A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


GSMA cosies up to O-RAN Alliance

The GSMA, the telco industry lobby group, has announced a new partnership with the O-RAN Alliance to accelerate the adoption of Open Radio Access Network (RAN) technologies.

Full story here


Europe backtracks on market consolidation opposition

The General Court of the European Court of Justice has annulled a decision made in 2016 to block the merger between O2 and Three in the UK, potentially opening the door for consolidation.

Full story here


Huawei CFO loses first legal battle in extradition case

Huawei CFO Wanzhou Meng, the daughter of Ren Zhengfei, has lost her first legal battle in Canada and will now have to face an extradition case.

Full story here


Data privacy is in the same position as cybersecurity five years ago

It has taken years for the technology and telecoms industry to take security seriously, and now we are at the beginning of the same story arc with privacy.

Full story here


Indian telco association pushes for ‘floor tariffs’ on data pricing

In an open letter to India’s telecoms regulator, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has pressed for quicker decision making on pricing restriction rules.

Full story here


UK’s National Cyber Security Centre launches another Huawei probe

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has confirmed it is attempting to understand what impact potential US sanction directed towards Huawei would have on UK networks.

Full story here


 

US consumers don’t feel there are benefits to data-sharing economy

Only 7.6% of US consumers feel they get the benefits of user tracking behavioural data, as research demonstrates pessimism towards the digital economy.

The reason companies want to track existing or potential customers, while also collecting insight on these individuals, is simple; it is simpler to sell goods and services to someone you know more about. But, in order to do something for free, you have to offer a benefit. This equation does not seem to be balanced currently.

Research from AI firm Cujo suggest 64.2% of the surveyed consumers do not believe tracking is beneficial to the user, while only 28.2% said it could be. A meagre 7.6% believe they get the benefits of tracking.

If users do not see the benefits of tracking and personalisation, there will be resistance and push-back against these practices. Data and insight is being touted as a central cog of new business models, but these strategies will fail if the consumer is not brought forward on the same mission.

Sentiment is clearly moving against data collection, so much so that 61.9% of respondents to the survey would be happy to be tracked less even if personalization was affected.

The question is what service is being provided by tracking users and collecting data?

Google clearly tracks users though the benefits emerge in several different ways. For example, more accurate results are shown when using the search engine, or more favourable restaurants are show on the mapping services. This is a benefit for the user, while also making money.

Netflix is another example where the benefits are clear. The recommendation engine will help customers navigate through the extensive back catalogue, theoretically, while understanding consumer behaviour will also inform decisions on what content is created in the future.

These are logical applications of data insight, something which the user can see benefits from though they might not appreciate them. However, the larger issue is with the majority who collect data but there is no obvious reason as to why or where the benefits are.

For the most part, this might be viewed as a security risk, an unnecessary ‘transaction’ to make, and considering the security credentials of the majority, the consumer is right not to place trust in these organisations.

Indian telco association pushes for ‘floor tariffs’ on data pricing

In an open letter to India’s telecoms regulator, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has pressed for quicker decision making on pricing restriction rules.

The COAI is in a very interesting position currently. As an association representing the telecoms industry, it is tasked with responsibilities to lobby government authorities for favourable rules. But the question is what are favourable rules?

The association has three core members; Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Reliance Jio. Two of these members would like more stringent rules on pricing to protect their interests from the disruptive pricing strategies of the third, Reliance Jio.

Jio entered the market at the end of 2015 with data plans to undermine the traditional telcos and free phone calls for new customers. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea suffered because of it and have been calling for more stringent rules to prevent the disruptive Jio from causing even more chaos and continuing to erode profits.

This is a painful position for a telco-neutral association to be in, though it is in favour of floor pricing.

“We expected an early decision by the Authority, on having the Floor Tariffs for the Data services,” Rajan Mathews, Director General of the COAI said in the letter to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

“While, we acknowledge that the recent situation on account of COVID-19 might have caused some constraints, however the Authority has started conducting the OHD through online process on various other topics. Accordingly, we request the Authority to kindly hold an OHD on this issue at the earliest.

“The industry is looking forward to an early conclusion on this important matter with great interest and we therefore request the Authority for an early decision on the same.”

The longer this consultation from the TRAI continues, uncertainty prevails. Uncertainty is the enemy of progress and investment in the telecoms industry. A speedy decision would be the biggest net gain for the industry, though it is questionable whether anything can be done quickly in the telecoms industry.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Should privacy rules be re-evaluated in light of a new type of society?

