EE fleshes out its 2019 5G launch plans

Having apparently exhausted the PR potential of 5G trials EE has moved on to talking up its plans for actual launches.

Sometime in 2019 EE will launch 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. Sometime after that, but still in 2019, it will launch in ten more UK cities, which you can see in the map below.

In order to fully exploit the power of 5G EE is initially focusing on what it considers to be the busiest parts of those first six cities: Hyde Park in London, Manchester Arena, Belfast City Airport, the Welsh Assembly, Edinburgh Waverly train station and Birmingham’s Bullring.

Further explanation of the reasons for choosing its launch locations revolves around the specific EE cell sites that have to deal with the most traffic. One site in Waterloo station alone, we’re told, carries more than 100 terabytes of data per day. Presumably much of this is beleaguered commuters trying to find out when their train will turn up or sharing their plight on social media.

The first 1,500 sites that EE is upgrading to 5G in 2019 carry 25% of all data across the whole network, but only cover 15% of the UK population, apparently. The fact that EE made a point of sharing this factoid may be indicative of it anticipating misguided criticism of it focusing on densely populated areas as opposed to fields, hills, lakes, etc.

“Adding 5G to the UK’s number one 4G network will increase reliability, increase speeds, and keep our customers connected where they need it most,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division. “This is another milestone for the UK and for our network journey – we’ll keep evolving as we move to one, smart network for our customers. We have an ambition to connect our customers to 4G, 5G or wifi 100% of the time.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan didn’t get where he is today without exploiting publicity opportunities like this. “I want London to be the world’s leading smart city and 5G expansion is at the heart of this ambition – it is good news for Londoners, innovation, and business,” he said. “At City Hall we are working hard right across the capital to ensure we have the network infrastructure needed through our new Connected London programme. EE’s ambitious investment in 5G sites demonstrates that our city is a great place to invest in innovative and future-facing digital connectivity.”

While EE hasn’t offered specific dates for its 5G rollout it is at least making some effort to put some meat on the bones of its 5G hype. Three made an even vaguer pronouncement last week, but the other two MNOs have been strangely reticent. They’ll presumably get there eventually and we look forward to lots more of this sort of thing in the coming months, complete with images of people using their phones in a 5G-ish way and sexy shots of telecoms gear on rooftops.

EE 5G launch map

Privacy International lines up US firms for GDPR breaches

UK data protection and privacy advocacy group Privacy International has submitted complaints to European watchdogs suggesting GDPR violations at several US firms including Oracle, Equifax and Experian.

The complaints have been submitted to regulators in the UK, Ireland and France, bringing the data broker activities of Oracle and Acxiom into question, as well as ad-tech companies Criteo, Quantcast and Tapad, and credit referencing agencies Equifax and Experian. The complaints are specifically focused on the depth of personal data processing, which Privacy International believes violates Articles five and six of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“It’s been more than five months since the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect,” a Privacy International statement read. “Fundamentally, the GDPR strengthens rights of individuals with regard to the protection of their data, imposes more stringent obligations on those processing personal data, and provides for stronger regulatory enforcement powers – in theory. In practice, the real test for GDPR will be in its enforcement.

“Nowhere is this more evident than for data broker and ad-tech industries that are premised on exploiting people’s data. Despite exploiting the data of millions of people, are on the whole non-consumer facing and therefore rarely have their practices challenged.”

The GDPR Articles in question relate to the collection and processing of information. Article Five dictates a company has to be completely transparent in how it collects and processes information, but also the reasons for doing so. Reasonable steps must be taken to ensure data is erased once the purpose has been fulfilled, this is known as data minimisation. Article Six states a company must seek consent from the individual to collect and process information for an explicit purpose; broad brush collection, storage and continued exploitation of data is being tackled here.

In both articles, the objective is to ensure companies are being specific in their collection of personal information, and that it is utilised in a timely manner before being deleted once it has served its purpose. These are two of the articles which will hit the data-sharing economy the hardest, and it will be interesting to see how stringently GDPR will be enforced if there is any evidence of wrong-doing.

This is where Privacy International is finding issue with the firms. The advocacy group is challenging the business practises on the principles of transparency, fairness, lawfulness, purpose limitation,

data minimisation, accuracy and integrity and confidentiality. It is also requesting further investigations into Articles 13 and 14 (the right to information), Article 15 (the right of access), Article 22 (automated decision making and profiling), Article 25 (data protection and by design and default) and Article 35 (data protection impact assessments).

