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:


Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Full story here


Trump needs fodder for the campaign trail, maybe Huawei fits the bill

A thriving economy and low levels of unemployment might have been the focal point of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, pre-pandemic, but fighting the ‘red under the bed’ might have to do now.

Full story here


Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

Full story here


ZTE and China Unicom get started on 6G

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has decided now is a good time to announce it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement on 6G with operator China Unicom.

Full story here


ITU says lower prices don’t lead to higher internet penetration

The UN telecoms agency observes that, while global connectivity prices are going down, the relationship with penetration is not as inversely proportion as you might think.

Full story here


Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

Full story here


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Facebook hopes new Oversight Board will resolve censorship dilemma

Facebook’s Oversight Board has announced its first 20 members and will start hearing cases related to content dispute later this year, but the fundamental problems with censorship remain.

Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post that the first 20 members of the independent Oversight Board. “The Oversight Board will have the power to overturn decisions we’ve made on content as long as they comply with local laws. Its decisions will be final — regardless of whether I or anyone else at the company agrees with them,” he wrote. “Facebook won’t have the power to remove any members from the board. This makes the Oversight Board the first of its kind.”

The selection process started with Facebook selecting four “Co-Chairs” of the Board, who then worked with Facebook to select the rest. The Charter decrees that after the formation of the board “a committee of the board will select candidates to serve as board members”. Ultimately the Board will have 40 members. Board members will serve fixed terms of three years, up to a maximum of three terms. The Board’s financial independence is “guaranteed by the establishment of a $130 million trust fund that is completely independent of Facebook, which will fund our operations and cannot be revoked”, it says in a press release.

The first Co-Chairs, Catalina Botero-Marino (Dean of Law School at Universidad de Los Andes from Colombia), Jamal Greene (Law School Professor at Columbia University), Michael W. McConnell (Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School), and Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Former Prime Minister of Denmark) wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times laying out their tasks.

When the Board starts hearing cases later this year, “Users will be able to appeal to the oversight board if they disagree with Facebook’s initial decision about whether to take down or leave up a given piece of content, and Facebook can also refer cases to the board,” the article said. “In the initial phase users will be able to appeal to the board only in cases where Facebook has removed their content, but over the next months we will add the opportunity to review appeals from users who want Facebook to remove content.”

There is almost an “over-to-you” type of sigh of relief from Zucherberg. “The Oversight Board will help us protect our community by ensuring that important decisions about content and enforcement are thoughtful, protect free expression, and won’t be made by us alone,” he said in his post. “I know that people will disagree about what should and shouldn’t come down. But I’m confident that the Oversight Board will make these decisions thoughtfully and fairly. I look forward to watching them begin their work.”

The Oversight Board may be able to take some of the trickiest burdens off Zuckerberg’s shoulders, but if he thinks he could wash his hands completely off troubles with the set-up of this Upper House, he would be wrong. The Oversight Board may find itself facing as many questions it cannot answer as those it can.

The fundamental question remains, as this publication has stressed more than once, who gets to decide what the right answers should be? While there is no dispute that 5G does not spread coronavirus, when it comes to issues we genuinely do not have a definite answer yet, the matters can get messy. Facebook has been actively removing Covid-19 related content not toeing the WHO line, regardless of WHO’s own dubious communication messages and conspicuous cosiness with China. Would the Oversight Board have upheld the content’s right to remain standing if it did not toe WHO line? Moreover, when it comes to “truth” about the novel coronavirus that caused Covid-19, if there is anything the world’s scientists could agree on, it is that we do not yet know much about it.

Another often disputed topic is hate speech. The Board expects to see “cases that examine the line between satire and hate speech”, but the definition of hate speech varies from person to person. The Student Union at Oxford University recently passed an “Academic Hate Speech Motion”, demanding materials it deemed harmful or “triggering” be removed and banned from the syllabus, which led to Richard Dawkins, an Oxford alumnus, retorted that, by the hate speech definition in the student motion, “history students can’t read up on women’s suffrage, or the rise of Nazism or Apartheid, theology students can’t read Bible or Koran”.

The University immediately rejected the motion and upheld the principle that “‘free speech is the lifeblood of a university.” Suppose the Student Union would ask Facebook to remove certain content it believes falling into its definition of hate speech but which by the definition of the University “enables the pursuit of knowledge”, would the Oversight Board side with the students or with the school?

