Vodafone and EE 5G tariffs point towards a new form of digital divide

If the technology industry wants 5G to change the world, placing prohibitive pricing on data tariffs is a strange way to go about it.

The count-down clock to 5G is heading towards the small numbers, and now Vodafone customers will be able to pre-order 5G-ready devices and decide on what tariffs they are able to afford. Unfortunately for some, the prices might prove to be too much of a premium for wallets to stomach.

Devices and various different tariffs are now available for pre-order through the Vodafone website.

Tariff Samsung Galaxy S10 5G Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G
5 GB Red Extra £149 upfront, £58 monthly £99 upfront, £50 monthly
15 GB Red Extra £99 upfront, £62 monthly £99 upfront, £54 monthly
30 GB Red Extra £49 upfront, £66 monthly £49 upfront, £58 monthly
60 GB Red Extra £49 upfront, £70 monthly £49 upfront, £62 monthly
25 GB Red Entertainment £99 upfront, £69 monthly £49 upfront, £61 monthly
50 GB Red Entertainment £49 upfront, £73 monthly £49 upfront, £65 monthly
100 GB Red Entertainment £49 upfront, £77 monthly £49 upfront, £69 monthly

All contracts set at 24 months

What is missing from the above table is a nod to Huawei. Vodafone has hit the pause button on devices from the under-fire Chinese brand. As with EE, Huawei’s 5G phone will not be sold through the Vodafone website for pre-order. It would appear this will be the case until the difficulties with the operating system and ecosystem are ironed out.

Despite these complications, the prices are what the prices are.

“Given its high-profile battle with EE to lead in 5G, I expected Vodafone’s initial tariffs to be punchier,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “The entry £50 offer includes just 5 GB of data; on a 5G network, customers could quickly burn through that.”

Mann is absolutely correct; 5 GB will not last long given the promise of the 5G ecosystem and the usecases envisioned. However, upgrading to bulkier tariffs is perhaps cost prohibitive, potentially creating a new digital divide.

As it stands, the price is prohibitive for some. £52 as a starting point is a high barrier to entry. It seems only the privileged will be comfortable with spending so much on a connectivity contract, creating a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ and another potential digital divide.

Although there have been promises 5G tariffs will be priced on similar levels to 4G, the premium should come as little surprise. People will be prepared to pay for bragging rights.

It should also be noted EE has priced the connectivity options at the same levels. Vodafone have slightly undercut EE for 5G tariffs, but not by much. This is perhaps a situation which we should have expected. Until all four MNOs are on the market with a 5G proposition, threatening to steal valuable postpaid subscriptions, the price will remain lofty.

Tariff OnePlus 7 Pro 5G Samsung Galaxy S10 5G Oppo Reno 5G
30 GB, one swappable £64 a month, £50 upfront £74 a month, £10 upfront £59 a month, £50 upfront
30 GB, two swappables £69 a month, £50 upfront £79 a month, £10 upfront £69 a month, £50 upfront
60 GB, two swappables £74 a month, £30 upfront £84 a month, £10 upfront £69 a month, £30 upfront
60 GB, one swappable £69 a month, £30 upfront £79 a month, £10 upfront £69 a month, £30 upfront
120 GB, three swappables £79 a month, £10 upfront £89 a month, £10 upfront £74 a month, £10 upfront
100 GB, two swappables £74 a month, £10 upfront £84 a month, £10 upfront £69 a month, £10 upfront
10 GB, two swappables £59 a month, £170 upfront £69 a month, £130 upfront £54 a month, £170 upfront
10 GB, one swappable £59 a month, £70 upfront £69 a month, £30 upfront £54 a month, £70 upfront
10 GB, two swappables £64 a month, £70 upfront £74 a month, £30 upfront £59 a month, £70 upfront

All contract set at 24 months

As you can see, the prices are not consistent with the overall rhetoric of the industry. For many years, the industry has preached of democratizing connectivity, while 5G was supposed to be a technology which benefitted the masses.

At the moment, the risk of a digital divide is very apparent. The rich will get the benefits while the poor remain in the 4G-era. While the genuine 5G usecases are yet to emerge, this is not necessarily an issue. 5G offers little more than increased speeds right now, a premium which isn’t really needed with the applications and services which are currently on the market.

Over the next 6-12 months, Three and O2 will enter the fray with their own networks. This should cause the price of 5G connectivity to tumble. Hopefully at least, as the current state-of-play is a connectivity world which has been designed for the privileged.

