Norway says yes to Huawei

The Norwegian Government has said it will not ban Huawei from providing network infrastructure equipment or services to fuel the drive towards 5G.

According to Reuters, Cabinet Minister Nikolai Astrup, the man who leads digital efforts across the government, has confirmed Huawei is free to operate in the country. While it is not the largest market for telco vendors, it is another positive sign that not everyone around the world will side with the US.

“We have a good dialogue with the companies on security, and then it is up to the companies themselves to choose suppliers,” said Astrup. “We haven’t got any bans against any suppliers in Norway.”

For Huawei executives, there will be a sigh of relief. Norway was one of the countries which was considering a ban on the grounds of national security, though this now appears to be a process designated to the past. It also demonstrates decisive action from a government; others around the world should take note.

Although Norwegian telcos fall into the fast-follower category for 5G deployment, they now have the advantage of certainty. Other countries, where services are already launched, do not have this confidence as decisions are still currently being made. The UK is a prime example of this.

The Supply Chain Review, on which Huawei’s hopes are pinned, is still under consideration. EE, Vodafone and Three might have already launched 5G services, though they are currently sitting in a state of purgatory. Without absolute confirmation of Huawei’s role in the UK’s digital infrastructure future, aggressive deployment plans are tricky. This is most apparent for Three and Vodafone, where Huawei is pencilled in to play a very significant role.

This dilemma is not present in Norway anymore. Telenor, Norway’s largest telco, plans to launch commercial 5G services in 2020 and can drive towards full-scale network deployment without any limitations on vendor selection from the government. We do not expect any single vendor will be a single-supplier, though it does have increased choice of suppliers compared to other nations.

Elsewhere in the Norwegian telco space, Telia and Ice will also be prepping themselves following the country’s first 5G spectrum auction in June. At the end of the auction, Telenor and Telia each walked away with two 10 MHz blocks 700 MHz spectrum, while Ice collected two 10 MHz blocks in 700 MHz and two 15 MHz lots in the 2100 MHz band. Further auctions are planning over the next few years, with the valuable 3.4-3.8 MHz and 26 GHz bands up for bid next year.

Looking at the relationships which are currently in place, Telenor and Telia have a partnership with Huawei, while Ice has elected to side with Scandinavian neighbour Nokia. Most recently, Telenor has been working with Huawei to trial 5G in the 26 GHz spectrum band, while Telia’s Swedish parent company signed a 5G MOU with Huawei in 2016. Both of the companies have Huawei equipment present in the 4G networks.

Ice is the smallest telco in Norway, it doesn’t have nation-wide coverage just yet, and has elected to work with Nokia. Nokia appears to be providing an end-to-end solution for the challenger telco, which is claiming to have already deployed 1000 5G-ready base stations in its network. Ice is an interesting telco to keep an eye-on, as while it is driving towards 5G connectivity, it still has a significant amount to invest to gain nation-wide coverage for its 4G network, which currently stands at 75% geographical coverage. This might not sound too bad, though when you consider the environmental challenges Norway’s landscape presents, it will be very difficult to improve this footprint quickly.

Another interesting element to consider here will be the impact this has on the relationship between the US and Norway. The US is continuing to pressure partners to place a ban on Huawei, and despite making progress in Poland, more countries are choosing to ignore the demands of the White House.

Looking at the Norwegian export statistics, you can see why the US does not have the same influence as it does with other states. Norway is the 36th largest export economy in the world and the 22nd most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Exports stood at $106 billion at the end of 2017, with crude petroleum and petroleum gas topping the list.

In terms of destinations, Europe accounted for 80% of all exports from the country, the UK led the way with 20%, while the US accounted for 4.7%. This is still a substantial number, though the US cannot force its will on the politicians in the same way.

Although the continued conflict between the US and China, in which Huawei is somewhat of a proxy for collateral damage, is causing discomfort for the vendor, it could be a lot worse. Worse case scenarios were drawn-up when the tension got to breaking point, though with numerous governments choosing to ignore the severity claims from the US, Huawei remains in a healthy(ish) position.

Utilities to focus on disrupting pedestrians not vehicles

The UK Department of Transport has unveiled a new consultation which proposes new utilities infrastructure would have to be installed under pavements as opposed to roads.