In his essay “On Liberty” (1859), John Stuart Mill gave four reasons why opinions one does not agree should not be suppressed. These should still be our guiding principles:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.” (Chapter II, “Of the liberty of thought and discussion”)

The Facebook Oversight Board does seems like an honest attempt to establish a balanced, independent body for making censorship decisions. But even the most qualified, objective censors are still censors and, but definition, have to make subjective distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ speech. Merely shrugging and pointing to the board will not absolve Facebook of responsibility for these decisions and won’t resolve the underlying paradox of platforms increasingly behaving as publishers.

Jio is running riot again, but more synergies (sigh) are on the horizon

The Indian telecommunications industry might be crumbling around it, but Reliance Jio is still reaping the rewards of disruption and chaos, and there is much more to come.

Although the telco is now considered a staple of the Indian connectivity diet, it is easy to forget this is a company which is only five years old. This was not the first firm to emerge as a disruptive influence on the telco industry, but few could say they have enjoyed the rip-roaring success of Reliance Jio.

But most importantly, this might only be the tip of the iceberg, after all, this is only one business unit of a wider corporation.

“Our consumer businesses further strengthened their leadership positions and recorded robust growth on all operating and financial parameters during the year,” said Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of Reliance Industries.

“Both Retail and Jio, continue to work towards providing superior products and services to Indian consumers. We are fully committed on our investment plans in our consumer businesses and new initiatives.

“We are at the doorsteps of a huge opportunity and our rights issue and all other equity transactions will strengthen Reliance and position us to create substantial value for all our stakeholders.”

Reliance Jio results for financial year ending March 31 (USD ($), millions)
  Total Year-on-year
Total revenue 9,038 +40.7%
Profit 1,896 +63.5%
Subscribers 387.5 +26.3%

Source: Reliance Industries Investor Relations

With all the numbers heading in the right direction, you can see why Reliance Jio is an exciting business. Interestingly enough, not only are the total subscriber numbers shooting north, the team is also maintaining ARPU at roughly $1.73, while data usage is also increasing. There has been a surge of traffic on the network during the COVID-19 crisis as Indians are placed under lockdown orders, as much as a 50% increase on normality, but the network is holding steady.

These numbers are impressive, especially compared to the woes of competitors during this period, but Reliance Jio is still primarily a wireless business. Now it has established dominance in the mobile arena, the potential to lean into other areas is exciting. This means broadband and content, but also ventures into parallel industries.

It is a dreaded word, but there are synergies throughout the Reliance Industries portfolio.

The Reliance Industries business brought in revenues of roughly $87 billion through the last 12 months, with the business growing 5% year-on-year. The group has access to markets in 108 countries with operations in energy, petrochemicals, textiles, natural resources and retail, as well as telecoms.

Split of revenues by business unit for Reliance Industries (USD ($), millions)
Business unit Total revenue Year-on-year
Telecoms 9,038 +40.7%
Retail 21,510 +24.8%
Refining 51,159 -1.6%
Petrochemicals 19,177 -15.6%
Oil and Gas 423 -35.8%
Media 707 +4.7%

Every telco in the world wants to develop new products and services for enterprise customers and co-create new business ventures to marry connectivity and traditional business, while forward-looking enterprise organisations want to embrace connectivity. Cross-pollination within an existing corporation to meet these objectives creates a very exciting opportunity to Reliance Industries to become an industrial giant with connectivity at the core.

Part of this expansion into the novel and unknown is already being demonstrated with Reliance Jio’s partnership with Facebook.

In recent weeks, Facebook was announced a new investor in the digital business unit, taking a 9.9% stake for $5.7 billion. As part of this transaction, Facebook entered into a partnership with the digital and retail business units to create a digital payments platform, with WhatsApp playing a significant role, for a society which largely lacks traditional banking infrastructure.

This is a new venture for Reliance Industries, bringing in a third-party to help bridge the gap between two already successful business units. Many people talk about innovation, but this is a genuine example, creating new revenues without cannibalising existing units with the help of an industry partner. It is a case of 1+1+1=4.

As you can see from the image above, Reliance Jio is much more than a telecoms company nowadays. It is spreading its wings to various different technologies, segments and concepts, all of which can be developed into different revenue streams. This creates a significant amount of diversification in the TMT segments, but when combined with the different units of the Reliance Industries parent company it creates almost countless new opportunities.

Reliance Jio has been a very interesting company to keep an eye on over the last few years, but with the gaps between business units being bridged, and the eclectic mix of existing ventures, the opportunities for the wider Reliance Industries are very exciting.

