New appointment arrives to clean up Three’s network fiasco

UK telco Three has announced the appointment of Carlo Melis as Chief Network Officer just as the Huawei saga starts to rear its head once again.

Over the course of the last week, the rumour mill has been churning at full capacity, with Huawei’s name popping up on more than one occasion. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a backbencher revolt unless ‘high-risk’ vendors are removed from networks within years, while the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is once again investigating whether the firm is in a sound enough position to work with UK telcos.

One might have said there were better times for Melis to join the business.

Arriving from Wind Tre in Italy, Melis has been working on network resilience during the on-going COVID-19 landscape though eventually his attention will turn to managing the spectrum portfolio and presumably creating a network which can rival market leaders within the UK. Much work has been done in recent years, though thanks to outside influences, Three is still in somewhat of a difficult position.

“Three has been on an incredible journey, completely overhauling its network and IT infrastructure and laying the foundations for a 5G network that will dramatically transform the experience for its customers, at the same time as delivering major 4G improvements,” said Melis.

“I’m looking forward to joining Three, bringing my expertise to build on the great progress already achieved and to deliver a network that will stand the business in good stead long into the future.”

The last few months have certainly been an eclectic mix of ups and downs for the Three business. The fixed wireless access (FWA) proposition and campus network offering was looking healthy before Ros Singleton left the business. These business units are still functional, but look a little weaker without Singleton involved, however it is the more mainstream 5G programme which looks more precarious.

Announced at almost the exact same time as the departure of Phil Sheppard, who was effectively the company’s CTO, was the conclusion of the Supply Chain Review. Huawei was designated a high-risk vendor, and therefore limited to providing a maximum of 35% of a telcos network infrastructure equipment. This is a significant problem for Three which decided Huawei was going to be the sole supplier of RAN equipment for its 5G network.

These are the complications Melis needs to manage over the next few months. Alongside the teething problems of a new cloud core and ensuring the 4G network remains stable during this period of dramatically increased traffic, the 5G deployment strategy needs to be reimagined. Of course, this becomes difficult when even more uncertainty is introduced by rebellious politicians and the NCSC investigation.

It could have been a smoother start for Melis…


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Should privacy rules be re-evaluated in light of a new type of society?

Loading ... Loading ...

UK’s National Cyber Security Centre launches another Huawei probe

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has confirmed it is attempting to understand what impact potential US sanction directed towards Huawei would have on UK networks.

With Huawei equipment and components delicately woven throughout the complex tapestry of telecoms in the UK, sanctions from the US which would materially inhibit Huawei operations should be a major concern.

“The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance,” a cross-government statement reads. “Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks.”

There have been reports circulating through the press suggesting UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is once again considering the role of Huawei in the telecoms landscape. These rumours are a separate story, but directly linked; the US wants to reduce the commercial opportunities for Huawei, and this is yet another attempt.

First, the US Government attempted the diplomatic approach, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempting to prove his debating skills. Secondly, fear was introduced with the US attempted to reignite xenophobic fears of communism. The third strategy was more directly aggressive; work with Huawei or have access to our intelligence data, you can’t have both.

None of these strategies worked, but the latest attempt is an interesting one. If Huawei’s supply chain can be compromised, the UK (and other) Governments might have to turn its back on the Chinese vendor because it does not meet the standards required for resiliency tests.

Should the UK Government be revising its position, it would certainly be a blow to Huawei’s credibility.

“We’ve seen the reports from unnamed sources which simply don’t make sense,” said Victor Zhang of Huawei. “The government decided in January to approve our part in the 5G rollout, because Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks.

“As a private company, 100% owned by employees, which has operated in the UK for 20 years, our priority has been to help mobile and broadband companies keep Britain connected, which in this current health crisis has been more vital than ever. This is our proven track-record.”

Looking at the other rumours outside this confirmed investigation into the impact of US sanctions on Huawei, the underlying cause could be directed back tor Conservative backbencher Sir Iain Duncan Smith. Once a prominent voice in the House of Commons, Duncan Smith’s influence has been wilting rapidly, so much so this is one of the first times anyone has paid attention to him for what feels like decades.

In March, Duncan Smith led a small group of Tory revolters in opposition of the Supply Chain Review. Instead of limiting ‘High Risk vendors’ to 35% of any telecoms network, this group wanted them banned completely. These politicians clearly did not understand the complexities of the situation and debates were riddled with inaccuracies, but it appears the pressure has been enough to turn the head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

What is worth noting is that while the industry has been in firm support of Huawei in recent years, this staunch stance seems to be softening.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read recently discussed the Huawei situation during the telco’s earnings call, and while Vodafone had been warning of catastrophic consequences to prevent work with Huawei, the current rhetoric is no-where near as firm. The executive talked of removing certain firms “moderately” and investments into alternatives. It does appear Vodafone is preparing for the worst-case scenario.

