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.

Money is piling up in the US 24 GHz auction

Over 30 companies have put more than $560 million in bid money on the table at FCC’s auction for the 24 GHz frequency. And this is only the beginning.

Following the underwhelming auction of the 28 GHz (dubbed Auction 101) spectrum, which only returned $703 million, the new auction of the 24 GHz (dubbed Auction 102) is heating up quickly. The auction started last Thursday and has gone through 11 rounds of the first phase of the auction, or the “clock phase”, when participants bid on a Partial Economic Area (PEA) blocks. By the end of round 11, the gross proceeds have reached a total amount of $563,427,235. There are still two days, or six more rounds to go, before the winners can move to the next phase of the process.

The “assignment phase” will allow the winners from the first phase to bid for specific frequency licence assignments. The total bid value for the 24 GHz frequencies could go up to between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion, according to the estimate by Brian Goemmer, founder of the spectrum-tracking company AllNet Insights & Analytics, when he spoke to our sister publication Light Reading.

The key difference the has driven up the interest from the bidders for Auction 102 is the locations where the frequencies are made available. While major metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, were absent from 28 GHz auction, they are all on the current 24 GHz auction together with other major cities that would be the candidates for the 5G services to roll out in the first wave.

Bidders have included AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint and more than 30 other companies. The FCC will announce the winners including those from Auction 101 only after both phases of Auction 102 are completed.

In addition to bidding for mmWave frequencies, operators like AT&T are also actively refarming the lower frequency bands in their possession that are used to provide 3G services. AT&T sent a notice to its customers in February that it will stop 3G only SIM activation, urging customers to move to LTE. The company said “we currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.” Specifically the company is planning to refarm the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz frequency bands, saying “it may be necessary for us to turn down one band of our owned and operated 3G network, such as 1900 MHz or 850 MHz service”.

Considering the AT&T only switched its 2G networks off at the beginning of 2017, this is a clear sign that the generational transition of mobile telecom services is accelerating. Earlier in the middle of last year, Verizon confirmed that it will shut down its 3G CDMA networks by the end of 2019. Even earlier at the MWC in 2017, T-Mobile’s CTO Neville Ray said the company was looking to sunset both GSM and WCDMA.

América Móvil strengthens its position in Brazil with Nextel acquisition

The Latin American mobile heavyweight América Móvil has agreed to acquire its competitor Nextel in the Brazilian market for $905 million.

Shortly after the deal was announced by América Móvil on Monday, and the board of NII Holdings, which owns 70% of Nextel, announced that it would propose to the shareholders to accept the offer. The other 30% of Nextel is owned by AI Brazil Holdings, the local operation of Access Industries, an American private company whose portfolio includes natural resources, telecoms, internet services, as well as Warner Music, among other media interests.

The nature of the deal, “cash free / debt free”, will let NII and AI Brazil keep all the cash while América Móvil will not assume Nextel’s debts. Although the total transaction value is less than 1.5 times of Nextel’s annual revenues in 2018 ($621 million), it represents almost four times NII’s market capitalisation on its latest trading day on NASDAQ ($229 million), indicating the buyer’s relatively strong confidence in the business prospect.

Brazil is a highly competitive market. According to research by Ovum, by Q4 2018, Vivo (owned by Telefónica) led with one third of the total mobile market, while TIM and Claro (América Móvil’s existing operation in Brazil) were vying for the second place, each serving about a quarter of the total mobile subscribers. Nextel had slightly over 1% market share. The rest of the market is served by Oi (a JV between Altice Portugal, formerly Portugal Telecom, and Telemar, Brazil’s largest integrated telecom operator).

After the acquisition, América Móvil plans to combine Nextel with Claro to “consolidate its position as one of the leading telecommunication service providers in Brazil, strengthening itsmobile network capacity, spectrum portfolio, subscriber base, coverage and quality, particularly in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the main markets in Brazil.”

For NII, selling Nextel in Brazil represents the end of an era. The company once operated mobile services in multiple North and Latin American markets, including the eponymous professional radio service in the US, which was later acquired by Sprint. Brazil is its last operation, where it has been struggling in a classic four-operator market. Not only has it not been able to break into the leader group, but also seen business declining fast. The revenues in 2018 were a 29% decline from 2017 ($871 million), which itself was a 12% decline from 2016 ($985 million).

