Huawei founder opened up to the press, or did he?

Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, once again dismissed the allegations that Huawei has been spying for the Chinese government in a rare meeting with the media.

Huawei’s normally reclusive founder told the Financial Times on Tuesday that he missed his daughter, who was arrested in Canada and faces extradition to the US. Ren also reiterated that Huawei has not spied for the Chinese government and has not been asked to do so. “No law in China requires any company to install mandatory backdoors,” Ren was quoted by the FT.

Ren also handed out an olive branch to President Trump, calling the latter “great” and recognising the positive results the American administration’ tax cuts had delivered to the American economy. But he also warned the isolationist route the current American government is pursuing. “The message to the US I want to communicate is: collaboration and shared success. In our world of high tech, it’s increasingly impossible for any single company or country to sustain or to support the world’s needs,” Ren said. Earlier President Trump said he ‘would intervene on Huawei CFO’s case to help China trade deal’.

When it comes to Huawei’s tactics to navigate the difficulties it faces in the western markets, Ren conceded “it’s always been the case, you can’t work with everyone . . . we’ll shift our focus to better serve countries that welcome Huawei,” he told the reporter.

By the founder’s own standard, this interview was a rare opportunity for the outside world to get more transparency of the company he set up 32 years ago. But we were not made much wiser on a few key questions.

Huawei’s CFO, and Ren’s daughter, was charged with misleading the American banks with false information on Huawei’s relationship with its subsidiary related to the company’s business in Iran, which resulted in the banks being handed multi-billion dollar fines. Ren’s interview did not shed new light on the case, despite expressing his parental feeling.

In the spirit of “presumed innocent until proved guilty”, we should believe that the Huawei founder was telling the truth when he claimed Huawei has not spied on behalf of the Chinese government. His words were also carefully chosen when he claimed, “no law in China requires any company to install mandatory backdoors”, which is true. Law enforcement agencies may require companies or private persons to assist their work. In some jurisdictions the companies or individuals have the legal right to refuse, as Apple did in 2015 when being asked by the FBI to unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino attackers.

In other jurisdictions companies and individuals are obliged to comply with such demands.

China’s Intelligence Law was passed by the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, in June 2017 and entered into force the following day. Two articles of the law are of interest here:

Article 7: An organization or citizen shall support, assist in and cooperate in national intelligence work in accordance with the law and keep confidential the national intelligence work that it or he knows. (Translation by the Law School, Peking University)

Article 14: National intelligence work institutions, when carrying out intelligence work according to laws, may ask relevant institutions, organizations and citizens to provide necessary support, assistance and cooperation. (Translation by QUARTZ)

In plain language this means the intelligence agencies have the mandate to require any institutions or individuals to cooperate (Article 14) and the institutions or individuals must comply (Article 7).

Therefore Ren, who declared “I still love my country, I support the Communist party” to the FT journalist, is law-bound to say Huawei has “never received any request from any government to provide improper information”, no matter whether it has received requests of this kind or not. Hypothetically, if Huawei had received requests from the Chinese intelligence agencies to assist their tasks, it could not refuse, otherwise it would be violating the first half of Article 7. On the other hand, if Huawei, hypothetically, had carried out intelligence tasks as required, it could not tell anyone, otherwise it would be violating the second half of Article 7.

But, seriously, no one would have expected an alternative answer.

Huawei employee arrested in Poland on spying allegations

Huawei’s sales director in Poland, who previously served in the Chinese diplomatic corps, has been arrested by the Polish authorities on spying allegations. Huawei immediately terminated his employment.

More details have been disclosed related to the arrest of Wang Weijing, who also goes by the name Stanislaw Wang. After serving as attaché at the Chinese general consulate in Gdansk, Wang joined Huawei’s Poland office in 2011, first as its PR director then as its sales director responsible for selling to the Polish public sector. Wang was detained on 8 January, on allegations of spying, as was first reported by the Polish public broadcaster TVP.

According to TVP, an Orange employee arrested on the same allegations, identified as Piotr D, had worked at the country’s Internal Security Agency (ISA, or “Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego (ABW)” in Polish), which carried out the arrests. While at ISA one of his responsibilities was issuing security certificates for equipment used by Poland’s public-sector offices. He left the agency earlier after being accused of corruption but was not formally charged.