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China deliberates privacy law in the midst of increased state surveillance

China’s parliament has said it will legislate on privacy protection, while the state has vastly increased surveillance since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislature, is back in session after being delayed by two months by COVID-19. In his work report, the Chairman of the People’s Congress’s Standing Committee singled out three pieces of legislation related to state security and society control as priority tasks in the immediate future. Privacy protection is one of them, the other two being laws on data security and biosecurity, according to the reporting by People’s Daily, one of China’s main propaganda outlets.

This does not come as a complete surprise. At the end of last year, the People’s Congress announced at a press conference that a comprehensive privacy law would go through the legislation process in 2020. So far China’s privacy protection legislation is dispersed in different criminal, civil, and commercial laws and it often replies on the interpretation of judges when it comes to specific litigations. This gives those organisations, businesses, and individuals that have almost unbridled access to personal and private data an almost free hand to determine how to use the data. A group of consumers in China actually lost their case against Amazon when their privacy data on the e-commerce giant’s China site was comprised, which led to their losing large amount of money to phishing schemes.

Tencent and Alibaba have deployed facial recognition solutions at retail outlets where users of their online payment systems can pay for their purchases by looking at the camera at the check-out point. It is true that such solutions are both convenient and adding fun to the shopping experience, and it may also be true that the attitudes towards privacy in China are different from that in Europe. “In China, and across Asia, data is not seen as something to be locked down, it’s something that can be used,” according to a Hong Kong-based lawyer.

More recently, while the country was combating COVID-19, various tracing applications have been developed and deployed using personal data including name, date of birth, physical address, ID number, geo location records, and the like. Some of these apps have been jointly developed by commercial entities and public authorities and law enforcement agencies. Some people have raised concern that when the emergency is over, who and for how long such sensitive data should still be kept.

Probably more important is the scope of application of the impending law. The discussion on China’s official media is all about how to protect private data from being misused or abused by businesses, in particular the internet companies that have both access to the data and the technologies to benefit from it. It cannot help but giving the impression that the law is designed to primarily keep big businesses in check, without tying the government’s hands.

While the state legislature announced the new law being codified, China has vastly increased surveillance over its people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reuters reported that the country has seen “hundreds of millions of cameras in public places” being set up in cities and villages, as well as “increasing use of techniques such as smartphone monitoring and facial recognition.” The authorities have successfully located people infected by COVID-19 with surveillance images and facial recognition technologies, state media reported.

However, despite all the talking about AI, big data, and facial recognition, surveillance in China is still largely done by human beings constantly watching surveillance camera footages on screen and smartphone, which doesn’t come cheap. 4,400 cameras were installed in a village in Hubei, the province where COVID-19 first started, costing $5.6 million, according to the Reuters report.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Should privacy rules be re-evaluated in light of a new type of society?

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Lockdown Britain sitting on top of 165 million gigabytes of unused data

Being cooped up inside for seven weeks straight has resulted in a treasure trove of unused mobile data, valued in the region of £165 million.

According to data from Uswitch.com, the average Brit is using 1.9 GB of data a month, compared to 2.4 GB in February, before the full impact of the COVID-19 lockdown set in. Thanks to customers being restricted to their homes, wifi routers and home fixed broadband networks are getting a workout, while the mobile networks are more relaxed.

Data usage for essential workers has increased by 11% when comparing the two period, but this does not compensate for the 21% drop-off from non-essential workers. The data is being paid for, but currently going unused.

“We have mobile deals set up to accommodate browsing on the go – but since so many of us are homebound and relying on Wi-Fi to stay connected, we’re simply not burning through our data allowances in the same way,” said Ru Bhihka of Uswitch.com.

“Many consumers would like to see this data rolled over to when they have more use for it, and it’s great to see some providers like Sky Mobile already doing that.”

What to consumers want to happen to leftover data?
Rolled over to next month 38%
Refunded 22%
Donated to essential workers 11%
Donated to charity 8%

Sky is one company which allows data to be rolled over to the next month, though this was a feature which was already in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Virgin Media is another which offers this feature, while others offer it on very specific deals. O2 allows customers to rollover data which is purchased as a bolt-on, while Vodafone offers the feature on its Big Value bundle for Pay as You Go customers.

Uswitch.com estimates unused data costs UK customers £50 million a year in overpayments, while the major providers still operate a ‘use it or lose it’ arrangement for the vast majority of products.

Overall, postpaid customers are most likely experiencing a net gain for the price of data when you consider trends and data bundles over prior years, but that will not stop some feeling cheated by the telcos today.

What should be worth noting is that there are numerous initiatives from the telcos to assist various segments of society through this period. Vodafone and EE, for instance, are offering free unlimited data upgrades for customers who are essential workers, while all fixed broadband companies have lifted data caps on services.