The aim is to reduce disruptions to traffic across the country. Said disruptions to people’s journeys and congestion are estimated to cost the economy around £4 billion, though the new proposition is supposedly one which can address this. This new approach will be applicable to telcos for fibre, but also electricity, gas and water companies.

The consultation document states:

“Unless the Permit Authority consents to the placing of apparatus under the carriageway including to assist with the roll-out of national infrastructure projects or to enable urban greening and street trees, it is a condition of this permit that activities placing new apparatus underground should, where possible and practical, be placed under the footway, footpath or verge.”

The concept of the consultation is simple. When laying new infrastructure utilities and telcos will have to dig up pavements not the road anymore. It seems it is a lot more important to get people to work than to keep the pavements safe, though this might be an interesting approach to reduce the disruptions caused by 2.5 million road works each year.

As part of a wider scheme which will be known as ‘Digital Street Manager’, the Department of Transport also intends to force the utilities to be much more organized when deploying or upgrading infrastructure. It seems residents and local authorities are sick of roads being repeatedly being dug up, when realistically multiple projects could be completed back-to-back, minimising disruptions.

While this is not the sort of consultation which will have people rioting in the streets, there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument.

The idea of digging up pavements as opposed to roads has been the norm in some countries around the world for some time, such as Germany, and it does reduce disruptions. This is not to say it can be applied every time, but however it is sensible. Most roads have pavements on both sides of the road, therefore pedestrians can simply cross the road should there be work being done.

That said, there is criticism. Some might suggest the work would still overflow onto the road as there are few pavements which are wide enough to house a digger and several workmen. You also have to wonder what those with front doors which open directly onto the pavement would do during the works. Presumably in some awkward situations they would have to just give up on going in or out of their home until the work has been completed.

Another point to consider is the ‘real estate’ which is actually available. Gas or water pipes are not exactly small, and most pavements are not exactly wide. When you have to find space for the pipes, electricity wires and fibre cabling, you might run out of room rather quickly. In some cases, it might simply be impossible.

It is an interesting idea, and while something does need to be done to ensure civil engineering projects are completed in the most efficient manner, the industry has been calling for less red-tape not additional regulations…

Vodafone ponders spin off of European tower business

After reporting declines in group revenues, Vodafone needed to bring some good news to the earnings call, and it seems the creation of a standalone tower business has done the job.

CEO Nick Read announced during the Q3 earnings call work had begun to legally separate the European tower infrastructure business, with plans to have the new organization up-and-running by May 2020. The team intends to monetize the tower business through an IPO or disposal of a minority stake in the next 18 months, dependent on market conditions.

“We will capture industrial efficiencies through network sharing agreements signed in multiple markets, and today we are announcing the decision to create Europe’s largest tower company,” said Read. “We believe there is a substantial opportunity to unlock the embedded value of our towers, and we have started preparations for a range of monetisation options over the next 18 months, including a potential IPO.”

Looking at the revenues, total group revenues declined by 2.3% year-on-year for the quarter to €10.6 billion, with Europe accounting for a 2.1% decline. Italy and Spain accounted for the biggest drops across the continent, though the operational challenges faced here are well-known to all. Germany and the UK both offered marginal growth, but there is hope on the horizon for these two markets.

In both the UK and Germany, Vodafone is readying itself for a more aggressive push into the convergence game with broadband offerings. In the UK, it has partnered with the rapidly expanding CityFibre and launched a 5G FWA offering, while in Germany, the recently approved Liberty Global acquisition will give it more of a presence in the cable market.

“Modest results in a challenging competitive European environment,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. The move to lead in 5G with punchy pricing gives it a perfect opportunity to gain momentum. But margins will continue to be under immense pressure with unlimited price plans.”

On the network side, Vodafone is readying itself for an expansive rollout into the 5G world. Being one of the world’s largest operators does sound nice, however the catch is that there are massive financial commitments when it comes to infrastructure overhauls, such as the one the 5G era presents. With a new network sharing partnership in the UK with O2, a tie-up with Orange in Spain and potentially one with Telecom Italia in Italy, the burden could certainly be lessened.

While this is all good news for the operations, the tower infrastructure business will steal the headlines. This is becoming an increasingly common trend in the telco world as operators look to appease the financial appetites of investors by monetizing tower infrastructure assets. On the surface, it does seem to have worked, share price has risen almost 9% in early morning trading.

