Ericsson and Nokia CEOs compare 5G sizes

For some reason the CEOs of both Ericsson and Nokia have felt compelled to make public statements defending their 5G performance.

In a piece headlined ‘Europe and 5G: Address the reality — not the myths’, Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm (pictured) indicated he’s not happy with claimed rumours that his company is a bit limp when it comes to 5G. You can see how that would chafe somewhat as Ericsson’s entire strategy hinges on it being a 5G stud, but Ekholm wasn’t kind enough to share the sources of these malicious rumours, so we’ll just have to take his word for it.

The purpose of the piece seems to be to defend Ericsson’s, rather than Europe’s, 5G reputation, but a headline more like ‘Anyone who says we’re rubbish at 5G is lying and no returns’ might have come over as a tad self-serving. Nonetheless Ekholm commenced by listing all the times Ericsson has knocked it out of the park with 5G recently. “These are quite simply indisputable facts,” he wrote. “It’s impossible to be behind in 5G when there is no-one in front of us.”

The Europe angle seems to come from the fear that people are saying Europe’s 5G rollout is behind because Ericsson is one of the main kit vendors here. Ekholm insists this has nothing to do with Ericsson and is due to regulators getting in the way. Consequently it looks like we spend too much time mulling stuff over when we should be getting on with updating infrastructure and buying shiny new kit. Funny that.

Ekholm concluded with a call for European regulators to get their acts together, especially when it comes to making spectrum available and not over-charging operators for it. So in seeking to exonerate Ericsson from any blame for Europe’s 5G failings Ekholm was also careful not to pin any of the blame on his operator customers too, which was wise.

Meanwhile Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri used Nokia’s AGM to chest-beat about the 5G market too. “5G is not the future anymore. It is here, and Nokia is leading it,” he said. “We are winning deals and rolling out some of the world’s first 5G networks. We now have 37 5G commercial contracts – 20 with named customers including T-Mobile, AT&T, STC, and Telia – and more than half of them include wider portfolio elements that our competitors cannot match. We have some amazing technology.

“In fact, in pretty much every network where Nokia products are deployed, we are the performance leader. This doesn’t just happen on its own. It happens because we focus on excelling in the technology that matters the most. 5G is now accelerating and the power of Nokia’s end-to-end portfolio is being recognized.”

Alright Rajeev, we get it, your 5G is the biggest. Neither CEO directly referred to any competitors, they clearly don’t want to make journalists’ jobs too easy, but with Huawei’s plight worsening by the day it looks like Ericsson and Nokia are ramping up their competitive messaging against each other. The 5G race is clearly a touchy subject for both companies and we happily invite them to use Telecoms.com as a platform to slag each other off as much as they want.

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KPN bans Huawei from its 5G network core

Dutch operator KPN announced it has signed an agreement with Huawei to build the 5G radio network but will only select a western vendor for 5G core.

KPN said it will modernise its mobile network towards 5G, and has adopted a tightened security policy with regard to vendor selection. The company believes that “the mobile core network which from a security point of view is more sensitive”, while the RAN is less so.

As a result, the operator has entered into a preliminary agreement with Huawei to provide the radio access part of the 5G network, but the agreement is adjustable and reversable “to align it with future Dutch government policy.” Meanwhile, the company “plans to select a Western vendor for the construction of the new mobile core network for 5G.”

Jan Kees de Jager, KPN’s CFO, told the media separately that the upgrade will also involve swapping out Huawei equipment from its current core network, according to a report by Reuters. In contrast to what his counterparts in Germany and the UK have claimed, de Jager did not believe switching from Huawei for other vendors would lead to addition cost. Equipment from Nokia, Ericsson and other suppliers would be as affordable as Huawei for the 5G infrastructure, he was reported to tell the media.

“We appreciate KPN’s trust and are honoured by their decision to partner with us for the mobile radio access network modernisation,” said a Huawei spokesperson. “We are committed to support KPN in their ambition to maintain and strengthen their lead in the global telecoms industry.In general, Huawei believes that excluding parties based on geographical origin does not provide a higher level of security. Cyber security can be improved by establishing standards that apply to all parties in the sector. Today, the IT supply chain is highly globalised. Cyber security must therefore be addressed jointly at a global level and suppliers must not be treated differently based on the country of origin.”

KPN is essentially adopting the same policy as the leaked UK government guideline related Huawei’s role in the country’s 5G network: banned from the core but fine to use in the RAN. But precisely because it is adopting the same policy, KPN has to face the same issue raised by Tom Tugenthat MP, chairman of the British parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, that it will be very hard to insulate the non-core from the core on 5G network thanks to its virtualisation and software-defined nature.