While GDPR sounds very scary, the reality is no-one has been punished to the full extent of the regulation yet. This might be because every company has taken the guidance on effectively and is operating entirely within the legal parameters, though we doubt this is the case. It is probably a case of no-one being caught yet.

The threat of a €20 million fine, or one which is up to 3% of a business’ total revenues, is nothing more than a piece of paper at the moment. If there is no evidence or fear authorities will punish to the full extent of the law, GDPR doesn’t act as much of a protection mechanism or a deterrent. When a genuine violation of GDPR is uncovered, Europe needs to bear its teeth and demonstrate there will be no breathing room.

This has been the problem for years in the technology industry; fines have been dished out, though there has been no material impact on the business. The staggering growth of revenues in the industry has far exceeded the ability of regulators to act as judge and executioner. Take the recent fines for Apple and Samsung over planned obsolescence in Italy. The $10 million and $5 million fines for Apple and Samsung would have taken 20 and 16 minutes respectively to pay off. This is not good enough.

Regulators now have the authority to hold the suspect characters in the industry accountable for nefarious actions concerning data protection and privacy, but it has to prove itself capable of wielding the axe. Until Europe shows it has a menacing side, nothing will change for the better.

UK telecoms complaints at an all time low

The latest complaints data shared by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom reveals the level of moaning are at their lowest since it started collating them.

Ofcom has been logging consumer complaints about landline, broadband, mobile and pay TV services since 2010. The fact that they are at their lowest level ever would appear to indicate UK CSPs are doing a great job. Of course people could have just given up, or have become steadily more apathetic, or have found more effective ways to punish errant telcos than moaning to Ofcom, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

“Although we’re encouraged that complaints are at their lowest levels since we started shining a light on this, some telecoms and TV companies are still falling short,” said Jane Rumble, Ofcom’s Director of Consumer Policy. “We expect those providers to up their game and deliver better service to all their customers.”

In the tables below you can see first the historical totals for the four categories of complaints and then the most recent ones for broadband, mobile and pay TV. We haven’t bothered with the landline ones because we figure nobody cares anymore. Now that Vodafone has got its act together there are no outstanding poor performers in mobile and similarly BT seems to have sorted out its pay TV operations.

Ofcom Q2 18 complaints historical

Broadband

Ofcom Q2 18 complaints broadband

Mobile

Ofcom Q2 18 complaints mobile

Pay TV

Ofcom Q2 18 complaints pay TV

UK shines for Liberty Global in Q3

The UK market proved to a be a success over the last three months for Liberty Global, though the same could not be said for the Belgium and Swiss operations.

Total revenues for the quarter stood at $2.9 billion, a 1.3% increase, with the UK business posting 3.6% growth. While this might sound positive, this is compared to 10.8% for the nine months of 2018 proving there is appetite in the UK for a full-fibre diet. Unfortunately, the success could not be replicated elsewhere, with the Belgium business dropping year-on-year revenues by 1.5% and the bottom falling out of the Swiss bucket with a 8.1% decrease.

“The Swiss market remains challenging but we have a number of initiatives that we believe will improve performance,” said CEO Mike Fries. “Our turnaround plan is underpinned by revamped video products, a refreshed MySports programming line-up, the launch of 1 Gig broadband speeds and a new and improved MVNO offering.

“The continued operating and financial momentum at Virgin Media helped fuel our Q3 results. With respect to our U.K. subscriber growth, we generated over 100,000 net additions, which represents a record third quarter performance. This achievement was supported by strong volume growth in both our Project Lightning and legacy footprints.”

Looking specifically at the UK business, cable revenues declined by 0.7% year-on-year to $2 billion, while mobile revenue increased 2.4% to $416 million and enterprise revenues were up 6.1% year-over-year to $491 million. Operating income decreased 4.8% year-over-year to $592 million, though with promising growth on the top-line, and an additional 109,000 subscribers to account for, overall you could say a good three month’s work.

With Liberty Global still on course to dispose of its businesses in Germany and Central Europe to Vodafone, the team might be able to turn more attention to the troublesome Belgians and Swiss.

TalkTalk takes swipe at competitor over pricing fairness

TalkTalk has launched its Fairer Broadband Charter calling into question whether competitors know the definition of simple concepts such as honesty and fairness.

According to research from TalkTalk, 87% of customers feel it is unfair providers raise prices mid-way through contracts, with 54% of consumers supporting a complete ban on these price hikes. While these might seem like obvious statements to make, they do fit quite comfortably upon the beautifully groomed high-horse TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison is trotting along currently.