Why is Google so interested in Fitbit?

In early November, Google announced it was acquiring Fitbit for $2.1 billion, a transaction which has polarised opinion. But why is Google interested in a faltering wearables brand?

Acquisitions in the technology world are not unsurprising, especially when it comes to search engine giant Google. This is a company which is constantly pushing the boundaries of normality, testing ideas outside its core competencies and exploring for the next multi-billion-dollar business.

The question which remains in the minds of some is whether Fitbit could be the catalyst for profits, or if this is an unjustified expansion of Google’s ability to pry into the personal lives of users around the world.

$2.1 billion for a failing wearables business

When talking about wearables, it used to be impossible to avoid Fitbit. This appeared to be one of the very few companies who could turn a profit in a segment which flattered to deceive. Until recently that is.

Looking at the financials of Fitbit, the business was heading south very quickly.

Full-year financial results for Fitbit 2015-19 (USD ($), millions)
Year Total revenue Net Income (Loss)
2019 1,434 (320)
2018 1,512 (185)
2017 1,615 (277)
2016 2,169 (102)
2015 1,858 175

Source: Fitbit Investor Relations

In 2015, Fitbit was a rapidly growing wearables brand turning a tidy profit. What made this even more impressive is the failures of almost everyone else to crack the market; wearables was a segment which no-one else seemed to be able to make work, not even Apple.

The trick with Fitbit was simplicity. It didn’t try to take on traditional timepieces with a clunky digital alternative which still had to be tethered to a smartphone, it produced a simple fitness device. It identified a need and fulfilled a purpose, without trying to be too clever.

The issue which it has faced in recent years is two-fold. Firstly, wearables become more mainstream and demanded more functionality. And secondly, mainstream brands were allocating big marketing budgets.

Fitbit attempted to evolve its offering, creating more devices which were more in-line with the smartwatch image of today, but it struggled to compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung when it came to functionality, design, marketing and acquiring new customers who had not previously been interested in wearables. It failed to evolve, adapt and expand.

That said, the barebones of a successful business are still there.

The resurgence of Fitbit as a competitive force

Fitbit is an interesting acquisition for Google. It has a solid and reputable fitness brand, a loyal customer base as well as existing products and IP. The fundamentals of a good business are in place, the reason Fitbit failed is it was not able to advance its business model to the next level of development.

Aside from good products, consumers nowadays are insisting on experiences and an ecosystem of supporting applications. One explanation as to why Fitbit is a failing business is that it was unable to develop the supporting applications, experiences and services to bundle behind the hardware.

This is where Google can help.

With the Fitbit team concentrating on developing new products, the software and services element can be delegated to the Google engineers. With an army of software experts and existing products, Fitbit could certainly emerge as a fighting force on the wearable scene once again.

Aside from the Android operating system which has Google has created for the wearable ecosystem, Wear OS, there are numerous other services which could be more closely linked to the Fitbit products such as Google Maps and YouTube Music. The products could also benefit from the work Google is doing into new areas such as the voice user interface and gesture control.

Bringing together the Fitbit hardware experience, IP and brand, with Google’s OS expertise and software engineering smarts is a very attractive mix.

Why would Google care about the wearable segment?

Firstly, Google is interested in any idea which can make money, and with the right care and attention, as well as patience, you can make money out of just about anything.

Secondly, the wearable ecosystem allows Google to operate in an area where it currently doesn’t.

And finally, wearable products allow it to buildout other investments in areas such as healthcare and smart cities.

Global smartphone market share – 2019
Brand Market share
Apple 31.7%
Xiaomi 12.4%
Samsung 9.2%
Huawei 8.3%
Fitbit 4.7%

Source: Statista

Just like the smart speaker products Google launched in recent years, the greater opportunity is not to profit from product sales, but to build a services ecosystem behind the hardware. Fitbit products with Wear OS allow Google to interact with customers in a new setting, in a new way, while collecting new data.

This data can of course be used to supplement existing advertising models, hyper-targeted messaging is where the money is after all, but it can also offer Google the opportunity to build new services. With a portfolio of fitness related products, Google can collect new data to create new applications as well as buildout the development of existing ideas.

For example, Verily is a research organization devoted to the study of life sciences. Verily works with academia, hospitals and health systems and life sciences companies to improve healthcare. The work is of course technology focused, making best use of data to augment the healthcare industry, and the addition of a portfolio of health and fitness wearable products would improve this proposition.

