Vodafone asks customers to help fight COVID-19 in their sleep

In repurposing its DreamLab application, Vodafone is hoping the collective power of idle smartphones can virologists in combatting the coronavirus pandemic.

Working alongside scientists from Imperial College London, the Vodafone Foundation is repurposing the DreamLab app to speed-up research to find effective treatments for Covid-19. If successful, the Corona-AI project might reduce the time in which calculations are completed by 75%.

“We urgently need new treatments to tackle Covid-19. There are existing drugs out there that might work to treat it; and the great thing about repurposing existing drugs is that we already know they are safe and therefore could get them to patients quickly,” said Dr Kirill Veselkov from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London.

“However, we have to do difficult and complicated analyses using artificial intelligence and all of this takes a huge amount of computing power. DreamLab creates a supercomputer that enables us to do this important work in a relatively short timeframe.”

The concept is relatively simple. As the vast majority of smartphones sit idle during the hours the user is asleep, this is unused compute power. It might be a small amount of compute power, but thousands of devices in collaboration could add much needed horsepower. Elements of these complicated equations can be farmed out to each of the devices, using the power of the collective.

Vodafone has estimated that should 100,000 users power the app for 6 hours every night for three months they can complete vital research that would take Imperial’s supercomputers a year to process. The aim is to trawl through data and identify existing drugs and food molecules which could aid the pursuit of a vaccine.

The Corona-AI project is split into two phases:

  1. Identify existing drugs and food-based molecules with anti-viral properties that may benefit those with Covid-19
  2. Optimise combinations of these drugs and food molecules to provide potential drug treatments and nutritional advice for those with Covid-19

“We’re working hard to keep the UK connected during this challenging time. We ask everyone to come together and harness the collective power of their smartphones by connecting to DreamLab,” said Helen Lamprell, General Counsel and External Affairs Director at Vodafone UK.

“If everyone in the UK connects, we have the potential to really make a difference in the fight against Covid-19”

Vodafone transfers m-Pesa control over to new joint venture

A joint venture owned by Safaricom and Vodacom has been handed the reigns for money transfer, financing and microfinancing service m-Pesa from Vodafone.

The transaction was first announced in 2019, the aim is to accelerate the growth of m-Pesa by giving both Safaricom and Vodafone-owned Vodacom full control, including product development and support services, as well as decided to which markets it will be expanded to in the future.

Financials for the transactions are unknown, though Safaricom suggested it could be worth about $13 million last year.

“This is a significant milestone for Vodacom as it will accelerate our financial services aspirations in Africa,” said Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO. “Our joint venture will allow Vodacom and Safaricom to drive the next generation of the M-PESA platform – an intelligent, cloud-based platform for the smartphone age. It will also help us to promote greater financial inclusion and help bridge the digital divide within the communities in which we operate.”

“For Safaricom, we’re excited that the management, support and development of the M-Pesa platform has now been relocated to Kenya, where the journey to transform the world of mobile payments began 13 years ago,” said Michael Joseph, outgoing Safaricom CEO. “This new partnership with Vodacom will allow us to consolidate our platform development, synchronise more closely our product roadmaps, and improve our operational capabilities into a single, fully converged Centre of Excellence.”

Launched in 2007, the popular mobile money service is currently being used by 40 million customers, operating in Kenya, Tanzania, Lesotho, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Mozambique and Egypt. m-Pesa was also launched outside Africa in Afghanistan. Currently, only 25% of m-Pesa customers have access to a smartphone, though this number is increasing by 10% each year. The more customers who are on a smartphone, the more complex and varied services which can be offered by Vodacom and Safaricom.

Vodafone says upstream broadband data flows have doubled in some markets

Operator group Vodafone has shared an update on changes to activity across its European networks coz of Coronavirus.

Apparently a fifth of global internet traffic goes over Vodafone’s networks, so it has a fairly comprehensive view of what’s going on in certain regions. Principal among those is Europe and Vodafone says mobile data usage has increased by 15% on average across the continent. The more advanced the pandemic is, the more mobile data use has increased, so Italy and Spain are the main drivers of that increase.

A similar, but more exaggerated, pattern applies to fixed-line broadband, with Italy and Spain showing a 50% increase in usage. While streaming video will account for a lot of that, the most extreme changes have been caused by video conferencing, which is why upstream (originating from the user) data has increased by 100% in some markets.

“The biggest user of bandwidth on our networks is still the streaming of TV, film and games. Streaming traffic has increased by 40% on mobile and 50% on fixed broadband across European networks as a whole,” blogged Johan Wibergh, Vodafone group CTO. “Gaming traffic alone has increased twofold on mobile and nearly threefold on fixed broadband.

“This has put our mobile and fixed networks under strong pressure with evening peaks for mobile increasing by 20% in countries like Italy and Spain and fixed broadband traffic by around 35% in those countries, putting them near capacity during some parts of the evening. We have therefore brought forward planned upgrades to add four Terabits per second of additional capacity to our networks during March and April.”

Vodafone’s metrics tally with those published recently by Nokia. Operators and networking vendors alike are keen to stress how on top of the unique circumstances they are, but then again would they be blogging about it if they weren’t? Having said that there have been few reports of network problems that we’re aware of and our evening viewing of Tiger King yesterday went without a hitch, so what more could you ask for?

Ofcom chills out on rule enforcement for now

In an update on what the UK telecoms industry is collectively doing to help out coz of coronavirus, Ofcom said it would relax some of its rules for a bit.

The UK comms regulator said it acknowledges the extra effort telcos are putting in to keep the country connected during this unprecedented crisis. On top of that it realises that they, like every other organisation, are facing staff shortages. To encourage them to keep up the good work in spite of everything Ofcom has written to them to say it’s got their back.

“For example, we appreciate activities like end of contract notifications, which providers are required to send when customers are approaching the end of their minimum contract term, might be driving additional traffic to call centres at a time when organisations need to prioritise calls from vulnerable people and those that are having difficulties staying connected,” said the Ofcom announcement.

“So, while we are encouraging providers to send these notifications as normal, we will take a pragmatic approach to compliance with rules like this, recognising the significant challenges providers face at this time and the steps they need to take to respond to the impact of the coronavirus.

“Therefore, for the period that these unique circumstances apply, providers will not need to pay automatic compensation where they are unable to meet the requirements for repairs, installations and home visits in the scheme. This is in line with an exception in the scheme that applies to ‘civil emergencies’.”

Meanwhile, Vodafone is extending its unlimited data offer to all of its customers that work for the NHS, with them getting a text today informing them of the upgrade starting next Monday. So far the UK’s communications networks seem to be dealing with the change well and it’s good to see extra efforts being made to help the NHS worked that are at the front line of the fight.

Vodafone UK does its bit with free unlimited mobile data

In the spirit of collective endeavour Vodafone UK is offering unlimited mobile data for free to vulnerable customers and half a million others for a month.

Vodafone says is will be ‘proactively’ upgrading postpaid customers it identifies as vulnerable (which includes those who have declared disabilities and mental health issues among other things) by sending them a text message informing them of their eligibility. On top of that the first 500,000 customers who apply through the VeryMe rewards scheme via the app will also get 30 days of all-you-can eat data on the house.

“Our role in these difficult and worrying times is to keep the UK connected, even while we have to stay apart,” Vodafone UK boss Nick Jeffery. “We are offering 30 days of unlimited free data to our most vulnerable customers and the first 500,000 customers to sign up, to help ease any worries about running out of data or incurring additional charges.

“If our network capacity allows, we would love to be able to offer this to even more customers and will be monitoring the feasibility of this. In short, if we have more to give, we will. This is one of a series of measures that we are taking to help. We have already expanded our networks, given our customers free access to NHS online services and reduced the time it takes to pay small suppliers.”

Hopefully Vodafone will be able to extend the offer as, due to the lockdown, the vast majority of the country is presumably on wifi the whole time. While Vodafone will be feeling the pinch along with everyone else, these kinds of philanthropic gestures at a time of such collective challenge are welcome. The gesture comes the day after the country had a mass public display of gratitude towards its health service and will presumably be joined by many more.

Vodafone’s M&A team has a very positive day

The towers transaction in between Telecom Italia and Vodafone has negotiated all the regulatory hurdles, while the Vodafone and TPG merger down under has gotten the US greenlight.

Starting in Italy, the merger between INWIT, Telecom Italia’s tower business, and Vodafone Towers has been approved, and the deed of merger will be effective as of 31 March 2020. The combined tower business will add significant benefits for the development of new 5G networks for both telcos, while the overarching European Vodafone business will receive 360,200,000 shares in the INWIT company.

As a result of the merger, both Vodafone Europe and Telecom Italia will have a 37.5% stake, though the efficiencies which can be realised in developing new network infrastructure in Italy will benefit both parties substantially. A new passive infrastructure sharing agreement will be in-effect once the merger has been completed at the end of the month.

Down in Australia, the Vodafone business has also received regulatory approvals from the from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to merge with TPG in a deal valued at AUS$15 billion.

“Our teams are prioritising support for our customers through the impacts of COVID-19, but we remain focused on progressing the merger,” said Iñaki Berroeta, CEO of the Australian business unit. “This unprecedented situation highlights the need for strong and resilient telecommunications companies to provide the services that Australians rely on.”

After a prolonged, and successful, legal battle with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) who opposed the merger on the grounds of decreased competition in both mobile and broadband, it might sound unusual the team had to seek approval from US authorities.

Thanks to a TPG-owned submarine cable between Sydney and Guam, a US territory, the team was compelled to seek permission to merge from US authorities, though this was a much painless process than the 10-month legal battle with the ACCC. Everything might seem like downhill momentum in comparison now.

How UK operators are helping customers during the COVID-19 outbreak

With telecommunications now acting as the foundation for almost every element of society, how telcos react to the on-going coronavirus outbreak will be critically important.

Although the UK Government has stopped short of measures implemented on the continent, at least at the time of writing, this week has seen a much sharper response to the global pandemic. With movements becoming increasingly limited, the telecommunications networks will become more critical, but what are each of the telcos doing in reaction.

Each of the telcos have made slightly different concessions to customers, though we suspect the plans will looks remarkable similar in a couple of weeks. Each will likely learn from competitors as none will want to look like they are doing less for customers than rivals.

Vodafone

At Group level, CEO Nick Read announced a number of measures to be applied across the European footprint.

Capacity is being increased to deal with the new spikes in internet traffic, Vodafone has said it has seen a 50% increase already, while consumers accessing government-supported healthcare websites and educational resources will be able to do so without worry about data consumption.

In terms of working with the Government, Vodafone has said it will offer anonymised data, where legally permitted, to aid in tracking people’s movements and the spread of COVID-19. Government departments have also been offered the opportunity to deliver targeted text messaging where technically possible.

To assist its own supply chain, Vodafone has said European suppliers will be paid in 15 days, instead of the customary 30 to 60 days.

From a scientific perspective, Vodafone’s DreamLab, a specialist app that uses smartphones’ data processing capacity to help cancer research projects while users are asleep, will receive a £200,000 cash injection from Group to repurpose the app to support research into antiviral properties.

Elsewhere within the Group, Vodafone Italy Foundation has donated €500,000 to support the Buzzi Foundation and the Italian Red Cross, Vodafone Czech Foundation’s emergency app Zachranka is pushing out public health alerts to its 1.3 million users and the remaining business units are all creating initiatives to help young people gain access to their digital learning platforms.

Virgin Media

From March 23rd, Virgin Media’s postpaid customers will be offered unlimited minutes to landlines and other mobile numbers, as well as a 10 GB data boost for the month at no extra cost. For broadband, any data caps on legacy products will be lifted.

In terms of technicians and home visits, Virgin Media has now set-up procedures to protect its own employees. Three days before a scheduled visit to a customer’s home, a text will be sent to ask if anyone living at their property has been asked to self-isolate or has flu-like symptoms. If the answer is yes, the appointment will be re-arranged for two weeks later. 30 minutes prior to the appointment, the technician will phone the customer to ask the same questions.

Although this will come as little comfort to those customers who are in need of a technician, the precautions are completely understandable. In these cases, new customers will be sent a self-install QuickStart pack which will hopefully mean a technician is not needed. Vodafone has not responded to questions to what the plan is should a technician be the only option.

O2/Telefonica UK

Like many other telcos, O2 has said all NHS UK websites will be ‘zero rated’, meaning any data used on these sites won’t count towards a customer’s monthly allowance, while it will make efforts to help those who are not able to pay their monthly bill. Customers who are concerned about the impact coronavirus will have on their monthly income are urged to call 202 to discuss the situation.

Little has been said on what work will be done to ensure the network remains resilient during the period of heightened pressure. This seems odd, as the O2 network shut down in certain areas this week, not related to increased internet traffic or congestion. Some customers might want more reassurances considering the dependence on communications infrastructure over the immediate future.

Elsewhere in the Telefonica Group, the Spanish business unit has said it will add 30 GB of mobile data to all Fusion and Movistar convergence customers for the next two months.

BT/EE/Openreach

In response the potential of increased strain on the network, BT is seemingly not that worried; the following is an extract from the website addressing the immediate challenges:

We have more than enough capacity in our UK broadband network to handle mass-scale homeworking in response to COVID-19. Our network is built to accommodate evening peak network capacity, which is driven by data-heavy things like video streaming and game downloads, for example.

By comparison, data requirements for work-related applications like video calls and daytime email traffic represent a fraction of this. Even if the same heavy data traffic that we see each evening were to run throughout the daytime, there is still enough capacity for work applications to run simultaneously.

This is a confident position to take, though the team has also said it will prioritise emergency calls and systems supporting emergency services such as the NHS, Airwave and the Emergency Services Network (ESN), critical national infrastructure and vulnerable customers, should the network come under intolerable pressure.

The BT Group has not unveiled any new measures for consumer customers yet, though it has put in additional procedures for enterprise customers due to the increased demand for home working.

The enterprise business unit has said it will work with customers to provide short-term upgrades for network capacity, increased virtual private network (VPN) connectivity, additional conferencing and collaboration tools, as well as call routing/forwarding solutions to divert calls to home phones or mobiles.

Three UK

Although Three UK does not seem to have introduced any additional policies in respect to the coronavirus outbreak, it does already have several initiatives which could prove to be quite useful. For example, free home delivery for customers and Three Store Now, which is a live stream to connect customers to in-store assistants for demos or to discuss potential purchases.

Sky

In response to almost all major sporting events being cancelled, Sky has said it will allow customers to ‘pause’ Sky Sports subscriptions without any additional charges. With the Premier League being suspended until early April, England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka cancelled and PRO14 Rugby postponed for the foreseeable future, there will certainly be a shortage of programming for this element of the premium TV offering.

On the broadband front, although Sky has reiterated it believes its service will be consistent, it does not need to make any announcements regarding data caps, like operators in the US, as these limitations are very rare in the UK market.

Vodafone unveils five-point plan to combat COVID-19

Vodafone has announced a five-point plan to maintain network service and assist governments across Europe to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

With the coronavirus outbreak now being labelled a once-in-a-century type event, the telco industry is more important then ever. While telcos are now the foundation of almost every element of society nowadays, with more people self-isolating or working from home, performance and co-operation will need to be on-point to keep societies and economies running smoothly.

“Vodafone can play a critical role in supporting society during this unprecedented time and that is why we are announcing our five-point plan,” said Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read. “A plan that ensures better outcomes for all citizens by working more closely with governments.

“Through our networks, and our dedicated team, we will strive to ensure that people stay connected to their family and friends, businesses can continue to run using remote working, our health services get all the support we can deliver and students are able to continue their education virtually.”

Aside from increasing capacity, the telco has also pointed out the industry needs more help from governments throughout the bloc. For example, access to sites needs to be simplified to allow upgrades to take place, while the team has also asked rules making ‘zero rating’ products illegal to be lifted temporarily.

The five elements of the plan are as follows:

  1. Maintaining the quality of service of networks:

With internet traffic over networks in impacted areas already up 50%, the threat of network congestion is becoming much more apparent. Capacity is being increased across the networks to ensure new usage patterns do not impact performance, while mission critical communications will be prioritised

  1. Providing network capacity and services for critical government functions:

Hospitals are being offered additional network capacity and services, emergency calls are being prioritised, and accessing government-supported healthcare websites will not impact data allowances. Free access to governments’ educational resources will also be offered

  1. Improving dissemination of information to the public:

Government agencies have been offered the opportunity to disseminate critical information via text alerts, and where possible, targeted text messaging will be introduced

  1. Facilitating working from home and helping the small and micro businesses within Vodafone’s Supply Chain:

Besides continuing to maintain network quality, education campaigns have been launched to ensure enterprise customers know about all the tools available to work from home. To aid its own supply chain, Vodafone has said European suppliers will be paid in 15 days, instead of the customary 30 to 60 days

  1. Improving governments’ insights into people’s movements in affected areas:

Wherever technically possible, and legally permissible, Vodafone will be willing to assist governments in developing insights based on large anonymised data sets. This could be a very important tool for governments in understanding the challenge which is being faced

What is worth noting is that all the telcos are pitching in to offer support to governments and local authorities during this challenging time. The value of the telecommunications industry, not only for communications but also insight, should not be underappreciated. However, Vodafone does raise an interesting point; certain rules and regulations might have to be relaxed to ensure effective action against the outbreak.

UK’s £1 billion Shared Rural Network is going ahead

The Shared Rural Network is an innovative idea from the UK Government, and now it is ready to roar forward, promising 95% geographical coverage by 2025.

The agreement will be signed by the CEOs of the four UK MNOs today, cementing down a £532 million investment from the telcos which will be bolstered by an additional £500 million from the UK Government. As well as eliminated total ‘not spots’ in the connectivity landscape, the Government has also said the deal will improve connectivity for 280,000 households and 16,000km of roads across the country.

“For too many people in the countryside a bad phone signal is a daily frustration,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden. “So today we’re delivering on the Prime Minister’s 100-day promise to get a £1 billion landmark deal signed with industry to end poor and patchy mobile rural coverage.”

While this is not the first example of a Government pushing through shared infrastructure to improve connectivity coverage, it is a heavy financial commitment. The £1 billion will be used to construct and maintain the network over the foreseeable future and is a win for the bureaucrats. There aren’t many governments around the world who have been this successful in convincing fierce rivals to play nice alongside each other.

That said, there were rumours about a splinter group over the last few weeks. Although the telcos have seemingly been very open-minded about the collaboration, rumours emerged to suggest BT was being an awkward partner.

As the telco with the widest coverage across the UK, BT/EE has the most to lose should telco neutral infrastructure become more widespread. As part of the Shared Rural Network negotiations, the telcos were supposed to be opening-up their own infrastructure to rivals though some sort of compensation would be part of the agreement. BT has been negotiated hard, to such a degree a splinter group between the other three MNOs was suggested, to create a shared network without BT.

With the signatures soon to be on this agreement, it seems the bickering has been negotiated out, though it demonstrates how delicate a procedure this initiative was and is.

Nevertheless, this should be taken as the gold standard for collaboration, not only for intra-industry benefits but also public-private relationships. It is an excellent example of a government understanding the pain-points of an industry and responding with a logical solution which not only benefits the industry but consumers and businesses.

The success of this venture could also have interesting ripple effects in other regions around the world.

Africa is a continent which has always struggled in the digital economy, aside from a few small areas. Low ARPU and increasingly expensive demands for network deployment paint a difficult picture when it comes to commercial feasibility, though telco-neutral networks could be an option. We suspect there will be moneymen across the world watching the UK experiment closely with an eye on replication for profits in developing nations.

Of course, it is not only the developing nations who could benefit from such initiatives. The US, for example, is a vast nation with some very sparsely population regions. The digital divide can be as dramatic here as other less economically fruitful nations, and this could be an interesting solution.

Aside from the financial and societal benefits, this initiative could also create opportunities for more embryonic technologies in the telco world.

“Network sharing is a relatively new concept to operators, and they need the tools to enable them to successfully create infrastructure that doesn’t compromise on performance,” said Steve Papa, CEO at Parallel Wireless.

“OpenRAN (radio access network) is a new approach to building networks, being trialled today by major operator groups, which can make technology from different suppliers work together, and reduces overall complexity and costs. Operators and the government will need to strongly consider new approaches such as OpenRAN, if they want to accelerate their vision of building affordable shared networks, to close the digital divide.”

Although there is excitement about the prospect of OpenRAN as a disruptive force in the industry, few telcos want to drive forward aggressively with the technology being at such an early stage of development. With the Shared Rural Network, some of the risk might be mitigated, however.

The Shared Rural Network is designed to tackle connectivity in some of the more sparsely populated areas. The telcos should view this as an opportunity; is there a better time to trial a technology which could go wrong when there are likely to be very few customers around?

Industry Comments:

Mark Evans, CEO of O2

I’m proud of the work we’ve done to secure the Shared Rural Network agreement, ensuring customers living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable coverage they need and deserve. The collaboration between the industry, government and Ofcom should be seen as a leading example of how to deliver infrastructure investment and we look forward to now rolling the Shared Rural Network out as quickly as possible

Philip Jansen, CEO of BT

High-speed mobile connectivity is a central part of modern life whether you live and work in a city centre or in the countryside. Building out fast and reliable access to 4G across the country is a national mission and we’re playing a leading role, collaborating with government and the other mobile network operators in the UK, to make this happen. The Shared Rural Network is something we can all be proud of

Dave Dyson, CEO of Three

The Shared Rural Network is a game-changer for the country with coverage from each of the four operators expanding to at least 90% of the UK’s geography

Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK

A rural postcode should not be a barrier to receiving a decent mobile signal. Together, we have created a programme that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It will mean an end to mobile ‘not spots’ for people in the more remote areas whether they are at home, at work or on the move. We will now get on with the job of delivering it

EU reportedly set to approve TIM/Vodafone tower JV

After announcing their intention to merge their tower businesses last July, TIM and Vodafone have had to wait nine months for the EU to give it a look.

While there had been no formal announcement at time of writing, Reuters spoke to some people who reckon the European  Commission is about to green-light the move. The mergers of the telecoms tower businesses of the two operators would apparently create Europe’s biggest mobile tower company, so antitrust authorities were bound to take an interest.

Presumably the activities of competing tower giants such as Cellnex reassured the EC that even such a major bit of M&A wouldn’t damage competition. Furthermore the whole European tower scene seems to be stampeding towards consolidation, so this presumably won’t be the last such case it has to scrutinise.

The combined tower holdings will be run by INWIT, the tower company TIM is currently the 60% owner of. After the €10 billion merger TIM and Vodafone will each own a 37.5% stake in INWIT, with equal governance rights.

Antitrust authorities will presumably only start thinking about blocking this sort of M&A when it gives one company to great a share of the mobile towers in a single country. TIM is not international, but Vodafone is an MNO in the Italian market. The report says they offered to give rival, presumably Italian, operators access to their towers as a condition for the deal being approved.