BT’s rural position is nothing more than defensive strategy

BT has unveiled its own proposals to bridge the rural divide, but this strategy is just as much about protecting its own attractive position as it is connecting the unconnected.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph earlier this week, BT’s consumer CEO Marc Allera outlined the vision for a digital society where everyone reaps the benefits. BT is proposing infrastructure tit-for-tat in the regions where there is coverage from at least one of the UK MNOs, and a more simplistic infrastructure sharing proposal in the genuine not-spots.

Both ideas are completely reasonable, and both are geared towards protecting a competitive edge for BT, created through years of mobile infrastructure expansion.

Although there are arguments that rural roaming or network sharing propositions would slow down investment and the rollout of mobile infrastructure, following the money is perhaps a better means to understand BT’s underlying strategy. With every change made in the telco landscape, there is financial gain and loss. When BT proposes an idea, you must question what the financial gain or loss is.

The reason Allera is making noise through the mainstream press right now is due to the negative PR the company attracted a couple of weeks back. O2, Vodafone and Three proposed an infrastructure sharing initiative, which was promptly rejected by BT, painting the picture of a spoilt child having a hissy fit because he has been told to share his favourite toy train. However, when you delve into the details, you see BT’s rejection was a sound commercial decision.

In short, the trio of competitors proposed opening-up current mobile infrastructure, forcing any mast owners to allow competitors to place radio equipment on the structure in areas which have been deemed underserved. This sounds fantastic for the consumer and the Government’s ambition of 95% geographical 4G coverage by 2022, but it effectively erodes the position BT/EE has spent years attempting to craft.

BT/EE has the best mobile coverage throughout the UK. This is not only average speed, but geographical spread. Some might dispute this point, but year after year test from the likes of Opensignal and Ookla crown EE the champion. This has allowed it to tell customers they will be able to get fantastic signal almost everywhere in the UK, an advantage over rival MNOs.

The cost when it comes to expanding 4G coverage is not necessarily anything to do with the radio equipment, but everything else. Acquiring the land, negotiating local planning laws, constructing the site, wiring it up with fibre and electricity, the raw materials and the man power, all add up to make an expensive proposition. It’s no wonder telcos want to open competitor’s masts as opposed to building it themselves. It’s much faster and significantly cheaper to simply pay an engineer to fix radio equipment to an existing mast.

Should the trio’s proposal of collaboration be accepted, this would effectively kill this advantage and completely undermine a long-term commercial strategy. No competent business person would agree to such an initiative, especially considering how much it would have cost.

Now take into consideration the BT alternative.

Firstly, in the areas where there is only one telco present, BT would allow one of its rivals to use its infrastructure, but only if the competitor opens one of its own masts to BT. This creates the collaborative framework legislators and regulators are keen to see but protects BT’s competitive edge, and prior investments, and allows it to enhance its own coverage footprint. Yes, it does help a rival, but the pros outweigh (or at least equal) the cons, and it doesn’t allow competitors to bypass the process BT/EE would have painfully gone through in the past.

This would be the idea for areas where there is a telco present, but for the genuine not spots, where none of the MNOs can provide service, a more straightforward infrastructure sharing agreement can be created. All four would contribute to a pot and all would be free to put whatever radio equipment on the mast.

This does not necessarily encourage competition, but these not spots offer very little commercial potential to anyone. Extending coverage to these areas is not about providing a service to customers but meeting the coverage expectations of the Government. Sheep don’t pay phone bills after all, but occasionally a rambler might want to Instagram said sheep.

While this might not sound like the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric which has been banded around, realistically this very few people would think contrary to this position. These are commercial businesses which are in place to compete with rivals and make money. BT might be spinning their argument to suggest such collaborative schemes would slow down infrastructure rollout, but 99% of decisions in big business always come down to money.

Why would BT want to help its competitors compete in a market which is incredibly difficult to find profits in the first place?

Farmers lobby group pushes for rural roaming

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has urged the UK Government and industry to push for a rural roaming mechanism to improve 4G coverage and close the digital divide.

While it might sound like a good idea to bridge the economic and societal chasm created by the digital divide, it is immensely unpopular when you talk to most of the operators. It would, theoretically, improve coverage across the rural communities of the UK, though telcos have suggested it would stifle investment and deployment plans.

“Since 2002 the CLA has been campaigning for a universal pledge on digital connectivity and we’re delighted to finally see this on broadband,” said CLA Deputy President Mark Bridgeman. “While we need to wait to see how this is met, great strides have been taken towards unlocking the potential of the rural economy.