Another example is Sidewalk Labs, an ‘urban innovation’ investment from Google. The concept of smart cities is quickly gathering steam, and should the right investments be made, software companies could make billions. Wearable devices will be an important element of the smart cities for identification and authentication with public services, payments and interaction with other applications which could emerge.

These are two ideas which already exist in the Alphabet family, but Google does not currently have a venture into fitness and lifestyle. Fitbit it an entry point.

Owning the OS is critical to owning the ecosystem

Google is one of the most successful companies in the world because it manages to position its products and brands in front of people. And perhaps the most important acquisition it made in its history was Android.

The operating system, founded in 2003 by Andy Rubin, ensured Google powered the majority of smartphones across the world. It is free for smartphone manufacturers to use, but this comes with conditions; certain applications have to be installed as default. Aside from these products being very good, accessibility is one of the reasons they are so popular.

Wear OS, the operating system for wearable devices, offers Google the same opportunity. If users are tied into the Wear OS ecosystem, Google can build services and monetize the audience.

However, success for Wear OS has been wayward to date.

Apple devices use WatchOS, Xiaomi have their own as well, Garmin has developed one internally, Tizen is a Linux-based primarily by Samsung, while Fitbit also had their own. No-one was really that interested in Google’s OS when they have proprietary software, as this would mean handing data and the controlling stake in the software ecosystem to Google.

Purchasing Fitbit offers Google the opportunity to get Wear OS into the wild, collecting data to improve its capabilities. Without the Fitbit acquisition, Wear OS would most likely have dwindled and died, but if the Fitbit brand can be reinvigorated, there is every chance Google could be very influential in this segment. Especially as Fitbit already have a health-orientated brand perception.

Data, data, data…

The Google business is built on data. The algorithm powering search engines only works well because it is constantly trained to improve accuracy of results. Google advertising is only successful because it is hyper-targeted. The Maps products constantly need to be fed data to ensure route-planning is most efficient, local businesses are listed and preferences are honed to the user.

Fitbit offers some extraordinary data, which would be very useful for companies like Google.

To make best use of fitness-based products and applications, additional information on the user is often needed. Weight, height, fitness and lifestyle objectives, eating habits are some examples which can be plugged into the application. These devices also track user location, how and when they exercise, heart rate, and sleep patterns. Analysing this information is very useful for fitness-orientated users, but it is also incredibly valuable to advertisers.

It is always worth pointing out that the more people making use of Wear OS, the more data Google is collecting to fuel the advertising machine. Thanks to Deepmind, Google’s AI powerhouse, all of Google’s service make use of user insight to improve the accuracy and profitability.

This is where some of the objections to the Fitbit acquisition have been directed.

How much is too much insight?

There are many in society who are uncomfortable with the amount of information the internet giants, not Google alone, have already and how much additional access they are gaining through acquisitions. There are some who like the idea of Google purchasing Fitbit, but there are also others who question whether this is handing too much power and influence to the search giant.

Some might question how much of a window Google should be given into the personal lives of people around the world.

“The most critical issue is Google’s acquisition of Fitbit’s trove of health and biometric data,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an opponent of the acquisition, said. “Obtaining that data will help Google both improve its advertising business and significantly expand its data empire.

“Google’s acquisition of Fitbit will also deprive users of one simple, meaningful choice they could have made: to track their health and fitness without putting that data into Google’s ecosystem.

“And where users have already made this choice—by buying and using Fitbit devices prior to the acquisition—an acquisition destroys those user choices, retrospectively opting them into Google data collection despite their revealed preference to use a Google competitor.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has two objections to Google’s acquisition of Fitbit. Firstly, Google is getting too much personal information. A single, private organisation should not have such power. And secondly, such an acquisition would restrict competition in an already restrictive segment.

On the competition side of things, there is a valid point.

Not only is the smartwatch and wearable segment pretty small already, competition is the digital advertising space is also limited. Should Google expand further it would become more powerful in the advertising game, potentially killing off rivals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is not alone with its objections to the deal, and the concerns are not going unheard.

In the US, the Department of Justice is considering the impact of the acquisition in terms of data collection and privacy as well as market competition. Down in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has launched a similar investigation which is due to conclude on May 21.

The big question of whether Google should be allowed to acquire Fitbit

By acquiring Fitbit, Google gives itself a leapfrog in the wearable OS segment, it builds out investments in healthcare and smart cities, creates additional revenue streams, allows it to drive forward another ecosystem in its own vision and adds more valuable data into the advertising machine.