“Exploring options to float or monetise infrastructure assets is becoming a fashionable play among some network operators, motivated by driving greater value from them and reducing costs,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight.

“Better asset utilisation and driving greater efficiency has been a leading part of Vodafone CEO Nick Read’s strategy so far. The company has also established a number of 5G network-sharing deals, increased focus on online sales and customer care and replaced many legacy tariffs with new simplified plans.”

Ofcom forces Openreach to open up again and reintroduces Dark Fibre

Ofcom has proposed new rules which will force Openreach to open up more of its network to other communications service providers.

Access to ducts and poles owned by Openreach has been a point of interest for Ofcom for some time, and now it appears the regulator is gathering momentum. As it stands, Openreach has to offer rivals access to its telegraph poles and underground ducts when providing services to consumers and SMEs, though the new rules will extend this ‘co-operation’ to enterprise scale and mobile backhaul connectivity services.

“The amount of internet data used by people in the UK is expanding by around half every year,” said Jonathan Oxley, Ofcom’s Competition Group Director. “So, we’ll need faster, more reliable connections for our homes, offices and mobile networks.

“Our measures are designed to support the UK’s digital future by providing investment certainty for continued competitive investment in fibre and 5G networks across the country.”

Although the likes of Virgin Media, TalkTalk and CityFibre are among the firms already using Openreach’s ducts and poles, to date the rules have been somewhat of a halfway measure. Improving access to Openreach infrastructure will improve the potential business case for all telecom services, offering greater prospects for competition.

The draft rules also bring the Dark Fibre discussion back into the fray.

In areas where BT faces no competition, Openreach would be required to give competitors physical access to its fibre-optic cables, at a price that reflects its costs. BT has always argued against the Dark Fibre suggestions from Ofcom, with the telco challenging rules brought forward by the regulator in the 2016 Business Connectivity Market Review.

BT’s legal challenge focused on the market definitions Ofcom used in the market review, with the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) agreeing with the telco:

“The Competition Appeal Tribunal has found Ofcom to have erred in relation to various aspects of the decisions concerning market definition under appeal and required Ofcom to look again at some specific matters concerning market definition.”

This of course did not end the pursuit of Dark Fibre, but it did send Ofcom back to the drawing board. What is worth noting is that BT is not the only infrastructure owner to find issues with the obsession with lighting up Dark Fibre.

Following the decision from CAT, Ofcom promised to do better next time, much to the dismay of CityFibre.

“However, whilst the quashing of the BCMR is welcome, Ofcom’s response today appears to double down on its misguided approach to assessing the scope for competition whilst maintaining its flawed fixation with regulated dark fibre access,” said Mark Collins, Director Strategy & Policy at CityFibre.

“It’s pessimism about the prospects for real, infrastructure-based competition perversely restricts alternative providers’ ability to compete.”

The argument from the likes of CityFibre and BT is relatively simple. Dark Fibre removes the drive for infrastructure investment. Why would rivals want to spend money on fibre deployment when they could just force those who are making the plunge into working with them. It could potentially create a position where everyone is sitting, waiting on the starting line, waiting for a rival to twitch first.

That said, Vodafone does not feel the Dark Fibre rules go far enough.

“We support competition, but Ofcom’s proposals to grant access to dark fibre only on the fringes while loosening its price controls on BT Openreach will mean businesses and the public sector paying more to meet their connectivity needs,” said a Vodafone spokesperson.

“There is an alternative. Providing universal access to dark fibre now would give the UK the connectivity it needs, at a price everyone can afford. Sadly this is another opportunity Ofcom has missed to plug the full fibre hole in the UK.”

What is worth noting is that these rules are draft proposals for the moment. There is likely to be push-back from the likes of Openreach and CityFibre, and perhaps legal challenges in the mid-term. What rules are eventually introduced might look very different in a couple of months.

UPDATE: 24/05/19, 12.20pm: Openreach has released the following statement:

“Last year we delivered our best ever service performance, but we want to keep improving and we share Ofcom’s desire to improve service across the industry.

“Our ducts and poles have been open to other companies since 2011, and we recognise that unrestricted access is a natural next step, so we had volunteered to get on with that, ahead of Ofcom’s original schedule.