The offices of Huawei and Orange were searched respectively following the arrests, though a spokesperson for ISA told Reuters that the allegations against Wang were related to individual actions, not directly linked to Huawei. This is also the line Huawei adopted when it promptly severed the employment relationship with Wang, citing that “in accordance with the terms and conditions of Huawei’s labour contract, we have made this decision because the incident has brought Huawei into disrepute.”

Orange said it did not know if the investigation in Piotr D. was linked to his professional work but would continue to cooperate with the authorities.

Despite the troubles it has run into in markets like the US, New Zealand, Japan, and the UK, Huawei’s business in Eastern Europe has been largely unperturbed. However the latest twist in Poland and the earlier arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO, in Canada might put this position under pressure. On Saturday 12 January, Joachim Brudzinski, Poland’s interior minister, called for a EU-NATO joint position with regard to banning Huawei from these markets when speaking on a Polish commercial radio station. “There are concerns about Huawei within NATO as well. It would make most sense to have a joint stance, among EU member states and NATO members,” said Brudzinski.

Then on Sunday 13 January, Karol Okonski, a government official responsible for cyber security, told Reuters that Poland could consider forbidding the public sector from using Huawei products while probing the legal measures to limit Huawei’s access to the private sector. “We do not have the legal means to force private companies or citizens to stop using any IT company’s products. It cannot be ruled out that we will consider legislative changes that would allow such a move,” Okonski said.

Huawei has always denied that it poses security threats, or it spies on behalf of the Chinese government. In a statement it sent out to media after its CFO’s arrest and it sent again after the arrests in Poland, Huawei stressed that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries where it operates, and we require every employee to abide by the laws and regulations in the countries where they are based.”

Incidentally, the South China Morning Post reported earlier that, shortly before her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou and Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei and Meng’s father, hosted a town hall meeting for Huawei employees. According to a transcript distributed to Huawei staff and seen by SCMP, both executives discussed extensively on compliance. Cases were divided into “red” and “yellow” lines. By red line, Meng meant the rules where there is “no bargaining and must be strictly complied with”, while by yellow line she referred to cases where strict compliance is not operationally feasible, and the company can build in the costs of flouting the rules as “sunk costs.” She cited labour risks as an example.

“Of course, beyond the yellow and red lines, there may still be another scenario, and that is where the external rules are clear-cut and there’s no contention, but the company is totally unable to comply with in actual operations. In such cases, after a reasonable decision-making process, one may accept the risk of temporary non-compliance,” quoted by SCMP.

Ren also urged his staff to consider both cost and benefit in compliance cases, especially related to laws of the US and EU. SCMP quoted him challenging those present when answering a question: “We must not bind ourselves up just because the US is attacking us. If our hands and feet are bound, then we will not be able to continue producing, then what’s the point of compliance?”

US operators belatedly act to protect user location data

AT&T and Verizon announced that they will terminate all remaining commercial agreements that involve sharing customer location data, following a report exposing the country’s mobile carriers’ failure to control data sharing flow.

Jim Greer, a spokesman for AT&T, said in a standard email to media: “Last year, we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention.” Referring to the Motherboard exposé, Greer continued, “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services — even those with clear consumer benefits.”

This is similar to the position T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere adopted when responding to the criticism from the US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Verizon also announced that the company will sever four remaining contracts to share location data with roadside assistance services. After this Version will need to get customers’ explicit agreement to share their data with these third-party assistance companies. Sprint, which was also caught out by the Motherboard report, is the only remaining nation-wide carrier that has not announced its plan on the issue.

This is all good news for the American consumers who are concerned with the safety of their private data. On the other hand, mobile operators have hardly been the worst offenders when it comes to compromising the privacy and security of customer data. Earlier, Google was exposed to have continued tracking users’ location even after the feature had been switched off, while Facebook has been mired in endless privacy controversies.

Monetising user data is only a side and most likely insignificant “value-add” business for the mobile operators, because they live on the service fees subscrbers pay. But it is the internet heavyweights’ lifeline. This may sound fatalistic but it should not surprise anyone if the Facebooks and the Googles of the world come up with more innovative measures to finance the “free” services we have benn used to.

The biggest stories of 2018 all in one place

2018 has been an incredibly business year for all of us, and it might be easy to forget a couple of the shifts, curves, U-turns and dead-ends.