For Google, this is an incredibly intelligent acquisition, $2.1 billion well spent.

However, if it is to be successful it has to develop this business intelligently. The Wear OS team should focus on the development of the operating system and supporting ecosystem, while the Fitbit engineers should be empowered to create excellent devices, whether they are simplistic fitness trackers or complex smartwatches.

Enough money has to be thrown at the development teams, but Google has to let Fitbit be Fitbit; it is a successful brand and must be allowed to continue its own path. Let Google engineers concentrate on software, and Fitbit engineers concentrate on hardware.

But the question is not whether Google is smart in acquiring Fitbit, more whether it should be allowed to. The acquisition would enable Google access to a treasure trove of very personal information, as well as posing a potential risk to competition. The internet giants have already demonstrated a sluggish attitude to data privacy, and this transaction offers access to some very personal information.

Authorities will have to assess whether Fitbit would have survived on its own, which looking at the financials is unlikely, and whether Google should be allowed to expand its influence and power through the acquisition of more data.

Diversification helps Google ride the waves of coronavirus turbulence

Alphabet-owned Google certainly felt the pinch of COVID-19 over the last few weeks of the quarter, but CEO Sundar Pichai identified diversification as key to managing the crisis.

While few would complain when looking at the Google spreadsheets over the last three-months, it might not be living up to the milestones it has set itself in previous years. 13% year-on-year growth could be considered miserly in Google’s standards, but the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis few have experience with.

That said, investors are clearly pleased with the was Pichai and the team are managing the difficulties as share price shot up 8% during pre-market trading.

Google Q1 Financial Results (USD ($), millions)
Metric 2020 Year-on-year
Total revenues 41,159 +13%
Operating income 7,977 +20%
Net income 6,836 +3%

These are all attractive numbers, though coronavirus has inflicted a dent into the business. Pichai highlighted online advertising demand, the core revenue machine of the Alphabet group, was severely weakened from March onwards, as the full-impact of COVID-19 forced society and the economy to close doors.

Performance of individual business units (USD ($), millions)
Business Unit 2020 Year-on-year
Google Search 24,502 +8%
YouTube 4,038 +33%
Network Members’ properties 5,223 +4%
Google Cloud 2,777 +52%
Other Bets 135 -21%
Google other 4,435 +22%

In today’s world, where there is still plenty of unrealised profits in the digital economy, making money does not seem to be good enough. Investors demand high-growth year-on-year, partly due to what is available and partly because they have become used to it. This is the challenge which the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook are facing; matching the success of yesteryear.

But in this period of uncertainty, it does appear to be a case of damage limitation. Like the financial crisis of 2008, everyone will be impacted but Google has somewhat of an advantage.

“…our business is more diversified than it was in 2008,” Pichai said during the earnings call. “For example, Cloud. In the public sector, we are helping governments delivered critical health and social services. We are supporting the state of New York, new online unemployment application system as it deals with a significant increase in demand.

“In retail, we have held Loblaw, one of Canada’s largest food retailers, and Wayfair, scale to support exponential traffic increases. We are helping communication companies adapt to new behaviour patterns. Vodafone is using Google Cloud platform to help that analyse network traffic flows to keep everyone connected, and we are helping Unity Technologies keep real time online games stay up and running.”

Google Cloud is the business unit which is perhaps profiting the most from the current crisis as more companies are forced through a digital transformation programme to embrace cloud solutions and enable workforce mobility. Some might complain about Google sinking billions into the Moonshot Labs every year, but this is the very reason why.

The more diversified revenues are, the more resilient a business is when faced with turmoil, irrelevant as to whether it is precedented or unprecedented. Google now has online advertising, cloud and video as three major sources, with plenty more bubbling away.

Over the three-month period, Alphabet CFO Ruth Porter said revenues for the Other Bets unit were $135 million, while operating loss was $1.1 billion. This might seem like a remarkable number, but these losses could eventually turn into the next Moonshot Graduate to make billions for the Group. Let’s not forget, the cloud business unit, YouTube, Maps and Android were all cultivated in these labs.

Currently in the experimental unit is Google’s self-driving car project Waymo, a delivery service using specialized drones known as Wing, life science tech unit Verily, smart city initiative Sidewalk Labs and Makani, an attempt to create renewable energy from propellers on airborne kites. Outside of these homegrown experiments, Google purchased Fitbit for $2.1 billion last year, taking it into the world of wearables.

