Bringing Internet to the Other Half of the World

According to data published by the International Telecoms Union (ITU), the United Nations agency overseeing the telecoms industry, 3.9 billion people, or 51.2% of the world’s total population, were already connected to the internet by the end of 2018. While the 50% mark was hit half a year earlier than the agency’s previous estimate, it nevertheless means that half of the world’s population remains unconnected.

Here we are sharing the opening section of this Telecoms.com Intelligence special briefing to look at the status of the unconnected and under-connected parts of the world and explores how the industry as well as the public sector can overcome the challenges to bring internet to the half of the world yet to be connected.

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.

Introduction: why half of the world is still unconnected

The low internet penetration is particularly acute in the developing countries. While 81% of the population in the developed world are already using the internet, only 45% in the developing countries can do so. Among them, less than 20% of the population in the 47 least developed countries, defined as “low-income countries that are suffering from long-term impediments to growth”, enjoy this luxury.

Source: ITU

There are three leading factors at play to leave a large part of the world off the grid. The first two are interlinked one way or another, the third is out of the telecoms industry’s remit. The most obvious one is pure economics. Diminishing marginal return or increasing marginal cost, often both at the same time, means operators will be less and less motivated to connect the next subscriber than the last. This could be down to the distribution of population. The more sparsely populated the location is, the less rewarding for the operators to reach them it becomes, because, even if the returns are assumed to be equal, the cost will be higher. This could also be related to the socio-economic status of the people. The less well-off the population is, the less attractive it becomes for operators to make the effort, because, even if the cost could be assumed equal, the return would be lower.

There are also technology barriers. Unfriendly terrains, for example mountainous areas, prove extremely challenging for operators to overcome. Related to the economic factors, these areas are also typically not the most densely populated. Satellite communication could be used as an emergency solution but would be too costly to use as regular internet access mode, or for operators to provide it if there is not a sizeable user base especially business users.

In some cases, the hurdle is simply too high for telecoms alone to clear. High internet penetration in North Korea is highly unlikely to happen in the near future without a fundamental change to the country itself, for example.

With these considerations in mind, this report will address the first two factors affecting internet penetration: economic and technology. Specifically, it will attempt to provide answers to these questions:

  • On the supply side, what technology solutions have been made available to drive down the cost level, therefore to make connecting the unconnected more appealing to telecom operators? What are still debatable or being desired? What business case do they present to operators?
  • On the demand side, what factors need to be in place for the unconnected population to be able to afford the connection, and to be willing to embrace it? And what are the factors beyond cost that may also drive the demand?

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The rest of this briefing includes sections on:

  • Supply side solutions: OpenRAN, TIP, and all that
  • The drivers for demand: affordability and more
  • What else should be in place?
  • An interview with Thecla Mbongue, Senior Analyst, Ovum

To access the full briefing please click here

Facebook can’t stop dabbling in financial services

Not content with trying to create a new global currency, Facebook now lets you pay for stuff through all its apps.

The new financial service is simply called Facebook Pay and it lets you use Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp to pay for stuff. This isn’t an extension of Libra, it should be stressed, and is more of a competitor to the payment platforms provided by Google and Apple on smartphones. Indeed Facebook’s biggest challenge is to explain to its users why they need yet another mobile payment platform when there are already so many to choose from.

This bit of the announcement tells us where Facebook thinks USPs can be found: “Facebook Pay will begin rolling out on Facebook and Messenger this week in the US for fundraisers, in-game purchases, event tickets, person-to-person payments on Messenger and purchases from select Pages and businesses on Facebook Marketplace. And over time, we plan to bring Facebook Pay to more people and places, including for use across Instagram and WhatsApp.”

In common with the Google and Apple equivalents, Facebook pay merely acts as a conduit for actual financial service providers like credit cards. The company seems to have identified latent demand for a more seamless payments experience when using its apps. Alternatively it could have taken a look at how huge WeChat is in China and decided it wants some of that action.

Facebook tends to copy rather than innovate and, when it comes to minor features, this approach seems to have served it well. Trying to recreate WeChat in the US, however, is a much larger undertaking and will require some degree of market education, which won’t be easy. Having said that the CCMI people seem to have similar ideas, so US consumers look set for a bit of a mobile revolution in the coming months.

