FCC reveals glacial progress on the resale of location data by operators

US operators have been reselling the location data they accumulate about their subscribers and have been slow to deliver on promises to stop.

This practice was already well-known by the time it was highlighted in an expose at the start of this year. At the time operators were quick to stress that they’re pulling out all the stops to protect their customers’ personal data but Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was apparently skeptical. Frustrated by their deafening silence on the matter she wrote to the four US MNOs at the start of the month to ask them what they were playing at.

Rosenworcel received relatively prompt responses from those operators and decided to publish them alongside a mea culpa that was probably directed more at other FCC Commissioners than herself. “The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable,” she said.

“I don’t recall consenting to this surveillance when I signed up for wireless service—and I bet neither do you. This is an issue that affects the privacy and security of every American with a wireless phone. It is chilling to think what a black market for this data could mean in the hands of criminals, stalkers, and those who wish to do us harm. I will continue to press this agency to make public what it knows about what happened. But I do not believe consumers should be kept in the dark. That is why I am making these letters available today.”

You can read the contrite and exculpatory responses here, but in case you can’t be bothered here’s a summary. AT&T said it started phasing out this sort of thing in June 2018, while still making location data available in emergencies. Additionally the letter attempted to distance AT&T from the reports in question and said it had stopped sharing and data with location aggregators and LBS providers on 29 March 2019.

Sprint said it current works with just one LBS (location based services) provider but will pack that in by the end of this month. T-Mobile said it had terminated all contracts with LBS types by 9 March 2019 and went on at considerable length to correct what it considers to be flawed reporting on how it used to handle this sort of thing. Verizon said it had terminated all location deals by the end of March 2019.

So that would appear to be that. All the operators have said they don’t deal with location data aggregators anymore and presumably Rosenworcel is a happy Commissioner. But the fact that they’ve only just stopped reselling their customer’s personal data, and even then only after persistent nagging and bad publicity, is a further illustration of how cavalier the tech industry has been with personal data to date.

US drives solid Deutsche Telekom numbers but German 5G auction is a drag

German operator group Deutsche Telekom has reported solid Q1 revenue growth, driven largely by T-Mobile US.

As you can see from the table below, revenues and EBITDA all grew nicely in Q1 2019. Profits, however, went in the opposite direction, apparently due to one-off things like the cost of trying to get the merger between TMUS and Sprint approved. Speaking of the US the second table shows just how much of the revenue growth is attributable to TMUS.

Q12019

millions of

Q12018

millions of

Change% FY
2018
millions of

Revenue 19,488 17,924 8.7 75,656
Proportion generated internationally in % 69.0 66.6 2.4p 67.8
EBITDA 6,461 5,269 22.6 21,836
Adjusted EBITDA 6,901 5,549 24.4 23,333
Adjusted EBITDA AL 5,940 5,487 8.3 23,074
Net profit 900 992 (9.3) 2,166
Adjusted net profit 1,183 1,190 (0.6) 4,545
Free cash flowa 2,370 1,382 71.5 6,250
Free cash flow ALa 1,557 1,318 18.1 6,051
Cash capexb 3,827 3,139 21.9 12,492
Cash capexb(before spectrum) 3,682 3,076 19.7 12,223
Net debtc 71,876 50,455 42.5 55,425
Number of employeesd 214,609 216,926 (1.1) 215,675

 

Q12019

millions of

Q12018

millions of

Change% FY
2018
millions of

Germany
Total revenue 5,357 5,325 0.6 21,700
EBITDA 1,946 1,915 1.6 8,012
Adjusted EBITDA 2,114 2,082 1.5 8,610
Adjusted EBITDA AL 2,108 2,058 2.4 8,516
Number of employeesa 62,358 64,695 (3.6) 62,621
United States
Total revenue 9,796 8,455 15.9 36,522
US-$ 11,124 10,394 7.0 43,063
EBITDA 3,210 2,360 36.0 9,928
Adjusted EBITDA 3,309 2,332 41.9 10,088
Adjusted EBITDA AL 2,679 2,331 14.9 10,084
US-$ 3,042 2,865 6.2 11,901
Europeb
Total revenue 2,891 2,811 2.8 11,885
EBITDA 1,035 905 14.4 3,757
Adjusted EBITDA 1,059 911 16.2 3,880
Adjusted EBITDA AL 945 898 5.2 3,813
Systems Solutions
Order entry 1,609 1,506 6.8 6,776
Total revenue 1,630 1,665 (2.1) 6,936
Adj. EBIT margin (%) (0.2) (2.3) 2.1p 0.5
EBITDA 79 19 n.a. 163
Adjusted EBITDA 125 57 n.a. 429
Adjusted EBITDA AL 92 60 53.3 442

“We got off to a successful start to the year,” said Tim Höttges, CEO of DT. “Deutsche Telekom has much more to offer than just our sensational success in the United States. We are seeing positive trends throughout the Group.”