Each quarter, the core advertising business unit brings in billions in profit, but dependence on these revenues are lessened. As the alternative revenue streams gather momentum, Google becomes more diversified and much more capable of managing global crisis’ which could cripple rival firms.

UK snubs Google and Apple privacy warning for contact tracing app

Reports have suggested the UK will pursue a centralised data collection approach for its COVID-19 contact tracing app, despite the well-publicised security and privacy risks.

Last week, the National Health Service (NHS) published a blog entry which pointed towards some element of centralised data collection, though the choice was seemingly been offered to the consumer. It now appears this is not the case.

“This anonymous log of how close you are to others will be stored securely on your phone,” Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis of NHSX, the technology unit of the NHS, wrote in the blog post.

“If you become unwell with symptoms of COVID-19, you can choose to allow the app to inform the NHS which, subject to sophisticated risk analysis, will trigger an anonymous alert to those other app users with whom you came into significant contact over the previous few days.”

Details are of course still thin on the ground, but the BBC is now reporting the NHS will pursue a centralised approach, collating data on NHS servers for analysis and to send out notifications. There are of course advantages to this approach, models can be adapted quicker and additional analysis can be performed, but the question which remains is whether this outweighs the risk to security and privacy; Google and Apple clearly do not think so.

While a centralised approach proposes the collection and storage of all relevant data on NHS servers, an API created between Google and Apple would do the analysis on devices.

Using Bluetooth once again, the decentralised API would store the interaction between device on the user’s device, only sending a key indicating whether that specific user is infected or not to the cloud. Devices would reference the cloud database regularly and should the on-device logs match an infected key, alerts would be sent to other devices which have been logged as contact traces.

The decentralised approach has been embraced by Germany, though this was a surprise, however French authorities has gone the same direction as the UK is seemingly heading. The one which flies in the face of expert advice.

An open letter from cybersecurity specialists and other data scientists has slammed the centralised approach employed by France and, allegedly, the UK.

“All these applications in fact involve very significant risks with regard to respect for privacy and individual freedoms,” the letter states. “One of them is mass surveillance by private or public actors, against which the International Association for Research in Cryptology (IACR) committed itself through the Copenhagen resolution.

“This mass surveillance can be carried out by collecting the graph of interactions between individuals, the social graph. It can intervene at the level of operating systems (OS) of mobile phones. Not only OS producers could reconstruct the social graph, but also the State, more or less easily depending on the solutions proposed.”

The letter has been signed by hundreds of French cybersecurity experts from a range of academic institutions and private research organisations. Support to this position has also been pledged by hundreds of non-cybersecurity technologists also. It is a very comprehensive list of academic experts all condemning the centralised approach as an unneeded risk and an action which undermines privacy principles.

Although the details of the NHS application have yet to be revealed, it does appear the team is heading down the same route as the French. The pursuit of simplicity and flexibility has been deemed more important that the grave warnings to security and privacy offered by experts in the field.

Hopefully the collection of data on centralised servers does not act as too much of a red flag to the hacker community, most of which do not too many invitations to have a crack at stealing information which can be used for nefarious means. Aside from the risk to privacy, collecting millions of datasets of personal information in a single place could be viewed as somewhat of a treasure trove.

UK astronauts answer call to help NHS mission

The UK Space Agency, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), has created a £2.6 million fund to stimulate new projects to aid the NHS in its fight against COVID-19.

With numerous factories being repurposed to add weight to the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, it is becoming less unusual to see interesting characters pop-up alongside the NHS. JCB (which traditionally makes tractors) has teamed up with Dyson (which manufacturers vacuum cleaners) to produce ventilators, and now the astronauts are arriving with gadgets and super-speed software.

“From new advanced software helping speed up cancer diagnoses to satellite communications connecting GPs to patients virtually, the UK space sector has been world leading in applying its innovations to supporting our brilliant NHS,” said Science Minister Amanda Solloway.

“This new funding will ensure that the latest innovations will be on the frontline of tackling the unique problems the coronavirus outbreak has created, helping medical staff to focus on delivering world-class care.”

How this money could be spent is anyone’s guess for the moment, but the idea is fuel new ideas to ease the burden on the UK’s health system. Some of the applications could include:

  • Satellite communications to enable remote doctor appointments
  • Developing more compact and efficient diagnosis machinery
  • Logistics within the health delivery system, perhaps using drones
  • Systems to aid the recovery process once the outbreak calms and handling backlogs after the crisis
  • Applications to measure the effectiveness of social distancing

“Even in normal times, satellites and space technology offer solutions to our needs in connectivity and inclusion, in resilience and logistics, and to support healthcare provision in even the most extreme situations,” said Nick Appleyard, Head of Downstream Business Applications for the ESA.

