MegaFon CEO calls it a day, again

The boss of Russia’s second-largest MNO has decided to hand over the reins once more, having previously done so six years ago.

Sergey Soldatenkov started his current tenure as CEO of MegaFon in 2016 after Ivan Tavrin resigned in order to pursue other interests. This marked the reversal of the move four year earlier in which Tavarin stepped in as CEO, with Soldatenkov moving up to the Chairman position. The fact that he had to move back into the CEO office suggests Tavarin’s departure may have been somewhat sudden.

Soldatenkov’s second tenure as CEO was expected to last three years but that too has been cut short with MegaFon Executive Director Gevork Vermishian stepping up to the plate. There is no mention of Soldatenkov returning to the Chairman role so it looks like he’s just decided to call it a day at MegaFon.

“I have decided that the time has come to hand the reins to Gevork,” said Soldatenkov. “I have been involved with the company since its creation, almost 20 years ago. Throughout this time we have been at the forefront of innovation.

“However, we have been conscious for a long time of the need for a management succession plan. With this in mind, we asked Gevork to take on the role of Executive Director last October, with a view to having me focus on strategy and government relations and having Gevork take on operational issues. In this way it was possible to gradually transition responsibilities to Gevork, and I believe that he is now ready to take over my responsibilities as well and assume full control of the management of the Company.

“I want to thank Sergey Vladimirovich for his huge contribution to the company over the years,” said Ivan Streshinsky, CEO of holding company USM Management. “He is a unique person – he has spent his entire career in telecoms, and as a result he understands the sector better than anyone else. Our decision in 2016 to ask him to return to the position of CEO clearly paid off handsomely.”

MegaFon has 29% of Russian mobile subscribers according to Ovum’s WCIS, just behind MTS with 30% or so.

Huawei makes a Beeline for Russian 5G

Holographic calls have become the hot 5G use-case so Huawei teamed up with Beeline to do one in Russia.

VimpelCom-owned Beeline rented out the Moscow Museum for this demo designed to show how great 5G is. It came soon after Vodafone tried a similar move in the UK, as the telecoms industry searches desperately for ways to capture the public imagination about a technology that, initially at least, will mainly just provide agility and efficiency to operators.

The quality of this demo seemed like a distinct drop-off from the Vodafone one as it involved ‘mixed reality’ headsets rather than a free-standing holographic projection. As a consequence people were treated to the far less impressive spectacle of a bloke in a suit fumbling blindly around a room while talking to himself.

“This May 2018, Beeline and Huawei signed an agreement to pursue the joint development of 5G in Russia,” said Aiden Wu, CEO of Huawei in Russia. “Our cooperation has been extremely productive, which today’s demonstration has quite clearly shown. We will continue working together to bring the implementation of a new communication standard closer to becoming a worldwide phenomenon and speed up the process of creating new technologies and services based on this standard.”

“The rapid development of modern technologies sets a precedence for operators to provide subscribers with high-quality mobile communications at high speeds,” said Vasyl Latsanych, CEO of PJSC VimpelCom. “That’s why Beeline is already preparing its network infrastructure and is conducting research on how to make a rational transition to 5G technologies.”

Huawei was keen to stress that this demo was done using its gNodeB commercially available 5G base station over the 27 GHz band. It also listed a bunch of other kit, but you get the idea. No bandwidth claims were made but it used MIMO 64×64 tech. There was talk about how great this sort of thing will be for virtual experiences that save you having to leave the house.

Russian telcos push for OTT tax on new data storage laws

Russian telcos are lobbying the government to grant new powers which would allow them to tax non-domestic internet companies to ease the burden of new data storage laws.

According to Reuters, the telcos are proposing new legislation to ease the financial burden of the new laws designed to give the state more oversight on communications within the country. As part of the new rules, telcos would be forced to store customer data in the country (calls, texts, internet search history etc.) for six months. The data storage rules come into force in October.

Ahead of the October launch date, the telcos have warned the imposition would result in larger costs. To protect the pockets of shareholders and executives alike, the telcos have suggested these incurred costs for data storage would be passed onto the consumer with tariffs potentially rising as much as 10%. Should the government look favourably on the proposed bill, telcos could seek compensation for the costs from non-domestic internet companies such as Facebook and Google.

Of course it seems perfectly reasonable for telcos to want to spread the burden of the digital economy throughout the ecosystem, it has largely bore the brunt of the financial expense while others profits at the top of the value chain for years, but this is a different matter. Facilitating government ambitions to more surgically monitor citizens and potentially eradicate the concept of privacy might not sit easily with the internet giants.