“The announcement of this transaction marks the culmination of an extensive multi-year process to pursue a strategic path for Nextel Brazil and provides our best opportunity to monetize our remaining operating assets in light of the competitive landscape in Brazil and long-term need to raise significant capital to fund business operations, debt service and capital expenditures necessary to remain competitive in the future,” said Dan Freiman, NII’s CFO. Earlier potential buyers included Telefónica Brasil, Access Industries (NII’s JV partner), though the most concrete case was TIM, which, according to Reuters, approved a non-binding offer in November last year. None of these negotiations has come to fruition.

“Management and our Board of Directors believe the transaction is in the best interest of NII’s stockholders,” Freiman added.

BT shared rural network snub is not as it seems

Everyone agrees that there needs to be some sort of collaboration to meet the extra-ordinarily difficult coverage objectives of the Government, but BT is snubbing rivals’ latest plans?

According to The Times, O2, Vodafone and Three have tabled a plan which would see all four of the UK MNOs pool resources to tackle the digital divide. Shared infrastructure would reduce the financial burden of investing in geographical regions which offer little potential for ROI, due to the sparse or non-existent population.

At a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty laid out the concerns in a relatively simple fashion; sheep don’t pay phone bills. This is the challenge the telcos are currently facing; the vast majority of the UK’s population have coverage, but geographical demands of the government are a different kettle of fish (or herd of sheep). When no-one lives somewhere, what is the incentive to invest in infrastructure to provide coverage?

While this might seem like a reasonable approach, BT is reportedly taking issue with the plan, at least according to The Times.

“BT has already invested heavily to create the widest 4G coverage in the UK, and we are keen to collaborate with Government and industry to extend rural coverage into areas where there is none today,” BT said in a statement. “To this end, we have recently proposed a new model for consideration over the coming weeks.”

It has been widely reported BT is snapping the olive branch put on the table from rivals, but BT suggests this is just PR spin.

Reading into this statement, BT is not objecting to the idea of collaboration, the spin which has seemingly been played over the last few days, but suggesting a different approach. And from our perspective, it is a completely reasonable objection to make.

When you look at different coverage surveys and 4G connectivity analysis reports, EE is regularly crowned the best performer overall, and takes top-spot for most of the regional measurements as well. There is a simple reason for this; EE has spent more money improving its geographical coverage than its competitors.

While this is an achievement which should be applauded, the idea of rural roaming and generic shared infrastructure would erode this competitive advantage which it has been building towards. Don’t forget, EE has not been building out this 4G network because it is run by people who are just nice guys and want to help everyone in the UK. This investment has been made to give the team something to shout about and create an advantage when attempting to secure more customers.

EE wants to be able to go to potential customers and tell them they won’t only have better signal in all the normal places, but everywhere they could possible think of going. It’s a long-term strategic decision to put it in a stronger position than its rivals. Should there be any surprise EE does not want its rivals to benefit from the hard work, foresight and investments it has been making for its 4G networks?

Reading between the lines, this is what the objection is based around. BT is prepared to have discussions on collaboration to provide coverage in areas where there is none but allowing competitors to piggy back on its investments is a commercially idiotic idea. Why would it give away such a competitive edge in an industry where profits are so difficult to come by? It has made investments in commercially unattractive areas, so its rivals should have to as well.

From BT’s perspective, this is simply an attempt for rivals to increase connectivity coverage, but not having to pay for the achievement. Collaboration should be focused on areas where everyone is facing complications, not those where everyone aside from BT has an issue.

Another point to consider is whether a shared network would actually work from a differentiation perspective? The telcos are fighting for subscriptions, but if they are all using the same network in the rural markets, it becomes nothing more than a race to the bottom, eating away precious profits and marching towards utilitisation.

Finally, does such a broad-brush approach to geographical coverage actually work? Does the discussion about generic rural network sharing detract from the critical point, which should be focus on areas which have zero coverage, instead of those which have partial coverage? This is a six of one, half a dozen of the other argument, as while it sounds reasonable to concentrate on the areas which are complete data black spots, try telling that to Joe Bloggs who is potentially being screwed by only having a single provider to choose from.

This is an incredibly complicated argument, most of which has not been considered by the initial blame game which has been building over the last few days. When you take the nuances into consideration, there is no right answer, and neither are any of the suggestions wrong. In truth, something has to be prioritised, and not everyone is going to be happy with the final decision.