“The current circumstances challenge the space business community to show just how much it can offer, to help us through this a once in a century event. Speed is of the essence, so let us act without delay.”

Proximus halting some 5G deployment to calm health fears

Belgian telco Proximus will halt 5G network deployment in the city of Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve to hold a Town Hall to address all health concerns of citizens.

Although the rumours connecting 5G to COVID-19 or the growth of an extra ear might seem preposterous to those in the industry, some members of the general public are harbouring health concerns, and an even smaller proportion are turning to criminal activities to damage infrastructure.

There is no circumstance where vandalism and arson on telecoms equipment is acceptable, neither is physical and verbal abuse to staff, but the industry has left a void in education. This may go some way to explaining why some people believe the absurd and baseless rumours which are being spread by conspiracy theorists and chatroom trolls; the telco industry has never fully explained radio technology, just assumed everyone would be OK with a network upgrade.

This situation is further compounded when it is not immediately obvious why the upgrades are being performed. As it stands, 4G works but the general public has not seen the same data as industry insiders demonstrating the rapid growth in data usage or the limitations of today’s networks. Without these explanations, the soil has been fertilised to allow these ridiculous claims to bed in and grow.

In Belgium, it appears Proximus is addressing the concerns prior to the 5G engine revving through the gears.

“The City of Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve has just obtained from Proximus the answer to the question it has been asking since March 31: the deployment of 5G via the antennas present on its territory has been stopped,” a statement on the City’s website said. “The operator has also promised to participate in a public information session, during which he will explain his project to citizens.”

As it stands, the public consultation for the upcoming auction will not be open for citizens to respond to, which has irked city officials somewhat as it is believed the debate should be societal and not just a technical one. That said, hopefully the Town Hall and supplementary documentation will be sufficient to provide enough information to dispel the ludicrous myths, disarm the pseudoscience with facts and remove any faith which has wrongly been placed in the conspiracy theorists.

The spectrum auction itself has been postponed during the COVID-19 outbreak, though we suspect much of the work to deploy a 5G network would also have been delayed. Five applications are in the running for spectrum (Proximus, Telnet, Orange Belgium, Cegeka and Entropia Investments) which will be split into five 40 MHz blocks between the 3.6-3.8 GHz band. The telcos will have to pay €800,000 upfront for a 15-year licence, as well as €420,000 per annum.

The pause on 5G rollout, which was likely slowing due to COVID-19 in any case, should give an opportunity to address the concerns of the general public to ensure the spate of vandalism, which has crept from the UK to the Netherlands, does not spread any further.

Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of arson attacks directed towards 5G infrastructure in both the UK and the Netherlands thanks to a small number of criminals believing the fantasies of false prophets. Celebrities have been effectively endorsing messages from the likes of former-BBC Presenter and current-nutjob David Icke, with a small number of gullible fools drinking the Kool-Aid.

Not only are these actions illegal and monstrously misinformed, the consequences extend to inhibiting emergency services from doing vital work in response to the coronavirus.

However, the Town Hall approach from Proximus here might create a blueprint to follow. The General Public needs to be educated and brought on the 5G journey with everyone else. It cannot just be assumed citizens will just blindly follow the telcos down the virtual trail to the digital economy, hands have to be held and lessons taught.

The only way to disarm the dangerous and idiotic conspiracy theorists is to provide the general public with the correct information to ensure that sensible individuals can make correct decisions. The tinfoil hat army will always be lurking in the delusional corners, but as long as the vast majority realise that the likes of Eamonn Holmes is talking as much sense as a drunken Charlie Sheen, the world will be a harmonious place.

Fitness tracker use is exploding in the US, especially among rich young women

A recent Pew survey shows 21% of US adults regularly wear a smartwatch or fitness tracker. Over half of them think it acceptable for the device makers to share user data with medical researchers.

According to the survey results shared by the Pew Research Center, an American think-tank, smartwatch and fitness tracker adoption may have crossed the chasm from earlier adopters to early majority. 21% of the surveyed panellists already are regularly using smartwatch or specialised tracker to monitor their fitness.