From crossing the 5G finish line, finger pointing from the intelligence community, the biggest data privacy scandal to date and a former giant finally turning its business around, we’ve summarised some of the biggest stories of 2018.

If you feel we’ve missed anything out, let us know in the comments section below.

Sanction, condemnation and extinction (almost)

ZTE. Three letters which rocked the world. A government-owned Chinese telecommunications vendor which can’t help but antagonise the US government.

It might seem like decades ago now but cast your mind back to April. A single signature from the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) almost sent ZTE, a company of 75,000 employees and revenues of $17 billion, to keep the dodo company.

This might have been another move in the prolonged technology trade war between the US and China, but ZTE was not innocent. The firm was caught red-handed trading with Iran, a country which sits very prominently on the US trade sanction list. Trading with Iran is not necessarily the issue, it’s the incorporation of US components and IP in the goods which were sent to the country. ZTE’s business essentially meant the US was indirectly helping a country which was attempting to punish.

The result was a ban, no US components or IP to feature in any ZTE products. A couple of weeks later manufacturing facilities lay motionless and the company faced the prospect of permanent closure, such was its reliance on the US. With a single move, the US brought one of China’s most prominent businesses to its knees.

Although this episode has been smoothed over, and ZTE is of course back in action, the US demonstrated what its economic dirty bombs were capable of. This was just a single chapter in the wider story; the US/China trade war is in full flow.

Tinker, tailor, Dim-sum, Spy

This conflict has been bubbling away for years, but the last few months is where the argument erupted.

Back in 2012, a report was tabled by Congressman Mike Rogers which initially investigated the threat posed by Chinese technology firms in general, and Huawei specifically. The report did not produce any concrete evidence, though it suggested what many people were thinking; China is a threat to Western governments and its government is using internationally successful companies to extend the eyes of its intelligence community.

This report has been used several times over the last 12 months to justify increasingly aggressive moves against China and its technology vendors. During the same period, President Trump also blocked Broadcom’s attempts to acquire Qualcomm on the grounds of national security, tariffs were imposed, ZTE was banned from using US technologies in its supply chain and Huawei’s CFO was arrested in Canada on the grounds of fraud. With each passing month of 2018, the trade war was being cranked up to a new level.

Part of the strategy now seems to be undermining China’s credibility around the world, promoting a campaign of suggestion. There is yet to be any evidence produced confirming the Chinese espionage accusations but that hasn’t stopped several nations snubbing Chinese vendors. The US was of course the first to block Huawei and ZTE from the 5G bonanza, but Australia and Japan followed. New Zealand seems to be heading the same way, while South Korean telcos decided against including the Chinese vendors on preferred supplier lists.

The bigger picture is the US’ efforts to hold onto its dominance in the technology arena. This has proved to be incredibly fruitful for the US economy, though China is threatening the vice-like grip Silicon Valley has on the world. The US has been trying to convince the world not to use Chinese vendors on the grounds of national security, but don’t be fooled by this rhetoric; this is just one component of a greater battle against China.

Breakaway pack cross the 5G finish line

We made it!

Aside from 5G, we’ve been talking about very little over the last few years. There might have been a few side conversations which dominate the headlines for a couple of weeks, but we’ve never been far away from another 5G ‘breakthrough’ or ‘first’. And the last few weeks of 2018 saw a few of the leading telcos cross the 5G finish line.

Verizon was first with a fixed wireless access proposition, AT&T soon followed in the US with a portable 5G hotspot. Telia has been making some promising moves in both Sweden and Estonia, with limited launches aiming to create innovation and research labs, while San Marino was the first state to have complete coverage, albeit San Marino is a very small nation.

These are of course very minor launches, with geographical coverage incredibly limited, but that should not take the shine off the achievement. This is a moment the telco and technology industry has been building towards for years, and it has now been achieved.

Now we can move onto the why. Everyone knows 5G will be incredibly important for relieving the pressure on the telco pipes and the creation of new services, but no-one knows what these new services will be. We can all make educated guesses, but the innovators and blue-sky thinkers will come up with some new ideas which will revolutionise society and the economy.

Only a few people could have conceived Uber as an idea before the 4G economy was in full flow, and we can’t wait to see what smarter-than-us people come up with once they have the right tools and environment.