Libra attempts to placate everyone else

Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency has received almost universal push-back since its announcement, so now it’s looking for ways to placate its critics.

To say Libra has had a difficult start would be an understatement. Financial regulators in the US and Europe almost immediately sounded the alarm about the prospect of a new cryptocurrency controlled by one of the world’s dominant digital platforms. They were joined by many other concerned voices in both the public and private sectors and by last week it had lost its biggest allies in the electronic payments world.

This was far from an ideal background to the first formal meeting of the Libra Association, which gathered in Geneva last week, but on the plus side at least it sorted the wheat from the chaff among its initial backers. In the event 21 founding members decided to stick around and sign the Libra Association charter, which is definitely better than nothing.

In a subsequent banking seminar Libra project lead David Marcus told the assembled bankers that Libra was open to looking at a bunch of different options for what form it would take, suggesting they might make it a stablecoin pegged to a bunch of existing fiat currencies, rather than a true cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, that would be subject to similar volatility in value.

That’s being positioned as some kind of major concession to meet regulators half way, but from day one Libra was positioned as a stablecoin, so it’s not obvious how much has changed. The transnational Financial Action Task Force recently has a meeting about stablecoin an seems to be pretty nervous about even that, so it looks like Libra has a lot of obstacles to overcome before it can expect to start winning round its many critics.

Libra partners stampede for the exit

Visa and Mastercard are among a group of partners in Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency venture to decide the whole thing is too risky.

It has been widely reported that internet payment platform Stripe and consumer trading site eBay have also bailed on the project, following PayPal’s decision to step away last week. The general theme of the reasons they give for pulling out is that they still like the concept, but the regulatory heat they’ve all been getting the project was unveiled is just too rich for their blood.

A couple of other factors, on top of the precedent set by PayPal, seem to have influenced the timing of the decision. The Verge reports that Visa, Mastercard and Stripe all got letters from a couple of US Senators last week, warning them of severe regulatory con sequences if they continue with Libra. In addition there’s a Libra meeting today, in which partners are supposed to formalise their commitment to the project, they were compelled to make a choice one way or the other in advance of it.

“Facebook appears to want the benefits of engaging in financial activities without the responsibility of being regulated as a financial services company,” said the most ominous part of the letters. “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related activities, but on all payment activities.”

Having the two dominant global financial services providers pull out is obviously pretty bad news for Libra. It now faces the task of convincing them the threatened regulatory Armageddon won’t come to pass, which won’t be easy. David Marcus, one of the founders of the project, attempted damage limitation on Twitter, but all eyes will be on the outcome of today’s meeting.

 

Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency coalition starts to crumble

Internet financial services giant PayPal is the first member of the Libra coalition to jump ship and probably won’t be the last.

When Facebook announced its audacious cryptocurrency ambitions earlier this year it derived a lot of its legitimacy from persuading a bunch of major financial services providers to formally back the project. Within days, however, regulatory authorities around the world expressed major concerns about the project and indicated they were unlikely to let it go ahead. Stories later emerged of some of the partners getting nervous about the amount of regulatory heat the project was getting.

Now this first of them has formally bailed on the whole thing, with PayPal notifying US media that it has decided to forgo further participation in the Libra Association before muttering about focusing on the day job. It also slightly hedged its position by saying it still thinks Libra is a great idea and it still wants to be friends with Facebook.

If the Libra Association’s response is anything to go by, PayPal’s hopes that Facebook won’t take this personally seem forlorn. The statement it provided to media started by opining that it takes guts to be involved in such an ambitious project and concluded by indicating that it’s pleased to be rid of any wimpy companies that can’t handle a little bit of adversity as early as possible.

That’s a good dig, but Libra should be careful what it wishes for. The coalition is a very loose one, with the members only having gone so far as to back the idea in principle, without committing to anything more substantial, so it’s very easy to bail out at this stage. Having said that, what did the participants expect when they announced their intention to create a new global currency? Of course there was going to be resistance and PayPal looks, at the very least, naïve for losing its nerve so quickly.

France rediscovers the importance of sovereignty in response to Facebook’s cryptocurrency

The French Finance Minister has said he will block Facebook’s plans to launch a global cryptocurrency, citing its threat to monetary sovereignty.