Cost of data in China drops 93% as US still looks overly expensive

China telcos have slashed the average price of data over the last twelve months, though the US, South Korea, New Zealand and Canada are still look incredibly expensive.

While there is no perfect price for data tariffs as the nuances of each market vary quite considerably, looking at the data provided by Cable.co.uk, it is becoming clear that some markets are better at managing the cost of connectivity than others.

It is always worth remembering that despite telcos stating they would like to give consumers as much as possible, they will charge as much as deemed tolerable for wallets. Consumers are only valuable to telcos when they pay enough money.

Average Price per GB – select countries (USD, $)
Country Global ranking Price per GB Year-on-year
India 1 0.09 -65.4%
Italy 4 0.43 -52.3%
China 12 0.61 -93.9%
Australia 16 0.68 -62.5%
France 30 0.81 -62.9%
Thailand 51 1.23 -55.8%
UK 59 1.39 -79.1%
Spain 75 1.81 -52.2%
New Zealand 180 6.06 -38.2%
USA 188 8.00 -35.4%
South Korea 202 10.94 -27.7
Canada 209 12.55 +4.3%
Cuba 212 13.33 +5.7%

Source: Cable.co.uk

“Many of the cheapest countries in which to buy mobile data fall roughly into one of two categories,” said Dan Howdle of Cable.co.uk.

“Some have excellent mobile and fixed broadband infrastructure and so providers are able to offer large amounts of data, which brings down the price per gigabyte. Others with less advanced broadband networks are heavily reliant on mobile data and the economy dictates that prices must be low, as that’s what people can afford.

“At the more expensive end of the list, we have countries where often the infrastructure isn’t great but also where consumption is very small.”

This explanation from Howdle is reasonable, but it begs the question as to why some countries are at the north end of the scale, the US, Canada and South Korea for example.

The US is of course a significantly larger country than some which are further up on the list, but the small number of major MNOs allow for scaled economics with larger subscriber bases. Canada is a very large country, but the population is concentrated into smaller regions. South Korea is another unusual one, considering roughly 20% of the population is located in the capital, Seoul.

There will of course be numerous explanations and incremental contributing factors, such as wealth of the nation or cost of spectrum licenses, but then again there will also be nations with similar demands who are offering significantly cheaper data.

One reason data is more expensive in some places might simply be because these telcos are able to charge more. In the absence of a rival offering a disruptive pricing plan to bring down the cost of data, the telcos will charge as much as they can to be as profitable as possible.

Vodafone says upstream broadband data flows have doubled in some markets

Operator group Vodafone has shared an update on changes to activity across its European networks coz of Coronavirus.

Apparently a fifth of global internet traffic goes over Vodafone’s networks, so it has a fairly comprehensive view of what’s going on in certain regions. Principal among those is Europe and Vodafone says mobile data usage has increased by 15% on average across the continent. The more advanced the pandemic is, the more mobile data use has increased, so Italy and Spain are the main drivers of that increase.

A similar, but more exaggerated, pattern applies to fixed-line broadband, with Italy and Spain showing a 50% increase in usage. While streaming video will account for a lot of that, the most extreme changes have been caused by video conferencing, which is why upstream (originating from the user) data has increased by 100% in some markets.

“The biggest user of bandwidth on our networks is still the streaming of TV, film and games. Streaming traffic has increased by 40% on mobile and 50% on fixed broadband across European networks as a whole,” blogged Johan Wibergh, Vodafone group CTO. “Gaming traffic alone has increased twofold on mobile and nearly threefold on fixed broadband.

“This has put our mobile and fixed networks under strong pressure with evening peaks for mobile increasing by 20% in countries like Italy and Spain and fixed broadband traffic by around 35% in those countries, putting them near capacity during some parts of the evening. We have therefore brought forward planned upgrades to add four Terabits per second of additional capacity to our networks during March and April.”

Vodafone’s metrics tally with those published recently by Nokia. Operators and networking vendors alike are keen to stress how on top of the unique circumstances they are, but then again would they be blogging about it if they weren’t? Having said that there have been few reports of network problems that we’re aware of and our evening viewing of Tiger King yesterday went without a hitch, so what more could you ask for?

European Data Protection Supervisor: Data sharing to combat COVID-19 is legit

After suggestions there might be some suspect data sharing going on to combat the coronavirus outbreak, the European Data Protection Supervisor has said it is within the rules.

The European Commission’s Internal Market chief Thierry Breton has been one of the busier bureaucrats in recent times. Last week, Breton’s calendar showed meetings with Walt Disney, Netflix and Google to ‘preserve the smooth functioning of the internet’, and this week it appears the telcos are on the speed-dial.

