Budget is good start, but don’t get too excited – National Infrastructure Commission

The National Infrastructure Commission has given the UK’s Autumn Budget the thumbs up, but will the shiny new roads take much needed funding away from the country’s quest towards the digital economy?

While it might be a boring topic, roads and railways received a lot of attention during the budget announcement. But this is one of the bigger concerns for the NIC, which is wondering whether the a lack of private investment in such schemes would detract from government investment in other areas, most notably, next generation technologies for communications and energy.

“Today’s Budget includes a number of welcome measures for infrastructure – but the real test will be next year’s Spending Review and, crucially, the National Infrastructure Strategy that the Chancellor has promised,” said Sir John Armitt Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.

“This strategy should bring together the roads funding from this Budget with longer-term funding for cities and projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail and Crossrail.  And it should include access to full fibre broadband and greater use of renewable sources for our energy.”

The budget, which was unveiled on Monday, featured plans to hold the internet giants accountable to pay more tax in the UK, as well as a £1.6 billion commitment to support the Industrial Strategy and R&D funding, including technologies from AI, future manufacturing, nuclear fusion and quantum computing. An additional £200 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund will also be pointed towards various schemes to encourage the rollout of fibre infrastructure throughout the UK, most notably in rural regions with primary schools to be the first to get special attention.

Looking specifically at the National Productivity Investment Fund, investments in fibre and 5G will increase to £715 million between 2019 and 2021, though whether this is enough to keep the UK on track in the global digital economy remains to be seen. The ambition set out in July in The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review targets a nationwide full fibre network by 2033. Alongside the Budget, the government is publishing consultations to mandate gigabit‑capable connections to new build homes.

The consultation, which is being led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, will aim to amend the Electronic Communications Code (EEC) to place an obligation on landlords to facilitate the deployment of digital infrastructure when they receive a request from their tenants, while also enabling telcos to use magistrates courts to gain entry to properties where a landlord fails to respond to requests for improved or new digital infrastructure. The EEC is starting to look like a very large stick for the telcos to swing around and force people to do anything they want.

What is slightly concerning is a lack of attention for 5G. In the budget document on the HM Treasury website, 5G is actually only mentioned once.

What is worth noting is this budget might actually mean nothing in a couple of months. Hammond has given himself adequate breathing room with a no-deal Brexit scenario looking increasingly likely, stating it would be back to the drawing board should the worst-case scenario become a reality.

Inward application of tech explains dumb pipe rhetoric

Every telco fears the ‘dump pipe’ label and the push towards commoditisation, but perhaps this trend is being compounded by an inward looking attitude in the application of potentially revolutionary technologies.

This is the conundrum; telcos are missing out on the cash bonanza which is fuelling companies like Facebook and Google, but to keep investors happy, executives are focusing more on improving profitability than replacing lost revenues, such as the voice and SMS cash cows of yesteryear. This might seem like quite a broad sweeping statement, and will not be applicable to every telco, or every department within the telcos, but statement could be proven true at Total Telecom Congress this week.

One panel session caught our attention in particular. Featuring Turk Telecom, Elisa and Swisscom, the topic was the implementation of AI and the ability to capitalize on the potential of the technology. The focus here is on automation, predictive failure detection and improving internal processes such as legal and HR. These are all useful applications of the technology, but will only improve what is already in place.

The final panellist was Google, and this is where the difference could be seen. Google is of course focusing on improving internal processes, but the main focus on artificial intelligence applications is to enhance products and create new services. Spam filters in Gmail is an excellent example, though there are countless others as the Deepmind team spread their influence throughout the organization.

The difference between the two is an inward and outward application of the technology. Telcos are seemingly searching for efficiency, while Google is looking to create more value and products. One will improve profitability of what already exists, the second will capture new revenues and open the business up to new customers. One is safe, the other is adventurous. One will lead a company down a path towards utilitisation, the other will emphasise innovation and expand the business into new markets.

Of course, there are examples of telcos using artificial intelligence to enhance offerings and create new value, but it does appear there is more emphasis on making internal processes more efficient and improving profitability.