It might be easy to hurl blame towards BT/EE for its objection to a collaboration plan, but to do so without considering the commercial realities of the telco industry is incredibly lazy. BT/EE is objecting to this proposal, not to the idea of collaboration, but so would any other business which had built this position.

The custody battle for TIM between Vivendi and Elliott gets personal

Vivendi says a recent TIM auditors report shows dodgy behaviour from Elliott, which in turn reckons Vivendi is a negative influence on the company.

Every new phase of the battle for control of Italian operator group TIM (the artist formerly known as Telecom Italia) is increasingly taking on the characteristics of an acrimonious custody fight. Each party takes turns in publishing claims of what a bad parent the other is, while at the same time insisting that it only wants what’s best for tiny TIM.

The latest salvo from Vivendi is a press release responding to a recently-published statutory auditors report (only in Italian, as far as we can tell)The release is headlined: ‘The irregularities in governance at Telecom Italia revealed by the Statutory Auditors report reinforce Vivendi’s position to request a return to a more balanced Board of Directors,’ which is consistent with pretty much all of Vivendi’s public statements on the matter since it lost control of the TIM board to Elliott last year.

“Vivendi is extremely concerned by the outcome of the Telecom Italia Statutory Auditors report released today confirming the existence of serious irregularities related to the governance of the company and its Board of Directors of which a majority of members are from the Elliott list,” opens the body copy. “This report reveals that the Chairman of the TIM Board violated corporate laws as well as the most basic, fundamental governance rules.”

It goes on to note the apparent existence of a ‘shadow board of directors’ consisting of just the Elliott-nominated ones, and says the auditor’s report reveals evidence that privileged information had been leaked to third parties prior to a previous board meeting. It doesn’t say who may have leaked that information but obviously Vivendi thinks it was someone affiliated to Elliott. All this goes to show how important it is that the shareholders get rid of some Elliott-nominated board members at a meeting on 29 March, according to Vivendi.

Elliott doesn’t seem to have directly addressed the Vivendi press release, but did publish one of its own this morning, merely entitled ‘Elliott statement on Telecom Italia’. Aside from dead-naming the company, the point of the release is to address the shareholder meeting and implore them not to replace any Elliott-nominated board members with fresh Vivendi ones.

Elliott believes Vivendi’s nominees are unsupportable, lack true independence, and would simply return control to a group with demonstrable conflicts of interest, related party transactions and a history of undermining TIM shareholders,” said the Elliott release.

“Elliott believes it is time to give TIM and its independent Board stability and space to implement its strategy, to achieve much-needed reform and to deliver sustainable shareholder value. It is time for TIM to shake off the damaging management of the past and reaffirm its decision to move confidently into the future. It is time for TIM, in the words of its new CEO, to become a “normal company.”

To support its position Elliott has published a presentation that can be accessed through a special website called time-for-tim.com (do you see what they did there?). The 40-page (yes, 40) presentation provides an exhaustive list of reasons why Elliott is great and Vivendi is rubbish, a lot of which amounts to an attack on French conglomerate Bolloré Group, which is the dominant shareholder at Vivendi, and which Elliott apparently suspects of nefarious motives.

We have seen nothing to make us pick one side over the other in this dispute. They both seem to want control of TIM to further their own ambitions, whether it’s short-term profit-taking or as a small part of a broader long-term strategy. Both are someone disingenuously claiming to only have the best interests of TIM at heart, but if we had a vote at the shareholder meeting we’d be tempted to get rid of both of them, if that were an option. TIM declined to comment when we contacted it.

A post-Brexit Ofcom worries us – Vodafone

With the anti-China rhetoric dominating the headlines in recent months, Brexit chatter has become unfashionable. But with the deadline fast approaching, what will Ofcom look like in the future?

Speaking at a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK Chief Counsel and External Affairs Director Helen Lamprell let loose on the UK regulator. Cell tower height, rural roaming, potential reintroduction of international roaming charges, dark fibre and auction dilemmas, there seemed to be a lot of venting going on.

“The UK remains a challenging environment [regulatory], one of the most challenging in the world,” said Lamprell. “But we are seeing positive change.”

The issue which Vodafone is keeping an eye-on is Brexit. According to Lamprell, Ofcom is one of the most conservative regulators throughout the bloc, though when it is freed from the tethers of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), there is a risk it could become even more so.