Additionally, although equipment from different vendors should work together as they all comply with the 3GPP standards, standards do not cover every detail. As Huawei stand staff told Telecoms.com during MWC, there are plenty of discreet innovations vendors can make to optimise the performance of the system if both RAN and core come from the same vendor. So, operators might risk having subprime performance out of the network equipment sourced from different vendors, if not facing downright incompatibility headache.

Nokia laments a weak first quarter

Finnish telecom vendor Nokia reported a disappointing Q1 of flat revenue and expanding loss. The company blamed competition and slow ramp-up of 5G.

Nokia reported a modest 2% net sales growth to reach €5.032 billion over €4.924 billion of Q1 2018, which would be down by 2% on constant currency basis. The gross margin was at 31.3%, down from 36.7% a year ago. The operating loss increased from €336 million (or -6.8% of net sales) to €524 million (-10.4%). Net cash was depleted by more than half from €4.179 billion to €1.991 billion. Earnings per share went from positive €0.02 to negative €0.02.

Nokia Q1 2019

Rajeev Suri, the President and CEO of Nokia, conceded that “Q1 was a weak quarter for Nokia.” Meanwhile, the company believes that its fortunes will improve in the rest of the year, especially in the second half.  “As the year progresses, we expect meaningful topline and margin improvements. 5G revenues are expected to grow sharply, particularly in the second half of the year, driven by our 36 commercial wins to date.”

In addition to the slow start of the year, Suri also saw risks in intensified competition and customers reassessing their investment. He said in the statement that “competitive intensity has slightly increased in certain accounts as some competitors seek to be more commercially aggressive in the early stages of 5G and as some customers reassess their vendors in light of security concerns, creating near-term pressure but longer-term opportunity.”

When looking at the results by business lines, Networks, by far the biggest segment of Nokia’s business, grew by 4%, both Software and Nokia Technologies kept flat, while sales from the Group Common and Other unit (including Alcatel Submarine, Bell Labs, Radio Frequency Systems, etc.) went down by 13%. Geographically, North America, which overtook Europe to become Nokia’s biggest market in the last quarter, fell back to below Europe in Q1 despite registering an impressive 9% year-on-year growth. Europe was largely flat with the sales keeping at €1.5 billion level. Asia Pacific grew by a decent 6% to get closer to the €1 billion mark, but the biggest loss was in Greater China, where the sales plunged by 10%, now only marginally bigger than Middle East & Africa.

To say things have not been going smoothly for Nokia recently would be an understatement. In late March, the company first announced that it had discovered certain “compliance issues” in the Alcatel-Lucent business it acquired years ago which might have “material adverse effect” on its business, causing a rush sell in the financial market, only to retract a couple of hours later to declare those issues would not have materials impact. More recently it was reported that the company has been struggling to fulfil its business contracts in Korea.

This must be a painful moment for the Nokia management and shareholders (it’s shares were down around 9% at time of writing), who have to watch its two major competitors reporting strong results while sitting on its own disappointments. Ericsson has just delivered an encouraging quarter, and Huawei, despite all the headwind, has reported a particularly impressive Q1. As Light Reading, our sister publication, said earlier, Huawei’s woes may not necessarily mean good fortunes for its two main competitors. So far they have not translated into good fortunes for at least one of them.

Comparing the numbers with Ericsson we could see that despite Ericsson’s total sales in Q1 was about 10% smaller than Nokia’s, it was considerably more profitable (gross margin at 38.4% vs. Nokia’s 31.3%), and its operation more efficient (€1.3 billion operating cost vs. Nokia’s €2.1 billion).

These are also the two key aspects the Nokia management are focusing on to turn things around. On the profitability side, Suri said “we will continue to take a balanced view, and are prepared to invest prudently in cases where there is the right longer-term profitability profile.” On the efficiency side, the company is “also progressing well with our previously announced EUR 700 million cost savings program,” Suri said in his statement.

Nokia downplays report claiming it’s struggling to deliver 5G kit in South Korea

A report has alleged that Nokia is struggling to fulfill its 5G commitments to the three South Korean MNOs, but Nokia sort of insists everything’s cool.

Now it must be stressed this is just one report from a website called Business Korea that we’re not familiar with and we have yet to see the same claims made independently anywhere else. Having said that, if there is some substance to it then that’s not great news for Nokia and could have brand as well as financial consequences.