This is not to say companies should not look at processes and business models to make a more successful business, but too much of an inward focus will only lead to irrelevance. We’ve mentioned this before, but the telcos seem to be the masters of their own downfall, either through sluggishness or a fear of embracing the unknown, searching for new answers.

The panel session demonstrated the notable difference between the two business segments. The internet players are searching for new value, while telcos seem more interested in protecting themselves. Fortune favours the brave is an old saying, but it is very applicable here.

EE shows its 5G ambitions are greater than the smartphone

EE is set to green light its first 5G trial in London, testing out its fixed wireless access ambitions.

Five businesses and five homes will have the chance to test out EE’s 5G broadband capabilities as the telco shows us it’s not all about bufferless cat videos on the bus. The trial will see 5G switched on at ten sites around East London in City Road, Old Street, Hoxton Square, St Paul’s and Chiswell Street.

Although details of the trialists are thin at the moment, EE has hinted it will make use of social media to find them. If anything else, it’s an interesting idea to increase follows across the various platforms.

“This live trial is a big step forward in making the benefits of 5G a reality for our customers, and in making sure that the UK is at the front of the pack for 5G technology,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business.

“We’re focusing our resource and experience across EE and BT to ensure that we continue to lead the UK market with a mobile network that keeps giving our customers the best speeds and the best coverage. 5G is a fundamental part of our work to build a converged, smart network that keeps our customers connected to the things that matter most.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper trial if a politician didn’t get the chance to show off the fluoride smile to the world.

“We want the UK to be a global leader in 5G as part of our ambition to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone,” said Margot James, Minister for Digital. “Together with the Government’s own test beds and trials programme, industry initiatives like this will help deliver the benefits of this new revolutionary technology to businesses and consumers across the UK.”

While the main buzz of the 5G euphoria has been centred around improving the experience on your smart phone or filling the roads with autonomous vehicles, the fixed wireless access use case has been seldom touched in the UK. It certainly has been a talking point elsewhere, Verizon just launched it offering in very limited pockets of the US, though now the UK telcos seem to be catching on.

In recent weeks, Vodafone outlined their plans and trials for the 5G world, unusually selecting two rural locations as test beds, Cornwall and the Lake District. The explanation here; there is a need to trial all sorts of different use cases in different environments, with fixed wireless access being one.

Of course, 5G broadband connectivity does not offer the same reliability or potential of fibre-based connectivity (at least not until we start talking about 6G/7G/8G…) but it is a genuine use case which can be brought to the market in the near future. While we will have to wait until mid- to late-2019 for 5G compatible smartphones, routers will be on the market much sooner.

There’s a big difference between download speed and mobile video experience

Network rating outfit OpenSignal has started measuring ‘video experience’ as well as raw network performance and found they don’t necessarily correlate.

A new report entitled The State of Mobile Video ranks a bunch of countries according to their mobile video experience on an arbitrary scale of 0-100. This takes into account not just download speed but things like ‘traffic management’ (often referred to as throttling) and latency. These can all contribute to things like buffering and slow load times, all of which affect the overall video experience.

As you can see from the scatter graph below, taken from the report, there is a fair bit of variation in the correlation between download speed and video experience. If the correlation was exact then you’d just have a straight diagonal line, but as you can see the country with the fastest raw speed – South Korea – isn’t even in the top ten for mobile video experience.

Conversely the Czech Republic has been found to be top of the pops when it comes to mobile video experience but is also just outside the top ten for download speed. We spoke to OpenSignal CEO Brendan Gill and he revealed the main reasons for these discrepancies are traffic management and latency.

Another outlier country is the US, which has a relatively low mobile video score compared to download speed. A major reason for this is probably unmetered tariffs that theoretically allow unlimited video streaming but in practice feature fairly extensive restrictions on bandwidth. This practice is understandable but there is an argument that if those services are being positioned as ‘unlimited’ then there’s some mis-selling going on.

Latency is most pertinent when it comes to shorter video clips typically accessed over social media. If you’re scrolling through your social media feed you’re probably not prepared to wait more than a second or so for a clip to start playing. While this is probably a sad indictment of the modern attention span and certainly qualifies as a first world problem, that’s the environment we’re operating in and apparently US load times aren’t great.