Zuckerberg proves he’s not a good friend after all

This is the news story which rocked the world. Data privacy violations, international actors influencing US elections, cover ups, fines, special committees, empty chairs, silly questions, knowledge of wrong-doing and this is only what we know so far… the scandal probably goes deeper.

It all started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a Russian American researcher called Aleksandr Kogan from the University of Cambridge. Kogan created a quiz on the Facebook platform which exposed a loop-hole in the platform’s policies allowing Kogan to scrape data not only from those who took the quiz, but also connections of that user. The result was a database containing information on 87 million people. This data was used by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during elections around the world, creating hyper-targeted adverts.

What followed was a circus. Facebook executives were hauled in-front of political special committees to answer questions. As weeks turned into months, more suspect practices emerged as politicians, journalists and busy-bodies probed deeper into the Facebook business model. Memos and internal emails have emerged suggesting executives knew they were potentially acting irresponsibly and unethically, but it didn’t seem to matter.

As it stands, Facebook is looking like a company which violated the trust of the consumer, has a much wider reaching influence than it would like to admit, and this is only the beginning. The only people who genuinely understand the expanding reach of Facebook are those who work for the company, but the curtain is slowly being pulled back on the data machine. And it is scaring people.

Big Blue back in the black

This might not have been a massive story for everyone in the industry, but with the severe fall from grace and rise back into the realms of relevance, we feel IBM deserves a mention.

Those who feature in the older generations will remember the dominance of IBM. It might seem unusual to say nowadays, but Big Blue was as dominant in the 70s as Microsoft was in the 90s and Google is today. This was a company which led the technology revolution and defined innovation. But it was not to be forever.

IBM missed a trick; personal computing. The idea that every home would have a PC was inconceivable to IBM, who had carved its dominant position through enterprise IT, but it made a bad choice. This tidal wave of cash which democratised computing for the masses went elsewhere, and IBM was left with its legacy business unit.

This was not a bad thing for years, as the cash cow continued to grow, but a lack of ambition in seeking new revenues soon took its toll. Eight years ago, IBM posted a decline in quarterly revenues and the trend continued for 23 consecutive periods. During this period cash was directed into a new division, the ‘strategic imperatives’ unit, which was intended to capitalise on a newly founded segment; intelligent computing.

In January this year, IBM proudly posted its first quarterly growth figures for seven years. Big Blue might not be the towering force it was decades ago, but it is heading in the right direction, with cloud computing and artificial intelligence as the key cogs.

Convergence, convergence, convergence

Convergence is one of those buzzwords which has been on the lips of every telco for a long time, but few have been able to realise the benefits.

There are a few glimmers of promise, Vodafone seem to be making promising moves in the UK broadband market, while Now TV offers an excellent converged proposition. On the other side of the Atlantic, AT&T efforts to move into the content world with the Time Warner acquisition is a puzzling one, while Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo’s content assets have proved to be nothing but a disaster.

Orange is a company which is taking convergence to the next level. We’re not just talking about connectivity either, how about IOT, cyber-security, banking or energy services. This is a company which is living the convergence dream. Tie as many services into the same organisation, making the bill payer so dependent on one company it becomes a nightmare to leave.

It’s the convergence dream as a reality.

Europe’s Great Tax Raid

This is one of the more recent events on the list, and while it might not be massive news now, we feel it justifies inclusion. This developing conversation could prove to be one of the biggest stories of 2019 not only because governments are tackling the nefarious accounting activities of Silicon Valley, but there could also be political consequences if the White House feels it is being victimised.

Tax havens are nothing new, but the extent which Silicon Valley is making use of them is unprecedented. Europe has had enough of the internet giants making a mockery of the bloc, not paying its fair share back to the state, and moves are being made by the individual states to make sure these monstrously profitable companies are held accountable.

The initial idea was a European-wide tax agenda which would be led by the European Commission. It would impose a sales tax on all revenues realised in the individual states. As ideas go, this is a good one. The internet giants will find it much more difficult to hide user’s IP addresses than shifting profits around. Unfortunately, the power of the European Union is also its downfall; for any meaningful changes to be implemented all 28 (soon to be 27) states would have to agree. And they don’t.

Certain states, Ireland, Sweden and Luxembourg, have a lot more to lose than other nations have to gain. These are economies which are built on the idea of buddying up to the internet economy. They might not pay much tax in these countries, but the presence of massive offices ensure society benefits through other means. Taxing Silicon Valley puts these beneficial relationships with the internet players in jeopardy.