This week, meetings with the major European telcos have been on the agenda to discuss ways and means to which data can be used to combat COVID-19. The collection and analysis of anonymised and aggregated geo-location data is one proposed initiative which the telcos can help with.

There might be some concerns about the legality of the proposed ideas, though European Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski has attempted to calm fears.

“Firstly, let me underline that data protection rules currently in force in Europe are flexible enough to allow for various measures taken in the fight against pandemics,” Wiewiórowski said in an open letter to Roberto Viola, Director-General of DG CNECT.

“I am aware of the discussions taking place in some Member States with telecommunications providers with the objective of using such data to track the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

While previous generations have had to go by educated assumptions to combat the spread of such pandemics, today data us one of the most valuable tools. Insight on how citizens are moving around the country can inform on the success of self-isolation demands or give clues as to where perhaps the next viral hotspot would be. Information is critical in creating the most effective response to a pandemic which caught the world by surprise.

However, the presence of coronavirus does not give authorities a blank cheque to do whatever they please; rules and regulations to protect the interest of the citizen and mitigate the risk of abuse have to be adhered to.

Sophie in’t Veld, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament, is one such person to have raised concerns.

Writing to Internal Market chief Thierry Breton, in’t Veld wanted reassurances to ensure data would be and remain anonymised, including asking how this would be done, whether the European Data Protection Supervisor has been consulted for an opinion and how the Commission will respond to academic criticism that the collection of geo-location data will not offer benefits as it is not specific enough.

Breton responded to the letter from in’t Veld in satisfactory fashion, but also added that all data collected during this initiative would be deleted once the COVID-19 outbreak is in the past. Adding to Breton’s reassurances, the opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor further validates the actions from authorities.

In the opinion, European Data Protection Supervisor Wiewiórowski states:

  • Effectively anonymised data fall outside of the scope of data protection rules, assuming the protections applied are resilient enough
  • Should third parties be used for the purposes of collection or analysis, the Commission should ensure appropriate protections are applied
  • Data obtained should be deleted as soon as the current emergency comes to an end

Should the conditions mentioned above be met, Wiewiórowski believes the European Commission should be able to act within the boundaries of data protection rules and regulations.

What should be taken into account is whether such processes are deemed legitimate with other laws.

“The data is anonymised so its use is in compliance with UK and EU data privacy laws, but it may still be an infringement of the human right to privacy under the Human Rights Act,” said Toni Vitale, Partner and Head of Data Protection at JMW Solicitors.

“A lot depends on how the data is used.  If it is limited to creating heat maps showing where people are congregating, that might be OK. Some shopping centres already do this to show where shoppers are. This is useful to plan exits, where the cafes should be placed etc. Location data is commonly scraped from mobiles without users being aware.”

Little attention has been paid to whether the collection of personal information on this scale is a violation of the Human Rights Act, though one would hope the appropriate protections have been put in place. Data could hold the key to mitigate the worst impacts of COVID-19, so the European Commission should be applauded with its attempts to be as informed as possible.

Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee is on a hiring spree

Inrupt, the disruptive internet start-up founded by Tom Berners-Lee, has announced it is expanding its operational team as it pursues the redistribution of power in the internet era.

After inventing the world wide web in 1991, Berners-Lee (pictured) has been on somewhat of a crusade in recent years, heavily criticising the corporate nature of an invention which was intended to empower society. Inrupt is Berners-Lee’s answer to the unsatisfactory position.

“I’ve always believed the web is for everyone,” Berners-Lee said when launching the business. “That’s why I and others fight fiercely to protect it.

“The changes we’ve managed to bring have created a better and more connected world. But for all the good we’ve achieved, the web has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agendas.”

With the creation of an open-source project known as Solid, the Inrupt team hope to give the user a choice about where data is stored, who can access this information and what applications are used. The objective is to give the user the defining voice in how data is used, and in turn, eroding the power and influence of the corporations who have benefitted so greatly from the rise of the internet.

With Inrupt providing commercial energy and an ecosystem to help develop Solid, Berners-Lee has now announced a string of new hires to help drive the company forward.

Bruce Schneier has joined as Chief of Security Architecture, while Davi Ottenheimer has been appointed as VP of Trust and Digital Ethics. Osmar Olivo and Emmet Townsend will act as the VP’s of Product and Engineering respectively, adding a significant amount of weight to the operational team.

“Joining Inrupt is one of those rare opportunities to build something that will change the everyday lives of billions of people,” said Olivo. “The world is changing, and existing technologies aren’t designed to solve these kinds of problems. Everyone else is retrofitting for a safer world, Inrupt is building one.”