“We welcome the greater clarity around Dark Fibre and the timeframe needed to deliver a fully functional product to market.

“We’ll consider the range of proposals carefully, and we’ll continue to work with Ofcom on developing an environment that encourages greater investment.”

UK rural collaboration back on the table

Getting competitors to work together for the greater good is a complex and often failed task, but the latest effort to address ‘not spots’ in the UK is holding steady.

Following a meeting with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the CEOs of the four major UK MNOs have agreed, in theory, on a collaboration plan which will address the not spots in the UK. For those languishing in the rural regions of the UK, this news will come as a welcome boost to digital ambitions.

However, what is worth noting is this is not a done deal. Collaboration plans have fallen apart in the past, and there is still plenty of room for error.

The plan itself is one which is built on the idea of reciprocation. Instead of forcing the telcos to open up infrastructure to competitors, an idea which would be more beneficial to certain parties, or imposing a ‘national roaming’ initiative, the telcos are discussing two separate and parallel paths forward.

Firstly, one competitor would open up infrastructure to another should the same be done in return. This would reward telcos for (1) investing in the rural communities and (2) working alongside a rival. Building a mast could compound coverage gains with reciprocal agreements. This is more for the areas where users have limited choice in providers.

Secondly, the areas which do not fall into the footprint of any telco. The four telcos are proposing the creation of a new company which would focus on building infrastructure in the not-spots. This infrastructure would be accessible to all telcos, potentially filling-in the digital voids throughout the countryside.

French council gets sick of waiting for MNOs so goes it alone

The local government in Eure-et-Loir has seemingly got tired of waiting for the MNOs to end not-spots in the countryside, deciding to construct its own masts in the region.

Announced via Twitter, the local authority approved funding for the ‘Eure-et-Loir Mobile Networks’ project in an effort to bridge the digital divide. The scheme will create a new company, which will have a budget of €10 million and aim for 100% geographical 4G coverage, through building its own mobile infrastructure.

“The @eurelien department is the first in France to create a project company to accelerate the deployment of the #4G throughout its territory, for 2021,” Eure-et-Loir Department Advisor Remi Martial said on Twitter.

In claiming to be the first Department in France to take such action, with the move somewhat undermining government plans to tackle the rural connectivity problem. Announced back in January 2018, the ‘New Deal Programme’ was designed to tackle not-spots across the country, though it appears the Eure-et-Loir local authority has little confidence in the scheme.

Two firms bid to be part of the project, with ATC winning. ATC will now enter into a public-private-investment scheme with the Eure-et-Loir authority to improve mobile coverage. Reports have previously suggested the region is short of 100 mobile masts to provide adequate 4G coverage.

When you consider the environment, it starts to make sense why the Eure-et-Loir region is not necessarily a priority for the MNOs. With a population of 432,967 (2013) it is the 55th largest region across France, with a population density of 74 citizens per km2. Compared to Paris, 21,234 per km2 or Hauts-de-Seine, 9,042 per km2 the business case is less convincing.

That said, should the hard work be done for the MNOs, renting space to place mobile equipment is a small price to pay for meeting government demands and improving coverage. With the vast majority of capital being allocated into civil engineering aspects of the project, few will complain, even if it does give the impression of mediocrity.

 

Despite a $1 billion loss ZTE is seeing light at the end of the tunnel

The Chinese telecom vendor ZTE reported a total annual net loss of over $1 billion from its business in 2018 but is foreseeing returning to profit in Q1 2019.

After a roller-coaster year, ZTE reported a total operating revenue of RMB 85.5 billion ($12.7 billion, at the exchange rate $1=RMB6.7233) in 2018, a 21.4% decline from a year ago. The net loss amounted to RMB 6.9837 billion ($1.04 billion), down from a net profit of RMB 4.57 billion from 2017, or a decline of 253%. After pulling off a surprising return to profit in Q3 last year,  the net profit in Q4 came down to RMB 276 million, narrowed by more than a half from the RMB 564 million from the previous quarter, despite that the quarterly revenue increased by over 38%.

When looking at the results by business lines and by sector, we can see that its consumer business, mainly smartphones, which account for more than a quarter of ZTE’s business before the US sanction, suffered the heaviest decline. The unit’s total revenue came down by 45%, and only accounted for 22% of the total business in 2018. The revenue from carrier’s network business shrank by 10.5%, and that from B2B business including public sector was down by 6%.