There isn’t necessarily one massive bugbear from the telco, but several little aggravations which all combine to a much larger nuisance. Let’s have a look at mast height to start with.

Everyone wants signal, but no-one wants towers

As it stands, UK cell towers are limited to 25 metres in height. This obviously doesn’t take into account those masts which are placed on the top of buildings, just the actual structure itself. In most cases, this doesn’t have a massive material impact on operations, such is the population density of the UK, but when you look at countryside locations it becomes a much larger discussion.

Part of the up-coming 5G spectrum auctions will place coverage obligations on telcos. This is a reasonable request by the government, as telcos have shown they will not bridge the digital divide on their own, though as it stands 99% of the UK population is currently covered. Geographical coverage is no-where near this figure, though as there is little commercial gain from providing coverage to these remote locations, reaching the 90% objective is difficult.

One way which this could be done is by providing exemptions to the 25-metre limit in certain situations, such as the countryside, as CTO Scott Petty pointed out, for every 10-metres you go up the coverage ring is doubled.

All four of the major UK MNOs (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) are meeting with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) this afternoon, and this will be a point on the agenda. Should these exemptions be granted, it opens the door for shared infrastructure also, as the main cost of these structures is civil engineering and construction, not the equipment on the tower. Both of these developments combined would aid the telcos in reaching the geographical coverage objectives.

This brings us onto another interesting point raised by Lamprell, rural roaming.

My restless, roaming spirit would not allow me to remain at home very long

“Rural roaming takes away our incentive to invest,” Lamprell said. “It’s a really, really dumb idea.”

Three are one of the companies pushing for rural roaming, but as the Vodafone team points out, it is the only MNO which hasn’t built out its rural infrastructure. However, should rural roaming be introduced it would cause a stalemate for investment.

As Petty points out, why would any MNO invest in its own infrastructure when it could force its way onto a competitor’s? All the telcos would be sitting on the starting line, waiting for another to twitch first, such is the pressure on the CAPEX spreadsheet column when investing in future-proofed infrastructure.

Moving onto the international roaming question, Vodafone is staying pretty agile right now. As it stands, the status quo will be maintained, though the team will react to the commercial realities of a post-Brexit landscape. Currently, as a member of the European Union, Vodafone is protected from surcharges when it comes to termination charges, though those protections will end with Brexit.

Vodafone has quite a significant European footprint, in most cases there is little to worry about, but for those territories which fall outside the Vodafone stomp, negotiations will have to take place.

There are several countries, Estonia is an example, which has higher termination rates than the UK. If the reality of a post-Brexit world is Vodafone is swallowing up too many charges from international calls/SMS/data, roaming charges might have to re-introduced in certain markets. This is all very theoretical currently however Ofcom will prevent Vodafone from replicating these charges from the European nations. Vodafone is sitting and waiting for the realities of Brexit right now, though it will not be a broad-brush approach.

“Our position today is to maintain the position we are in, but we will have to evaluate the situation at the time,” said Lamprell.

Ignore Luke, the Dark Side is great

Dark fibre. It used to be a popular conversation, but everyone seems to have forgotten about it recently.

Not Lamprell.

The focus of Ofcom over the last 12 months or so has been on opening-up ducts and poles, and while this certainly is progress, it only addresses part of the problem. Dark fibre is an aspect of the regulatory landscape which could add significant benefits to the industry but has seemingly become unfashionable.

Dark fibre, fibre cabling which is not currently being utilised by Openreach, could answer the backhaul demands of the increasingly congested networks quickly and efficiently. Mainly as it is already there. There is no need to dig up roads, apply for planning permission or procure new materials, it could be as simple as flicking a switch.

Openreach resistance and Ofcom’s aggressive focus on ducts and poles is perhaps missing a trick.

Going, going, maybe not yet

The UK is currently in somewhat of an unusual and unprecedented situation. It is one of the nations leading the world into the 5G. This is not to say it is in a podium position, but compared to the 4G era, the UK is sitting pretty.

Part of the reason for this has been early auctions to divvy up spectrum assets, however, moving forward there are some irregularities which is causing some head-scratching.

Later this year, Ofcom will kick-start another auction which will see 120 Mhz of spectrum in the 3.6-3.8 GHz bands, as well as 80 MHz in the 700 MHz band go up for sale. For both Lamprell and Petty, this auction doesn’t make sense. These are two bands which will be used for different purposes (coverage and speed) so why auction them off together.