Opensignal mobile video chart

Vodafone pulls out a genuinely good 5G demo – get ready for holograms!

While many 5G demos show technical progress, few wow an audience in the same way Vodafone did at its Future Ready press conference, unveiling the UK’s first live holographic call.

After CTO Scott Petty set the stage with a number of impressive announcements indicating Vodafone is perhaps not the cumbersome beast we have come to expect, an underwhelming skit involving a VR headset and England Women’s football captain Steph Houghton led irritable journalists towards a slumber. But with a drop of the curtain, the demo was unveiled in all its glory. And it was incredibly impressive.

5G will enable remote surgery and 4K gaming experiences, though there is little excitement generated through this announcements nowadays. Using 5G technology to underpin the experience, Houghton, who was located in a Manchester studio at the time, appeared in Vodafone’s Newbury HQ as a 3D hologram. The image was sharp, the lag was unnoticeable and all of a sudden the audience was engaged. It was cheesy, as Houghton showed off her skills and answered some questions from 11 year-old football fan Iris, but it was an excellent demonstration of the power of 5G.

“Vodafone has a history of firsts in UK telecoms – we made the nation’s first mobile phone call, sent the first text and now we’ve conducted the UK’s first holographic phone call using 5G,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey.

What is worth noting is this is not a world first, KT is developing hologram calling as a flagship 5G service and has conducted a test call between Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and its own CEO Hwang Chang-gyu. That said, this should not take the shine off an impressive demonstration.

Some might look at such an idea and scoff; what is the opportunity aside from showing off what the network is capable of, surely this isn’t realistic for the real world? But why not?

A decade ago it would have been inconceivable to consider video conferencing as a mass market product. In the early years it was reserved for the board room, due to the price of equipment and the software to make it work. Nowadays, Skype calling is as common as a sausage sandwich. We’re not suggesting hologram calling is going to be commonplace over the next couple of years, but who knows what is possible when the price point of technology starts tumbling down.

CTO Petty referred to the famous Bill Gates quote when discussing the potential for a mass market product; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten. The mind runs wild when you consider what could be possible; GP consultations from your living room, distance learning would take on a new spin and some sports events, boxing for instance, could take the live audience from tens of thousands to millions by setting up holographic arenas all over the world. Healthcare, education and entertainment could be completely revolutionised.

It’s been a while since a 5G demonstration has genuinely got a room full of journalists excited; well done Vodafone!

 

FCC Commissioner eyes up 5.9 GHz for next-generation wifi

With yesteryears plan for driverless cars offering zero progress, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has suggested a rethink of how to use the 5.9 GHz band, toying with unlicensed spectrum for next-generation wifi.

Back in 1999, the US government set aside 75 megahertz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for dedicated short range communications, DSRC, designed for cars to talk to each other in real time to help reduce accidents. Of the 260 million cars on US roads, only a few thousand are DSRC compatible as autonomous vehicles have moved beyond DSRC to operate and communicate with other vehicles. Some might suggest this initiative has been nothing short of pointless.

Failure is not necessarily a bad thing, but recognising this failure and adapting is critical. This is one of the reasons the internet players are hoovering up cash everywhere. The National Transportation Safety Board estimates it could be up to three decades before the majority of vehicles on the road have DSRC capability, so you have to wonder whether this is a case of flogging a dead horse. Other aspects of the technology world are progressing with genuine ambition, Rosenworcel is suggesting this 75 megahertz of spectrum could be better used elsewhere.

“Earlier this year, it [Congress] asked the FCC to identify 100 megahertz of spectrum below 8 GHz for unlicensed use,” said Rosenworcel. “To meet this threshold, we need to take another look at the 5.9 GHz band.

“It’s the ideal place to explore wifi expansion because it’s adjacent to an existing unlicensed band. That means we have the opportunity to introduce new wideband channels – channels that will be able to take advantage of new standards and deliver speeds even faster than 1 Gbps. In other words, this is where we can develop next generation gigabit wifi.”

Spectrum is an incredibly scarce resource, and there is little room to accommodate technologies and projects which have offer little return. This is the situation the US has found itself in with DSRC. With little to no prospects on the horizon for DSRC to make an impact, you have to wonder how long it can hold onto the precious asset.

