EE takes step towards content aggregator model

Content is a tricky topic to discuss around EE and BT, such is the scale of the disaster over the last few years, but a tie up with Amazon Prime and MTV Play is a step in the right direction.

The new content offer will see EE customers receive six-month memberships to both Amazon’s Prime Video service and MTV Play. The news starts to make a more comprehensive content platform for the MNO, with customers already able to access Apple Music and BT Sport, all of which is covered under the EE Video Data Pass, a zero-rating initiative available to all customers.

“It’s our ambition to offer our customers unrivalled choice, with the best content, smartest devices, and the latest technology through working with the world’s best content providers,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division.

“In offering all EE pay monthly mobile customers Prime Video and MTV Play access, in addition to BT Sport and Apple Music – we’re providing them with a wealth of great entertainment they can experience in more places thanks to our superfast 4G network, and soon to be launched 5G service. So, if they want music on a Monday, telly on a Tuesday, films on a Friday or sport on a Saturday, we’ve got something for them.”

While the content play over the last couple of years have been pretty dismal this is an approach to content and diversification which we like. It allows the telco to leverage the scale of their customer bases, while also adding value to the existing relationship with said customers.

Content fragmentation is an irk for many customers, not only because of the various apps which need to be installed, but also the number of different bills. EE doesn’t seem to be addressing the first issue but consolidating bills to a single provider might well be of interest to some customers. It also has the advantage of making EE a ‘stickier’ provider, perhaps having a positive impact on churn.

“Content is a key differentiator for telcos,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. “However, consumers are now spoilt for choice resulting in too much fragmentation. Telcos are very well placed to aggregate content, integrate billing and provide universal search. Whoever achieves this first will have a significant advantage over their rivals.”

Sky is one of the companies which has had a good crack at addressing the fragmentation challenge, Sky and Netflix content is available on the same platform and through the same universal search function, though EE’s push on the mobile side would certainly attract attention. Consumers no-longer consider entertainment as simply for the living room, new trends show more preference for on-the-go content.

While this is a step in the right direction for EE, this is only one step. The content options need to offer more depth to meet the demands of the user, while streamlining all the content into a single app would be a strong step forward. It would certainly be difficult to convince partners to hand over customer experience to a third-party, Netflix has shown much resistance to this idea making the Sky tie-up all the more impressive, though whoever nails this aspect of the aggregator model would certainly leap to the front.

Three UK shows off its new Nokia cloud core

Mobile operator Three UK has upgraded its network with a fully cloud-based 5G-ready core and has started internal trials of the service. It plans to launch 5G later this year.

Three announced that it is testing the world’s first fully cloud-based core network, delivered by Nokia. The software-based core network is 5G ready and is already carrying the ongoing trial for Three’s own staff. The trial is on the 3.4-3.8GHz spectrum Three bought with over £164 million in the auction concluded in April 2018.

The readiness is also achieved on the edge. Three announced that by December 2018, all its mast sites were already connected to the new cloud-based core networks, meaning when 5G is switched on all Three customers would be able to access 5G services, provided they have the 5G-enabled user devices (fixed wireless access modems, or smartphones and tablets).

Another infrastructure update Three announced is the expansion of its datacentre network. The operator used to have three datacentres in London and the Midlands. After the latest upgrade, it now has “21 data centres spread from as far North as Edinburgh to Portsmouth in the South” which are all live and “have been connected up with fibre”, said the statement. In practical terms, the more distributed datacentre network would reduce latency experienced by the users faraway from southern England, giving customers more or less equal user experience.

Indeed, “enhancing its market-leading customer experience and becoming the best loved brand in the UK by its people and customers” is the explicit target of Three’s latest network upgrading. The company reiterated its target to launch commercial 5G service later this year, after committing to invest over £2bn into 5G. “We have been planning our approach to 5G for many years and we are well positioned to lead on this next generation of technology.  These investments are the latest in a series of important building blocks to deliver the best end to end data experience for our customers,” Dave Dyson, Three UK’s CEO, said late last year.

According to the latest telecoms complaints numbers released by Ofcom in January, Three received 4 complaints per 100,000 customers, narrowly behind its mobile competitors EE and O2 (3 complaints each) but way ahead of Vodafone (8).