Followers of the Brexit debate in Europe may be surprised to hear France suddenly leaping to the defence of national sovereignty since it’s among the keenest for a federalised European Union, in which nation states are entirely subservient to a trans-continental authority. But it looks like there is at least some residual national pride left among French politicians, it just takes the ambitions of US tech giants to awaken it.

Speaking at an OECD conference on virtual currencies, Bruno Le Maire said “I want to be absolutely clear: in these conditions, we cannot authorise the development of Libra on European soil,” according to AFP. “The monetary sovereignty of countries is at stake from a possible privatisation of money … by a sole actor with more than 2 billion users on the planet.”

Facebook announced its masterplan to revolutionise the global currency system back in June and was immediately met with startled resistance by various governments, including the US, which had assumed currency was their thing. Plenty of other people also expressed alarm at the prospect of a company with many question marks hanging over it suddenly deciding to reinvent money, and it was never likely that a continent that had only recently invented its own currency would tolerate the imposition of another.

It’s hard to see how Facebook will be able to persuade national governments to accept this threat to their currencies, even if they are supranational ones. The fact that France is being especially vocal on the matter is a great illustration of how subjective the matter of sovereignty is. When your opponents want greater independence they’re parochial, isolationist and xenophobic, but when your own interests are threatened, sovereignty becomes a matter of utmost importance.

WhatsApp making progress on WeChat emulation ambitions

Facebook has been promising some sort of payments solution for WhatsApp, and it seems to be making a bit of progress in Indonesia.

According to reports from Reuters, Facebook is in discussions with several potential partners to offer a mobile payment feature in the app in Indonesia. Although this is not Facebook’s first venture into mobile money, there is a stuttering initiative in India, the Indonesian experiment will focus on creating a digital wallet to tap into one of the worlds’ fastest growing eCommerce markets.

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested to investors a wander towards mobile money was an ambition of the business, though this should actually surprise few. When you consider the success of Tencent-owned WeChat in diversifying the offering of the messaging app, Facebook is playing catch-up.

For those who haven’t used WeChat, what you can actually do is quite remarkable. The app was solely focused on messaging to start with, but now you can send images, make phone calls, peer-to-peer payments are included, as are in-store purchase via NFC and paying utility bills. Soon enough, cards could become redundant, such is the growing usage of mobile payments through digital wallets and WeChat.

If Facebook could capture a slice of this success, WhatsApp might start to begin paying off the $19 billion Facebook had to fork out during the acquisition.

The original purchase of WhatsApp was seemingly a means to capture a messaging application which was taking the world by storm. However, the data which WhatsApp would have offered the Facebook advertising machine would have been very beneficial. The team has found integrating the two platforms very difficult to date, though mobile money is certainly a way of creating additional revenues.

In Indonesia, the Facebook team is in discussions with several partners to tap into the eCommerce platform, though in India it is focusing on peer-to-peer payments in-app. There are several reasons for the differing approach, regulatory barriers being one, though experimenting with two ideas could offer two new features for a global rollout.

Interestingly enough, something which might get the White House twitchy is the alleged conversation with one of the potential partners; mobile payments firm DANA, which is backed by Ant Financial, an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group. Considering the current relationship between Washington and Beijing, these must be interesting conversations.

Globally, this is a very good move from Facebook. According to data from Sensor Tower, WhatsApp was the most downloaded application during the first quarter, with 223 million new installs, taking the total north of an estimated 1.5 billion users worldwide. This is a massive addressable audience, representing huge potential if the team can get all the moving parts to align.

Switzerland surprised to hear it will be regulating Facebook’s cryptocurrency

In a testimony before the US Senate Facebook indicated its Libra cryptocurrency will run from Switzerland, but it forgot to ask the Swiss if that was OK.

David Marcus, who is heading up Libra on Facebook’s behalf, testified before the US Senate Banking Committee in response to profound alarm from US lawmakers at the prospect of the social media giant developing its own currency. According to CNBC he said the data and privacy regulation of the currency will be overseen by a Swiss agency, as that’s where Libra will be based, but they say that’s the first they’ve heard of it.

In his testimony, which you can watch in full here if that’s your thing, Marcus said the Swiss Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) will keep an eye on the data protection side of things, which must have only offered partial reassurance to US senators worried their citizens were vulnerable to having their data exploited yet again.