“We need to learn the lessons from the successes with broadband where government and stakeholder consensus, as well as leadership by the regulator, achieved real wins for those who live or work in the countryside. There is no reason why a similar approach should not be applied to rural 4G, starting with forcing mobile operators to adopt rural roaming.”

The idea of rural roaming is a relatively simple one; subscribers would be able to use available 4G networks irrelevant of their own provider. This effectively means telcos would have to carry rival’s traffic without seeing any monetary gain for the effort.

The telcos themselves, or at least some of them, argue the idea of rural roaming would be a negative for network investment. A situation could be created where all the telcos are sitting on the starting line, each waiting for a competitor to make a move. Such is the pressure on CAPEX budgets, no-one would want to waste a penny, and why splash out on expensive infrastructure when you can just benefit from a competitor’s expenditure.

The CLA is not an organization which will care about the financial plight of the telcos, this is a lobby group which represents rural businesses and landowners, therefore this argument will be a moot point. That said, the Government will certainly be sensitive to the investment capabilities and ambitions of the telcos, especially considering the importance this segment will play in the future success of the economy.

In an effort to counter the rural roaming plug, the industry has reportedly offered an alternative. Using Ofcom as an independent adjudicator, a marketplace will be set-up allowing the telcos to trade physical assets. If O2, for example, want to put radio equipment on an EE mast, EE must be offered the same privilege in an area of interest as payment.

The argument from the telcos will be this does not ‘penalise’ proactive deployment, creating more value in rolling out infrastructure, whilst also creating the collaborative industry which the Government is keen to foster.

Should the Government want to pursue rural roaming, the telcos will have to be dragged into the room shouting and screaming. This does not seem to be the best approach to encourage investment, and we suspect a scheme more closely aligned to telcos alternative will bear fruit.

T-Mobile uses FWA and digital divide as latest Sprint merger justification

T-Mobile US has announced the launch of an LTE Fixed Wireless Access service, which could address the connectivity needs of 50 million people, assuming the Sprint merger is approved of course.

It hasn’t been billed as an Uncarrier move from T-Mobile, however it has the potential to be quite disruptive. The team has pointed to statistics which suggest 61% of rural customers either have no or only one home broadband services available to them, offering a significant opportunity for CEO John Legere and his magenta army, if they can prove the concept works effectively.

In the first instance, T-Mobile plans to invite 50,000 customers to participate in the live trial, though should the bureaucrats approve the Sprint merger, the team would be able to open this up to 9.5 million customers by 2024. And thanks to 5G, T-Mobile is promising speeds “in excess” of 100 Mbps to 90% of the forecasted FWA footprint, also by 2024.

“Two weeks ago, I laid out our plans for home broadband with the New T-Mobile,” said Legere. “Now, we’re already hard at work building toward that future. We’re walking the walk and laying the foundation for a world where we can take the fight to Big Cable on behalf of consumers and offer real choice, competition and savings to Americans nationwide.”

Although FWA is not a long-term, realistic alternative to fibre, at least not on the current airwaves, T-Mobile could certainly craft a useful position here. Pricing the service at $50 per month, the team suggests customers could save $360 per year, assuming the average monthly cost of home broadband is $80.

For T-Mobile this is perfect timing to plug the benefits of the Sprint merger and gain the interest of influential politicians. With the 2020 Presidential Election machine beginning to crank into first gear, potential candidates and the President himself will be looking for soundbites to rollout to the Middle America rallies. The FWA service ticks two boxes here.

Firstly, with so many rural consumers (and potential voters) either unable to purchase a home broadband service, or only having a single option, T-Mobile is providing an answer. In most cases, the reason home broadband is not available is due to an inability for the telco to prove ROI or the geographical landscape makes it incredibly difficult. FWA addresses these problems.

Secondly, $360 is a lot of money. T-Mobile has a track record of undercutting rivals while delivering a service which is at least on par. This might well be an offering which will attract the interest of many.

Should any politician be involved in forcing the T-Mobile and Sprint merger through, it would be an excellent anecdote for the ambitious politicians to take to potential voters. Not only are they delivering Middle America the internet, they are doing it cheaper than what is available to everyone else around the country.

T-Mobile is promising the merged company will use a low-cost structure to aggressively capture market share by undercutting rivals. This strategy is not only a chance for Legere to further irritate AT&T and Verizon, but it is a massive plug for the merger. In an FCC document, T-Mobile suggests by “monetizing available spectrum and leveraging off of other deployed network assets, the in-home service will be profitable on its own”. The underlying message is quite clear; look what we can do once you greenlight the merger.