Such a trajectory is in line with the recent market feedback that the total wearables market volume has nearly doubled from a year ago (though what counts as wearables may be contested), and both wristbands and smartwatches have grown by nearly 50%.

When it comes to difference in adoption rates between social groups, the penetration went up to nearly a third (31%) among those with a household income of over $75,000. In comparison, among those with a household income of less than $30,000, only 12% regularly wear such a device. In addition to variance by income groups, women, Hispanic adults, and respondents with a college degree and above are also more likely to wear such devices than men, non-college graduates, and other major ethnic groups.

Another question on the survey asks the respondents if they think makers of a fitness tracking app can share “their users’ data with medical researchers seeking to better understand the link between exercise and heart disease”. The response is divided. 41% of all the respondents said yes, as opposed to 35% saying no, while 22% unsure. However, the percentage of those believing such sharing acceptable went up to 53% among the respondents that are already regularly using such devices, compared to 38% among the non-adopters.

Due to the lack of a GDPR equivalent in the US, it is not much of a surprise that there is neither a consensus among users nor a standard industry practice related to user data sharing. “Recently, some concerns have been raised over who can and should have access to this health data. Military analysts have also expressed concern about how third parties can use the data to find out where there is an American military presence,” Pew said in its press release.

Meanwhile, how useful the data tracked by the devices can be for medical research purposes may also be debatable. For example, even the best of the devices, the Apple Watch, does not qualify as a medical device, despite its being “FDA certified”.

The survey was conducted by Pew from 3 to 17 June 2019. 4,272 qualified panellists responded to the survey.

ASA bans ad claiming 5G causes infertility

Campaign group Electrosensitivity UK has been told its advert claiming 5G causes infertility and depression cannot be used in its current form as there is no evidence to support the statements.

In response to seven complaints made about the advert, which appeared during July and August, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has put an end to the group’s fearmongering campaign. The ASA simply stated the group lacks robust scientific evidence and is misleading the general public.

The advert featured a family of three holding hands as they walked their dog, along with four quotes from experts and their fears regarding the implementation of 5G. The advert also suggested 5G would cause male infertility, depression, disturbed sleep and headaches, as well as cancer.

In defence of its misleading claims, the organisation stated that no research had been done to prove 5G was safe, the radiation associated with the frequencies is unsafe, a World Health Organisation (WHO) factsheet on mobile connectivity was wrong and UK Government studies were inaccurate and dated.

The group also stated the question ‘How safe is 5G?’ was open-ended and unbiased, and allowed readers to accept, reject or ignore it.

In assessing the advert, the ASA has stated that due to the assertions of Electrosensitivity UK, the group would have to hold robust scientific evidence, including longitudinal studies with human participants. It does not have evidence of this nature.

On the claims the WHO factsheet, entitled ‘Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones’, is in accurate, the ASA has rubbished this as a validation to mislead the general public. Claims the UK Government is also misinformed have also been rubbished.

However, evidence was presented by Electrosensitivity UK to validate its propaganda campaign. This evidence was found to be flimsy, with the ASA noting many of the articles presented were studies on animals rather than humans, or commentary from scientists, as opposed to robust and validated experiments to prove the claim.

In short, Electrosensitivity UK has no scientific justification to make such statements.

While this is a bold statement to make in-light of the drive towards the digital economy, this is not the first time Electrosensitivity UK has found itself on the wrong side of the ASA. In April 2018, another advert from the group was banned which claimed mobile phones caused numerous different health detriments including headaches, heart palpitations, skin disorders and cancer.

Again, the ASA banned this advert on the grounds that Electrosensitivity UK did not have the scientific evidence to support the claims that mobile technology was the cause of such afflictions. And once again, the evidence provided by Electrosensitivity UK to defend the advert was found to be flimsy.

What is worth noting is while there is little science to support the paranoia of Electrosensitivity UK, this is not the only group which is objecting to the rollout of 5G connectivity.

In Brighton during October, councillors and members of parliament were presented with evidence in an attempt to prevent the deployment of 5G equipment by the ‘Brighton and Hove 5G Alliance’. The group made similar health claims to Electrosensitivity UK, and the issue has been kicked down the road for review in the future. For the moment, it does appear paranoia has won out in Brighton.

Although 5G progress has been halted in Brighton, at least Electrosensitivity UK is being held to the proper standards. Unfortunately, the group seems to be a serial offender when it comes to the dissemination of misinformation. Perhaps it won’t be too long before the next attempt to mislead the general public with unvalidated health claims and mis-contextualised science.