While the objectives of Inrupt might be considered aggressive by some in the industry, there is certainly some interest in the work. Glasswing Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in Massachusetts, has invested in Inrupt, while the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is working alongside Inrupt to create an ‘Early Years’ app that digitises the paper-based assessments currently used to review a child’s development up to the age of 2.5 years.

Inrupt certainly has the cash and the PR potential to make a dent in the technology status quo, and now it seems to have the muscle with these new employees. The issue which remains is whether this project can make the transition from an academic dream through to a commercial reality.

This is where critics have focused their attention to date. Berners-Lee’s criticism of the status quo is of course very timely, GDPR and California’s privacy laws pay homage to the same issues, but the question is whether an idea which could be viewed as revolutionary gains traction in the real world. Universities are full of blue-sky thinking innovators who have an idea which can change the course of history, but the truth is few are designed to accommodate the nuances of reality. Only time will tell to which column Inrupt falls into.

MyData signs on first Finnish operator as battle for consumer data rights rages

MyData is not a company which many would have heard of, but it is one everyone should start to take notice of.

The concept of MyData is quite simple. This is a non-profit organisation which acts as the middle-man to collect and manage consumer’s personal information and data. It is a single point of contact where a consumer can manage the flow, depth and breadth of personal data which is flowing across the digital world.

Companies who are betting big on the data-driven world of tomorrow will not like organisation like MyData. This is an organisation which aims to take control of the data-driven digital world, and hand it to the consumer.

This might sound like blue-sky-thinking, but in signing-up Finland’s first operator, Vastuu Group, the idea is starting to spread.

“In today’s data-driven world it is important that the use of personal information is fluent and human-centric,” said Vastuu Group’s Deputy CEO Mika Huhtamäki. “Vastuu Group is a founding member of MyData Global network. We want to build co-operation between different MyData operators and enhance sustainable data-based business.”

For the consumer, this is a very interesting and beneficial idea.

As it stands, the world is not educated on the dangers of the internet. There are still a vast number of unknowns, both in terms of how users could endanger themselves and what the consequence of lost/stolen/copied personal data actually is. Because of these unknowns, few people are appropriately guarded when engaging with the digital economy.

For example, your correspondent has recently downloaded an app called ‘WalkIn’, which allows the user to digitally stand in the queue at restaurants which do not allow bookings. It is a very good idea, though only when researching this article did your correspondent dig into the terms and conditions to understand where the collected personal information was heading and what it was being used for.

In this example, there was little consequence. WalkIn Limited is a company run out of Manchester, and while it collects far more information than necessary for the app to perform effectively, it does not look to be engaging in any nefarious data sharing practises (although this is very difficult to judge on the surface).

This illustrates a point. How many applications have been downloaded by an individual without checking into who the developer is, what information is being collected and where it eventually ends up? We suspect 99.99% of downloads (if not more) would fall into this category.

Firstly, the user is not aware of breadth, depth and type of personal information which is being handed over. And secondly, as few people could remember every single app they have ever downloaded, tracing this information down to understand the consequences will be incredibly difficult.

With companies like Vastuu acting as guardians of personal information for the consumer, it is a logical step to improve the safety of the internet and the digital economy. With the creation of a new business model, “Authorisation as a Service”, companies like Vastuu will be a central point for that consumer, allowing data to be tracked and for the companies who want to make use of it, to be held accountable.

Theoretically, this is an attractive proposition for the health of the digital consumer, but for it to work, the developer community will also need to be engaged. This might be a bit trickier.

Data-driven technology companies are difficult beasts to pin down, especially those in the app economy. Few people would recognise the name of developer organisations, but these companies control the personal information of unknown numbers of people. Such is the embryonic stage of regulating the digital economy, the concept of auditing and reporting on personal information which is being held is almost non-existent. These companies have to prove they are safe-guarding it properly, but few people peer inside the walled gardens.

This dynamic is largely by design. Facebook builds incredibly detailed profiles on its users to serve the advertiser, and it is not alone here. Sky in the UK has a platform called AdSmart which allows you to target adult women, with two children, living in a south-east London, second-time mortgaged semi-detached home with a two-year old BMW in the drive. Other developers sell information onto parties where ambitions are a bit more nefarious than promoting the latest lipstick shade.

In any case, sceptics and critics of the current digital economy will suggest these companies want to muddy the waters as some consumers might retaliate and refuse to engage when the curtain is drawn back on the data wizard. There is probably an element of truth to this, which perhaps explains why a data-intermediators like MyData are not commonplace today.

MyData is an organisation which has the power to do immense good in the digital economy, but it will not be a simple path to success.