When it came to its performances in different markets, the heaviest decline came from its business in mature markets in Europe, Americas and Oceania, where the revenues dropped by 45%, followed by that from Asia, which was down by 25%. The domestic market, representing 63.7% of ZTE’s total business, suffered a decline of 12%. Its business in Africa actually registered a growth of 8.4%, despite that it only accounted for less than 5% of ZTE’s total business. Incidentally, it was in Africa that ZTE reaped the highest gross margin of 48%, compared to 38% in China, and only 13% in Europe, Americas and Oceania.

The decline of the annual total business could largely be attributed to the heavy fines of $1.4 billion ZTE had to pay the US government for the settlement in the middle of last year, in addition to the wholesale change of management and the board. The market has chosen to look at the upside after the ban was lifted. Its share price had already gone up by over 50% by the end of last year and has now more than doubled the low of last July.

Looking forward, ZTE predicted that it would generate between RMB 0.8 billion and RMB 1.2 billion ($119 million to $178 million) net profit during Q1. To power future growth, the company spent 12.8% of its income on R&D during 2018 and will continue to do so this year. In particular, ZTE “has continuously concentrated on the core 5G technical fields and further intensified 5G R&D investment.”

However, 5G is a long play, and is a game that there is no guarantee ZTE will win. The prospects in China, by far ZTE’s biggest market, are less than certain, as the Chinese operators are among the cautious ones when it comes to 5G investment. Africa and Pakistan, where the company has a relatively strong position, are not going to deliver results from 5G very soon. In Europe and North America, where its customer base is already limited, ZTE has been included in the list of “Chinese vendors” which the US government is lobbying to ban, despite the limelight is often on Huawei, ZTE’s arch-rival.

BT pleads for open access to street furniture

BT is attempting to rally the industry in an attempt to convince local authorities to ditch the current exclusive concessions model in UK cities in favour of an ‘Open Access Model’.

As it stands, many local authorities operate a concessions model which grant a single player exclusive access to council-owned street furniture, such as lamp posts, to place mobile network equipment. This might seem attractive to the councils from a revenue perspective, but BT is arguing this will be to the detriment of the digital economy in the long-run.

“While the concessions model made sense in the early 2010’s when it first came into common use, the market and regulatory landscape have changed, and it’s become clear that exclusivity agreements act as a barrier to further 4G and 5G investments,” said Paul Ceely, Director of Network Strategy for BT.

“Government initiatives such as the DCMS Barrier Busting taskforce are showing the way, but we believe that industry needs to act. We are leading the way by handing back exclusivity in nine key areas.”

BT currently operates nine exclusive concessions (Glasgow, Cardiff, Brighton, Plymouth, Carlisle, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham, Gloucester and Leicester) and is proposing to end these contracts should the result be an open access environment. The new model would grant all mobile operators and infrastructure companies access to street furniture, paying the local authorities a flat, consistent rate.

Although it is not a new gripe, the bureaucratic and regulatory environment across the UK has once again been blamed for connectivity problems. Almost all the operators have had a moan at the red-tape wrapped regulatory landscape at one point or another, but an open access model would appear to be a sensible step forward to encourage improved mobile coverage and experience.

However, what should be worth noting is there are authorities who have made progress in this area without prompts from industry.

“One of the reasons why the West Midlands was chosen as the location for the UK’s first region-wide 5G test bed was our commitment as a region to do what it takes to work with operators to get the 5G networks we need built in the fastest, fairest and most cost effective way,” said Henry Kippin, Director of Public Service Reform at the West Midlands Combined Authority.

“The timing and spirit of this Open Access initiative is ideal as we will make faster progress through operators and public services working together to a shared agenda so that 5G can fulfil its full potential in driving economic growth that can benefit all our diverse communities.”

While some small-minded public servants might point to the lost revenue when ending the exclusive concessions, you have to look at the long-term benefits. The West Midlands is now home to numerous 5G test beds, R&D facilities and is home to hubs of excellence for emerging technologies.

Whether the local authorities pay attention to logic is an entirely different matter, but any suggestions to decrease the red-tape complications of UK bureaucracy should be welcomed by all.