Imagine their horror, then, when they read the CNBC report and learned that Facebook and its Libra pals haven’t even made contact with the FDPIC yet. This failing, later confirmed by Facebook itself, it just the latest slip-up in what has been a frankly shambolic launch. You’d think Facebook would have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ before unveiling a grand plan to revolutionise the global banking system and its failure to even check in with one of the proposed regulators it just embarrassing.

As TechCrunch notes, the data privacy side of all this is arguably the greatest concern as there will apparently be little control over developers that use the platform. Given the negative consequences of a fairly minor misuse of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica it’s baffling to see Facebook be so cavalier about this. The likelihood of Libra ever being set free is, on balance, increasingly small.

US lawmakers formally demand a halt to Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency

As threatened a couple of weeks ago, the House Financial Services Committee has called for Facebook to halt its cryptocurrency plans.

The demand came in the form of a letter signed by the Chairwoman of the Committee Maxine Walters and a few other members of the House of Representatives that share her concerns. The letter was addressed to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO of Calibra, the company Facebook created to exploit the Libra opportunity, David Marcus.

“We write to request that Facebook and its partners immediately agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on Libra—its proposed cryptocurrency and Calibra—its proposed digital wallet,” opened the letter. “It appears that these products may lend themselves to an entirely new global financial system that is based out of Switzerland and intended to rival U.S. monetary policy and the dollar. This raises serious privacy, trading, national security, and monetary policy concerns for not only Facebook’s over 2 billion users, but also for investors, consumers, and the broader global economy.”

The letter went on to detail quite how worrisome this disruption to the established way of things is and how little Facebook has done so far to allay these worries. The main concern seems to be similar to that attached to all cryptocurrency, that it will provide liquidity to ‘bad actors’. The difficulty of the US poking its nose into an organization based in Switzerland seems to be the main national security concern. They also spend a paragraph reviewing Facebook’s dodgy privacy track record.

“Because Facebook is already in the hands of a over quarter of the world’s population, it is imperative that Facebook and its partners immediately cease implementation plans until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine these issues and take action,” concludes the letter. “During this moratorium, we intend to hold public hearings on the risks and benefits of cryptocurrency-based activities and explore legislative solutions. Failure to cease implementation before we can do so, risks a new Swiss-based financial system that is too big to fail.”

Facebook and its partners must have anticipated this kind of reaction when they made their announcement. The Libra project is so grand in its scope and ambition they couldn’t possibly have expected authorities to adopt a laissez faire attitude, even if Facebook had a spotless reputation. It’s also hard to see how Facebook can do anything other than comply with the request and prepare itself for an exhaustive oversight process. Don’t expect to see Libra in the wild anytime soon.

US politicians alarmed by Facebook’s cryptocurrency masterplan

The announcement of a new currency led by Facebook has caught the attention of US law-makers and not in a good way.

The Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, Maxine Waters, is alarmed by the prospect of a massive company with a patchy track record when it comes to data protection and censorship having control of a global currency. She published the following statement on the matter soon after the unveiling of Libra.

“Facebook has data on billions of people and has repeatedly shown a disregard for the protection and careful use of this data,” said Waters. “It has also exposed Americans to malicious and fake accounts from bad actors, including Russian intelligence and transnational traffickers. Facebook has also been fined large sums and remains under a FTC consent order for deceiving consumers and failing to keep consumer data private, and has also been sued by the government for violating fair housing laws on its advertising platform.

“With the announcement that it plans to create a cryptocurrency, Facebook is continuing its unchecked expansion and extending its reach into the lives of its users. The cryptocurrency market currently lacks a clear regulatory framework to provide strong protections for investors, consumers, and the economy. Regulators should see this as a wake-up call to get serious about the privacy and national security concerns, cybersecurity risks, and trading risks that are posed by cryptocurrencies.

“Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action. Facebook executives should also come before the Committee to provide testimony on these issues.”

Waters isn’t the only representative to express concern and at least one Senator has joined the party, as you can see in the tweet below. Regulators are going through a period of realising they were very slow to acknowledge the magnitude of social media and they should be keen to show they’ll be less complacent about money than they were information. It seems likely that Facebook will have to jump through a lot more hoops to launch this product than it has had to previously.