But that isn’t good enough for the likes of the UK and France. In the absence of any pan-European regulations, these states are planning to move ahead with their own national tax regimes; France’s 3% sales tax on any revenues achieved in the country will kick into action on January 1, with the UK not far behind.

What makes this story much more interesting will be the influence of the White House. The US government might feel this is an attack on the prosperous US economy. There might be counter measures taken against the European Union. And when we say might, we suspect this is almost a certainty, such is the ego of President Donald Trump.

This is a story which will only grow over the next couple of months, and it could certainly cause friction on both sides of the Atlantic.

Que the moans… GDPR

GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation. It was a pain for almost everyone involved and simply has to be discussed because of this distress.

Introduced in May, it seemingly came as a surprise. This is of course after companies were given 18 months to prepare for its implementation, but few seemed to appreciate the complexity of becoming, and remaining compliant. As a piece of regulation, it was much needed for the digital era. It heightened protections for the consumer and ensured companies operating in the digital economy acted more responsibly.

Perhaps one of the most important components of the regulation was the stick handed to regulators. With technology companies growing so rapidly over the last couple of years, the fines being handed out by watchdogs were no longer suitable. Instead of defining specific amounts, the new rules allow punishments to be dished out as a percentage of revenues. This allows regulators to hold the internet giants accountable, hitting them with a suitably large stick.

Change is always difficult, but it is necessary to ensure regulations are built for the era. Evolving the current rulebook simply wouldn’t work, such is the staggering advancement of technology in recent years. Despite the headaches which were experienced throughout the process, it was necessary, and we’ll be better off in the long-run.

Next on the regulatory agenda, the ePrivacy Regulation.

Jio piles the misery on competitors

Jio is not a new business anymore, neither did it really come to being in 2018, but this was the period where the telco really justified the hype and competitors felt the pinch.

After hitting the market properly in early 2016, the firm made an impression. But like every challenger brand, the wins were small in context. Collecting 100,000s of customers every month is very impressive, but don’t forget India has a population of 1.3 billion and some very firmly position incumbents.

2017 was another year where the firm rose to prominence, forcing several other telcos out of the market and two of the largest players into a merger to combat the threat. Jio changed the market in 2017; it democratised connectivity in a country which had promised a lot but delivered little.

This year was the sweeping dominance however. It might not be the number one telco in the market share rankings, but it will be before too long. Looking at the most recent subscription figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Jio grew its subscription base by 13.02 million, but more importantly, it was the only telco which was in the positive. This has started to make an impact on the financial reports across the industry, Bharti Airtel is particularly under threat, and there might be worse to come.

For a long-time Jio has been hinting it wants to tackle the under-performing fixed broadband market. There have been a couple of acquisitions in recent months, Den Networks and Hathway Cable, which give it an entry point, and numerous other digital services initiatives to diversify the revenue streams.

The new business units are not making much money at the moment, though Jio is in the strongest position to test out the convergence waters in India. Offering a single revenue stream will ensure the financials hit a glass ceiling in the near future, but new products and aggressive infrastructure investment plans promise much more here.

We’re not too sure whether the Indian market is ready for mass market fixed broadband penetration, there are numerous other market factors involved, but many said the initial Jio battle plan would fail as well.

Convergent business models are certainly an interesting trend in the industry, and Jio is looking like it could force the Indian market into line.

Redundancies, redundancies, redundancies

Redundancy is a difficult topic to address, but it is one we cannot ignore. Despite what everyone promises, there will be more redundancies.

Looking at the typical telco business model, this is the were the majority have been seen and will continue to be seen. To survive in the digitally orientated world, telcos need to adapt. Sometimes this means re-training staff to capitalise on the new bounties, but unfortunately this doesn’t always work. Some can’t be retrained, some won’t want to; the only result here will be redundancies.

BT has been cutting jobs, including a 13,000-strong cull announced earlier this year, Deutsche Telekom is trimming its IT services business by 25%, the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint will certainly create overlaps and resulting redundancies, while Optus has been blaming automation for its own cuts.