While the rumours are nothing more than rumours, with the US undermining Huawei’s ability to operate as desired some uncomfortable questions will be asked. Top of the list is whether the vendor can maintain security and resiliency credentials for its products and components following such a disruption to its supply chain. This could drastically impact its position in the UK telecoms landscape.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Should Huawei be allowed to operate in the UK?

Loading ... Loading ...

UK Cabinet Office, as well as DCMS and DoH, clueless about COVID app

Some might assume the strategy to combat COVID-19 is being devised on the hoof while patchy delivery suggests there is little communication between departments, and the cynics would be right!

After a week of bouncing from department to department and representatives being unable to offer any clear guidance or in-depth knowledge of the contact tracing application, Telecoms.com is becoming increasingly concerned about the Government strategy, as well as potential implications for privacy and security.

With the information which has been offered from Government representatives to date, it is clear few have any idea what is actually going on.

Last week, the Cabinet Office released new documents which detailed the UK Government strategy to exit the current societal lockdown. Featured in this broad document were 14 projects needed to ensure the country can exit the lockdown effectively, including the creation of a contact-tracing application to monitor the impact and potential spread of the virus.

The following extract is from the bottom of page 39, the section dealing with testing and tracing:

“Information collected through the Test and Trace programme, together with wider data from sources such as 111 online, will form part of a core national COVID-19 dataset. The creators of a number of independent apps and websites which have already launched to collect similar data have agreed to work openly with the NHS and have aligned their products and data as part of this central, national effort.”

Despite this document being published and distributed by the Cabinet Department, and featuring a foreword from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it was unknown who the ‘independent apps and websites’ are, when the trials of the COVID-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight would be concluded or how many downloads were being targeted upon release.

Considering the importance of this document and the material in it, one would assume this information would be available, though we were referred to other Government departments, who have not been able to provide insight either.

This is not the first time we have been referred from a department which should have knowledge of the situation and to another. In recent weeks, prior to the beginning of the Isle of Wight trials, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) stated it was not involved at all with the development of the application, referring us to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), before being directed by representatives of DHSC to the NHS technology unit where communication went unanswered.

Despite the Cabinet Office, DCMS and DHSC presumably being critical Government departments in the development of a contact tracing app to combat COVID-19, there does not seem to be anyone in the know as to what is actually going on.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the questions posed were not overly complex and should be simple to answer if the information is available, instead one department pointed us to another. Perhaps no-one wanted to muddy their hands with what is quickly turning into a debacle, or maybe no-one could actually answer these simple questions.

If there is little contribution from these departments on the development of the app, how can one ensure there are effective safeguards for cybersecurity or data privacy? The Government has gone against industry advice in pursing a centralised data model, but confidence in its ability to manage this process is increasingly thinning.

The NHS has somewhat of a checkered past when it comes to digital and data projects, and that is putting it politely. Some of these previous attempts to do digital in the NHS has been completely and utterly disastrous, accomplishing nothing, yet the NHS is seemingly blindly trusted as Government departments plead ignorance. The NHS flying solo will have some critics shifting in their seats very uncomfortably.

For the app to work as desired, 60% adoption is a number which has been floated by academia. This is going to be a big ask, therefore delivery will have to be close to perfection. One might hope that the relevant Government departments are a bit more informed moving forward considering the importance of this technology in aiding the UK’s recovery.

Nokia scores a new PON deal with Openreach

Finnish kit vendor Nokia received a boost to its fixed line business by securing a bunch of fibre work from UK network wholesaler Openreach.

Openreach is the semi-autonomous bit of BT that manages its wholesale fixed line network. As a consequence it is the company most responsible for rolling out fibre to the home across the UK, which means it needs lots of optical kit. Much of the announcement focuses on what a great idea fibre is, what with it being much faster than copper and all that, and how good for the country having more of it is.

They do eventually get to the point, however, noting that Nokia’s contribution to the Openreach fibre rollout, which is aiming to reach 4.5 million premises by the end of March 2021, will focus on deploying GPON and XGS-PON access technologies. This will futureproof the network by giving it the ability to deliver up to 10Gb/s symmetrical broadband speeds in the future, as well as giving it the latest virtualization bells and whistles.

“We’re accelerating our full fibre build to deliver an ultrafast, ultra-reliable and futureproof broadband network throughout the UK,” said Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach. “This new digital platform will help our economy to bounce back more quickly from the COVID-19 pandemic – enabling people to continue work from home, and millions of businesses to operate seamlessly online for decades to come.

