Three UK talks up its 5G investment plans

The UK’s fourth MNO, Three, has given a public update on its investment priorities and plans for 5G.

The headline figure is £2 billion, which is what Three says it is committed to spend on 5G stuff. Apparently Three customers are more data-hungry than average, so it’s even more important that it drops enough cash to ensure its infrastructure can keep up. The intended message seems to be that Three is for real in the 5G era and the other UK MNOs had better watch their backs.

“We have always led on mobile data and 5G is another game-changer,” said Three CEO Dave Dyson. “Also described as wireless fibre, 5G delivers a huge increase in capacity together with ultra-low latency.  It opens up new possibilities in home broadband and industrial applications, as well as being able to support the rapid growth in mobile data usage.

“This is a major investment into the UK’s digital infrastructure. UK consumers have an insatiable appetite for data and 5G unlocks significant capability to meet that demand. We have been planning our approach to 5G for many years and we are well positioned to lead on this next generation of technology.  These investments are the latest in a series of important building blocks to deliver the best end to end data experience for our customers.”

Dyson also had some stuff to say on the matter of Huawei potentially getting a hard time from UK public bodies which you can read more about here. So where is all this wedge going to end up? Details are thin on the ground right now and it looks like the headline figure includes some investment already made. Three did offer the following highlights of its 5G investments so far.

  • Acquired the UK’s leading 5G spectrum portfolio
  • Signed an agreement for the rollout of new cell site technology to prepare major urban areas for the rollout of 5G devices, as well as enhance the 4G experience
  • Built a super high-capacity dark fibre network, which connects 20 new, energy efficient and highly secure data centres
  • Deployed a world-first – a 5G-ready, fully integrated cloud native core network in the new data centres, which at launch will have an initial capacity of 1.2TB/s, a three-fold increase from today’s capacity, and can scale further, cost effectively and quickly.
  • Rolled out carrier aggregation technology on 2,500 sites in busiest areas, improving speeds for customers

Vodafone announces 2019 commercial launch and 1k 5G sites by 2020

Vodafone has confirmed it will be ready to hit the 5G on-switch as soon as devices are available on the market, though only in Manchester in the first instance.

Speaking at the gloriously named Future Ready press conference in the telcos Newbury HQ, CTO Scott Petty confirmed the team will be ready for a commercial launch in 2019, though whether the devices will be available is another matter. Having launched in seven urban and rural locations over 2019, Vodafone will have 1,000 5G sites live by 2020 as the beast scales.

“Next year we’ll be launching in rural areas where there is great data growth based on innovation in those areas,” said Petty. “For instance, Cornwall and the Lake District will have 5G in 2019 and not just London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham.”

It’s unsurprising the tech hubs will be getting the 5G euphoria first, though the rural focus is an interesting one. Few rural communities have fast-tracked to the front of the queue with any technology breakthrough, though Petty highlighted such experiments are important in building the 5G business case. It’s not just about autonomous vehicles, smart grids or real-time business analytics, what about agricultural IoT (the connected cow made an appearance at the event) and fixed wireless access? These are use cases which can be validated in Cornwall and the Lake District, two regions which have been identified as rural hot spots for data activity.

Vodafone Cow

IoT is clearly a massive driver for the business, the breadth and scale of the IoT business was pointed to unsubtly several times throughout the day, with the team claiming it has the biggest and fastest growing IoT business worldwide. 70 million ‘things’ are already connected to the network, a number which is set to increase as Vodafone continues to engage its sizeable enterprise business customer base.

With EE declaring its 5G network would be up and running during 2019, it was only going to be a matter of time before Vodafone got in on the act. But before we get too excited, we’ll have to wait for the devices to hit the market.

“You will see some announcements around MWC from Android manufacturers with their own silicon,” said Petty, hinting perhaps at Samsung and Huawei.