If Vodafone had known this was going to happen back in April 2018, during the first spectrum auction, it might have altered its strategy.

“We could end up with a very fragmented spectrum situation,” said Petty.

From the team’s perspective, it seems Ofcom has only just woken up to the coverage demands of the UK government, and is using this auction as a blunt tool to meet the objectives. From an engineering perspective it doesn’t seem to make much sense to Vodafone.

“We are not happy with the rules,” said Lamprell. “But it’s rare for us all [MNOs] to be happy.”

Looking good but looking suspect

The UK is currently in a good position ahead of the 5G bonanza from an engineering perspective. With test hubs being set up around the country and telcos who are acting proactively, the UK looks like an attractive environment to invest in for R&D. It is by no-means leading the global 5G race, but it is in a healthy position.

However, political and regulatory uncertainty are a threat to this perception. The activities and culture of both DCMS and Ofcom over the next couple of months will has a significant impact on the 5G fortunes of the UK, as well as the ability to attract new talent, companies and investment.

Telcos need to seriously think about how to sell to consumers

Following the news that Sky has been slapped on the wrist for misleading claims during a 2018 advertising campaign, marketers need to have a long and hard think about whether they are doing a good job.

The most recent assault against the marketing strategies of the telcos comes from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with the group ruling Sky’s push to suggest customers would be able to receive stronger wifi signal throughout the house because of its routers, was misleading. The campaign features characters from ‘The Incredibles’ franchise, running across TV and through mainstream press.

The campaign was originally challenged by BT and Virgin Media, with both suggesting the claims were misleading as there was no way to substantiate the assertion. And the ASA agreed. In some cases, Sky’s router might be able to improve wifi signal throughout the home, but due to the breadth of different homes, each with their own structural design, it is an impossible claim to justify. The ad was far too generalist and deemed misleading.

“Unfortunately for Sky, its promise of a strong wifi signal all over your house has been shown to be misleading, and while it is by no means unique in falling foul of the ASA, it will be stung by this ruling the regulator has upheld against it,” said Dani Warner of uSwitch.com.

“Broadband providers are no longer allowed to make such exaggerated claims about potential speeds following the ASA’s major clampdown at the end of 2017, so they have had to become more imaginative in how they stand out from the pack with their advertising.”

This is an area the ASA has been quite hot on in recent years; telcos should not be allowed to make such generalist claims, intentionally misleading customers over performance. Especially in an age where advertising can be personalised on such a dramatic scale, at best it is lazy and incompetent, at worst it is directly and intentionally lying.

What is worth noting is that Sky can potentially boost signal throughout the home, though additional equipment would be required to make this possible. This is not mentioned during the advertising campaign however. The ASA ruled that some of the claims made in the ad could be substantiated, however it is no longer allowed to run in its current form.

Sky incredibles

This is of course not the only area where telcos are being challenged in the world of advertising. ‘Fibre’ claims are another, the ‘up-to’ metric has been removed and the telcos are being forced to detail speeds during peak times. Another factor to consider is the up-coming 5G service. Do any of the telcos have a clue how they are going to sell the service to consumers, as we do not believe the idea of ‘bigger, faster, meaner’ will not work, at least for the first few years.

Starting with the ‘up to’ claim, this is one which plagued the consumer for years. Masses of customers were duped into buying promised services which could only be delivered to a fraction. Thankfully, the ASA changed rules, forcing the telcos to be more accurate in how they communicate with potential customers.

Not only did this ruling mean the ‘up to’ claim had to be avoided, but it also forced the telcos to claim speeds during peak times. This also more readily informs the consumer of services which they are likely to experience, as opposed to the dreamland which most telcos seem to think we live in.

The term ‘fibre’ and ‘full-fibre’ has also been challenged, though telcos can still get away with some nefarious messaging. Irrelevant of whether there is fibre in the connection, and there generally always will be at some point, the ‘last mile’ is where the difference is made to broadband speeds. If it is copper, you will never get the same experience as fibre, however, telcos are still able to mention fibre in advertising.

The ASA has done some work to clear this up, in all fairness, though we still feel there is opportunity to abuse the trust of the consumer. And the telcos have shown that when there is an opportunity to be (1) at best lazy or (2) at worst directly misleading, they will take it.

The final area which we want to discuss takes us into the world of mobile and 5G. The telcos have always leant on the idea of ‘faster, bigger, meaner’ to sell new services to customers, or lure subscriptions away from competitors, but 5G presents a conundrum for the marketers; do consumer need faster speeds right now?