Alongside the evolving landscape, automation is another area which will result in a headcount reduction. The telcos will tell you AI is only there to supplement human capabilities and allow staff to focus on higher value tasks, but don’t be fooled. There will be value-add gains, but there will also be accountants looking to save money on the spreadsheets. If you can buy software to do a simple job, why would you hire a couple of people to do it? We are the most expensive output for any business.

Unfortunately, we have to be honest with ourselves. For the telco to compete in the digital era, new skills and new business models are needed. This means new people, new approaches to software and new internal processes. Adaptation and evolution is never easy and often cruel to those who are not qualified. This trend has been witnessed in previous industrial revolutions, but the pace of change today means it will be felt more acutely.

Redundancy is not a nice topic, but it is not always avoidable.

CMA backs super complaint against loyalty penalties

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has backed a ‘super complaint’ raised by Citizens Advice which suggests UK consumers are being ripped off by loyalty penalties on services such as broadband.

The super complaint was raised by in September by Citizens Advice, asking the CMA to investigate whether customers were effectively being punished by service providers, so called stealth price rises for example. The areas being called into question were cash savings, mortgages, household insurance, mobile phone contracts and broadband.

The CMA agrees with the points raised by Citizens Advice, suggesting the segments in question gain £4 billion a year through ripping off loyal customers.

“Our work has uncovered a range of problems which leave people feeling ripped off, let down and frustrated,” said Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA. “They shouldn’t have to be constantly ‘on guard’, spending hours searching for or negotiating a good deal, to avoid being trapped into bad value contracts or falling victim to stealth price rises.”

Looking specifically at the telcos, this is a frustrating point for many consumers. UK telcos show very little desire to reward customers, setting in processes and systems which make it impossible to leave. Many will give up on trying to navigate the red-tape maze as the poor experience proves to be favourable to the frustrations of trying to leave. By making this process as difficult as possible, the telcos don’t have to worry that much about retention and can instead focus on luring new customers.

The CMA has pointed this out during its own investigation, ensuring that one of the recommendations made to government and regulators will be to simplify the exiting process. This will intend to tackle the process, systems and the fees which customers face when attempting to secure a better deal.

It appears the telcos are much better at scaring customers away from exiting than enticing them to stay with positive customer service. Your correspondent can confirm this is the case after trying to end a Vodafone contract last year. It took a ridiculous amount of time, engagement with several staff who had no idea what they were doing (or was this trained in to make the process as painful as possible?) but the mission was stubbornly completed.

“We know that the better deals are often found by switching provider,” said Richard Neudegg, Head of Regulation at uSwitch.com. “But many companies make this more difficult by not being transparent enough about the options available or how to take your custom elsewhere. We are pleased to see the CMA identify this as an area for improvement, to ensure the power to get better deals is placed firmly in the hands of consumers.”

One specific complaints which has been firmly aimed at the telcos concerns subsidized handsets. The CMA highlights telcos should not be allowed to charge the same amount per month once the handset has been fully paid for. This will be a frustration from the consumer, but like the ridiculous nature of roaming fees, because the industry has stuck together little progress has been made.

Above all else, the CMA opinion adds to the already well-known position that telcos are not at all customer-centric organizations and have a lot to do if they want to be considered relevant for the digital economy.

Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.

Cuba enters mobile internet age with 3G few can afford

Cuba’s telecom operator will offer 3G data service to prepaid users, but with high-tariffs one question remains; can any of the locals actually afford it?

The previously isolated communist state has undergone gradual reform since the more pragmatic Miguel Diaz-Canel took over at the helm, and one of the goals is to catch up the rest of the world on internet adoption and to develop an information society. As an important step towards this direction, Cuba’s the state-owned telecom operator ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A.) announced (in Spanish) that the company will start offering 3G data services to its prepaid customers from 6 December, one year after it started offering internet connections to residential locations. Before that, most Cubans could only go online from internet cafes.

The monthly packages (in Spanish) start at 600 MB data which will cost 7CUC ($7), going up to 1 GB (10CUC), 2.5 GB (20CUC), and 4GB which will cost 30CUC. Another 300 MB will be granted for free on top of all packages for visiting local website (domain .cu). Otherwise, 1CUC can get 50 MB For email use only (on ETECSA’s email service Nauta). The service is on 900 MHz only, meaning handsets will have to be compatible to that specific frequency. Users applying to use the service can activate directly over-the-air with the operator.