“Right now, we’re making the new network available to around 32,000 homes and businesses every week, and Nokia’s innovative solutions are helping us to build it better, broader and faster. Our partnership with Nokia will be critical in helping us to upgrade the nation and hit our target of reaching four and a half million premises by the end of March 2021.”

“Ensuring everybody has access to broadband services is critical, especially during unprecedented times like these where it has become the lifeline to millions working, handling healthcare and learning from home,” said Sandra Motley, President of Fixed Networks at Nokia. “Our fiber solutions will help Openreach bring enhanced ultra-broadband services to millions of new customers across the UK today while our 10G PON technology will help to futureproof their network against whatever may come next.”

All this general talk about the virtues of fibre creates the impression that the deal itself isn’t amazingly significant. On the other hand it at least confirms Nokia’s role in the UK’s fibre network and permits the two companies involved to do a spot of connectivity virtue signalling, so fair enough.

51% of IT pros disagree with Gov approach to COVID-19 app

With the UK’s COVID-19 tracing application being test on the Isle of Wight, only 24% of IT professionals believe the initiative will be successful.

Research from BCS, an association for IT professionals, suggests the Government is struggling to source support from the IT community. This is not to say the efforts will not be a success, but it is hardly a confidence boost.

“BCS is clear that if done ethically and competently a tracing app can make a huge contribution to stopping the spread of COVID-19; but a majority of our members don’t believe the current model will work and are worried about the reliance on a centralised database,” said Bill Mitchell, Director of Policy at BCS.

“Yet despite their doubts 42% would still install the app and 21% are undecided. It feels like there is a lot of goodwill out there to give a tracing app a chance – if it can be shown to work. That means if these concerns are fully addressed then maybe over 60% of the population will install a high-quality app. That’s the magic adoption figure we need for the app to have real impact on stopping COVID-19.”

According to the research, only 24% believe the application will succeed. 32% explicitly believe it will fail and the remainder are still undecided. Interestingly enough, 51% believe the Google/Apple approach, the decentralised model where data is stored on user devices, should have been taken forward by the Government.

This is an argument which will persist as long as the coronavirus does. Some countries have opted for the decentralised model, which is being championed by Silicon Valley, and others have gone for centralised. What is worth noting is there is a very valid argument for the centralised data approach.

“If you don’t have the data at the starting point of the tunnel, you are facing a challenge,” said Sebastien Ourselin, a professor from Kings College London, during an industry conference. “When you want to react quickly, access to the data is key.”

Ourselin’s argument is that a centralised data model means you have access to the data all the time and whenever you want. It means you can run different models and apply different conditions to forecasting models, which is a lot more difficult when you only have access to the insight not the raw data.

The issue with the Government decision for centralised data is one of credentials.

When asked what the IT pros were concerned about, and why they would not download the app, 69% said data security, 67% pointed to privacy, 59% worried it was a pointless exercise and 49% lacked trust in the Government.

The final concern is why some might suggest opting for the Google/Apple route would have been more successful. People don’t trust Governments, but the majority have already handed personal information over to Silicon Valley. There is a respect for the smarts and capabilities of these companies. The Government could have weaponised Silicon Valley’s credibility to drive user adoption of the application.

If the Government fails to convince the general public to adopt this app, it will not succeed as imagined. There will be a valid contribution, but for a material success 60% of the population will have to download the application. This is a tough ask, though the lessons learned from the Isle of Wight trials should provide some valuable insight.


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Who would you consider the King of Innovation in the telco industry currently?

Loading ... Loading ...

Reports suggest the BT empire is beginning to crumble

No-one in the UK should be in the same league as BT, but poorly executed strategy has kept rivals within touching distance and now the foundations are reportedly being sold off.

Rumours have emerged in the Financial Times to suggest BT is in private talks to offload a portion of the Openreach business unit. Australian bank Macquarie and an unnamed sovereign wealth fund have been linked in a deal which would value Openreach at £20 billion, providing cash to fuel the £12 billion broadband upgrade BT is committed to.

We’ve said this numerous times before, but no-one should be able to compete with BT. It has the largest mobile network, the biggest broadband network, five million public wifi spots, a content platform (albeit an average one) and a trusted brand which could theoretically be exported to other ventures.

This is a business with assets which could, and should, be embracing the convergence business models to obliterate competition and steal subscriptions easily, while investors roll around in cash.

But it is not dominant.

It failed to get ahead of fibre trends. It failed to build a competent content platform, instead throwing all its eggs into the sports basket. It failed to realise synergies from the £12.5 billion acquisition of EE. It failed to have the vision to create an all-encompassing connectivity giant.

There is still an opportunity to create this position, the Halo product is heavily driven by the convergence business model, but this should have been an established position years ago.