EE

4G delivers a good experience to most, and if it doesn’t, there generally is a good reason for this (i.e. congestion, interference, remote location, indoor etc.). 4G will continue to improve both in terms of speed and coverage over the next few years, and as it stands, there are few (if any) services which supersede what 4G is or will be capable of.

Another factor to consider is the price. Many consumers will want the fastest available, even if they don’t need it, but the premium placed on 5G contracts might be a stumbling block. EE has already hinted 5G will be more expensive than 4G, though details have not been released yet. In the handsets segment, consumers have shown they are more cash conscious, especially when there is little to gain through upgrades, and this is heading across to the tariffs space as purchasing savviness increases.

“I don’t think there are many great telco brands out there most consumers see them more as a utility,” said Ed Barton, Chief Analyst at Ovum. “T-Mobile USA is an exception with their customer champion, ‘un-carrier’ positioning but there no branding even approaching the effectiveness of, say, Apple’s.

“If 5G is sold only as a faster G, sales will be slow and it’s up to the entire ecosystem to create the apps, services and use cases which can only exist because of 5G network capabilities. These will probably rely on some combination of edge computing, high volume data transfer, low latency and maybe network slicing. An early use case is domestic broadband however as 5G networks evolve the use cases should proliferate relatively quickly.”

If consumers are becoming more cash conscious and have perfectly agreeable speeds on their 4G subscriptions, the old telco marketing playbook might have to be torn-up. The big question is whether the ideas are there to make the 5G dream work. Differentiation is key, but few telcos have shown any genuinely interesting ideas to differentiate.

Priority

One excellent example is over at O2 with its Priority initiative. Through partnerships with different brands, restaurants, gig venues and companies, customers are given freebies every week (a Nero coffee on a Tuesday) or special discounts periodically (£199 trip to Budapest). It leverages O2’s assets, the subscription base, allowing O2 to add value to both sides of the equation without monstrous expense. This has been a less prominent aspect of O2 advertising in recent years; perhaps the team is missing a trick.

Another, less successful, example of differentiation is getting involved with the content game. BT has been pursuing this avenue for years, though this expensive bet has seemingly been nothing more than a failure, with former CEO Gavin Patterson heading towards the door as a result.

This is not to say content cannot be a differentiator however. The content aggregator business model is one which leverages the exclusive relationship telcos have with their subscribers, streaming-lining the fragmented content landscape into a single window. Again, it uses assets which the telco already has, adding value to both sides of the equation. It also allows the telcos to get involved in the burgeoning content world without having to adopt a risky business model (content ownership) to challenge the existing and dominant members of the ecosystem.

In France, Orange is a making a place for ownership of the customers ‘smart ecosystem’, offering new services such as storage and security, while the same play is being made by Telefonica in South America through Aura. These offerings will offer differentiation, as well as an opportunity to make more revenues through third-party services. It’s a tough segment, as it will put them head-to-head with the likes of Google and Amazon’s digital assistants, but it is a differentiator.

By having these initiatives in place, marketers have something unique to go to market with, enticing consumers with promises which are genuinely different.

Three is a company which is taking a slightly different approach, hitting the consumers appetite for more data as opposed to speeds. Here, the team is leaning on ‘binge-watching’ trends, offering huge data bundles, but you have to wonder whether this is sustainable in the long-run when it comes to profitability and customer upgrades. There is only so long a company can persist in the ‘race to the bottom’.

Go Binge

“There are too many claims in an attempt to stand out in a crowded market,” said Paolo Pescatore, Tech, Media & Telco Analyst at PP Foresight.

“This is not the first time and wont be the last. It will only proliferate with the rollout of fibre broadband and 5G services. Consumers are happy to pay for the service they’ve signed up for, not to be misled. In essence, telcos are struggling to differentiate beyond connectivity. There’s a role for a provider to be novel and provide users with value through additional services and features.”

With the ASA chipping away at what marketers can and cannot say, as well as the traditional playbook becoming dated and irrelevant, telcos need to take a new approach to selling services to the consumer. The winners of tomorrow will not necessarily be the ones with the best network, O2 currently sits at the bottom of the rankings but has the largest market share in the UK, but the telco who can more effectively communicate with consumers.