EE has a 5G smartphone announcement of its own

With Verizon and AT&T scrapping for attention with Samsung 5G smartphone announcements, EE is clamouring to prove its worth with its own OnePlus 5G declaration.

EE claims it will be the first operator in the world to deliver OnePlus’ version of a 5G-compatible smartphone. Whether this has any material impact on customer acquisition remains to be seen as recent trends suggest cash-conscious consumers are holding onto devices longer, while refurbished devices are gaining more and more traction. Another interesting factor will be UK consumers preference for more well-known brands.

That said, being a world-first for a challenger smartphone brand gathering momentum is a positive, while potentially being first in the UK to offer a device will attract the attention of early adopters.

“EE and OnePlus have a shared vision: to give our customers the best-connected experience possible,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division. “We’re working together on cutting edge technology to deliver that, and we’re leading the world on the journey to 5G. Adding 5G to the UK’s number one 4G network will increase reliability, increase speeds, and keep our customers connected where they need it most. We have an ambition to connect our customers to 4G, 5G or Wi-Fi 100% of the time.”

“The pursuit of speed has defined the OnePlus DNA since OnePlus was founded five years ago,” said OnePlus founder Pete Lau. “There’s no one more suitable than OnePlus to make a 5G smartphone. Our users are always eager to try new things and they are now ready to experience the next generation of connectivity and speed. In response, OnePlus has poured efforts into 5G research since 2016. Today, we stand poised to embrace the dawn of 5G.”

Of course, it might not mean much to the UK consumer. Recent research from UK mobile app developers Tappable suggests only 34% of consumers would consider purchases from lesser known brands. The latest technology is of course important to the survey respondents, but with OnePlus very much a challenger brand in the UK, this partnership might end up meaning very little in a brand-loyal market.

EE was announced as the launch partner of the device at the Qualcomm summit event, taking place in Hawaii, though 5G will only cover 15% of the population when the phone is launched. The six cities which will be included in the first phase of EE’s 5G rollout are London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester, though ten more will be added to the list over the remainder of 2019.

Trials are currently taking place in Canary Wharf and across East London, while the MNO also conducted a live 5G broadcast between Wembley Stadium and the Excel Exhibition Centre last month. The initial focus of the 5G rollout will be on the busiest parts of the named cities, Hyde Park in London and the Manchester Arena for example, though it seems EE is wary about misleading the consumer about 5G being up-front with the limited nature of the coverage.

Specific dates of the 5G launch are currently as accurate as a wine-snob’s description of last night’s merlot, though the 5G hype is starting to build once again after briefly losing its treasured place in the hearts and minds of marketers to AI.

Qualcomm pumps Snapdragon 855 in Hawaii

The chipset company Qualcomm just unveiled the newest Snapdragon SoC product to power 5G mobile devices.

On the first day of its annual “Snapdragon Tech Summit” in Hawaii, Qualcomm introduced its first commercial 5G chipset, branded as Snapdragon 855. The system is compatible with Qualcomm’s X50 modem with antennae supporting 5G on both sub-6GHz and mmWave frequency bands. On a 7-nm silicon will also be its 4th-generation multi-core on-device AI engine (said to deliver 3X faster AI performance than its predecessor the Snapdragon 845), Computer Vision Image Signal Processor (CV-ISP) for new photo and video features (“true 4K HDR video capture, cinema-grade photography capabilities”), and 3D Sonic Sensor. The sonic sensor can be used for under-display fingerprint reading using ultrasonic waves (instead of the current optical under-display sensors using light), which, Qualcomm claims, is safer and more accurate.

Qualcomm expects the first smartphones using the new chipset to hit the market in the first half of next year. “The Snapdragon 855 will define the premium tier in 2019,” said Alex Katouzian, SVP and GM of Mobile for Qualcomm, who unveiled the new chipset. Earlier Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s President, said he expected to see a lot of phone announcements at CES in January and a lot of actual phone launches at MWC in February.

“Today marks a massive and exciting step forward underscoring how Qualcomm Technologies and ecosystem leaders are driving 5G commercialization, a journey that went from R&D, accelerated standardization and trials, the launch of innovative products and technologies, to the imminent launch of 5G networks and smartphones across the globe starting in early 2019,” said Amon at yesterday’s event. “Together we are demonstrating our role in transforming the mobile industry and enriching consumer experiences with 5G mobile devices on live 5G networks at this year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit.”