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There is no recent data on Cuban income from sources like the World Bank. Earlier data showed the average monthly salary was about $27 to $32, though independent survey and research have indicated that many locals do make extra income through different channels. Even with the additional income, the data packages are way too high for most users. Research in other emerging markets has shown that the adoption of broadband will take off when the cost of the package reaches below 5% of monthly disposable income.

The operator could be pricing its packages to limit the number of users, as its networks are not capable of coping with high traffic volume yet. As the national monopoly, ETECSA has installed 1,078 2G base station, and 789 3G base stations, according to its published data. In its announcement the operator also warns users that in the first days of the service there may be down time, and asks consumers to inform the operator through official channels.

According to research by Ovum, mobile penetration in Cuba went just over 44% by the end of Q2 this year. The country’s internet population (“permanent internet accounts”) has reached 1.9 million.

Huawei CFO arrested in Canada, facing extradition to the US

Meng Wanzhou, Huawei CFO, was arrested in Canada at the request of the US judiciary, with suspicions the company violated trade sanctions placed on Iran by the US.

The fallout between Huawei and the US authorities is reaching Shakespearean scale. On 1 December, Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO, vice-chair of the Board, and the daughter of the founder of the company, was arrested while in transit at the Vancouver airport, while in transit to China. Several media outlets originally reported the arrest, though it has now been confirmed by Huawei.

“She is sought for extradition by the United States, and a bail hearing has been set for Friday,” Justice Department spokesman Ian McLeod said in a statement to the Canadian newspaper. “As there is a publication ban in effect, we cannot provide any further detail at this time. The ban was sought by Ms. Meng.”

Canadian law-enforcement source suggest the arrest was made at the request of the United States, which has alleged Huawei, and Ms. Meng, violated American embargo against Iran. A New York Times report quoted Senator Ben Sasse that the US Treasury and Commerce Department also asked the Justice Department to investigate Huawei for possibly violating the same sanctions.

Huawei denied the allegation in its statement to our sister publication Light Reading, claiming “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations where it operates, including applicable export control and sanction laws and regulations of the UN, US and EU.”

Referring to the arrest of Ms. Meng, Huawei added that it “has been provided with very little information regarding the charges and is not aware of any wrongdoing by Ms. Meng. The company believes the Canadian and U.S. legal systems will ultimately reach a just conclusion.”

It has been reported that earlier in the year when ZTE was being investigated, documents seized the US prosecutors included Huawei’s files detailing the methods it used to insulate itself through third parties when trading with Iran, which ZTE meant to use as a blueprint but did not quite pull off. The investigators might have been following the lead.

The ZTE dealings with Iran eventually led to the firm being barred from using any US components or IP within its own supply chain, almost destroying the company itself. Logic would suggest the US would use a similar game plan here, though many suggest Huawei supply chain is not as reliant on the US as ZTE’s is.

The timing of the report was also interesting. The arrest took place on the same day as the American and Chinese presidents agreed on the 90-truce to the trade war and a myriad of issues. For four days there was no mention of the arrest in any media or official channels, and the Chinese Embassy in Canada only lodged a complaint, much angrier than the Huawei statement, after the report came out. One can only speculate that efforts to scramble a deal behind the scenes must have failed.

The ultra-nationalistic Global Times went one step further with a call to arms:

The latest episode of the wrangling between Huawei and the US certain will not help Huawei’s business prospect in the western markets, where it has been barred by a few prominent states. Nor will it provide any confidence in the prospect for a truce between the American and Chinese presidents. All Asian stock markets have fallen roughly 2% after the news broke.

Korea switches on 5G

All three of Korea’s major mobile operators switched on 5G networks simultaneous at midnight on 1 December, offering business FWA based on 3GPP standards.

The launches marked Korea as the first country to have more than one commercial 5G network. The largest operator SKT, launched the service in 13 cities, while LG U+ plans to expand its 5G coverage to 85 cities by the end of the year. KT, the second largest mobile operator and the leading fixed-line services provider, which recently suffered a fire damage to its cable tunnel, is said to be only covering the greater Seoul area with its 5G network.

The services offered are limited to business users on fixed-wireless access. The launch at LG U+ was signalled by a video call made from a PC by the operator’s Vice Chairman. SKT’s CEO made a call using a prototype 5G smartphone. Both the wireless router and the prototype phone were supplied by Samsung, which sent out a congratulatory tweet for the occasion: