US operators belatedly act to protect user location data

AT&T and Verizon announced that they will terminate all remaining commercial agreements that involve sharing customer location data, following a report exposing the country’s mobile carriers’ failure to control data sharing flow.

Jim Greer, a spokesman for AT&T, said in a standard email to media: “Last year, we stopped most location aggregation services while maintaining some that protect our customers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention.” Referring to the Motherboard exposé, Greer continued, “In light of recent reports about the misuse of location services, we have decided to eliminate all location aggregation services — even those with clear consumer benefits.”

This is similar to the position T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere adopted when responding to the criticism from the US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Verizon also announced that the company will sever four remaining contracts to share location data with roadside assistance services. After this Version will need to get customers’ explicit agreement to share their data with these third-party assistance companies. Sprint, which was also caught out by the Motherboard report, is the only remaining nation-wide carrier that has not announced its plan on the issue.

This is all good news for the American consumers who are concerned with the safety of their private data. On the other hand, mobile operators have hardly been the worst offenders when it comes to compromising the privacy and security of customer data. Earlier, Google was exposed to have continued tracking users’ location even after the feature had been switched off, while Facebook has been mired in endless privacy controversies.

Monetising user data is only a side and most likely insignificant “value-add” business for the mobile operators, because they live on the service fees subscrbers pay. But it is the internet heavyweights’ lifeline. This may sound fatalistic but it should not surprise anyone if the Facebooks and the Googles of the world come up with more innovative measures to finance the “free” services we have benn used to.

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.

Garmin has a go at reigniting smart watch enthusiasm

To date, it seems only the fitness brands can make the smart watch segment work for them, and while attention might have been diverted elsewhere recently, Garmin is having another crack.

Despite the fact revenues are increasing, shipments are increasing, and the usability of the devices are constantly improving, this segment has never really taken off. All positive steps forward have been small rather than industry shaking. Perhaps this was a product which was just ahead of its time, waiting for other technological advancements to catch up. One of these advancements is featuring prominently in the new Garmin launch.

“The vívoactive 3 Music with 4G LTE connectivity gives you everything you need from your phone – safety features, text messaging and the ability to download and listen to music – now on your watch, so customers can leave their phones behind with confidence,” said Dan Bartel, Garmin VP of Global Consumer Sales.

“Designed for customers who lead an active lifestyle, we’re excited to introduce these new safety and communication features to the Verizon-connected vívoactive 3 Music to give added peace of mind on the go, so leaving your phone at home can be a choice instead of a cause for panic.”

This new device, the vívoactive 3 Music, will be priced at $299.99 (the north-end of affordability for mass market) and will run on Verizon’s 4G network. The device will feature the same fitness and tracking capabilities as previous generations, as well as a contactless payment solution enabled by FitPay and the ability to download playlists from from third-party music services like Deezer and Spotify. Battery life is up to five days in smart watch mode or four hours when running the GPS.

While it has now been addressed, standalone connectivity was the first barrier to adoption for the smart watch segment. Why would you bother having a smart watch when you had to carry your phone around with you? It tells you the time, so does your phone. It plays music, so does your phone. It took phone calls and replied to messages, so does your phone. If the watch is tethered to your phone, what was the point in it?

In years gone, the fitness niche found success. Fitness tracking, both geographical and health monitoring, was an area of success allowing companies such as Garmin and Fitbit to make profits while others who focused on communications features or attempting to appeal to the fashion conscious struggled to make any notable progress. What Garmin and Fitbit did was not to compete with traditional watchmakers or smartphone manufacturers but create an additional segment. It might have been niche but has been growing steadily over the last couple of years, alongside the much slower (but increasingly more prominent) mass market acceptance of smart watches on the whole.

When you look at the smart watch segment, there certainly has been growth. IDC forecast the worldwide wearables market to ship 122.6 million units in 2018, up 6.2% from the 115.4 million units in 2017, and estimates growth in this segment to hit total shipment volumes of 190.4 million units by 2022. While this is progress, these are not revolutionary sales numbers or even growth which suggests the segment is about to take off.

Nowadays standalone connectivity is not a new thing, however Garmin has an established (and successful) brand in the smart watch segment, as well as a loyal customer base to push the new features onto. Whether this is enough of a pull to take smart watches to the next level remains to be seen, but if experience is anything to go by, the niche players will certainly help validate the smart watch in today’s society.

Verizon breaks Oath

Less than two years after coming up with the name ‘Oath’ to encompass all its media properties, Verizon has sensibly concluded it’s a rubbish name.

As a result it’s being rebranded as Verizon Media Group, a much more prosaic, utilitarian name and more of a default description than a brand, but nonetheless better than Oath. We don’t know how much good money was thrown after bad in trying to polish this turd of a name, but Verizon at least deserves credit for not persisting with it indefinitely.

“I’m excited today to share that beginning January 8, 2019, Verizon Media Group will replace the Oath brand, representing our strong alignment as a core pillar of Verizon’s business,” wrote K. Guru Gowrappan, who replaced former AOL boss Tim Armstrong just ten days ago at the top of Oath. The immediate renaming of the group would appear to be a fairly symbolic act by Gowrappan and Armstrong is only hanging around until the end of the year.

The rest of Gowrappan’s post commenced with the standard ‘this just goes to show how well everything’s going’ corporate spin that it’s apparently compulsory to attach to any announcement. After that we got a list of all the specific things that have gone well at the artist formerly known as Oath, in case any doubt remained about how well things are going.

Most of those focused on Yahoo sub-brands, which must surely remain a work in progress. In basing its move into digital media on a couple of very faded internet brands – Yahoo and AOL – Verizon created a branding challenge for itself that it attempted to solve with Oath. Having acknowledged that mistake it wouldn’t be surprising to see further rebranding done within the Verizon Media Group.

Qualcomm pumps Snapdragon 855 in Hawaii

The chipset company Qualcomm just unveiled the newest Snapdragon SoC product to power 5G mobile devices.

On the first day of its annual “Snapdragon Tech Summit” in Hawaii, Qualcomm introduced its first commercial 5G chipset, branded as Snapdragon 855. The system is compatible with Qualcomm’s X50 modem with antennae supporting 5G on both sub-6GHz and mmWave frequency bands. On a 7-nm silicon will also be its 4th-generation multi-core on-device AI engine (said to deliver 3X faster AI performance than its predecessor the Snapdragon 845), Computer Vision Image Signal Processor (CV-ISP) for new photo and video features (“true 4K HDR video capture, cinema-grade photography capabilities”), and 3D Sonic Sensor. The sonic sensor can be used for under-display fingerprint reading using ultrasonic waves (instead of the current optical under-display sensors using light), which, Qualcomm claims, is safer and more accurate.

Qualcomm expects the first smartphones using the new chipset to hit the market in the first half of next year. “The Snapdragon 855 will define the premium tier in 2019,” said Alex Katouzian, SVP and GM of Mobile for Qualcomm, who unveiled the new chipset. Earlier Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s President, said he expected to see a lot of phone announcements at CES in January and a lot of actual phone launches at MWC in February.

“Today marks a massive and exciting step forward underscoring how Qualcomm Technologies and ecosystem leaders are driving 5G commercialization, a journey that went from R&D, accelerated standardization and trials, the launch of innovative products and technologies, to the imminent launch of 5G networks and smartphones across the globe starting in early 2019,” said Amon at yesterday’s event. “Together we are demonstrating our role in transforming the mobile industry and enriching consumer experiences with 5G mobile devices on live 5G networks at this year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit.”

Executives from mobile operators including AT&T, EE, Telstra, and Verizon were present at the event, so were representatives from Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, NETGEAR, and Inseego. The 5G smartphone from Samsung to be launched by both Verizon and AT&T is likely to be the first of its kind to be built on Snapdragon 855.

“At Samsung, we have a vision of a connected world powered by 5G that will benefit consumers, communities, industries and governments,” said Justin Denison, SVP for mobile product strategy and marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “5G will fuel collaboration, connectivity and productivity worldwide, and we’re excited to be at the forefront working alongside partners like Qualcomm Technologies to make the transformation to 5G a reality.”

The event will last three days till Thursday, and Qualcomm promised more announcements and more details will be released.

Verizon reworks the corporate jigsaw puzzle in the name of 5G

Verizon has unveiled a new corporate structure in an attempt to make a lean, mean, money-making machine at the dawn of the 5G era.

While many of these announcements are usually coupled with some form of job cuts, there doesn’t seem to be one in this case. We’ve been unable to locate the relevant forms on the Securities and Exchanges Commission website, though considering there have been numerous ‘streamlining’ initiatives already announced, it might be a case of fitting the business around the new headcount.

“This new structure reflects a clear strategy that starts with Verizon customers,” said CEO Hans Vestberg. “We’re building on our network transformation efforts and the Intelligent Edge architecture to deliver new customer experiences and optimize the growth opportunities we see as leaders in the 5G era. We’re focused on how our technology can benefit customers’ lives and society at large.”

The new Verizon business will be organized into three business functions (Consumer, business and Media), supported by a network and IT organization, and corporate-wide staff functions. The consumer group will feature both the wireless and the broadband business units, as well as wireless wholesale, led by Ronan Dunne, who is currently President of Verizon Wireless. The business unit will include the wireless and wireline enterprise, small and medium business, and government businesses, as well as wireline wholesale and Verizon Connect, the company’s telematics business, headed up by Tami Erwin, the current EVP of Wireless Operations. The media unit will essentially be the Oath business, with current CEO Guru Gowrappan in charge. Kyle Malady will lead the network and technology department, while there will no changes to the management team on the corporate side.

While job losses have been an unavoidable topic in the telco world over the last couple of years, Verizon made a pretty weighty announcement last month. In an effort to trim the number of lifers and dead-weight in the management layer, Verizon offered 44,000 staff a redundancy package of three weeks of severance pay for every year worked, though it is not entirely clear how many heads the telco want to count rolling out the front door.

As it stands, Verizon currently employs 153,000 people across its various markets, though this figure was as high as 183,400 in 2012. What is worth noting is that it would be unfair to point the finger of destruction at Verizon alone, the trend is clearly visible across an industry rocked by OTTs, and a North American market which has consistently and aggressively sought to undercut rivals.

With many telcos around the world attempting to take advantage of the convergence trend, perhaps this new structure will offer Verizon a leg-up. The launch of its 5G fixed wireless access business certainly gives the business something to talk about, though with both the consumer wireless and broadband units now on the same branch of the family tree, a more consolidated approach on products, tariffs and marketing can be taken. How this impacts the Verizon message remains to be seen, though an aggressive 5G assault is almost guaranteed with new devices promised over the next 12 months.

Research from RepeaterStore suggests only 41% of US consumers were aware 5G is just around the corner, and while the conversation for many telcos is now focusing on the enterprise side, in the US the 5G p*ssing contest appears to be circling the consumer. With such low consumer knowledge of 5G, the telcos will have to do a considerable marketing push to communicate the benefits of 5G.

Verizon might have launched 5G, but new iPhone pulls subscribers

Verizon published Q3 results, beating market estimates on earnings and subscriber adds.

Verizon published Q3 results today, narrowly beating market expectations. On the wireless side, Verizon Wireless added 510,000 net postpaid smartphone subscribers, with the postpaid churn rate at 0.8%. The strong marketing activities following the launch of the new iPhone, including an offer of up to $750 off new models, has helped attract new subscribers. As an important operation landmark right at the end of Q3, Verizon launched fixed wireless access service on 5G in four cities, therefore could claim to be the first to offer 5G in the country.

“Verizon has posted a third quarter of strong operational and financial performance,” said CEO Hans Vestberg. “With the beginning of the 5G era in this fourth quarter, we expect that trend to continue. We are investing in networks, creating platforms to add value for customers and maintaining a focused, disciplined strategy. Verizon is best positioned to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the new game-changing generation of technology.”

On the broadband and TV side, Verizon’s Fios gained 54,000 new internet users, slower than the 66,000 it gained the same period last year, and lost 63,000 cable TV subscribers, faster than the 18,000 it lost last year, another indication that the cord-cutting trend shows no sign of abating.

Verizon Wireless continued to make the largest financial contribution. It generated $23 billion revenue (70.5% of group total) and brought in $11 billion EBITDA (90% of group total). The wireline business’ total revenues went down by 3.7% to $7.4 billion. The consumer side of the wireline business largely held at $3.1 billion (-2.1% year on year), with the corporate business dropped by over 5%.

On the group level, the total revenues of $32.6 billion, up 2.8% from last year, beating market expectation by $110 million, with non-GAAP earnings per share of $1.22, beating expectations by $0.03. GAAP EPS of $1.19 was right in line with market expectations.

Like most telecom operators, Verizon is a mature business that does not often disappoint but seldom excites. The management guidance pointed to low-to-mid single-digit percentage of full-year consolidated revenue growth and low single-digit percentage growth in EPS, which makes us pay some attention to another area of interest, Oath, the Media & IoT business mainly comprised of AOL and Yahoo.

If Verizon was to bank on this division to herald its future growth then it might be disappointed. Total revenues went down from $2 billion a year ago to $1.8 billion. More importantly, Verizon does not expect Oath to hit the $10 billion revenue target it set for the division earlier.

Verizon’s share price gained by 1.4% in pre-market trading.

5G becomes real as Verizon launches FWA offering in four cities

It might not have been the blockbuster moment the industry has been building towards, but the dawn has broken on the 5G era.

Just to put that statement into perspective, this is a small launch, a handful of pockets in four US cities, and only available as a wireless broadband offering for the home right now. If you happen to be one of the few Americans living in the right area and fancy cutting the cord on your broadband connectivity, Verizon is up your street promising ‘typical speeds’ of 300 Mbps, and peaks of 940 Mbps. Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles will be receiving the 5G treatment, with Sacramento gaining special attention.

“We were able to make Sacramento one of our first 5G cities because Mayor Darrell Steinberg and city leaders embraced innovation and developed a strategic vision for how 5G could be a platform for the larger Sacramento technology ecosystem,” said Jonathan LeCompte, Pacific Market President for Verizon. “We believe this vision will pay off big for the city, attracting new investment, businesses and next generation services for residents.”

Sacramento has seemingly been the most proactive of partners for Verizon, with the city hoping 5G can spur investment and growth in a variety of different industries, autonomous vehicles for instance, with the city recently announcing a partnership with Phantom Auto to prepare infrastructure to support teleoperation safety technology for driverless vehicles. Over the last 12 months, Verizon has installed small cells on more than 200 utilities poles and street lights.

“This is a significant day in Sacramento,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “When cities like ours partner with innovative businesses, investment follows. Not only has Verizon invested heavily to bring the latest network technology to our city, but they are partnering with us to focus investments on equity and economic opportunity for all neighbourhoods.”

While it is only available in a very, very small number of locations, it is a promising start. Those who signed up to be the first to receive the surface will be rewarded with a three-month free trial period before paying $70 a month (or $50 a month for existing Verizon customers) and the promise of no data caps. These customers will also receive a free Apple TV 4K or Google Chromecast Ultra device at installation.

Irrelevant to the size of the launch, Verizon now has the bragging rights of being the first in the US to deliver 5G to customers. Competitors will argue this is not the promised 5G experience, and no-one will be able to deliver the 5G bonanza until compatible mobile devices hit the market next year, but that is beside the point. Verizon can now run as many in-your-face adverts as it wants, boasting about beating all the other telcos in the world in delivering 5G to the consumer. It’s a nuance, but it is not incorrect.

Verizon to launch ‘world’s first commercial 5G service’ on 1 October

US operator Verizon is using the limited launch of a new fixed wireless access service to claim victory in the 5G race.

Verizon 5G Home is more fully described as ‘the world’s first commercial 5G broadband internet service,. It will be made available in parts of LA, Sacramento, Indianapolis and Houston 1 October, presumably targeted at people whose fixed broadband is sufficiently rubbish for them to give FWA over millimetre wave a go.

5G is already the most over-hyped thing since the Y2K bug so Verizon seems to have decided to just ride the wave. Of course 5G for most people is a mobile (as opposed to fixed) technology, but that’s not going to stop Verizon’s marketing department. On top of yet another ‘first’ claim, Verizon gets to bang on about the infrastructure that makes it possible.

“To deliver the full potential of 5G, a wireless network provider must have three fundamental assets: deep fibre resources, a large deployment of small cells and critical spectrum holdings – that’s Ultra Wideband,” said Kyle Malady, Verizon’s CTO.  “We will deliver a revolutionary 5G experience that will change how people live, work and play.” Sounds more like an 80s Mars advert, but there you go.

“5G is here,” said Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg. “To be first, we encouraged others in the ecosystem to move more quickly at every step. We appreciate the partnership of network equipment makers, device manufacturers, software developers and chip makers in reaching this critical milestone. The entire wireless industry gets to celebrate.”

We’ll see about that Hans. MWC Americas, which starts today, is set to be an orgy of competing 5G firsts and who’s to say that might not get a bit heated as attendees spill out into the LA bars. But credit where it’s due, this does seem to be the first commercial service using some kind of 5G tech, so Verizon is entitled to crow. Enjoy it while it lasts.

AT&T and Verizon compete for yet more 5G ‘firsts’

US carriers AT&T and Verizon have completed what they both claim to be the world’s first data transfer to a smartphone form factor device over mmWave 5G live networks.

If we put together all the 5G ‘firsts’ claimed by the industry players it would make a long read, especially if we included cases where similar firsts have been claimed by different companies. In this most recent case, both AT&T and Verizon called themselves the world’s first to successfully transfer data over live 5G networks to purpose-built mobile devices, in Texas and Minnesota respectively.

Temporally, AT&T might have stolen a step ahead of its competitor. The AT&T test took place “over the weekend”, while news coming out of Verizon on Monday declared the success happened yesterday, but they were essentially the same kind of tests. Probably the most intriguing part of the story is that both carriers used Qualcomm’s terminals on networks supplied by Ericsson.

Even the technical details disclosed look very similar. Both tests were using smartphone form factor test devices from Qualcomm integrating the latter’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem and RF subsystem (see the picture), both were going through Ericsson 5G-NR capable radios connected to 3x virtual core networks.

These announcements followed hot on the heels of a couple of other 5G firsts in the last few days: last week Verizon and Nokia claimed to have completed the first over-the-air data transmission on a commercial 5G NR network in Washington DC, though the receiving end was not exactly a smartphone-like device. On Monday Nokia announced its demo with Sprint to conduct the first (in the US though) 5G NR connection over Massive MIMO.

Ericsson and Qualcomm claimed to have completed the first 5G NR ‘call’ to a smartphone-like device (which was pretty similar to the ones used in the AT&T and Verizon tests). That announcement itself came a couple of days after Ericsson announced another similar test with Intel. These two slightly earlier tests were conducted in lab environment while the latest AT&T and Verizon cases were done over live networks, or as AT&T emphatically stressed, “Not a lab. Not preproduction hardware. Not emulators.”

We understand the marketing departments of these companies must be busy generating as big a buzz as possible in the run-up to the Mobile World Congress America (starting tomorrow). Meanwhile we cannot discount that tests and announcements (and claims) like these do show the wider world 5G potentials when the commercial networks roll out in the coming months and years, though at the moment all these firsts still do not mean anything for consumers as no 5G terminals are available yet.

Another interesting angle to look at these tests is how active the US carriers are in pushing ahead 5G on mmWave, which contrast with how slow the European operators and regulators are moving. The European Commission launched a project to look into the feasibility of using mmWave for 5G deployment in the EU. A reporting session was organised in Brussels in June this year. The views were divided, and conclusions elusive. The main doubt from the industry looked to be the lack of compelling business case and the wrangling between the telecom industry and the satellite industry on the utilisation of the lower mmWave spectrum, hence the lack of contiguous bands for 5G buildout.

It may be a worthy reminder that we can never tell with full confidence what new technologies can do. Andre Fuetsch, AT&T Communications’ CTO was bang on when he said “… yet to be discovered experiences will grow up on tomorrow’s 5G networks. Much like 4G introduced the world to the gig economy, mobile 5G will jumpstart the next wave of unforeseen innovation.”