“Telecoms companies have been ripping-off consumers for far too long,” said Harrison. “The industry has to change to rebuild trust with consumers. We led the way two years ago and became the first provider to guarantee no mid-contract price rises. It’s proved hugely popular and today we’re going even further. Our Fairer Broadband Charter sets out three simple ways we’ll put customers first. I’m challenging our rivals to follow our lead so that the whole industry can rebuild trust with customers.”

While any research conducted or commissioned by a telco should be taken with a plate full of salt, TalkTalk does have a point and the Fairer Broadband Charter should create a position where customers do feel valued. What is quite interesting is a challenger brand actually offering something of value to a customer, instead of initiating a race to the bottom. While lower prices are often appreciated by customers, margins are realised elsewhere perhaps explaining poor performance and woeful customer service. It could be seen as somewhat of a hollow victory.

The Fairer Broadband Charter is essentially a challenge to the industry, with TalkTalk hoping to set the pace with other telcos following suit. Perhaps marketing campaigns down the road will be built on the ‘look what we made everyone else do’ or ‘they all needed to copy us’ messages. It isn’t necessarily the worst idea we have ever come across for a challenger brand.

Looking at the three pillars, the first is a continued commitment to maintaining the agreed upon prices throughout the contract. Sounds simple, but all major ISPs have introduced a mid-contract price hike to some degree over the last 18 months according to TalkTalk. Secondly, a connection guarantee will be introduced, allowing new customers to ditch the contract in the first 30 days if they are not happy. This is not necessarily a new one, as Vodafone introduced such an idea recently. Finally, the TalkTalk team will contact customers before their contract ends to ensure they do not get automatically put onto a higher priced plan upon automatic renewal.

These are of course all nice ideas, but it shows the woeful state of affairs in the telco industry if this new Charter is deemed going above and beyond. In most other industries, this would be considered the status quo or bare minimum requirements. For too long customer satisfaction has been an afterthought, instead focusing on enticing new customers with embarrassingly-poor Kevin Bacon adverts which make the brand seem dated, desperate and as creative as a dull shade of worn leather.

The tide is beginning to turn but the traditional telcos, in both mobile and broadband, are having their hands forced by challenger brands.

DCMS and NCSC warn UK telco review might impact 5G supply chain

Reports of a letter circulating through the offices of UK telcos have emerged, though DCMS has played down the anti-China rhetoric which has been pinned to the communication.

“The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review set out our long term plans to provide world class digital connectivity through full fibre connectivity and 5G mobile coverage,” DCSC stated. “As part of this, we are conducting a review of the supply chain underpinning those ambitions to ensure a healthy, diverse and secure supply base, now and into the future.”

The letter itself, which will not be officially released to the industry, has been signed by Matthew Gould, Head of Digital Policy at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ciaran Martin, Chief Executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, and reportedly suggests telcos should evaluate the resilience and security of their supply chains ahead of the much hyped 5G euphoria.

Although reports have emerged in the FT this morning, with the anti-China rhetoric featuring heavily throughout, DCMS has distanced itself from a targeted and calculated review. The review, and letter, is not targeted at a specific country, or firms which call that country home, but ensuring the UK has the right overall framework in place to ensure secure and resilience telecoms networks. The review will consider the economics of 5G, as well as aiming to create the desired resilience and security standards.

What is worth noting is that this letter is not new. The review and communications with telcos has been discussed in the House of Commons, while the letter itself was sent to executives weeks ago and originally unearthed by Politico. The anti-China rhetoric, which is outwardly present in other nations, seems to be more interpretation from the industry in this case.

That said, it is not completely misguided to assume the review does have a couple of nations in mind. NCSC has previously warned operators against using ZTE equipment in their networks as this might impact the long-term security of the UK, and with the rest of the world pointing a suspecting finger at Huawei, it would not be out of the question for the UK to jump on the band wagon.

While President Trump has been aggressively leading the anti-China sentiment across the US, Australia followed suit by banning the firm from participating in the Aussie 5G bonanza and South Korean telcos coincidentally left Huawei out from their preferred suppliers.

The conundrum the UK faces is focused around future trade and relationships with the rest of the world. With Brexit on the horizon, and looking increasingly unfavourable for the UK, bonds will need to be strengthened with other nations. Unfortunately this leaves the UK in a difficult position, with historic partner US on one side of the argument and the Chinese, a country various UK governments have attempted to get closer to, on the other.