Interestingly enough, T-Mobile seems to be fighting the competition concerns in the wireless market, with the opportunity to enhance competition in the wireline market. Soon enough, the merger judges will have to decide what is more important; maintaining the four MNO balance or creating more competition in the home broadband arena.

“These pro-competitive and pro-consumer in-home broadband benefits are clearly merger-specific, verifiable, and compelling considerations to inform the Commission’s overall review of the merger’s effects on competition and the public interest,” the statement to the FCC reads.

Another point which will gain the attention of the pro-consumer politicians and bureaucrats is the promise of free hardware. T-Mobile is promising the LTE router will be provided and installed at no-cost to the consumer, and as soon as 5G is available in the area, the upgraded 5G router will be provided free of charge.

The merger is still hanging in the balance, but the promise of increased competition in the broadband world, especially with the prospect of a race to the bottom, might turn some heads. The pros and cons of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger are starting to become very interesting

BT shared rural network snub is not as it seems

Everyone agrees that there needs to be some sort of collaboration to meet the extra-ordinarily difficult coverage objectives of the Government, but BT is snubbing rivals’ latest plans?

According to The Times, O2, Vodafone and Three have tabled a plan which would see all four of the UK MNOs pool resources to tackle the digital divide. Shared infrastructure would reduce the financial burden of investing in geographical regions which offer little potential for ROI, due to the sparse or non-existent population.

At a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty laid out the concerns in a relatively simple fashion; sheep don’t pay phone bills. This is the challenge the telcos are currently facing; the vast majority of the UK’s population have coverage, but geographical demands of the government are a different kettle of fish (or herd of sheep). When no-one lives somewhere, what is the incentive to invest in infrastructure to provide coverage?

While this might seem like a reasonable approach, BT is reportedly taking issue with the plan, at least according to The Times.

“BT has already invested heavily to create the widest 4G coverage in the UK, and we are keen to collaborate with Government and industry to extend rural coverage into areas where there is none today,” BT said in a statement. “To this end, we have recently proposed a new model for consideration over the coming weeks.”

It has been widely reported BT is snapping the olive branch put on the table from rivals, but BT suggests this is just PR spin.

Reading into this statement, BT is not objecting to the idea of collaboration, the spin which has seemingly been played over the last few days, but suggesting a different approach. And from our perspective, it is a completely reasonable objection to make.

When you look at different coverage surveys and 4G connectivity analysis reports, EE is regularly crowned the best performer overall, and takes top-spot for most of the regional measurements as well. There is a simple reason for this; EE has spent more money improving its geographical coverage than its competitors.

While this is an achievement which should be applauded, the idea of rural roaming and generic shared infrastructure would erode this competitive advantage which it has been building towards. Don’t forget, EE has not been building out this 4G network because it is run by people who are just nice guys and want to help everyone in the UK. This investment has been made to give the team something to shout about and create an advantage when attempting to secure more customers.

EE wants to be able to go to potential customers and tell them they won’t only have better signal in all the normal places, but everywhere they could possible think of going. It’s a long-term strategic decision to put it in a stronger position than its rivals. Should there be any surprise EE does not want its rivals to benefit from the hard work, foresight and investments it has been making for its 4G networks?

Reading between the lines, this is what the objection is based around. BT is prepared to have discussions on collaboration to provide coverage in areas where there is none but allowing competitors to piggy back on its investments is a commercially idiotic idea. Why would it give away such a competitive edge in an industry where profits are so difficult to come by? It has made investments in commercially unattractive areas, so its rivals should have to as well.

From BT’s perspective, this is simply an attempt for rivals to increase connectivity coverage, but not having to pay for the achievement. Collaboration should be focused on areas where everyone is facing complications, not those where everyone aside from BT has an issue.

Another point to consider is whether a shared network would actually work from a differentiation perspective? The telcos are fighting for subscriptions, but if they are all using the same network in the rural markets, it becomes nothing more than a race to the bottom, eating away precious profits and marching towards utilitisation.

Finally, does such a broad-brush approach to geographical coverage actually work? Does the discussion about generic rural network sharing detract from the critical point, which should be focus on areas which have zero coverage, instead of those which have partial coverage? This is a six of one, half a dozen of the other argument, as while it sounds reasonable to concentrate on the areas which are complete data black spots, try telling that to Joe Bloggs who is potentially being screwed by only having a single provider to choose from.