5G offers an opportunity for telcos to think differently, as does the emergence of the smart ecosystem. Other product innovations, such as AI-driven routers, which can intelligently manage bandwidth allocation in the home, could be used as a differentiator, but it won’t be long before these become commonplace.

At the moment, all the bold claims being made by telcos, each competing the game of one-up-manship, are merging into white noise. The telcos have lost the trust of the consumer, many of which has cottoned onto the claims being nothing more than chest-beating. The telcos need to get smarter, and it will be interesting to see whether there are any unique approaches to capture the imagination of today’s cash conscious, technologically aware and savvy consumer.

Failure to do so, and the telcos might as well start calling themselves utilities.

IBM Vodafone partnership wins its first clients

IBM and Vodafone announced during Mobile World Congress 2019 that their $550 million cloud and AI partnership has signed its first heavy-weight clients.

SEAT, a Spanish sub-brand of the Volkswagen group, and KONE, a world leading lift and escalator supplier from Finland, have become the first customers of the open cloud and AI technologies offered by the IBM and Vodafone Business partnership.

SEAT is going to use the cloud, AI, and 5G technologies to facilitate its transformation into a “mobility services provider”. KONE’s main interest is in the IoT domain. With the new technologies it aims to move its customer service from reactive to proactive then predictive mode as well as to improve the efficiency of the monitoring and fix operations.

The partnership between IBM and Vodafone Business was announced last month. Although billed as a “joint venture”, Michael Valocchi, IBM’s General Manager of the new venture, clarified to Telecoms.com that it is not a formal joint venture or a separate organization but an 8-year strategic commercial partnership and $550M managed services agreement. IBM and Vodafone Business are going to put in equal amount of investment.

“IBM’s partnerships with global telco companies like Vodafone will help speed up the deployment of 5G and provide easier access to new technologies such as AI, blockchain, edge computing and IoT,” said Valocchi in a statement. “This is because the promise of 5G doesn’t just depend on fiber, spectrum and gadgets, but on advanced levels of integration, automation, optimization and security across the ever more complex IT systems that companies are building in a bid to transform.”

“By providing the open cloud, connectivity and portable AI technologies that companies need to manage data, workloads and processes across the breadth of their IT systems, Vodafone and IBM are helping to drive innovation and transform user experiences across multiple industries – from retail to agriculture,” added Greg Hyttenrauch, Co-leader of the new venture for Vodafone Business.

The partnership will become operational in Q2 this year. IBM told Telecoms.com that by that time Vodafone Business customers will immediately have access to IBM’s entire hybrid cloud portfolio to optimise and enhance their current solutions. These solutions and services are not dependent on 5G. In the future, clients will benefit from new solutions and services that the new venture will develop, combining IBM’s multi-cloud, AI, analytics and blockchain with IoT, 5G, and edge computing from Vodafone.

Considering that Vodafone is going to start with a non-standalone approach to 5G, the use cases for verticals that demand extreme low latency are hard to realise in the near future. The engineers at IBM’s stand also conceded that although Watson can be deployed and trained to support many scenarios, the implementation of mission critical cases will have to wait till end-to-end 5G network is in place.

RCS is here to stay and doing well

RCS has been touted as a saviour when the SMS value has been destroyed by OTT messaging services, but without much success, but it may finally have find its moment.

Mavenir, the software company, presented on day 1 of MWC 2019, promoting its rich communication solutions offered by Rakutan. The key benefits, or the main use cases that RCS can differentiate from OTT messaging actually are less to do with taking consumers back to texting each other, or P2P messaging, but rather the communication between businesses and consumers, or A2P messaging.

This view is corroborated by Infobip, a Croatia-based messaging platform that provides aggregated OTT messaging services (e.g. WhatsApp, LINE, Viber, KakaoTalk, etc.) for their corporate clients, which the clients then can use for customer service and CRM. However, the company told Telecoms.com that its dominant business, which it has seen annual growth of between 30% and 40%, is SMS and RCS based services.

One of the use cases is helping businesses improve customer engagement. Despite that on feature comparison RCS is mostly playing catching up on OTT messaging services, SMS and RCS tramp OTTs in consumer trust. To quote Guilliaume Le Mener, Manevir’s SVP for Enterprise Business, RCS is a “clean channel”, not tarnished by the privacy scandals committed by Facebook and co, or the over monetisation by others. Research shared by Mavenir showed 97% of SMS / RCS are opened within 3 minutes.