This is of course in comparison to wifi. Right now, there are over 9 billion wifi enabled devices, a number possibly increasing by 50 billion by the end of the decade, while nearly 70% of smartphone data is carried over wifi networks. Perhaps even the telcos will support such a move to offer more spectrum for wifi. The telcos are battling against network strain, and more effective wifi could be a means to relieve some of this pressure.

Sometimes decisions are incredibly obvious, and this seems to be one of the cases.

“There is no shame in correcting course,” said Rosenworcel. “And I think it’s time to be ambitious and find a way forward that puts the 5.9 GHz band to fuller use.”

Ericsson and Qualcomm claim first 5G NR mmWave call to a smartphone

The incremental ‘5G first’ claims continue as Ericsson and Qualcomm say they’ve done the first 5G NR ‘call’ over the 39 GHz band to a smartphone-like device.

The test call was done in Ericsson’s labs in Sweden using the non-standalone flavour of 5G. It used Ericsson’s AIR 5331 5G NR radio and the test device (pictured) was running the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem. It comes just days after Ericsson announced a pretty similar test with Intel, which presumably made Qualcomm feel slighted and jealous.

“Mobilizing mmWave for the smartphone has been seen by many as an impossible challenge, but this demonstration validates that we are on track to bring groundbreaking 5G mmWave experiences to consumers,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “This successful lab call is a testament to our continued innovation and collaboration with Ericsson, and we look forward to further industry-leading milestones with them as we progress to 5G commercialization of networks and mobile devices in early 2019.”

“Today’s data call milestone with Qualcomm Technologies shows the importance of building the 5G ecosystem,” said Ericsson networks boss Fredrik Jejdling. “We’re also making headway on commercial 5G by performing interoperability tests on new mmWave bands, giving our customers wider deployment options and the consumers, faster speeds.”

Elsewhere Ericsson has been quick to promote the fruits of its recent transport announcement involving Juniper. It has won a deal with Swisscom to deliver an ‘end-to-end 5G transport solution, that will feature both Ericsson and Juniper kit. Ericsson will now run the whole of Swisscom’s 4G and 5G networks, including all the latest virtualization cleverness.

“We have selected Ericsson’s transport solution for our 5G network,” said Heinz Herren, CIO and CTO at Swisscom. “Partnering with Juniper Networks, Ericsson has extended its transport coverage and can now take end-to-end transport responsibility all the way from the Radio Access Network to the next generation core. Seamlessly managed and orchestrated, this reduces our complexity and affords a more efficient, high-performing network.”

“Ericsson has stepped up and taken responsibility for transport,” said Arun Bansal, head of Erisson in Europe and Latin America. “This deal is an important proof point for the end-to-end 5G transport solutions that we recently launched. The ease of use of our one-stop shop reduces not only complexity for Swisscom but also their total cost of ownership.”

Here’s a photo of a bloke looking at some servers that Ericsson thought was apposite to the latter story. He clearly has more flexible knees than some of us.

Ericsson server bloke

Ciena strengthens its software suite with DonRiver acquisition

Optical and IP transport company Ciena acquired software and service company DonRiver to shore up its Blue Planet portfolio.

One week after its CEO explicitly said it was on the lookout for new software M&A, Ciena announced that it has entered a definitive agreement to acquire DonRiver, a privately-owned software and service company specialised in federated network and service inventory management solution.

Ciena reported a strong quarter, but its software business suffered a 3% year-on-year dip. Although the SDN-based network management suit Blue Planet only accounted for a minor share of the total software sales, high hopes have been banked on it. When talking to analysts at the quarterly result call Ciena’s CEO Gary Smith said, “With Blue Planet, we’ve done a lot of learning over the last two to three years, …the bookings were very encouraging. And we should be able to come into the year — next year with a backlog for 2019.”

Similar to Ciena’s recent acquisition of Packet Design, DonRiver has been a partner to Ciena, so its technology knowhow is well known to the latter. Despite that it has a couple of A-list clients including Telstra, Comcast, and Rogers, it is not DonRiver’s clients or the revenues that was driving the acquisition, Ciena told Telecoms.com.