LG and Motorola are seemingly going to be the first manufacturers to launch in mid-2019, though Petty is looking more towards end-2019 and 2020 for scalable launches to the mass market. As it stands, there is still a lot of work to do. Having travelled to the US to visit currently unnamed manufacturers, Petty highlighted the devices are still too big, 2-3 times the size of current devices, with the battery and antennas proving to be the difficulties.

This is nothing to be too shocked about, new spectrum means new problems with the antennas and getting them small enough was always going to be a challenge. The devices are also far too demanding on the battery, again unsurprising. Petty highlighted when it came to MIMO panels, it took the industry 12 months to get a functional product down from 60kg to a more suitable 20kg. The technology works, it’s just shrinking it to a practical size now.

Of course what is worth noting is this isn’t just smartphones but also network equipment availability. 5G specifications were only finalised last year so there is a race to the finish line for the network vendors, all excluding ZTE which does not feature in the Vodafone footprint whatsoever.

Scott Petty

With the 5G dawn just about to break, Vodafone looks to be in a promising position. Redstream, its fully integrated voice, data, optical and IOT network, is up and running with 4000 access nodes and 1500 pops already deployed, while more customers and services are being migrated across. This is a key pillar of the 5G strategy, as Petty highlighted it allows the team to switch off the troublesome legacy equipment and networks, while also retiring legacy products. 80 have already been sent to pasture.

“Redstream is the foundation building block for everything we need for 5G,” said Petty.

Elsewhere, a new digital exchange layer, which allows people to separate the digital services from the underlying billing systems, has been developed allowing the team to build highly flexible, agile technologies and services, adding new channels and services rapidly. Alongside the progression adoption of Devops throughout the business, the team can move from quarterly to monthly and weekly software updates, with the option of daily updates being the holy grail.

With the 5G promise so close to becoming a reality, some of the European telcos are doing their best to wrong stereotypes. With Vodafone UK patiently hovering around the on-switch, waiting for the emergence of compatible devices, some might be fooled into believing the UK is a 5G leader.

Darker days forcing Vodafone CEO towards tower unit sale

The doom and gloom outlook at Vodafone seems to be strangling the glint out of the eyes of designate CEO Nick Read, as the incoming boss ponders selling off the tower business.

According to the Financial Times, Read made comments at Goldman Sachs 27th Communacopia Conference in New York, seemingly reacting to a slump in Vodafone share price since the beginning of the year. With €31 billion debt and share price down roughly 35% through the last twelve months, something needs to change.

Competition in the Spanish and Italian markets and an exiting CEO are hardly going to inspire confidence in the business, though a gloomy trading update for the remainder of the year make things slightly more awkward. Pressure will soon start to mount up from investors, though the entry of activist investor group Elliott Management will almost certainly ramp up the background noise.

With 110,000 towers across Europe, 55,000 of which are directly controlled, there is an opportunity to relieve some of the pressure, with a sale expected to generate in the region of €12 billion. The Idea merger won’t have been cheap, India has been a recurring headache, though the takeover of Liberty Global’s German and eastern European operations will also weigh heavy on the spreadsheets. The scene is perfectly suited for vulture fund Elliott to cause chaos.

As an investor, Elliott scours the globe for businesses which is deems underperforming on the financial markets. The team rile up other investors, often attempting to force the hand of the current management team into asset disposals and other short-term strategies, to inflate share price. It’s a pump and dump strategy which has proved incredibly effective for one of the world’s most influential investment management firms.

What is worth noting is this is not an announcement. Read has reacted to questions and is simply blue-sky-thinking the strategy, though this might be a toe dipping exercise to soften the eventual reception. He has declared this would not be a traditional transaction, should it become more concrete, as any potential buyer would have to be “more open to different formulas”.

We wonder whether this is the most sensible actions from the CEO. There is no such thing as a bad idea, though this could be a notion for Elliott to sink its teeth into. Vodafone will not want to sell its tower unit, unless absolutely forced to, though this has simply offered Elliott some ammunition and credibility to throw back in the future. This is a firm which doesn’t need to be encouraged to charge towards short-term ambitions, though Read seems to be helping it out.