Executives from mobile operators including AT&T, EE, Telstra, and Verizon were present at the event, so were representatives from Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, NETGEAR, and Inseego. The 5G smartphone from Samsung to be launched by both Verizon and AT&T is likely to be the first of its kind to be built on Snapdragon 855.

“At Samsung, we have a vision of a connected world powered by 5G that will benefit consumers, communities, industries and governments,” said Justin Denison, SVP for mobile product strategy and marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “5G will fuel collaboration, connectivity and productivity worldwide, and we’re excited to be at the forefront working alongside partners like Qualcomm Technologies to make the transformation to 5G a reality.”

The event will last three days till Thursday, and Qualcomm promised more announcements and more details will be released.

EE does a 5G broadcast

In the latest installment of its snowballing 5G marketing drive, UK MNO EE claimed to have conducted a live 5G broadcast between Wembley Stadium and the Excel Exhibition Centre.

The two locations were chosen because EE has a 5G test network at Wembley and it was hanging out with Huawei at its MBBF event in the Excel. Specifically EE, together with BT Sport, ‘demonstrated the first live broadcast with remote production over 5G’ according to the announcement. It looks like MBBF attendees were the recipients of this broadcast.

“5G will next season enable BT Sport to deploy the most advanced remote production of any broadcaster,” said Jamie Hindhaugh, COO of BT Sport. “It will allow us to cover more live matches from more leagues and competitions, and to bring fans highlights action closer to the final whistle than has ever been done before in the UK.” Marc Allera, head of BT’s consumer group, said much the same.

The test network uses EE’s 3.4GHz spectrum from its 5G antenna in the stadium, connected to a 10Gbps backhaul link. How much of the 14 miles between the two sites was covered by actual wireless 5G is unclear, but EE is likely to have its claim to the first live 5G broadcast accepted unquestioningly by most of the media so job done there.

Operators stress the need to collaborate over 5G

At Huawei’s MBBF 2018 event some of its operator partners talked up the need for greater collaboration, including among themselves, to make a success of 5G.

Howard Watson, CTIO of BT, said “we truly need interoperability,” when detailing all the many moving parts that need to work with each other in order to make all this 5G hype a reality. He identified the TIP initiative as an example of operators collaborating towards a common goal and was careful to stress that he thinks vendors can still raise their game in that area too.

Being given a keynote at MBBF is also a great opportunity for a spot of self-promotion and Watson didn’t hold back. We were reminded of the recent announcement of EE’s 2019 5G rollout plans and even its most recent 5G trial in London. He also took the opportunity to talk up BT’s group strategy, using the diagram you can find here, which BT is bafflingly keen on, to illustrate his point.

Once Watson got all this corporate chest-beating out of his system he did flag up one interesting feature of BT’s broader strategy: the tight integration of wifi into the overall connectivity picture for BTEE customers. BT is extending the IMS network it currently uses for wifi calling in order to facilitate this and will be doing some clever stuff to solve the pain currently experienced when trying to dynamically switch between wifi and cellular. Creating all this simplicity is very complicated, he concluded.

We also heard from Alex Choi, Head of T-Labs at Deutsche Telekom. He couldn’t resist a bit of light self-congratulation in flagging up its 5G efforts in Berlin (in partnership with Huawei). He too stressed the need for ‘an ecosystem approach’ to 5G and highlighted HD video streaming as a key use-case for consumers.

EE and Virgin Media fined for ripping off customers when they leave early

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has fined EE and Virgin Media millions of pounds for excessive early-exit charges.

Churn (loss of customers) is a constant worry for communications service providers and the best way to reduce it is to provide such a good communications service that subscribers don’t want to leave. Another way is to make it so odious and costly to leave that most people just can’t be bothered with the hassle and it seems EE and VM went a bit too far with the latter strategy.

Ofcom says it’s OK for CSPs to attach conditions to the early exit from contracts, but that those must be ‘clear, comprehensive and easily accessible’. Furthermore Ofcom stipulates “Communications providers shall ensure that conditions or procedure for contract termination do not act as disincentives for end-users against changing their communications provider”. It thinks thinks that’s what happened with EE and VM, which is why it has fined them £6.3 million and £7 million, respectively.