While DCMS and the UK on the whole seemingly wants to justifiably maintain a neutral position in such reviews, we don’t doubt there will be a few cogs in the machine who are harbouring suspicions of the Chinese, which are starting to become commonplace.

This might not be a Chinese witch hunt, though it is certainly reasonable to assume that a level of biased suspicion will be present in some minds. What impact this has on the UK’s relationship with China and its kit vendors remains to be seen.

Sky flexes its AI muscles

Artificial intelligence might be the buzzword of 2018, but few actually know what to do with the technology. That said, Sky seems to be surging ahead of the pack.

At the Telco Data Analytics and AI conference in London, an interesting statistic was put to the audience; 60% of the AI R&D spend in the telco industry is being directed towards network optimization. This is certainly a valid quest, though the problem with inward R&D investment is that it won’t prevent the slow wander towards utilitisation. To create value, telcos need to be investing in projects which actually create value, drive diversification and capitalise on new revenues. This is exactly what Sky seems to be doing.

“We have a data liquidity problem,” said Rob McLaughlin, Head of Digital Decisioning and Analytics for Sky UK. “Getting data is not an issue, we get it without trying, it’s about getting value from it.”

It seems the Sky UK team has a lot of ‘nice to have problems’, which demonstrate the effective steps forward the business is making in the intelligence-orientated world. While many telcos are struggling with the basic concepts, Sky is really setting the pace.

Aside from the overwhelming amount of data, McLaughlin complained of the management teams attitude towards artificial intelligence. Here, the team aren’t resisting, but asking for solutions which are overly complex. McLaughlin pointed out the Sky business was missing out on the low-hanging fruit, the simple problems which AI can address, instead the management team is looking for the top-line, super-complex solutions which can bring about revolutionary-change.

As McLaughlin told the audience, this is frustrating, but at least the management team is embracing new concepts and technologies, even if they are trying to run before they can walk. This is arguably a perfect scenario however. Change is led from the top of an organization, and McLaughlin seems to be describing a culture which is desperate to embrace change and create value.

Another interesting point made by McLaughlin was a claim there was no POC.

“We launched these projects at scale from day one,” said McLaughlin. “We didn’t want to do a POC as it was a bit of an insult to our intelligence. Why do they need to test whether data is good for the business?”

This demonstrates the much-hyped fail fast business model which has been employed so effectively by the internet giants. These companies don’t need to prove there is value in personalising services, they just need to make it work. The only way to get the algorithms to work is to get them out in the real world, trained by data, honed by machine learning and real-time experiences. This culture of creating results, not trying to prove perfection, will certainly drive value for Sky.

McLaughlin’s team are implementing AI in four different ways at Sky. Firstly, using customer information to cross sell services and products. Secondly, increasing engagement with products and services customers have already bought. Third, anticipating customer needs and problems, a project which is saving Sky millions in customer services and improving the overall NPS score. Finally, AI is being used in media optimisation to improve the advertising platform.

While these projects are still in the early days, the results are clear according to McLaughlin. NPS has been improving, cost saving are being realised and proactive selling of product through personalisation is increasing. With the cross-selling side, the results are quite remarkable. The success of sales of Sky Sport products are up 57% due to two simple changes. Firstly, putting the product in front of the customer at the right time, Saturday afternoon not Friday night for example, and Secondly, selling the product in the right way. If you know you are engaging a football fan, tell them about the football benefits not Formula One.

“Just crazy we haven’t been doing this for 30 years,” said McLaughlin.

All of these initiatives are built on identity. For McLaughlin this is the most important aspect of any data analytics and AI programme, and receives more attention than anything else. If you cannot identify your customer, it is impossible to personalise services effectively. It seems simple, but it is an aspect which is often overlooked.

“If we have the opportunity to speak to someone, don’t tell them something, treat them as the person the data says they are,” said McLaughlin.

Sky might not have a reputation as an particularly innovative organization, nothing out of the ordinary at least, but this approach to data analytics and artificial intelligence is certainly worth noting. The culture is accepting and proactive, there is an attitude which is geared toward doing, not planning, and the objectives are clearly outlined. McLaughlin might have his frustrations, but if you want an example of an organization which is proving the value of intelligence, you won’t have to look much farther.

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.

Ofcom officially releases BT from its Openreach undertakings

Measures BT undertook in 2005 to placate Ofcom over its wholesale operations are officially no longer relevant, so it doesn’t need to bother.

This seems to be a bit of a formality, since the legal separation of Openreach from BT is supposed to mean BT has no direct influence over the fixed line wholesaler. But at the very least it marks a milestone in BT’s relationship with Ofcom and gives Philip Jansen one less thing to worry about when he takes over next year.

The previous milestone was the official transfer of 31,000 staff from BT Group to Openreach at the start of this month. “This is an important day for Openreach as we’re fulfilling the commitments to Ofcom under the Digital Communications Review,” said Openreach Chairman Mike McTighe at the time. “Openreach now has its own Board, greater strategic and operational independence, a separate brand and an independent workforce – and we’re ambitious for the future.”

The long and short of it seems to be that Openreach now has a separate and distinct relationship with Ofcom and will be assessed solely on its own merits, with no BT baggage. This is probably good news for everyone and is ultimately what all this ‘legal separation’ business is supposed to be about. It should also protect Openreach from accusations of favouring BT. You can read the full statement here.

A possible manifestation of this new, unfettered Openreach may have been the announcement last week that it is dropping the price of full fibre broadband infrastructure to new homes by 75%. Openreach got a nice lot of kudos from public figures for doing its bit to improve fibre coverage, so job done there.

Microsoft recognises AI might screw over some employees

Artificial intelligence has been hyped as the technology which will drive profits in the next era, though few in the technology want recognise how painful the technology will be for some segments of society.

The propaganda mission from the technology world was incredibly present at Microsoft’s UK event Future Decoded. Of course, there are benefits from the implementation of AI. Business can be more productive, more intelligent and more proactive, tackling trends ahead of time and gaining an edge on competitors. There is a lot of buzz, but it might just turn out to be justified.

Despite this promise, Microsoft has seemingly done something this morning few other technology companies around the world are brave enough to do; recognise that there will be people screwed by the deployment.

“There is a risk of leaving an entire generation behind,” said Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose.

The risk here is the pace of change. While previous generations might have had time to adapt to the impact of next-generation technologies, today’s environment is allowing AI to disrupt the status quo at a much more aggressive pace than ever before. Rose pointed towards the explosive growth of data, pervasiveness of the cloud and much more powerful algorithms, as factors which are accelerating the development and deployment of AI.

One question which should be asked is whether the workforce can be re-educated and reskilled fast enough to ensure society is not being left behind? Yes it can, but Rose stated the UK is not doing enough to keep pace with the disruption.

Looking at statistics which support this statement, Microsoft has released research which found 41% of employees and 37% of business leaders believe older generations will get left behind. Now usually when we talk about older generations and a skills gap, retirees comes to mind. However, those in the late 40s or early 50s could be the more negatively affected. The ability or desire to reskill might not be there due to the individuals entering the final stages of their career before retirement, though the risk of redundancy will be present. How are the people who might be made redundant 3-4 years short of retirement going to be supported? This is a question which has not been answered or even considered by anyone.

To help with imbalance, Microsoft UK has announced the launch of its AI Academy, which is targeted on training 500,000 people on AI skills. This is not just a scheme which is aimed at developers, but also IT professionals, those at risk of job loss and executives in both the business and public sector world.

As the technology industry has pointed out several times, there will be jobs created as part of the AI enthusiasm. But here is the risk, are those who are victims of job displacement suitably qualified to take these jobs? No, they are not. Uber drivers who fall victims to the firms efforts in autonomous driving, or how about the bookmaker who will be made redundant by SAPs powerful accounting software. These are not data scientists or developers, and will not be able to claim a slice of the AI bonanza which is being touted today.

But perhaps the risk has been hyped because there is too much focus on the negative? KPMG’s Head of Digital Disruption Shamus Rae suggested too much attention has been given to the dystopian view of AI, instead of its potential to unlock value and capture new revenues. Comfused.com CEO Louise O’Shea said one way her team implemented AI was to pair technical and non-technical staff to, firstly, allow front line employees to contribute to development and make an application which is actually useful, and secondly remove the fear of the unknown. The technical staff educate the non-technical staff on what the technology means and why it can help.

These are interesting thoughts, and do perhaps blunt the edge of the AI threat somewhat, but there will be those who use AI for purely productivity gains, not the way the industry is selling it. These are not businesses which will survive in the long-term, but they will have a negative impact on employees and society in the short-term. When you are lining up in the dole queue, the promise of an intelligent, cloud-orientated future is little comfort.

Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose is right. AI will power the next-generation and create immense value for the economy. But, no-where near enough is being done to help those at risk of job loss to adapt to the new world. The aim here is not to hide the negative with an overwhelming tsunami of benefits, but to minimise the consequences as much as possible. Not enough is being done.