Aussie watchdog reviews termination regulations

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has kicked off a public inquiry to decide whether to extend, vary or revoke the domestic mobile terminating access service (MTAS) declaration.

MTAS is the wholesale service offered between the mobile operators to allow customers to call and send texts to those who might use a different providers. The terminating network (the one receiving the call or text) charges the originating one, which in turn recovers the cost from the consumer through monthly tariffs. The issue which the ACCC wants to address is the way in which consumers are communicating with each other.

“Increasingly, consumers are choosing over-the-top services to make calls and send messages,” said ACCC Commissioner Cristina Cifuentes. “These fall outside the MTAS service description and we are interested in knowing whether the ability of consumers to choose these ways of communicating means that declaration of the MTAS is no longer necessary.

“Regulation of wholesale mobile termination has, in the past, helped to lower retail prices for mobile services for the benefit of consumers. This inquiry will consider whether continued regulation is needed to deliver this result. Given the pace of technological change in mobile networks, the ACCC will seek to determine whether the service description remains fit-for-purpose and accurate. We also intend to test what effect the declaration of SMS services in 2014 has had on relevant markets, in particular its impact on consumers.”

The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 requires the ACCC to review the current MTAS declaration during the 18 month period before it expires, which will be on June 30 2019. Such is the size of the Australian landscape, the ACCC believes operators effectively have a monopoly when it comes to accessing its customers, therefore regulation is required. Back in 2014, the introduction of the original declaration was justified to ensure operators did not deny or set unreasonable terms of access to these termination services.

The review will decide whether MTAS should remain a ‘declared’ or regulated service in light of changes in the way consumers use devices. As it stands, there is a difference of opinion in the industry. During the commissions Sector Market Study, Telstra and TPG said they were in favour of a less regulated service, while Macquarie Telecom, Vodafone and MessageMedia were all in support of ongoing regulation.

AT&T network revealed as the most useful asset of spymaster NSA

AT&T has been unveiled as one of the NSA’s biggest assets as the intelligence agency proves to be a difficult rash to get rid of.

In years gone by, the NSA has not been the shining light of the intelligence community. What started off as a little bit of spying on leaders of movements protesting the Vietnam War and economic espionage, evolved into warrantless wiretapping, illegally obtaining evidence against US citizens and various different examples of unethical data mining. Now it has been revealed AT&T is the telco harbouring the NSA’s continued and questionable Big Brother ambitions.

According to The Intercept, eight AT&T buildings across the US are used for the NSAs surveillance initiative, known as ‘Fairview’. The programme dates back to 1985, and gives the agency direct access to raw data that passes through the US, including emails, web browsing, social media and any other form of unencrypted online activity. The eight hubs in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, provide the backbone of the project, for which AT&T is the only telco involved.

While AT&T has a significant network which would prove to be an asset to any intelligence agency, it is the relationships with other organizations which seems to be one of the most important factors here. ‘Peering’ is a common practice in the communications world, allowing telcos to offload traffic onto another telco’s network should congestion get to a certain point. AT&T not only has these relationships with US telcos, but many international ones such as Telia, Tata Communications, Telecom Italia, and Deutsche Telekom, offering a glutton of data to anyone monitoring the network.

Only eight of AT&T facilities across the US offer access to the networks’ ‘common backbone’, though through these data centres the NSA can access a significant amount of information, both domestic and international. Although the data exchange during the ‘peering process’ takes place outside of the AT&T network initially, the data is then routed through the telco’s network. Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician claims it is an incredibly efficient means of monitoring as everyone will cross the AT&T network at some point through the practice of peering. Data is collected through AT&T access links, before being transferred to a processing facility, codenamed ‘Pinecone’, and then onto two NSA systems, before making its way to the spymaster’s HQ in Fort Meade in Maryland.

The NSA calls this idea ‘home field advantage’. It describes the location and strategic importance of the US as home of many of the world’s largest internet companies. With the vast amount of the world’s intercontinental internet traffic travelling through subsea fibre optic cables, a large portion of this information pass across the cables is routed at one point through the US. Data travels across the internet in the cheapest fashion, not the most direct, therefore the bounties offered to the NSA are significant. 197 petabytes of data pass across what AT&T describes as the ‘world’s most powerful network’ every day.