“The combination of Blue Planet and DonRiver will enhance our ability to deliver closed loop automation of network services and the underlying operational processes across IT/operations and the network,” said Rick Hamilton, senior vice president of Global Software and Services at Ciena about the latest acquisition. “With this new set of technology and expertise, we can help customers realize the full benefits of network automation by helping them move away from highly complex and fragmented OSS environments to those that accurately reflect the real-time state and utilization of network resources.”

Specifically, what DonRiver could bring to the Blue Planet portfolio, especially the Analytics & Intelligence component, is its capability to bring a holistic view of the network inventory. With networks getting more complex, stacks of OSS are being added to the architecture, making it increasing difficult for the operators to know what exactly is happening in the layers of networks. The vastly improved visibility and accuracy enabled by DonRiver’s expertise will strengthen Ciena’s value proposition to help operators optimise the OSS environments. As Ciena executives said to Telecoms.com, DonRiver’s engineers can do much more than network inventory, they are OSS experts.

The terms of the acquisition were not made public.

San Marino set to be first European 5G state – TIM

Telecom Italia has announced it expects 5G services to be greenlight in San Marino by the end of the year, making it the first 5G state in Europe. If only they had the handsets.

With TIM engineers plugging away in Faetano to hook up 3GPP Rel15 standard radio equipment with Massive-MIMO technology, the aim is to have complete 5G coverage by the end of the year. With the team back in head office running the final tests on 26 GHz millimetre waves in the 26.5-27.5 GHz frequency range, the hope is San Marino will become a living lab to test out new 5G services.

“The installation of the first 3GPP 5G site is the peak of a virtuous cycle of innovation launched by TIM a few years ago, working with the standardization bodies and contributing since the beginning to the ITU R ‘Vision’ recommendation which defined the founding concepts of 5G, subsequently guiding work on the technical specifications for 3GPP Rel15 and later,” said Elisabetta Romano, CTO at TIM.

“Nokia has developed an end-to-end 5G Future X portfolio that will deliver unprecedented capabilities and efficiencies for customers such as TIM, allowing them to transform their service offering,” said Marc Rouanne, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia. “Working together we will explore the potential of 5G services that align with TIM’s vision of meeting the future demands of a diverse range of industries and consumers.”

The first stages of the deployment plan were complete with various successful trials run over the 3.5 GHz frequency band, though it seems the 26 GHz millimetre waves is what is catching the attention of the team. Equipment will be deployed from September to move trials from the Turin R&D centre to the San Marino living lab, focusing on areas such as Industry 4.0, public safety, Smart Parking and Gas & Water Metering applications for smart cities and digital tourism, including virtual reality.

Having signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of the microstate in July last year, San Marino could actually be one of the first country’s in the world to experience the 5G bonanza. That said, this should not be taking as a sign things are all rosy across the European continent; hooking up a microstate with a land mass of 23.63 mi² and a population of just over 33,000 should be viewed as nothing more than an experiment for TIM. Europe still lags behind North America and Asia in the race to 5G, but progress is being made.

Ookla says Telenor is the world’s fastest mobile operator

Telenor Norway registered an average download speed of 72 Mbps in Q2 2018 according to measurement service Ookla.

In a blog post Ookla, which has Telenor as an enterprise client, was able to shed some light on how such speeds are achieved. There doesn’t seem to be anything too surprising; carrier aggregation , 256QAM, 4×4 MIMO and all that jazz all add up to a nice lot of bandwidth. On top of that it seems to have largely shifted voice traffic over to LTE, which presumably frees up more spectrum to widen the 4G pipe.

As a consequence Ookla has Norway in second place in its global wireless speed rankings, although its average speed of 57 Mbps indicates the other Norwegian operators are way behind Telenor and need to introduce some QAM and MIMO into their diets. Qatar is the clear number one and UAE is third, indicating the Gulf has been investing heavily on infrastructure, while Singapore and Iceland are in the top five for both mobile and fixed speed. The UK is 51st on mobile and 30th on fixed.

Ookla speedtest July 2018