That said, bowing to government ambitions despite a conflict with apparent principles of the organization is a story which has been hitting the headlines recently. In an effort to penetrate the Great Firewall of China, Google has been creating a censorship-friendly version of its news app which could filter out stories which do not please the government. Google is not alone here as LinkedIn accepted these censorship rules years ago.

Other technology companies might not be as flexible as Google or LinkedIn. Those who maintain principles and refuse to fund the governments ambitions to rid Russia of independent thought will potentially face regulator Roskomnadzor reducing the speed of access to their websites for Russian users.

This is nothing but a proposal for the moment, though should it progress, the internet companies will face another principles versus profits dilemma.

EE elects Ericsson Expert Analytics for excellent experiences

Ericsson has scored a significant deal win to help out UK operator EE with its customer experience management efforts.

The real significance of this for Ericsson will be as an endorsement of its Expert Analytics as it’s not exactly synonymous CEM. And that’s not for want of trying as Ericsson has been involved in BSS/OSS for some time and has been desperate to diversify away from just flogging radios, etc, to operators. But as we see time and time again, diversification it not easy.

“This is another significant milestone in our relationship with EE and an important deal for us in the field of IT,” said Arun Bansal, Head of Market Area Europe and Latin America for Ericsson. “The introduction of Ericsson Expert Analytics will enable more effective customer care and service operations, allowing EE to proactively resolve issues before they have an impact on subscriber satisfaction.”

“With Ericsson Expert Analytics supporting our new customer experience management capability, we will be better able to understand our customers’ experience in real-time, and the detailed insights provided will help us keep improving network quality,” acquiesced Dave Salam, EE Director of Mobility and Analytics.

Elsewhere Ericsson got together with Qualcomm and MTS in Russia to deploy Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) in that county for the first time. In case you forgot, LAA is a technology that augments licensed radio frequencies with unlicensed ones. The announcement claims this deployment achieved Gigabit LTE speeds in Ufa City.

“This is the first LAA network in Russia and Eastern Europe and an important milestone on the way to 5G,” said Andrey Ushatsky, VP of Technology and IT at MTS. “LAA will allow us to build gigabit LTE networks quickly and cost-effectively in places with active traffic consumption, where operators do not always have enough available frequencies in the licensed spectrum.”

“LAA gives service providers access to new spectrum, increasing network capacity and supporting both higher peak rates and higher-than-average speed rates,” said Sebastian Tolstoy, Head of Ericsson Russia. “This commercial LAA rollout marks another important milestone in our strategic cooperation with MTS. Earlier we achieved peak throughput data rates of 25 Gbps at our joint 5G trial. The next step is to prepare for a new demonstration of enhanced 5G capabilities during the football tournament in Russia this year.”

Qualcomm delivered its standard brand of undiluted self-promotion. The deployment, which took place in a large trade center on May 17, featured 256-QAM and 4CC carrier aggregation of 10 streams with 4×4 MIMO on a 20MHz licensed carrier coupled with 3x20MHz LAA.

US and UK intelligence agencies warn of Russian cyber-attacks

The Department of Homeland Security, FBI and National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) have released a joint Technical Alert warning Russia has sponsored a series of cyber intrusions that threatened home and business routers.

The extent of the alleged Russian footprint is unknown for the moment, though the primary targets are primarily government and private-sector organisations, critical infrastructure providers, and the ISPs supporting these sectors. Although this is the first time specific guidance has been released, the US and UK have been warning for months Russia could be targeting electricity grids and other infrastructure such as banks, hospitals and air traffic control systems.

“Russian government activities continue to threaten our respective safety, security, and the very integrity of our cyber ecosystem,” said Jeanette Manfra of Homeland Security. “We call on all responsible nations to use their resources – including diplomatic, law enforcement, technical, and other means – to address the Russian cyber threat.”

“Russia is our most capable hostile adversary in cyberspace so tackling them is a major priority for the National Cyber Security Centre and our US allies,” said Ciaran Martin, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre. “For over twenty years, GCHQ has been tracking the key Russian cyber-attack groups and today’s joint UK-U.S. alert shows that the threat has not gone away.”

The Technical Alert (TA) warns the nefarious activity has been on-going since 2015, with the aim to aid Russian espionage actions while also contributing to intellectual property which fuels certain areas of the Russian economy. The state-sponsored hackers target enterprise-class and residential routers and switches, without any national prejudice; this seems to be a mine-sweep for information, not aggression against any one nation.

Network devices are noted as the perfect target here, as the TA notes once a hacker owns the routers, he/she also owns all the traffic which passes through the device. Maintaining a presence on the router not only allows the hacker to monitor information which passes through the device, but also control it. Information could be modified or even denied passageway through the gateway. The attacks, known as ‘Man-in-the-middle’, can support espionage, extract intellectual property, maintain persistent access to victim networks, and potentially lay a foundation for future offensive operations.