Once at NSA HQ, the data is integrated into two databases called Mainway and Marina, which store and analyse the metadata. The information is then made available to NSA employees through tool named XKeyScore. Here the NSA can access everything from the content of emails to web-browser history and webcam photos.

Although we should hardly be surprised by the notion the NSA is playing an active role in snooping through the lives of citizens, the fact AT&T is being described as a demonstrating an ‘extreme willingness to help’ and ‘aggressively involved’ is a bit more difficult to swallow. The consumer relationship with providers is built on trust, and this does seem to be somewhat of a direct violation of it.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, do co-operate with authorities when legally obliged to, though these requests are seemingly put through the stress test before being accepting; passing across personal information seems to be only in the circumstances where saying no is not an option. Few have been described in such buddying terms as the NSA does in congratulating the telco.

What is worth noting is AT&T can be legally compelled to co-operate with intelligence agencies in the US, though there seems to be little resistance.

World Cup: Understanding is the key to avoid scoring own goals

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Derek Canfield, General Manager, Business Analytics at Teoco talks about the network challenges associated with major sporting events like the World Cup.

Imagine the scene. It’s the World Cup final and 80,000 people in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium are craning their necks from the seats to watch a referee look at his small video screen beside the pitch. Meanwhile a worldwide TV audience expected to top one billion people will not only see the replays themselves, they’ll have experts and former referees explaining what is happening to them.

This situation is common for the American sports fan. The lead official at an NFL game can often be seen going under the hood to review on a private screen a tight call in a game that has countless interpretations available. And while the crowd boos or cheers the big screen replays, the audience at home get a detailed explanation from an ex-official or rules expert on the situation unfolding and the possible verdicts.

But is it right that the paying audience in the stadium, often including the most passionate fans, is left a little in the dark, so to speak? Of course not, and thus we see a good number of them will have their smartphones out trying to track what’s happening, and get the inside scoop on the likely decision moments before it is revealed. In fact, our digital world is intended to give the passionate fans the best of both worlds: the energy and of the live event, enriched by readily available content and analysis on their respective devices.

However, unless the stadium’s communications capacity is being actively managed and flexed to allow the live audience to keep track of developments on their mobiles, it is possible and even likely the stadium will score a network own goal and leave its audience frustrated.

Simply cranking up the network capacity is only part of the solution. To really improve things for the fans on site, operators need a much better understanding of what the spectators in the stadium are actually doing. This involves tracking the apps they are using, the feeds they are watching, and understanding all of the services they are trying to access. Without access to that level and granularity of data, it will be almost impossible for the stadium service provider to really improve the quality of service being provided.

Unfortunately, the challenge in those circumstances is that the majority of the data traffic in the stadium will be encrypted. In fact, Gartner has predicted that by next year as much as 80 per cent of all web data traffic will be encrypted. So how can the operators know what’s going on, if they can’t actually see the services being used?

With advanced analytics solutions, operators have found it is possible to gain actionable insights and make their massive event preparations run smoothly on the big day. By applying machine learning and heuristics together with our real-time digital analytics to the problem operators get deeper visibility into the big blind spot of encrypted data traffic to extract the metrics. Armed with this intelligence, they can make adjustments to the network and service without compromising data security and privacy.

Machine learning is used to provide sufficient visibility of the encrypted data and the traffic flow so that the network can effectively ‘self-identify’ the application service being used, for example streaming video on demand from specific sports app playing in HD resolution. Armed with that knowledge, the operator can then apply modelling to understand how it should adjust the network to deliver the best experience.

At this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis we worked with the stadium network operator to provide real-time analysis of stadium upload and download network traffic. At any point during the game the operators could see a full picture with subscriber-level granularity on numerous items. Some examples include top ten apps services being used, the balance between HD and standard definition in terms of video streaming, how much content people were uploading, and what average data speed was being achieved.

With spectators messaging friends, capturing videos and pictures of themselves or the players to upload to Twitter or searching for feeds showing highlights and replays; it’s vital to track all that network activity in real time. As well as maximising network performance, it becomes possible to detect any part of the stadium with connectivity issues, or even highlight a rogue user consuming a vast amount of data by trying to live stream the whole match.

At the World Cup, the service providers will also be dealing with roaming subscribers from all over the world, many of whom will only wish to use free operator stadium Wi-Fi. Without that full network traffic visibility in near-real time, managing the service to deliver a quality experience will be all but impossible.

But here’s the thing – spectators at an event have an increasing appetite for internet services and content. They represent a captive audience whose interests have been defined by their very presence in the venue – making them prime targets for special offers, promotions and add-on services. Those operators able to track ‘what’s going on’ within the network in real time, will not only provide the best customer service, they will also have the best knowledge of customer behavior to sell additional airtime and game-related services.

By enabling users to do what they love to do, when and where they want to do it, operators have the ability to enrich life’s experiences. And in doing so, operators have the ability to create additional content services opening up new revenue opportunities. Keeping the activities and priorities in sync is fundamental for the operator to score profits while players on the field vie to score goals.

 

Derek Canfield - TEOCODerek Canfield is the General Manager responsible for Business Analytics at Teoco. He is a veteran of the telecom industry, having spent the first half of his twenty-year career working for a North American operator and the second half with Teoco. At Teoco, Derek leads the go-to market strategy for the analytics suite of products and services focusing on that key tenant of aligning technology with business objectives to drive innovation and market leadership.

Which reckons Vodafone sucks, Tutela doesn’t

Consumer advice firm Which has published the results of its UK MNO customer satisfaction survey, which ranks Vodafone last for the second year running.

Which comes up with a customer score that is a combination of stated satisfaction and their likelihood to recommend their operator to a mate. Vodafone got the lowest overall score, followed by EE. O2 and Three did a bit better but among the operators represented by over 100 respondents Giffgaff was the clear winner.

Which operators April 2018

Vodafone sucked even more when it came to recommendations, with less than two thirds of its subscribers saying they would inflict it on their friends. Giffgaff, by contrast, had a 95% recommendation rate. Furthermore 15% of Vodafone customers said they had received an unexpectedly expensive or incorrect bill, and the network was also rated worst for customer service (11%).

Which operator recommendations April 2018

“The biggest providers are lagging behind smaller rivals who are doing a better job of giving customers what they want in terms of service and value for money,” said Alex Neill of Which. “Customers who are fed up should look to switch provider as soon as they can. New reforms will soon mean that mobile customers will be able to switch provider by text message, which we hope will make it quicker and easier for customers to seek a better deal.”

Meanwhile network experience firm Tutela came to some different conclusions in its recent report on the state of the UK MNO scene. It found that the Vodafone network is performing just fine, which leads to the conclusion that Vodafone is being let down by its customer service, even though it was supposed to have put its BSS woes behind it ages ago. Here are some tables from the report.

Tutela UK networks Q1 2018

Tutela UK latency Q1 2018

Tutela UK jitter Q1 2018

OpenSignal report reveals relative performance of UK MNOs

The latest State of Mobile Networks: UK report from OpenSignal has EE as the clear leader according to its metrics, with O2 and Three needing to raise their game.

You can see the charts for each of the nationwide 3G and 4G metrics below, but to cut a long story short EE won nearly all of them. It also leads in 4G availability with 86.6%, followed by O2 on 83.4%, Vodafone on 79.5% and Three on 66.6%. However our average 4G speed of 23.1 Mbps apparently lags even Armenia and Mexico. Maybe the extra 4G spectrum O2 just got hold of will help it do better in 4G next time.

Opensignal April 2018 4G speed

Opensignal April 2018 4G latency

Opensignal April 2018 3G speed

Opensignal April 2018 3G latency

Opensignal April 2018 regions

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