The headline reads ‘Mobile Carriers in Trouble for 5G Equipment from Nokia’. It starts by claiming that shipments of Nokia 5G gear are three months behind schedule and then goes on to say “Nokia’s equipment is lower in quality than those supplied by Samsung Electronics, Ericsson and Huawei. The former has shown some problems in interoperability testing and massive traffic processing.” It concludes by speculating that operators may need to take emergency measures to compensate for these failings.

We asked Nokia what it makes of all this and it responded with the following statement: “Nokia is actively delivering our 5G equipment to operators in Korea and we are confident that we will fulfill the 5G equipment needs of all customers. We have already started delivering 5G units to customers there and are increasing our 5G production capabilities. As a leading global communications company, we are committed to delivering best in-class products to all our partners and customers.”

That’s not the strongest rebuttal is it? The report doesn’t suggest no gear is being delivered, just that it’s late and not very good. Expressing confidence is not the same as saying the report is wrong and vowing to increase production capabilities sort of indicates they’re not currently up to scratch. Having said that it’s quite possible that everything’s fine and this report is barking up the wrong tree. The coming weeks may reveal more.

Huawei forecast to have narrow advantage in 5G RAN race

Analyst firm Strategy Analytics has taken a look at the runners and riders in the global 5G race and has Huawei ahead of its rivals by a nose.

In a report titled ‘Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia’, SA took a look at the relative competitiveness of the big three kit vendors when it comes to 5G radio access network kit and made some market share forecasts accordingly.

The long and short of it, as you can see in the first table below, is that SA reckons by 2023 Huawei will account for around a quarter of the 5G RAN market, while Ericsson and Nokia will have closer to 23%. On top of that the ‘others’, largely Samsung and ZTE, will account for almost 30% between them, which is a decent effort. Samsung seems to be doing especially well in South Korea, funnily enough.

SA 5G RAN chart

“By 2023 5G looks to be a very competitive global market as this premium technology finally achieves economies of scale that will drive down the costs per Gigabyte of throughput to make 5G an affordable technology on a global basis,” said Phil Kendall of SA. “The neck and neck battle between Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia for share of 2023’s 5G radio access should lower costs for all segments of mobile, IoT and fixed 5G applications, even as smaller new vendors find specific niches below these three.”

The report also digs down into the strengths and weaknesses of the big three vendors. Specifically it looks at five broad categories: R&D, patents, product portfolio, product performance and deployment support. The bad news for the Nordic vendors is that Huawei comes top in all five categories, only having to share that spot with the other in the case of product portfolio. It looks like Ericsson needs to start putting its hand in its pocket and Nokia wants to take on a few more engineers.

SA 5G RAN comparison

“R&D investment backed by market scale is the most crucial factor for the long term competitiveness of 5G infrastructure vendors,” said SA’s Guang Yang. “Huawei has maintained steady growth in its 5G R&D investment, which bodes well for long term advances in energy efficient, cost effective 5G technology.”

With all that in mind it’s kind of surprising SA doesn’t anticipate a bigger lead for Huawei in four years’ time. The reason, presumably, is that Huawei will be excluded from a bunch of markets thanks to all the US aggro it faces. Opinion seems to be divided about how much slack will be picked up by Chinese sales, with Huawei revealing it has yet to do any 5G deals in mainland China, but the analyst in the video below still seeing that country as a big competitive advantage for them.

 

BT shows off its shiny new Nokia silicon

UK telco BT is one of the first customers for Nokia’s catchily-named 7750 SR-14s IP routing platform, which features its special FP4 chip.

Nokia first announced all this shiny new core gear a couple of years ago, but it looks like the sales cycle for this sort of thing is fairly protracted. So this is an important deal win for Nokia, but perhaps even more so for BT as it’s a clear statement of intent when it comes to investing in its core network. Apparently traffic through the BT network is growing by 40% annually so it needs to show it can handle it.

“BT’s FTTP footprint is growing on a daily basis, and we are launching 5G this year in the busiest parts of 16 of the UK’s busiest cities,” said Howard Watson, BT Group CTIO. “These technologies create an amazing customer experience, and drive people to watch more, play more and share more. We have to stay ahead of the massive traffic growth that this will bring, and Nokia are a key part of that, giving us the capacity and automation that we need.”

“Nokia’s 7750 SR-s platform, based on our FP4 silicon, will offer BT’s network the enhanced capabilities and automation needed to address continuously mounting capacity demands as it moves toward 5G,” said Sri Reddy, Co-President of IP/Optical Networks at Nokia. “Our exclusive partnership will allow BT’s converged core network to grow, and move to a programmable, insight-driven network architecture, creating a platform for BT’s growth to continue as demand for its services in FTTP and 5G expands.”