Then came COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic does not have the power to kill telcos, but it will expose weaknesses. BT should have been in a much more consolidated position by now but COVID-19 came at a time where it is in transition. A time where it needs to invest heavily in networks and marketing campaigns. A time where it should be enticing customers away from rivals to add valuable resources.

Yet the team is scrapping and scraping.

Share price is at its lowest since 2009. Market capitalisation has been slashed over the last two months. Dividends have disappeared for the next year. An O2 and Virgin Media presents a major competitive threat. Trading conditions are very tough right now, especially for a company which is undergoing a transformation programme to ensure competitiveness for the long-term.

Right now, selling a stake in the Openreach business would be a sensible means to source funds. BT needs cash to deliver on fibre promises and scale its 5G network, but diluting influence in its most profitable business unit which is critical for the future is not an ideal position to be in.

BT should be miles ahead of competitors and it should be in a secure enough position where it would not have to consider the sale of a stake in Openreach. But after years of content distractions, a G.Fast farce and a woeful attempt to integrate EE into the group, it is increasingly becoming a necessity.


Telecoms.com Poll:

Should BT sell a stake in Openreach?

Loading ... Loading ...

UK broadband networks are standing up to coronavirus pressures – Ofcom

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has suggested while there has been a very minor impact to broadband speeds during the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t enough for anyone to be concerned.

In the UK Home Broadband Performance report, Ofcom noted average download and upload speeds fell by 2% and 1% respectively, and latency increased by 2% when comparing pre- and post-lockdown performance. The surge has had a statistical impact, however a 2% decrease is download speeds is highly unlikely to have any material impact on experience.

“Broadband in the UK has really been put to the test by the pandemic, so it’s encouraging that speeds have largely held up,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Group Director for Strategy and Research.

“This has helped people to keep working, learning and staying connected with friends and family.”

This is of course not a report designed to give confidence to the UK in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is supposed to be a periodic measure of how broadband infrastructure is progressing across the country. But the publication of performance levels across the country is a very useful by-product.

Looking at the wider trends across the UK, average speeds are on the up. There might be some incremental gains from upgrades which are being done on networks, but a more likely explanation is more people subscribing to superfast and ultrafast broadband services. This is a trend which seems to be extended to the countryside also, potentially eroding the digital divide.

From a full-fibre perspective, trends are heading in the right direction from an infrastructure perspective, but it is not necessarily translating through to commercial gains. Ofcom is now suggesting 12% of homes now have fibre services available, though a much lower number of customers have actually upgraded.

According to the latest statistics from the Fibre to the Home Council Europe, only 18% of the households who are able to subscribe to full-fibre broadband do so, meaning 2.8% of UK households have a fibre broadband package. It does appear UK telcos are a lot better and laying fibre than they are at selling it.

Lockdown Britain sitting on top of 165 million gigabytes of unused data

Being cooped up inside for seven weeks straight has resulted in a treasure trove of unused mobile data, valued in the region of £165 million.

According to data from Uswitch.com, the average Brit is using 1.9 GB of data a month, compared to 2.4 GB in February, before the full impact of the COVID-19 lockdown set in. Thanks to customers being restricted to their homes, wifi routers and home fixed broadband networks are getting a workout, while the mobile networks are more relaxed.

Data usage for essential workers has increased by 11% when comparing the two period, but this does not compensate for the 21% drop-off from non-essential workers. The data is being paid for, but currently going unused.

“We have mobile deals set up to accommodate browsing on the go – but since so many of us are homebound and relying on Wi-Fi to stay connected, we’re simply not burning through our data allowances in the same way,” said Ru Bhihka of Uswitch.com.

“Many consumers would like to see this data rolled over to when they have more use for it, and it’s great to see some providers like Sky Mobile already doing that.”

What to consumers want to happen to leftover data?
Rolled over to next month 38%
Refunded 22%
Donated to essential workers 11%
Donated to charity 8%

Sky is one company which allows data to be rolled over to the next month, though this was a feature which was already in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Virgin Media is another which offers this feature, while others offer it on very specific deals. O2 allows customers to rollover data which is purchased as a bolt-on, while Vodafone offers the feature on its Big Value bundle for Pay as You Go customers.

Uswitch.com estimates unused data costs UK customers £50 million a year in overpayments, while the major providers still operate a ‘use it or lose it’ arrangement for the vast majority of products.

Overall, postpaid customers are most likely experiencing a net gain for the price of data when you consider trends and data bundles over prior years, but that will not stop some feeling cheated by the telcos today.

What should be worth noting is that there are numerous initiatives from the telcos to assist various segments of society through this period. Vodafone and EE, for instance, are offering free unlimited data upgrades for customers who are essential workers, while all fixed broadband companies have lifted data caps on services.