Not included in his canned comments, but picked up by Reuters, was Höttges inevitable irritation at the amount of cash DT is having to drop on the interminable German 5G spectrum auction. We’re on round 305 of the bidding, believe it or not, and the total pledged has now reached €5,687,520,000. Expect to hear persistent muttering about how that’s money they can’t spend on infrastructure, etc, before long.

Ericsson’s loss is a US operator’s gain once more as T-Mobile hires Ewaldsson

T-Mobile US wasted little time in snapping up former Ericsson lifer Ulf Ewaldsson after he came on the market, to head up its 5G efforts.

Ewaldsson’s most recent significant position at Ericsson was to head up its struggling Digital Services division. This time last year he became another casualty of Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm’s apparent desire to refresh the executive team by getting rid of some dead wood. He does it gently, however, by moving them to the position of advisor to the CEO for a few months before finally casting them adrift.

Following the well trodden path taken by his former boss Hans Vestberg, Ewaldsson presumably needed little persuasion to escape the Swedish winter and move state-side, although he might not find Washington state to be much of an upgrade weather-wise. He will be reporting into TMUS CTO Neville Ray.

“We are thrilled to share the great news that Ulf is joining our team of amazing leaders at T-Mobile who continue to show the other guys what it takes to win in wireless,” said Ray. “Just look at what we’ve done with 4G wireless! We’ve been the fastest for 19 straight quarters – nearly 5 straight years… and we’re just getting started.

“Adding Ulf’s passion and track record for driving innovation to the Un-carrier mix is going to take us to the next level. Ulf has achieved so many firsts and truly supported the evolution of technology for telecommunications across the globe. Bringing him on board is a total win for T-Mobile and we couldn’t wait to share it! He is going to be the perfect addition to our consumer-first Un-carrier team to drive our 5G evolution strategy!”

Have you noticed how similar to Trump’s tweets the canned quotes from TMUS are? Anyway Ewaldsson, does have good tech pedigree, having been Ericsson’s group CTO for five years before being handed the Digital Services poisoned chalice, so he should be a good person to be running the 5G side of things.

The reselling of personal data goes from strength to strength

In spite of the many moral panics of 2018, the abuse of personal data shows no sign of abating at the start of 2019.

You might assume the somewhat overblown Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which everyone got all outraged that some political campaigns used data obtained from Facebook to target their messages, would have resulted in a far more reticent approach to the commercialisation of personal data. A couple of recent stories, however, indicate the opposite is true.

Motherboard did an investigation that concluded ‘T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.’

The investigation essentially concludes that the act of selling on personal data is intrinsically open to abuse. As soon as you hand this data to a third party you lose all control over how it is used. Quite a lot like the Cambridge Analytica case, in fact. Here’s a flow chart from the article, showing the journey resold data can take.

Motherboard data chart

Upon reading the piece a US Senator called Ron Wyden called out TMUS CEO John Legere, accusing him of not following through on a previous vow to stop selling on data in this way. Here’s Legere’s response.

Elsewhere the FT took a look at the kind of data aggregators that typically buy data from those who collect it in order to analyse it, repackage it, and sell it on as some kind of market insight. Referring to it as the ‘data broking industry, the report looks into how they operate and reveals that regulators, in Europe at least, are finally getting around to taking a closer look at how they operate.

It must be especially frustrating to proponents of GDPR that is seems to have negligible effect on what must sure have been one of the main industries is was designed to regulate. One source in the report refers to the likes of Oracle, Salesforce and Nielsen as ‘privacy deathstars’, that can sell on hundreds of datapoints tracking individuals’ every move.

Combined with growing evidence that financial services giants are behind much of the policing of online behaviour that was such a feature of 2018, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the internet is increasingly being used for the wholesale exploitation of individuals. Regulators seem ill-equipped to catch up with these privacy deathstars and it’s easy to imagine the state looking benignly at an industry that facilitates the tracking and manipulation of the public.

AT&T’s 5G false start backfires

The attempt by US operator AT&T to rebrand LTE-A as 5Ge has quite rightly left it open to ridicule.

It was never in any doubt that a US operator would jump the gun regarding 5G this year, it was just a matter of who. The geniuses in AT&T’s marketing department decided it should be them and, while the rest of us were opening Christmas presents and falling asleep in front of Bond films, they were plotting how to claim 5G victory without actually serving up any 5G.