This is an incredibly complicated argument, most of which has not been considered by the initial blame game which has been building over the last few days. When you take the nuances into consideration, there is no right answer, and neither are any of the suggestions wrong. In truth, something has to be prioritised, and not everyone is going to be happy with the final decision.

It might be easy to hurl blame towards BT/EE for its objection to a collaboration plan, but to do so without considering the commercial realities of the telco industry is incredibly lazy. BT/EE is objecting to this proposal, not to the idea of collaboration, but so would any other business which had built this position.

A post-Brexit Ofcom worries us – Vodafone

With the anti-China rhetoric dominating the headlines in recent months, Brexit chatter has become unfashionable. But with the deadline fast approaching, what will Ofcom look like in the future?

Speaking at a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK Chief Counsel and External Affairs Director Helen Lamprell let loose on the UK regulator. Cell tower height, rural roaming, potential reintroduction of international roaming charges, dark fibre and auction dilemmas, there seemed to be a lot of venting going on.

“The UK remains a challenging environment [regulatory], one of the most challenging in the world,” said Lamprell. “But we are seeing positive change.”

The issue which Vodafone is keeping an eye-on is Brexit. According to Lamprell, Ofcom is one of the most conservative regulators throughout the bloc, though when it is freed from the tethers of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), there is a risk it could become even more so.

There isn’t necessarily one massive bugbear from the telco, but several little aggravations which all combine to a much larger nuisance. Let’s have a look at mast height to start with.

Everyone wants signal, but no-one wants towers

As it stands, UK cell towers are limited to 25 metres in height. This obviously doesn’t take into account those masts which are placed on the top of buildings, just the actual structure itself. In most cases, this doesn’t have a massive material impact on operations, such is the population density of the UK, but when you look at countryside locations it becomes a much larger discussion.

Part of the up-coming 5G spectrum auctions will place coverage obligations on telcos. This is a reasonable request by the government, as telcos have shown they will not bridge the digital divide on their own, though as it stands 99% of the UK population is currently covered. Geographical coverage is no-where near this figure, though as there is little commercial gain from providing coverage to these remote locations, reaching the 90% objective is difficult.

One way which this could be done is by providing exemptions to the 25-metre limit in certain situations, such as the countryside, as CTO Scott Petty pointed out, for every 10-metres you go up the coverage ring is doubled.

All four of the major UK MNOs (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) are meeting with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) this afternoon, and this will be a point on the agenda. Should these exemptions be granted, it opens the door for shared infrastructure also, as the main cost of these structures is civil engineering and construction, not the equipment on the tower. Both of these developments combined would aid the telcos in reaching the geographical coverage objectives.

This brings us onto another interesting point raised by Lamprell, rural roaming.

My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long

“Rural roaming takes away our incentive to invest,” Lamprell said. “It’s a really, really dumb idea.”

Three are one of the companies pushing for rural roaming, but as the Vodafone team points out, it is the only MNO which hasn’t built out its rural infrastructure. However, should rural roaming be introduced it would cause a stalemate for investment.

As Petty points out, why would any MNO invest in its own infrastructure when it could force its way onto a competitor’s? All the telcos would be sitting on the starting line, waiting for another to twitch first, such is the pressure on the CAPEX spreadsheet column when investing in future-proofed infrastructure.

Moving onto the international roaming question, Vodafone is staying pretty agile right now. As it stands, the status quo will be maintained, though the team will react to the commercial realities of a post-Brexit landscape. Currently, as a member of the European Union, Vodafone is protected from surcharges when it comes to termination charges, though those protections will end with Brexit.

Vodafone has quite a significant European footprint, in most cases there is little to worry about, but for those territories which fall outside the Vodafone stomp, negotiations will have to take place.

There are several countries, Estonia is an example, which has higher termination rates than the UK. If the reality of a post-Brexit world is Vodafone is swallowing up too many charges from international calls/SMS/data, roaming charges might have to re-introduced in certain markets. This is all very theoretical currently however Ofcom will prevent Vodafone from replicating these charges from the European nations. Vodafone is sitting and waiting for the realities of Brexit right now, though it will not be a broad-brush approach.

“Our position today is to maintain the position we are in, but we will have to evaluate the situation at the time,” said Lamprell.

Ignore Luke, the Dark Side is great

Dark fibre. It used to be a popular conversation, but everyone seems to have forgotten about it recently.

Not Lamprell.

The focus of Ofcom over the last 12 months or so has been on opening-up ducts and poles, and while this certainly is progress, it only addresses part of the problem. Dark fibre is an aspect of the regulatory landscape which could add significant benefits to the industry but has seemingly become unfashionable.

Dark fibre, fibre cabling which is not currently being utilised by Openreach, could answer the backhaul demands of the increasingly congested networks quickly and efficiently. Mainly as it is already there. There is no need to dig up roads, apply for planning permission or procure new materials, it could be as simple as flicking a switch.

Openreach resistance and Ofcom’s aggressive focus on ducts and poles is perhaps missing a trick.

Going, going, maybe not yet

The UK is currently in somewhat of an unusual and unprecedented situation. It is one of the nations leading the world into the 5G. This is not to say it is in a podium position, but compared to the 4G era, the UK is sitting pretty.

Part of the reason for this has been early auctions to divvy up spectrum assets, however, moving forward there are some irregularities which is causing some head-scratching.

Later this year, Ofcom will kick-start another auction which will see 120 Mhz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8 GHz bands, as well as 80 MHz in the 700 MHz band go up for sale. For both Lamprell and Petty, this auction doesn’t make sense. These are two bands which will be used for different purposes (coverage and speed) so why auction them off together.

If Vodafone had known this was going to happen back in April 2018, during the first spectrum auction, it might have altered its strategy.

“We could end up with a very fragmented spectrum situation,” said Petty.

From the team’s perspective, it seems Ofcom has only just woken up to the coverage demands of the UK government, and is using this auction as a blunt tool to meet the objectives. From an engineering perspective it doesn’t seem to make much sense to Vodafone.

“We are not happy with the rules,” said Lamprell. “But it’s rare for us all [MNOs] to be happy.”

Looking good but looking suspect

The UK is currently in a good position ahead of the 5G bonanza from an engineering perspective. With test hubs being set up around the country and telcos who are acting proactively, the UK looks like an attractive environment to invest in for R&D. It is by no-means leading the global 5G race, but it is in a healthy position.

However, political and regulatory uncertainty are a threat to this perception. The activities and culture of both DCMS and Ofcom over the next couple of months will has a significant impact on the 5G fortunes of the UK, as well as the ability to attract new talent, companies and investment.

Infrastructure commission warns UK government over lacklustre ambition

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has issued a warning to the UK Government over its infrastructure ambitions, seemingly worried that Minister’s think the job is done.

“There is a real and exciting chance available to ensure the UK benefits from world-class infrastructure, particularly through the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy – a first for this country,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt.

“We cannot afford for Ministers to take their eye off the ball. With this issue at the heart of the Industrial Strategy, I would urge the Government to adopt the recommendations from our National Infrastructure Assessment, and use this to offer industry the long-term, fully-costed infrastructure plan they need.”

While various committees and departments have been readying the red-tape with reviews, assessments and consultations, Armitt fears the job is only part finished. The National Infrastructure Commission recommends infrastructure plans for the next three decades should be in place to ensure the UK is future-proofed for the digital economy, a much longer-term ambition than has been set forward by the government currently.

With the National Infrastructure Strategy set to be published over the next couple of months, we’ll get a clearer picture of the ambitions of the Government. This document has been pitched as a playbook to guarantee the economic prosperity of the UK, though it seems the NIC is worried momentum might be lost should the plans be limited to a shorter period of time.

Fibre connectivity is one area which has been mentioned by the NIC, as while there are targets from the government and Ofcom for the mid-2020s and 2033, these are relatively broad. The next stage of the plan, once 15 million homes have been ‘fibred up’, should be to extend the infrastructure into the rural communities. Unless the Government formalises this progression to the next stage, there is of course a risk of telcos going ‘off-piste’ and serving their own interests.

This scenario is perfectly understandable and perhaps the very reason the Government has to cast an eye onto the far-distant horizon. Telcos are commercial organizations after all, favouring upgrades in areas where there is a more immediate ROI. This is what created the digital divide in the first place, and without regulation to hold the telcos accountable, they will naturally favour investments in the more densely urbanised areas.

What is worth noting is that Armitt’s comments are not supposed to be a damning indictment of the progress made thus far. Steps forward to ensure UK infrastructure is in an appropriate position have been made, though the question is whether the momentum will be continued to ensure the continued success of the UK in the global economy beyond the documented stages.

To counter Armitt’s point, formulating plans for such long periods of time can create a rigid regime which does allow for reactionary measures. Who knows what the world will look like in a couple of years’ time; any plans will have to flexible enough to allow adaptability. It is a tricky equation to balance.