Above all else, these devices are easy to manipulate on a mass-scale. Once installed, rarely are these devices maintained at the same security level as other general-purpose desktops and servers, or replaced by the ISP when a relationship with a vendor ends. It is also the last place users generally look when there has been a breach or hack. Most of time routers are hidden away and never touched unless services are down. It is an easy target for hackers whose objectives will be based on quantity as well as quality.

The TA now recommends ISPs do not field equipment in the network core or to customer premises with legacy, unencrypted, or unauthenticated protocols and services, while also disabling any equipment or services which might be deemed as legacy or unencrypted. This could potentially cause a massive disruption to some ISPs who have not travelled as far along the modernization journey as others, but will also cause some significant headaches from an inventory perspective. Perhaps we are about to find out which ISPs have a handle on what equipment is in the field and what condition it is in.

One interesting question will be how seriously the telcos take this threat. There will be legacy and unencrypted equipment in the field, as well as equipment no longer supported by the vendor with software updates and security patches, or products from vendors which no-longer feature in the supply chain. On the advice from the TA, all this equipment should be upgraded or replaced, which would not be a cheap exercise, but how many telcos will actually follow the expensive advice.

While the threat of cyber espionage is of course worrying, this is another scenario which can be added onto the list for those who are fighting against globalization trends. In the US, we have already seen various tariffs and penalties imposed on Chinese companies, for right and wrong reasons, a threat from Russia and its intelligence agencies will create further fear and encourage some nations to close borders (both physical and digital) further.

For more specific guidance on how to tackle the threat, you can follow this link.

Telegram faces ban in Russia

Messaging app Telegram is on the ropes in Russia after the state communications watchdog said it filed a lawsuit to limit access after it refused security services access to its users’ secret messages.

According to Reuters, Russia’s FSB Federal Security service had requested information hidden behind the app’s encryption software, but was refused. Citing respect for users privacy, Telegram refused access for the intelligence services who were reportedly following leads of terrorist activity, and now faces being banned in the country.

Telegram is currently listed as the ninth most popular messaging app worldwide, roughly 200 million users, using software which it claims is more secure than mass market applications such as WhatsApp and Line. The team claim to support two layers of secure encryption, which is based on 256-bit symmetric AES encryption, 2048-bit RSA encryption, and Diffie–Hellman secure key exchange.

While the normal chat groups are pretty secure, Telegram states the secret chats feature uses end-to-end encryption, leave no trace on its servers, support self-destructing messages and don’t allow forwarding. On top of this, secret chats are not part of the Telegram cloud and can only be accessed on their devices of origin. In other words, Telegram is pretty confident in its security, so confident it have a £300,000 prize set aside for anyone who can prove they can crack the encryption.

The Russian watchdog, Roskomnadzor, claims that by refusing to offer the information to security services, it is not complying with its legal obligations as an ‘organizer of information distribution’. Since passing new legislation in 2016 which forces messenger services to provide authorities with a backdoor into encryption, Russia has been clamping down heavily on online communications. It’s already battled with Instagram and YouTube earlier this year over videos uploaded by political activist Alexei Anatolievich, while Twitter and Facebook have agreed to host user data locally to comply with encryption laws. Telegram has refused to do so to date.

Should the Russian government be successful, it will force ISPs to block Telegram inside the nation, in a similar manner to what has been done in Iran over the last 12 months. That said, in Iran has been a relatively simple process to navigate around the hurdles using a VPN.

Such threats might make some of the internet giants tremble, but it does not seem to worry CEO Pavel Durov who has long stood by the idea of privacy. While it is certainly not uncommon for CEOs to preach about the best interests of the user, few applications can boast the same depth of security.

While this will certainly be of interest to users in the country and worldwide, investors will also be watching closely as Telegram is also undertaking the world’s biggest initial coin offering, with pre-sales reaching £1.7 billion already. Such attention from the Russian government might have a way of making investors nervous.

MegaFon and NEC claim network automation victory

MegaFon and NEC have announced the completion of a live field-test to incorporate AI technology into the Russian network to improve the efficiency of planning and maintenance of transport network resources.

The tests took place in MegaFon Ural’s network from October to November, with the NEC AI algorithms analysing 150 radio links which were considered the most critical to the network. The test itself was considered a successful with the telco seeing benefits for both the demand forecast and predictive maintenance objectives.