“EE and Virgin Media broke our rules by overcharging people who ended their contracts early,” said Ofcom’s spectacularly-named Director of Investigations and Enforcement, Gaucho Rasmussen. “Those people were left out of pocket, and the charges amounted to millions of pounds. That is unacceptable. These fines send a clear message to all phone and broadband firms that they must play by the rules, in the interests of their customers.”

VM doesn’t see it in quite the same way and is appealing the ruling. “We profoundly disagree with Ofcom’s ruling,” said Tom Mockridge, CEO of Virgin Media. “This decision and fine is not justified, proportionate or reasonable. A small percentage of customers were charged an incorrect amount when they ended one or more of their services early and for that we are very sorry.

“As soon as we became aware of the mistake we apologised and took swift action to put it right by paying refunds, with interest, to everyone affected. For those few people we could not locate, we have made an equivalent donation to charity.  We also reviewed our internal processes and systems, and improved our customer communications to make sure that this does not happen again.

“We wholeheartedly reject the claim by Ofcom that our ETC levels dissuaded customers from switching. This unreasonable decision and excessive fine does not reflect the swift actions we took, the strong evidence we have presented, or our consistent, open and transparent cooperation with the regulator.  We will be appealing Ofcom’s decision.”

EE hadn’t sent us a statement at time of writing, nor had it issued a press release. Read into that what you will but the fact that Ofcom reduced its fine by 30% in return for it not kicking up a fuss would seem to be significant.

Mockridge’s moan can be interpreted in a few ways. Taken at face value it’s easy to feel some sympathy. If indeed it was a small, innocent mistake that VM moved to correct as soon as it was aware of it, then the fine does seem excessive. If, however, VM knew what it was doing and thinks it should be able to get away with it just by saying sorry after it was caught, then it doesn’t.

At the very least the relative fines seem disproportionate. EE over-billed 400,000 of its customers for a total of £13.5 million in early exit charges over a six year period, while VM only rinsed 82,000 of its punters for £2.8 million in less than a year. Surely the scale of EE’s breach was far greater and it looks like it’s being too generously rewarded by Ofcom for its capitulation.

EE fleshes out its 2019 5G launch plans

Having apparently exhausted the PR potential of 5G trials EE has moved on to talking up its plans for actual launches.

Sometime in 2019 EE will launch 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. Sometime after that, but still in 2019, it will launch in ten more UK cities, which you can see in the map below.

In order to fully exploit the power of 5G EE is initially focusing on what it considers to be the busiest parts of those first six cities: Hyde Park in London, Manchester Arena, Belfast City Airport, the Welsh Assembly, Edinburgh Waverly train station and Birmingham’s Bullring.

Further explanation of the reasons for choosing its launch locations revolves around the specific EE cell sites that have to deal with the most traffic. One site in Waterloo station alone, we’re told, carries more than 100 terabytes of data per day. Presumably much of this is beleaguered commuters trying to find out when their train will turn up or sharing their plight on social media.

The first 1,500 sites that EE is upgrading to 5G in 2019 carry 25% of all data across the whole network, but only cover 15% of the UK population, apparently. The fact that EE made a point of sharing this factoid may be indicative of it anticipating misguided criticism of it focusing on densely populated areas as opposed to fields, hills, lakes, etc.

“Adding 5G to the UK’s number one 4G network will increase reliability, increase speeds, and keep our customers connected where they need it most,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division. “This is another milestone for the UK and for our network journey – we’ll keep evolving as we move to one, smart network for our customers. We have an ambition to connect our customers to 4G, 5G or wifi 100% of the time.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan didn’t get where he is today without exploiting publicity opportunities like this. “I want London to be the world’s leading smart city and 5G expansion is at the heart of this ambition – it is good news for Londoners, innovation, and business,” he said. “At City Hall we are working hard right across the capital to ensure we have the network infrastructure needed through our new Connected London programme. EE’s ambitious investment in 5G sites demonstrates that our city is a great place to invest in innovative and future-facing digital connectivity.”

While EE hasn’t offered specific dates for its 5G rollout it is at least making some effort to put some meat on the bones of its 5G hype. Three made an even vaguer pronouncement last week, but the other two MNOs have been strangely reticent. They’ll presumably get there eventually and we look forward to lots more of this sort of thing in the coming months, complete with images of people using their phones in a 5G-ish way and sexy shots of telecoms gear on rooftops.

EE 5G launch map