For anyone in the telecommunications and telco world, this is a bit of a recurring theme. Digital communications is a hot topic right now, such is the enthusiasm created by 5G, though the political interest peaks and troughs. The same political hype ramped up ahead of 3G and 4G before dying off. Soon enough another cause to champion will emerge, though should the NIC’s recommendations be taken on board, you would hope the regulatory framework has been put in place to ensure structured progression.

40 execs sign a pledge to make the internet a nice place

Industry lobby group the GSMA has launched its ‘digital declaration’, signed by executives from 40 technology firms and telcos, aiming to make the digital economy a safer place, accessible to all.

With the likes of Bharti Airtel, China Mobile, Sharp, SK Telecom and Vodafone signing the deal, the GSMA is embracing its hippy calling of peace, love and digitisation. The declaration pins the hopes and dreams of the industry onto several different principles, which theoretically should lead to a warm and embracing internet.

“Social, technological, political and economic currents are combining to create a perfect storm of disruption across all industries,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “A new form of responsible leadership is needed to successfully navigate this era.

“We are on the cusp of the 5G era, which will spark exciting new possibilities for consumers and promises to transform the shape of virtually every business. In the face of this disruption, those that embrace the principles of the Digital Declaration will strive for business success in ways that seek a better future for their consumers and societies. Those that do not change can expect to suffer increasing scrutiny from shareholders, regulators and consumers.”

Looking at the principles themselves, they are relatively simple. Respect the privacy of digital citizens; handle personal data securely and transparently; take meaningful steps to mitigate cyber threats; and ensure everyone can participate in the digital economy as it develops whilst combatting online harassment. Its broad enough to allow wiggle room, but accurate enough to ensure all the right buzzwords are ticked off the list. You can have a look at the full declaration here.

While it is certainly a step in the right direction to get these organizations to sign a document recognising the importance of often ignored concepts such as inclusion and security, perhaps the next step should be to engage governments and regulators.

The CEOs of these technology and telco giants will certainly play an influential role in the success of the internet, though these are companies which will be playing within the rules set by higher powers. Policy, regulation, legislation and public funding will play an incredibly powerful part, though with such varied political regimes across the world, getting them to at least acknowledge these constant principles should be a priority.

Another interesting omission from the list are the powerful and influential internet players. The likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook will perhaps play a more significant role than the telcos and technology vendors who have already signed the document as they slip into the grey areas of regulation. The OTTs have been effectively doing what they like to date, such is the difficulty in matching regulation with the pace of change in this segment, and while such a document is little more than a PR ploy, it would at least demonstrate some accountability.

Loon bolsters connectivity credentials with advisory board signings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US digital divide – does anyone have a clue what’s going on?

Depending on who you listen to the severity of the digital divide varies greatly. But with so many different opinions, how do you actually know what is going on? And if you don’t have a clue, how can you possibly solve the problem?

This topic is one which carries a particularly heavy amount of political charge, for good reason might we add, and is not limited to the US. Digital inclusion is a buzzword and objective associated with almost every nation due to the increasingly complex and embedded role digital is having in our lives. Every society should be considering strategies to ensure everyone is taken forward into the digital utopia, but the success of such initiatives is questionable.

Here we are going to have a look at the US market, but not question how successful the political administration and telcos have been at closing the gap, but whether they have the right foundations in the first place. To tackle a problem, you have to actually know what it is, and this is where we feel the industry is failing right now.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious issue. The telcos clearly favour the denser urban environments due to the economics of connectivity; providing customers the internet is an expensive job in the beginning. Not only do you have to buy the materials and the equipment, you have to process planning permission, deal with lawyers and do the dirty-job of civil engineering. But, you also to have to have the confidence customers will buy services off you. When there is such a sparse residential population in a region, it can be difficult to make the equation add up.

This is the issue in the US, and perhaps why the digital divide is so much bigger than somewhere like the UK. The land mass is substantially bigger, there are a huge number of isolated communities and connectivity tariffs are much more expensive. The problem has been compounded every time connectivity infrastructure improves, creating today’s problem of a digital divide.

But, here lies the issue. How do you solve a problem when you have no idea what the extent actually is?

An excellent way to illustrate this is with a road-trip. You know the final destination, as does everyone trying to conquer the digital divide, but if you don’t know the starting point how can you possibly plan the route? You don’t know what obstacles you might encounter on the way to Eden, or even how much money you will need for fuel (investment), how many packets of crisps you’ll need (raw materials such as fibre) or how many friends you’ll need to share time at the wheel (workforce).

The industry is trying to solve a problem when it doesn’t understand what it actually is?

The FCC don’t seem to be helping matters. During Tom Wheeler’s time in-charge of the agency, minimum requirements for universal broadband speeds were tabled at 25 Mbps, though this was then dropped to 10 Mbps by today’s Chairman Ajit Pai. Rumours are these requirements will once again be increased to 25 Mbps.

Not only does this distort the image of how many people have fallen into the digital divide, it messes around with the CAPEX and OPEX plans of the telcos. With higher requirements, more upgrades will be needed, or perhaps it would require a greenfield project. Once you drop the speeds, regions will once again be ignored because they have been deemed served. If you increase these speeds, will the telcos find a loophole to ignore them, or might they unintentionally slip through the net?

Under the 25 Mbps requirements it has been suggested 24 million US customers, just over 7%, fall into the digital divide, though this is an estimate. And of course, this 25 million figure is only meaningful if you judge the digital served customers as those who can theoretically access these products.

A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft released research which suggested the digital divide could be as wide as 150 million people. We suspect Microsoft is stroking the figures, but there will certainly be a difference because of the way the digital divide has been measured.

In the research, Microsoft measured internet usage across the US, including those who have broadband but are not able to surf the web at acceptable speeds. Microsoft considers those in the digital divide as those who are being under-served, or have no internet at all, whereas the FCC seems to be taking the approach of theoretical accessibility. There might be numerous reasons people fall into the digital divide but are not counted by the FCC, price of broadband for example, but this variance shows the issue.

Another excellent example is in Okta’s speed tests across Q2-Q3 which have been released this week. The Okta data suggests a 35.8% increase in mean download speed during the last year, ranking the US as the 7th best worldwide for broadband download speeds. According to this data, average download speed across the US for Q2-Q3 was 96.25 Mbps. This research would suggest everything is rosy in the US and there is no digital divide at all.

As you can see there is no consolidated approach to arguing the digital divide. Before we know it campaigning for the next Presidential Election will begin and the digital divide will become another political tool. Republican’s will massage the figures to make it seem like the four-year period has been a successful one, while Democrat’s will paint a post-apocalyptic image.

And of course, it is not just the politicians who will play these political games. Light Reading’s Carol Wilson pointed out Microsoft has a commercial stake in getting more bandwidth to more people so that more people can access their cloud apps and make them more money. Should we trust this firm to be objective in contributing to the digital divide debate? Even if the digital divide is narrowing, Microsoft will want to paint a gloomy picture to encourage more investment as this would increase its own commercial prospects.

The issue which is at the heart of the digital divide is investment and infrastructure. The telcos need to be incentivised to put networks in place, irrelevant as to the commercial rewards from the customer. Seeing at this bridge is being built at a snail’s pace, you would have to assume the current structure and depth of federal subsidies is simply not good enough.

The final complication to point out is the future. Ovum’s Kristin Paulin pointed out those in the digital divide are only those who are passed by fixed wireless, not taking into account almost every US citizen has access to one of the four LTE networks. Fixed Wireless Access will certainly play a role in the future of broadband, but whether this is enough to satisfy the increasingly intensifying data diets of users is unknown. 5G will certainly assist, but you have to wonder how long it will take to get 5G to the regions which are suffering in the divide today.

Paulin points to the affordability question as well. With the FCC only counting those US citizens who cannot access the internet in the digital divide, who knows how many citizens there are who can’t afford broadband. A New York times article from 2016 suggested the average broadband tariff was $55 a month, meaning 25% of the city, and 50% of those who earned under $20,000 would not be able to afford broadband. The Lifeline broadband initiative project is supposed to help here, but Paulin politely stated this is suffering some hiccups right now.

If citizens cannot afford broadband, is this even a solution? It’s like trying to sell a starving man, with $10 in his wallet, a sandwich for $25. What’s the point?

Mobile broadband might well be the answer, Nokia certainly believes a fibre network with wireless wings is the answer, though progress is slow here. Congestion is increasingly becoming a problem, while video, multi-screen and IOT trends will only make the matter more complicated.

As it stands, the digital divide is a political ping-pong ball being battered as it ducks and dives all over the landscape. But, the US technology industry needs to ask itself a very honest question; how big is the digital divide? Right now, we’re none the wiser, and it will never be narrowed without understanding the problem in the first place.