“Our partnership with NEC aligns with our goals of efficiently improving the planning and maintenance of networks, which is becoming increasingly complex,” said Anton Sherbakov, Technical Director for MegaFon Ural. “Through analytics of big volumes of data with NEC’s AI technologies, ‘NEC the WISE’, we have verified that significant improvements can be achieved for the planning and operation of transport networks, resulting in more effective use of resources and providing the highest quality services to millions of subscribers.”

“We are very pleased to see our services streamline and optimize MegaFon’s network without the need to expend additional resources,” said Hiroshi Kawada, MD of NEC Neva

Communications Systems. “We aim to enhance our partnership with MegaFon and to continue delivering the latest innovations to the entire operator network.”

Looking at the demand forecast side of the test, the pair claim the AI component was 97% accurate when it came to traffic prediction against actual traffic. Predictive maintenance is a bit more difficult to justify on the spreadsheets, if the algorithm is accurate the negative instance never actually happens, but both seem happy with the results.

‘NEC the WISE’ is a product line up which was announced back in 2016 but now with the current euphoria surrounding AI, it seems to be making some useful headlines for NEC. While those who are stoking the 5G fire seem to be focusing on generating new revenue channels for the telcos, this product line has been billed for efficiency. This portfolio has been in the works for the last couple of years, but is now being pitched to clients, but NEC has also stated it plans to deliver a fully automated network operation solution by 2020.

Whether a fully autonomous network is achievable by 2020 remains to be seen, but the normalization of more optimized networks might be more accurate.

Russian censorship story highlights Facebook’s dilemma

Widespread reports that Facebook-owned Instagram has blocked posts from a political opponent of the government have brought the social media censorship issue to the fore once more.

The BBC is among the media to report on the matter, stating that Russia’s internet censor has demanded that social media companies restrict access to posts connected to corruption claims made by Alexey Navalny. Apparently YouTube received a similar request but has yet to act on it.

Navalny seems to be a fairly avid YouTuber, and the specific video flagged up in the BBC report was uploaded on 8 February and is still live, having clocked over 5 million views. Navalny took to Twitter to denounce the Instagram move and it’s generating a lot of difficult publicity for Facebook at a time when it could really do without it.

“When governments believe that something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content,” a Facebook spokeswoman told the Beeb. “We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory. We are transparent about any content restrictions we make for government requests with local law in our Transparency Report.”

Here we have the dilemma faced by all social media companies: who are they to second-guess the will of individual governments? The prevailing western narrative is to by sympathetic to Navalny and hostile to Putin – and it’s easy to believe political opposition is stifled in Russia – but we can’t possibly make an authoritative call on the veracity of Navalny’s claims, nor should we be asked to.

So while Facebook’s position on this matter appears to be kowtowing to political oppression, it’s also the will of the state apparatus in the country it’s operating. What if, on another occasion, Facebook declined such a request and it led to some unforeseen negative outcome? This is why it’s a mistake to make private companies the first point of law enforcement.

Russian telco strengthens North Korea connection to the world wide web

The door of the internet is opening wider for North Korea as TransTeleCom starts routing traffic from the secretive state.

The news was spotted by 38 North, a research institute based out of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Spotted late on Sunday evening, Russian telco TransTeleCom opened up the connection providing greater access for the North Koreans to the digital world. Up until now, China Unicom managed the only connection between the country and the rest of the internet.

It certainly comes at an interesting time, and will test the patience of an already eventful Presidency. In recent months, officials in the US have been stepping up the pressure on the Chinese government into ending ties with North Korea, though the Russian intervention has the potential to generate a bit of friction in a relationship which is already turbulent.

Aside from the telco space, TransTeleCom also has ties to the transport game, being a subsidiary of the Russian railway operator. Fibre cables are laid alongside the railway lines throughout the country, and it is believed the connection crosses the Friendship Bridge, which links Khasan in Russia with Tumangang in North Korea. It’s the only physical connection between the two nations.

While this might come as a shock to some, it turns out the global sensation which is the internet is quite popular with senior leadership within the North Korean government. Research from Insikt Group, revealed there are actually around 4 million smartphones in the country, though many of these which are dished out to the general public will have restricted services. However, a small number of people at the top have access to the world wide web which we know and love.

The research shows a couple of interesting things as well. Those who are deemed senior enough to access the internet, spend much of their time online checking social media accounts, searching the web, and browsing Amazon and Alibaba. Insikt also believes Facebook is the most popular social media site, despite reports that it (and many other popular social media platforms) are banned in the country.

While this is certainly a bit of interesting news, headache might start appearing across the US as official are reportedly trying to close the door between North Korea and the rest of the world. With experts believing cyber-attacks around the world could have originating in the country, the Washington Post has said the US government has been shackling the old Chinese connection with denial of service attacks to hamper the service in and out of North Korea.