our customers through award-winning coverage and great offerings such as flexible Custom Plans and limitless data,” said Mark Evans, CEO of Telefónica UK

“We’re moving at pace with our 5G rollout, already live in six UK cities rising to twenty by the end of the year. 5G offers critical support to the UK’s digital economy, supporting jobs and growth. That’s why we welcome Ofcom’s recent statement updating the rules for the planned auction of more 5G airwaves. This will help operators to deliver greater value and better connectivity to the public.”

The other thing O2 seemed keep to flag up was its involvement in a scheme to test driverless vehicles in London via its recently launched 5G network. The project is being run by an organisation called the Smart Mobility Living Lab and it seems to have a fair bit of industry and public sector buy-in.

“At O2 we’re determined to help businesses of all sizes realise the potential of fifth-generation mobile technology,” said Brendan O’Reilly, O2’s CTO. “We know that the transport sector is going to be one of the key beneficiaries of 5G – and that the technology has the potential to reduce traffic congestion, as well as making journeys safer and more enjoyable.

“That’s why we’re excited to be working with the teams at the Smart Mobility Living Lab, who are driving forward our understanding how this next generation technology will fundamentally change the fabric of the cities in which we live and work as well as creating entirely new methods of travel.”

Uber is much more than a taxi firm

To most people, Uber is just a cheap and convenient way to get home after a few drinks, but the scope of the business is extraordinary.

While the inclusion of Uber at a broadband conference might have raised a few eyebrows, the overview given by Global Head of Connectivity Rahul Vijay demonstrated the creativity, innovation and stubborn drive which has ensured Silicon Valley and its residents are some of the most influential in the world.

First and foremost, no-one should consider Uber as a taxi company anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. The taxi’s might still account for the majority of annual revenues, but the team is expanding into so many different areas it is difficult to sum up the business in a single sentence.

Aside from the taxi business we all know and love, Uber has a commercial business working with the travel teams at large corporations, the food delivery business unit is solidly position in a fast-growing segment, the team also work with insurance companies to make sure patients make it to their hospital appointments and it is also making promising moves into the freight world. In markets in south east Asia, the team has launched a 2G-compatible app and is also applying the same business model to mopeds and scooters. In Croatia, Uber has launched a boat taxi service.

These are the ideas which are up-and-running or currently being live trialled, though the R&D unit is also playing around with some interesting ideas. Autonomous vehicles, flying taxis and drone delivery initiatives are just some of the blue-thinking projects. This is a company where a lot is going on.

The interesting aspect of the autonomous vehicles is not just the technology but the supporting connectivity landscape.

“Without mobility there is no Uber,” Vijay said at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam.

Some have suggested that Uber will never be profitable until autonomous vehicles are commonplace through the fleet, though it doesn’t seem to be the technology which is worrying Vijay; connectivity is too expensive today.

The test vehicles which are currently purring around the highways of North America transmit as much as 2 TB of data a day. This is not only a monstrous amount of information to store and analyse, but the economics of taking this data from the car to the data centres is not there. Vijay said it is still by far and away cheaper to transmit this data through optical cables than over the air, which is not practical. Until 5G arrives, and is scaled throughout the transportation infrastructure, autonomous vehicles are not a commercially viable concept for Uber.

This also opens the door up to another very useful revenue stream for Uber. With more than 110 million users around the world, 200 new trips are started every second. These vehicles are travelling through cities, countryside’s and down highways. The amount of information on mobile signal strength or the performance of mobile handoff between cell sites is boggling. These are only two areas, but Vijay suggested there could be hordes of valuable information which could be collected by the vehicles as they fulfil the core primary business objective.

For telcos, regulators, governments or cloud companies, this insight could be incredibly valuable. It could inform investment strategies or encourage policy changes. If data is the new oil, Uber is sitting on a very significant reserve.

As it stands, the company brings in a lot of money, but the prospect of profits are questionable. In the three months ending June 30, Uber revenues attributable to bookings stood at $15.756 billion. The loss from these operations was $5.485 billion. The transportation game operates on very fine margins. Share price has declined by 28% since this earnings call, though there is hope on the horizon.

If Uber can gain traction in the new markets it is pushing aggressively into there will be increased revenues, though in monetizing assets which it creates organically, the data collected from taxi trips, there could be some interesting developments.

Battle for control of connected car ecosystem has not been decided – Renault

It might be slightly unusual to have one of the worlds’ automotive giants presenting at a broadband conference, but despite the odd fit, there were some very interesting points made.

Speaking to Telecoms.com on the side-lines of Broadband World Forum at Amsterdam, Renault’s Chief Sales and Marketing Officers for the services unit Benoit Joly, gave a statement which will come as a tsunami of relief to the telco industry; the battle for control of the connected car ecosystem has not been decided yet.

This has been the worry of many industry analysts and commentators. When a new segment of the digital economy emerges, can the telcos move quick enough to capitalise on the newly created revenues?

A perfect example of this is in the living room. When the idea of the smart home emerged, the telcos got very excited. Here was an opportunity to move beyond the realms of connectivity service provider and into the promised land of digital services provider. However, progress was too slow, and now it looks like the OTTs own this space through their smart speakers.

In this instance, aside from a few rare examples around the world, the telcos have been relegated to commoditised connectivity providers. In the connected car segment, this is not the case, not yet anyway.

As Joly pointed out, there is a space for the telcos in the connected car segment, above and beyond the dreaded utility tag. Renault is of course working closely with the telcos in this fast evolving but still embryonic area, but it is also working alongside the OTTs. Business models are evolving, and services are still being created, this is an exciting area.

The interesting element for the consumer is going to be the seamless nature of the connected car as an element of the wider digital life. The telcos already have skin in the game, as the connectivity provider, however so do the OTTs; the fraternity which owns the customer experience will reap the profits.

From a purely commoditised revenue perspective, there is of course opportunity. Joly highlighted that the car could be seen as an additional element to monetise, though it is not exactly nailed down how. Should connectivity in the car be seen as an extension of existing consumer mobile tariffs or do the telcos wholesale mobile connectivity to the automotive OEMs?

This element of the equation will perhaps depend on who owns the connected car platform and the supporting ecosystem. Should the telcos win out over the OTTs, there will be a lot more influence to dictate the state of play, or perhaps the OEMs would want to wholesale connectivity? The automotive giants do not want their product to be commoditised, therefore this could be a way in which the OEMs add value to customers beyond the point-of-sale of a vehicle.

There are still a lot of moving parts in this fast-evolving segment of the digital economy, and many questions which need to be answered. The OTTs will of course want to own the ecosystem, and the newly created revenues which come with it, however the telcos will be relieved to hear there is still a chance they can move up the value chain in this segment at least.

Arm unveils the new Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium

Embedded chip giant Arm has announced a new industry consortium designed to coordinate industry collaboration over autonomous vehicles.

As well as Arm the AVCC also counts Bosch, Continental, Denso, General Motors, Nvidia, NXP and Toyota among its founding members. Its initial work will involve developing a set of recommendations of a system architecture and a computing platform to promote scalable deployment of automated and autonomous vehicles.

“The future of mobility and the safe, scalable deployment of advanced driver assistance systems to fully autonomous vehicles for mass production requires unprecedented industry collaboration,” said Dipti Vachani, GM of Automotive and IoT Business at Arm.  “The AVCC brings together leaders from across the automotive industry landscape to tackle complex foundational technological and computing challenges to accelerate our path to a truly autonomous future.”

“The massive amount of technological innovation required to power fully self-driving vehicles at scale requires collaboration at an industry level,” said Massimo Osella, AVCC Chairman and lab group manager at General Motors. “We are delighted to join this group of key leaders in the automotive industry. As the AVCC, we are working together to create the ’go to‘ organization for autonomous computing expertise to help bring this technology to market.”

“The AVCC understands the technological complexities and obstacles that need to be overcome for the deployment of autonomous vehicles,” said Satoru Taniguchi, AVCC board member, and Project General Manager at Toyota.  “Toyota aims to work with the other AVCC members to deliver a conceptual computing platform that addresses these challenges.”

Before regulators and general society are prepared to let driverless vehicles share the road with actual people. There clearly needs to be a lot of coordination to ensure things like software interoperability, standardised vehicle-to-vehicle communication and that sort of thing. This consortium seems to have a lot of the right companies involved, but will need to attract many more before it can be considered the default authority on this sort of thing.

Waymo opens-up data treasure trove for autonomous vehicles

Waymo has pulled back the curtain on valuable datasets to help researchers better hone self-driving algorithms.

While this is a nice gesture from the team, we suspect the lid will be kept shut on further datasets unless the idea becomes more mainstream. Data is king in the world of autonomous vehicles and this could prove to be a valuable bonanza for researchers and application developers throughout the world.

Waymo has said the datasets are not available for commercial use, though researchers in commercial organizations are free to access the data for their own development purposes.

“When it comes to research in machine learning, having access to data can turn an idea into a real innovation,” the team said in a Medium post.

“This data has the potential to help researchers make advances in 2D and 3D perception, and progress on areas such as domain adaptation, scene understanding and behaviour prediction. We hope that the research community will generate more exciting directions with our data that will not only help to make self-driving vehicles more capable, but also impact other related fields and applications, such as computer vision and robotics.”

When you look at the development of autonomous vehicles, nothing is more valuable than the right data, and those who collect it are usually very protective. Part of the reason for this is the effort which must be exerted to collect it, with companies like Waymo clocking up millions of miles on the road.

This release contains data from 1,000 driving segments, each capturing 20 seconds of continuous driving, corresponding to 200,000 frames at 10 Hz per sensor. Each segment contains sensor data from five high-resolution Waymo lidars and five front-and-side-facing cameras, offering a 360° view, as well as a total of 12 million 3D labels and 1.2 million 2D labels.

Such data would allow researchers to train models to track and predict the behaviour of other road users, as well as simulate certain situations to find the most appropriate outcome. The dataset covers various environments, from dense urban to suburban landscapes, as well as during day and night, at dawn and dusk, in sunshine and rain.

What is worth noting, as while this is the largest release of data for autonomous vehicles, it is not the first. Lyft released data last month, and Argo AI did so the month before.

The more data which is released to researchers, the quicker the autonomous dream can be realised, and the safer the final product will actually be. It does technically lessen the commercial edge of these organizations, but the final goal of getting autonomous vehicles on the road sooner rather than later seems to be more valuable.

UK Transport Committee questions safety of hands-free

A UK Department of Transport Committee has released a report demanding the use of mobile phones, including hands-free features, be banned while driving.

Quoting research which suggests traffic collisions where mobile phones contributed resulted in 773 casualties, including 43 deaths, in 2017, the Committee is calling for tighter rules and regulations for mobile devices while driving. Hands-free features have also been targeted, with the Committee claiming the safety benefits are misleading.

“Despite the real risk of catastrophic consequences for themselves, their passengers and other road users, far too many drivers continue to break the law by using hand-held mobile phones,” said Chair of the Transport Select Committee, Lilian Greenwood.

“There is also a misleading impression that hands-free use is safe. The reality is that any use of a phone distracts from a driver’s ability to pay full attention and the Government should consider extending the ban to reflect this.”

Although it is quite clearly more dangerous to use a mobile device while driving, a bit of common sense needs to be applied here. If a driver is using the full hands-free capabilities of the phone, in the sense said driver only interacts with the device using the voice interface, exceptions should be written into any rule changes.

Looking at the hands-free features of the phone, is this anymore distracting that listening to the radio or having a conversation with the person in the passenger seat? Perhaps an enforceable screen-lock should be introduced to ensure the driver is not tempted to make use of other features while in the car, but banning voice interactions with the device should surely mean the driver should be banned from having a conversation with passengers?

This is perhaps what the misleading nature of hands-free is; users are not making use of the entire suite of features. If the user has to tap the screen to accept a call or scroll through contacts to make a phone call, if is clearly distracting. However, there is no reason the user would have to take their eyes off the road if all hands-free features are being used.

Interestingly enough, your correspondent did a quite test to see how easy it was to do to operate hands-free.

Davies: OK Google, send a text to Dad

Google Assistant: For that, you’ll need to unlock your phone

Davies: OK Google, search for directions to Cardiff Castle

Google Assistant: The best way to Cardiff Castle is…

This is where the issue might lie. If unlocking the phone is a requirement to make use of hands-free features, it pretty much undermines the benefits. It’s not every feature which requires the device to be unlocked, however these are communication devices. This is quite an oversight, and while there will be changes to the settings which can be made, it is not the promise which has been relayed to the consumer through advertising.

The Committee is absolutely correct that rules have to be tightened up. Two weeks ago, a White Van Man managed to argue against a traffic violation as he was reportedly using the video function on the phone while driving. To break the rules today, data has to be sent or received from the phone while driving. This is a grey area which of course should be corrected.

However, an outright ban on smartphone usage, which is being called for here, is an incorrect approach to future-proofing rules and regulations for the digital economy.

Speaking to BBC Radio Two, Greenwood has suggested the best approach would be to put a mobile phone in the boot prior to beginning driving. However, this would be incredibly difficult for those who rely on a smartphone for work. Take delivery drivers, for example, who need to find out about the next job, or taxi drivers who need accurate navigation applications. What about paramedics or police who have to be engaged with a radio constantly?

A spokesperson from the RAC has countered Greenwood’s point, suggesting police should focus on enforcing current laws instead of creating new ones. Research suggests enforcement of laws focused on using mobile devices has dropped by two-thirds since 2017. The RAC spokesperson suggests these new laws are going too far.

In reality both are correct. Greenwood is right in suggesting current laws are not stringent enough, they were largely written in 2003 when a mobile device was a completely different product, though banning devices completely is unreasonable. There are considerable benefits to using a smartphone while driving, assuming the user is making proper use of hands-free features and engaged with the road.

What you have to consider here, and we suspect Greenwood has not, is the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Mobile nurses won’t be able to do their jobs properly and surely if talking to someone on the phone using hands-free is dangerous, singing along to the radio or talking to a passenger is exactly the same? The law has to be consistent. It is still a distraction, but no-one is considering banning having children in the backseat.

If people use the hands-free features correctly, there is no difference from the distractions people face today. Perhaps the focus should be on tackling misleading claims, introducing screen locks while driving, forcing drivers to make use of built-in Bluetooth features and improving the application of the voice interface.

Regulation for the sake of regulation is always a dangerous game to play, but it is often the outcome when technology-illiterate individuals, with little understanding or consideration of the future, are in-charge of making the rules.

Waymo learning from Darwin for autonomous driving

Google subsidiary Waymo has been working alongside its AI cousin DeepMind to develop a technique called ‘Population Based Training’, based on Darwin’s concepts of evolution.

Although we plan on dumbing down the explanation here, we do also hope to remain true to the work Google’s autonomous driving subsidiary Waymo and AI unit DeepMind are doing to advance self-driving algorithms. It’s an incredibly complicated field, but it does seem like the duo is making progress.

“Training an individual neural net has traditionally required weeks of fine-tuning and experimentation, as well as enormous amounts of computational power,” a blog post stated. “Now, Waymo, in a research collaboration with DeepMind, has taken inspiration from Darwin’s insights into evolution to make this training more effective and efficient.”

The easy part of autonomous driving is almost finished. Sensors are almost up-to scratch and prices will come down quickly when economies of scale kicks in, while the chip giants are making progress also. The trickiest part of the equation is the ‘intelligence’ aspect, the AI components which control all of the decisions.

The simplest way to explain training algorithms is through trial and error. The algorithm performs a task, then grades its performance depending on the outcome. Depending on the ‘grades’ the algorithm will adjust how it performs the task to create a more likely positive outcome.

The challenge which engineers and data scientists face is how much freedom the algorithms are given to adjust with each trial. Too little variance and the fine-tuning takes too long, too much and the results vary wildly. Most of the time, engineers will monitor the tests, manually culling the poorest performing results.

The new approach from Waymo and DeepMind is an interesting one. Population Based Training starts with multiple different tests, before the poorest performing ones are culled from the population. Out of the ‘survivors’, copies are made with slightly mutated hyperparameters. This process goes on and on until the algorithms become more reliable, resilient and safe.

It might sound like a simple solution, but not many companies like Waymo are fortunate to have such smarts as DeepMind living in the same corporate family. Its almost unfair, and we’ve quite surprised its taken so long for Waymo to cosy up to its smarter cousin.

European connected car arm wrestle swings in favour of 5G

The Byzantine European bureaucracy is trying to pick a winner between competing connected car technologies and inevitably it’s taking ages.

Back in March we reported on the GSMA’s hissy-fit after the European announced a preference for the wifi-based Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS) approach to wireless networking between cars and the rest of the world. The mobile industry understandably prefers 5G-based cellular vehicle to whatever (C-V2X) technology and thinks the EC is barking up the wrong tree.

One of the few advantages of having such a bloated, multi-layered approach to running things is that every decision made by Europe has to be approved by countless parliaments, councils, committees and cabals. After a few months it was the turn of yet another of these to mull the matter over and it announced its decision this morning.

The Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union is so morbidly obese they had to split it in two and it was the duty of Coreper II to make a call on the ‘delegated act’, which is what the word of the EC gets packed up us for consumption by lesser bodies.

While there had been considerable lobbying in favour of C-V2X in the build up to the decision, it still came as a pleasant surprise to see Coreper II dare to stand up for the Commission and reject the wifi C-ITS plan. A consortium of mobile industry lobbying bodies – GSMA, GSA, ETNO and 5GAA had written at length last month about what a bad idea excluding cellular from the continent’s connected cars would be and they seem to have been rewarded.

“GSA, along with other leading mobile and automotive industry associations, believe the Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems  (C-ITS) ecosystem should neither be limited by technology nor place Europe and mobile and automotive companies at a clear disadvantage to other regions of the world,” said Joe Barrett, President of GSA.

“The decision by EU Member States to reject the Delegated Act on C-ITS and request the European Commission to reconsider its scope is great news for technology neutrality and signals a positive future for connected intelligent transport systems in Europe.”

The European Commission does allow light dissent every now and then, to maintain the illusion of accountability and due process. Normal procedure when something like this happens is for the EC to make cosmetic tweaks and keep putting the matter back to the vote until it gets what it wants. On such a binary matter of whether or not to back wifi-based C-ITS, however, it’s hard to see how such a fudge will be possible, so maybe this will end up being a rare defeat for the unelected Commission.

O2 looks to the stars to fuel CAV connectivity

O2 has launched a new project with the European Space Agency to address the notable strain which will be placed on networks with the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

While there has been a nod to the potential pitfalls of providing connectivity for CAVs, it hasn’t received a significant amount of attention to date. O2 claims it has done research on the segment, and wide-scale adoption of CAVs could generate up to 4 TB of data an hour. This would certainly place a strain on urban networks, but the usecases don’t end at the city limits; the strain placed on rural networks might be too much of a burden.

Code-named ‘Project Darwin’, O2 and the European Space Agency will work with Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, as well as various universities and vertical start-ups, to create connectivity solutions combining 5G and satellite communications.

“Project Darwin is an important piece of the connected and autonomous vehicle puzzle,” said Derek McManus of O2. “The research taking place at Harwell during the next four years will be vital in the creation of new transport ecosystems for the UK public and the companies that will offer these services.”

“Autonomous vehicles need robust, high-speed mobile data connections to operate effectively,” said Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency. “Building the technology to link them to telecoms satellites will allow you to take your car wherever you want to go, and not just to areas with a strong mobile signal.”

This is one of the questions which the telco seems very keen to avoid at the moment; what is being done to ensure 5G is not an ecosystem for the privileged? Or at least not for a longer period of time than is necessary.

Having just driven back to London from the South-west, your correspondent can confirm the patchy nature of 4G. Telcos and government will tell you this is an area which is constantly improving, but it isn’t although we were taking countryside backroads. The M4 is one of the most important and busiest arteries of the UK. Maybe we are expecting too much, but the number of times devices dropped off 4G coverage is not encouraging for these future usecases which depend on constant and reliable connectivity.

These are questions which are perhaps being addressed elsewhere but not directly in the UK. How quickly is the network growing? Are network densification strategies advancing as quickly as other nations who are driving towards the 5G promise?

Business Secretary Greg Clark has stated the UK has ambitions to lead in the CAVs segment, but to do this the right connectivity conditions need to be in place. It does not appear the network has been rolled out far or densified enough to meet the demands of this emerging segment, whenever it appears.

Satellite is often seen as the ugly duckling in the connectivity mix. It is often considered as an option for the developing nations, and largely overlooked for those who can afford to build connectivity closer to the ground. However, digital divides exist all around the world, albeit nowhere near as extreme or consequential as regions such as Africa. If there are ‘not spot’s, or even areas of weak/patchy signal, some 5G usecases are undermined. CAVs is one of them.

Attitudes towards satellite connectivity have been shifting over the last 12 months, and it does appear to be increasingly becoming an important ingredient in the connectivity recipe. The UK network is evolving and improving, but it is far from perfect; satellites look an asset which are becoming more of a necessity than back-up.