In one case, Infobip was hired by Twitter to reengage the inactive users, after the social media giant failed the mission with its early efforts through email. Thanks to its rich features, RCS messages can enable users to explore the content directly. For those users on phones not compatible with RCS, brands can choose to fall back on SMS with a web line. The results were much more improved also owing largely to the capability of producing rich analytics to evaluate the campaign effectiveness and make quick decisions on any changes needed.

In addition to A2P messaging, RCS is also being used by brands to engage consumers in P2A, that is engaging directly with the brands through messaging. On the brand side the service can be handled by bots. This will then need to be supported by AI and analytics which will be another business opportunity for the RCS solution providers. With OTTs also actively moving into the P2A domains, again this is an area that operators need to have a stronghold for RCS before it is too late.

For Rakuten, RCS may be particularly meaningful, as, coming from an internet service and MVNO background, Rakuten has a big range of digital service tied to a user’s Rakuten ID. RCS will be a key instrument to maintain and strengthen customer engagement when it builds out its 5G network from ground up.

HERE adds mobile operators to its monetisation map

The location and mapping service company HERE, in partnership with data analytics company Continual, launched two new data services, HERE Cellular Signals and HERE Traffic Analytics, aiming to increase its value for mobile operators in addition to the transport and autonomous car industries.

HERE Cellular Signals is generated by overlaying a radio map crowdsourced from its users on top of its in-house road map. The outcome of such a mesh will provide a snapshot of the network coverage, carrier presence, signal strength and bandwidth on a given road. HERE claims that there are 250 million connected devices out there with HERE user clients installed, and the radio data (including cellular and Wi-Fi traces as well as GPS coordinates) will be updated 800 million times a day, including 100 million times over cellular networks.

If the combined solution is proved robust enough, this can deliver benefits to mobile operators. In order to gather reliable data from live networks, mobile operators or its suppliers still need to send out engineers to do drive tests with car-mounted or hand-held measurement equipment. Such data are critical for network and RF planning and optimization, quality evaluations, and competitive assessments. HERE Cellular Signals will not completely replace such tests, but it can reduce the frequency and geographical coverage, and in turn reduce mobile operators’ operation costs.

When it comes to HERE’s home territory, i.e. transport and logistics industry of today and autonomous and self-driving cars of tomorrow, HERE Cellular Signals can help the fleets optimise their communication plans with the control centre based on the cellular network coverage and service plans on the routes. Connected vehicles need always-on connectivity to the cloud, to the road infrastructure and to other vehicles. A radio map like HERE Cellular Signals can therefore help connected car managers plan when to use online service and when to use offline service, or which roads to avoid so as to minimise the risk of dropped connection. This will be particularly critical when full auto-driving cars come to the roads which will demand end-to-end low-latency broadband connectivity, e.g. 5G.

“Bandwidth is a limited and expensive resource,” said Aaron Mayfield, Senior Product Manager at HERE Technologies. “As data traffic soars and new demands are placed on cellular networks, bandwidth optimization will increasingly become a delicate balancing act. HERE Cellular Signals is a valuable resource to add to the toolbox of cellular carriers to help manage these challenges.”

HERE Traffic Analytics, on the other hand, uses the data gathered from the roads to provide visibility into road traffic patterns.

Both of HERE’s new products are integrated in the Mobility Experience Analytics solution marketed by Continual, an Israeli user data analytics and AI company.

“As 5G networks and always-online automated vehicles edge closer to reality, we’re seeing growing convergence between the mobile telecom and automotive markets,” said Michiel Verberg, Senior Manager Strategic Partners at HERE Technologies. “We’re excited that Continual’s existing deep relationships with MNOs coupled with our established automotive partnerships will provide us with a unique opportunity to better address this important evolving market.”

HERE in its earlier life also had a legacy of working with mobile operators extensively. It was part of Nokia, which was acquired by the consortium of German car makers including Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, back in 2015.

“Continual’s Mobility Experience Analytics solution re-defines the approach that mobile operators and automotive companies can adopt towards monitoring and improving the connected experience of car drivers, passengers and subscribers who are traveling,” said Assaf Aloni, CMO of Continual. “HERE’s impressive portfolio of automotive and network technologies is very synergistic with ours, and the partnership is enabling us to create even stronger solutions for Connected Mobility.”

The two companies will demo the new services at the upcoming Mobile World Congress.