Inspired, perhaps, by the best wireless technology currently available on the AT&T network, their hours of brainstorming yielded the word ‘evolution’. If you stick a little ‘e’ after 5G, they apparently reasoned, then you’re basically saying it’s nearly 5G. Closer to 5G, in fact, than 4G, so putting 5G on phones is totally justified. Essentially AT&T is saying it has the most evolved AT&T.

Not only has the entirety of the telecoms and tech press been merciless in calling bullshit on this risible move, but AT&T’s main competitors have wasted little time in taking the piss. Verizon CTO Kyle Malady was moved to publish an opportunistic piece entitled ‘When we say “5G,” we mean 5G’.

“We’re calling on the broad wireless industry to commit to labelling something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities,” he said. “Verizon is making this commitment today: We won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5. We will not call our 4G network a 5G network if customers don’t experience a performance or capability upgrade that only 5G can deliver.”

As you might expect, T-Mobile US was much less restrained in its response. CEO John Legere collated some of the media dismissals of the move and shared them on Twitter. His marketing department warmed to the theme and posted a video of someone putting ‘9G’ sticker over the top of the network notification display in the top right of an iPhone, to ridicule the cosmetic nature of this AT&T initiative.

The sad thing is that this probably won’t harm AT&T. Yes it looks ridiculous now, but if there’s no such thing as bad publicity then AT&T seems to be getting a fair bit of it. That could change, however, if this move becomes a ‘quirky’ at the end of mainstream news bulletins, and AT&T becomes synonymous with marketing incompetence and duplicity, then that old axiom will be put to the test.

Ericsson lands $3.5 billion T-Mobile US 5G contract

Kit vendor Ericsson has announced a major deal win in the form of a $3.5 billion contract to bring TMUS into the 5G era.

Not much detail has been offered up, but it involves Ericsson hardware such as ERS and plenty of involvement from the Digital Services silo, including dynamic orchestration, BSS and Ericsson Cloud Core. The chances are a spot of managed services may well be chucked in for good measure.

“We have recently decided to increase our investments in the US to be closer to our leading customers and better support them with their accelerated 5G deployments; thereby bringing 5G to life for consumers and enterprises across the country,” said Niklas Heuveldop, Head of Ericsson North America. “This agreement marks a major milestone for both companies. We are excited about our partnership with T-Mobile, supporting them to strengthen, expand and speed up the deployment of their nationwide 5G network.”

“While the other guys just make promises, we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” blurted TMUS CTO Neville Ray in the approved corporate style. “With this new Ericsson agreement we’re laying the groundwork for 5G – and with Sprint we can supercharge the 5G revolution.”

That’s the long and short of it, but Ericsson couldn’t resist another plug of its main USP, stressing that T-Mobile’s installed base of ERS radios will be able to run 5G NR technology with just a software upgrade. There is likely to be a bit of a PR arms race over big 5G deal wins among the kit vendors, but we won’t be seeing any of that action from Huawei in the US. Or Australia.

T-Mobile US claims first nationwide NB-IoT plan

Disruptive US operator T-Mobile US reckons it’s turning the domestic IoT market on its head by significantly undercutting its competitors.

This is, of course, what TMUS does – undercut the competition then shove some kind of populist, Robin Hood narrative down everyone’s throat. In this case the company has gone all in on NB-IoT technology and has used it to launch an IoT plan that costs $6 per year, which it says is a tenth of the price of Verizon’s Cat-M-based plans.

“The number of connected devices already outnumbers the worldwide population, and it’s only getting bigger,” said Mike Sievert, COO of T-Mobile. “So, of course, T-Mobile is taking advantage of the latest IoT tech to make it simpler – and massively more affordable – for businesses and cities to connect things. Launching Narrowband IoT is a giant step toward 5G IoT, and naturally, T-Mobile is leading the way!”

Not quite the bombastic level of his boss, but a decent effort. The release goes on to explain how much better NB-IoT is than anything else, not least because it provides a pathway to 5G. TMUS says NB-IoT is also intrinsically more cost-effective than Cat-M.

“Because it can operate in guard bands – the network equivalent of driving down the shoulders on the highway — NB-IoT carries data with greater efficiency and performance and doesn’t compete with other data traffic for network resources,” says the press release.

This headline offering is actually a time-limited price promotion, so the comparative claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt. $6 per year is per device and caps the data at 12 MB before, presumably, further charges kick in. Also, having said how rubbish Cat-M is compared to NB-IoT, TMUS is nonetheless going to launch some Cat-M stuff too. Go figure.