As you can see there’s a fair bit of buzzword-dropping in the canned quotes. The significance of FTTP and 5G in this context essentially amounts to the fact that network traffic is likely to keep growing rapidly for quite a while. For Nokia this is a juicy deal win in a core network market that, admittedly, is largely denied to one of its biggest competitors.

Nokia admits there may still be some Alcatel Lucent skeletons in the closet

Finnish kit vendor Nokia has filed its annual report with the SEC and in it flagged up some legacy issues from Alcatel Lucent that may still be a problem.

In the lengthy ‘risk factors’ section, Nokia indicates that, even years after it completed the acquisition of Alcatel Lucent, it’s still digging up stuff that may present some kind of threat to the company. Here’s the relevant passage in full.

“During the course of the ongoing integration process, we have been made aware of certain practices relating to compliance issues at the former Alcatel Lucent business that have raised concerns. We have initiated an internal investigation and voluntarily reported the matter to the relevant regulatory authorities, with whom we are cooperating with a view to resolving the matter. The resolution of this matter could result in potential criminal or civil penalties, including the possibility of monetary fines, which could have a material adverse effect on our business, brand, reputation or financial position.”

Asked for further comment on the matter Nokia just stressed that “although this investigation is in a relatively early stage, out of an abundance of caution and in the spirit of transparency, Nokia has contacted the relevant regulatory authorities regarding this review.” There’s no reason not to take that statement at face value at this stage, but while the extent of the material effect this could have on Nokia remains uncapped it will surely remain a significant concern.

Iran is also addressed in the risks section, with Nokia noting the dilemma that, while Europe is relaxing its sanctions against the country, the US is moving in the other direction and ramping them up. “As a European company it will be quite challenging to reconcile the opposing foreign policy regimes of the US and the EU,” it laments.

Since the US has shown an unlimited capacity for vindictiveness towards companies that do business with Iran Nokia has sensible decided not to do any more business there for the time being. “Although we evaluate our business activities on an ongoing basis, we currently do not intend to accept any new business in Iran in 2019 and intend to only complete existing contractual obligations in Iran in compliance with applicable economic sanctions and other trade-related laws,” said the filing.

Lastly the risks section also mentions HMD Global, which licenses the Nokia brand to put on its smartphones. It doesn’t make reference to any specific case but notes “Nokia has limitations in its ability to influence HMD Global in its business and other operations, exposing us to potential adverse effects from the use of the Nokia brand by HMD Global or other adverse development encountered by HMD Global that become attributable to Nokia through association and HMD Global being a licensee of the Nokia brand.” How timely.

Nokia-branded phones sent personal data from Norway to China

Norwegian media is reporting that private data of Nokia 7 Plus users may have been sent to a server in China for months. Finland’s data protection ombudsman will investigate and may escalate the case to the EU.

Henrik Austad, a Nokia 7 Plus user in Norway, alerted the Norwegian public media group NRK in February when he noticed every time he powered on his phone it would ping a server in China and batches of data would be sent. The data included the phone’s IMEI numbers, SIM card numbers, the cell ID of the base station the phone is connected to, and its network address (the MAC address), and they have been sent unencrypted. Investigation by NRK discovered that the recipient of the data is a domain (“http://zzhc.vnet.cn”) belonging to China Telecom.

Nokia 7 Plus pinging China server

Because HMD Global, the company behind the Nokia-branded phones that was set up by former Nokia executives and has licensed the Nokia brand, is a Finland-registered company, the news was quickly brought to the attention of Reijo Aarnio, Finland’s data protection ombudsman . “We started the investigation after receiving the news from the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) and I also consulted our IT experts. The findings showed this looks rather bad,” Aarnio said.

When talking to the Finnish state broadcaster YLE and the country’s biggest broadsheet newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (HS), the ombudsman also raised a couple of serious concerns he said he would seek clarifications from HMD Global early next week:

  • Are the users aware that their personal data are being transferred to China?
  • On what legal ground, if any, are personal data transferred outside of the EU?
  • Have corrective actions been taken to prevent similar cases from happening again?

Earlier when writing to NRK, Aarnio said his first thought was this could be a breach of GDPR, and, if true, the case would be brought in front of the European Union. (Although Norway is not a EU member state, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, the three EEA countries which are not part of the EU, agreed to accept GDPR two months after it came into effect in the EU.)

Replying to Telecoms.com’s enquiry, HMD Global, through its PR agency, sent this statement:

We can confirm that no personally identifiable information has been shared with any third party. We have analysed the case at hand and have found that our device activation client meant for another country was mistakenly included in the software package of a single batch of Nokia 7 Plus. Due to this mistake, these devices were erroneously trying to send device activation data to a third party server. However, such data was never processed and no person could have been identified based on this data. This error has already been identified and fixed in February 2019 by switching the client to the right country variant. All affected devices have received this fix and nearly all devices have already installed it.

Collecting one-time device activation data when the phone is taken first time into use is an industry practice and allows manufacturers to activate phone warranty. HMD Global takes the security and privacy of its consumers seriously.

Jarkko Saarimäki, Director Finland’s National Cyber Security Centre (Kyberturvallisuuskeskus), which offered to support the ombudsman if needed, raised another point while talking to YLE, “In cases of this kind, the company should report the case to the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman (tietosuojavaltuutetun toimisto) and inform the customers of the data security risk.” It looks what HMD Global has done is exactly the opposite: it quietly fixed the issue with a software update.

What exactly happened remains unclear, but the investigation from NRK may shed some light. Further research into the data transfer took NRK investigators to GitHub, where they discovered a set of code that would generate data transmission similar to that on the Nokia 7 Plus in question, and to the same destination. This code resides in a subfolder called “China Telecom”. On the same level there are also subfolders for China Mobile, China Unicom as well as other folders for different purposes. Henrik Lied, the NRK journalist who first reported the case, shared with Telecoms.com this subfolder structure that he captured on GitHub:

GitHub snapshot

Closer analyses of the code in question on GitHub by Telecoms.com seem to have given us a bit more insight. This is what we assume has happened: HMD Global or its ODM partner sourced the code from a developer by the GitHub username of “bcyj” to transfer user data when a phone on China Telecom network is started. But, by mistake, HMD Global has loaded this set of code on a number of Nokia 7 Plus meant for Norway (“our device activation client meant for another country was mistakenly included in the software package of a single batch of Nokia 7 Plus”). When it realised the mistake by whatever means HMD Global released a software update to overwrite this code.

Incidentally it looks the code was originally written for a Chinese OEM LeEco (which is largely defunct now) whose product, e.g. the Le Max 2, was running on the Snapdragon 820 platform with the MSM8996 modem. The modem was later incorporated in the mid-tier platform Snapdragon 660 which powers the Nokia 7 Plus.

There are still quite a few questions HMD Global’s statement does not answer.

  • How many users have been affected? And in what countries? The award-winning Nokia 7 Plus is one of the more popular models from HMD Global, and it is highly unlikely a batch of products were specifically made for the Norwegian market with its limited size. Could the same products have been shipped to other Northern European markets too?
  • Is China Telecom the only operator in China that requires phones on its network to be equipped with a software that regularly sends personal data? We do not find similar programmes under the China Mobile or China Unicom subfolders on the same GitHub location.
  • Is HMD Global the only culprit? Or other OEMs’ products on China Telecom network and on the same Qualcomm modem are also running the same script every time the phone is powered on, but they have not made the same mistake by mixing up regional variants as HMD Global did?
  • On what ground could HMD Global claim that the recipients of the data or any other parties who have access to the data (as they are sent unencrypted), will not be able to identify the individuals (“no person could have been identified based on this data”)? To defend itself, in its statement to NRK, HMD Global referred to the Patrick Breyer vs Bundesrepublik Deutschland case when the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that whether a certain type of data would qualify as “personal data” should generally need to be assessed based on a “subjective / relative approach”. In the present case HMD Global seems to be arguing that the recipients of the data sent from the phones are not able to establish the identities of the users. It may have its point as China Telecom (or other identities in China that receive the data) does not have the identity information of the users. However, this is a weak defence. The CJEU sided with the German Federal Court of Justice because the point of dispute was dynamic IP only, and the court deemed “that dynamic IP addresses collected by an online media service provider only constitute personal data if the possibility to combine the address with data necessary to identify the user of a website held by a third party (i.e. user’s internet service provider) constitutes a mean “likely reasonably to be used to identify” the individual”, as was summarised by the legal experts Fabian Niemann and Lennart Schüßler. In the HMD Global case, however, a full set of private data were transmitted, not to mention transmitted unencrypted.
  • On what evidence did HMD Global claim that the data transmitted has not been processed or shared with third parties?

To be fair to HMD Global, this is not the first, and by no means the biggest data leaking incident by communication products. For example the IT and communication system at the African Union headquarters, supplied and installed by Huawei, was sending data every night from Addis Ababa to Shanghai for over four years before it was uncovered by accident. Huawei’s founder later claimed that the data leaking “had nothing to do with Huawei”, though it was not clear whether he was denying that Huawei was aware of it or claiming Huawei was not playing an active role in it.