Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the subject of advertising...

While I'm on the subject of advertising and whether the promises mobile operators make and their partners really are accurate, you really can't help but love this spoof iPhone commercial.

Of course, the iPhone commercials in the UK have themselves been the focus of Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings on the grounds that they are "not quite true" (which to you and me means they are misleading). They've been hit for claiming users can access the "whole Internet" (you can't) and for exaggerating the speed of the apps and webpages being loaded.

Between the ASA and OFCOM, maybe mobile phone users will start to get a fairer - and more honest and straightforward - deal from the mobile industry.

"I'm on the train!... [click]"

On the day that OFCOM has released new guidelines to stop mis-selling of their products and services or from "engaging in dishonest, misleading or deceptive conduct", for once I'm not going to pick on them. On the contrary, I'm going to pick on Virgin Trains. Yes, I know this is a blog about the telecoms industry, but that's precisely it.

Yesterday I had the joy of a trip to Milton Keynes with a client, so we took the train. A direct service, and we wanted to be able to work, so we even paid the little bit extra and went first class. Now, in first class they have apparently "enhanced mobile coverage"... another reason for spending the extra so you can do business calls and make the travel time a bit more productive.

So, just how many times do you think my poor client's call got dropped due to poor coverage? Once? Twice? ... FIVE times in a 30 minute journey.

If that's enhanced mobile coverage, what the service is like in cattle class at the back of the train I dare not imagine.

It's timely then that OFCOM have decided it's time to clamp down on dodgy sales tactics ... maybe they can sort out the inflated claims and promises operators and their partners make at the same time too.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Why Orange/T-Mobile merger means less subscriber choice

The big news today is undoubtedly that of the merger between Orange and T-Mobile, to create the UK's biggest operator with 28.4 million subscribers. Of course, the companies are lauding it as bringing "substantial benefits to UK customers", but will it really?

Consider this. Vodafone and O2 have already announced a network sharing deal (essentially this means that they will consolidate 2G and 3G cellsites, but they'll keep their own Node Bs, RNCs etc.). T-Mobile is similarly already the host for '3' and for MVNOs such as Virgin Mobile.

So, merge Orange and T-Mobile and the subscriber really is down to a choice of just two networks.

Sure, they'll have their own OSS/BSS and equipment at the edge of the network, but if mobile is about anything, it's about the RAN. It's about coverage, quality of service and (call me old fashioned) being able to get a dial-tone and make a call. You can have all the choice of price plans and shiny devices in the world, but if you keep dropping a call, can't get coverage in your home, or have a painfully slow mobile data experience, what's the point? And if you can't switch network to one with better coverage, where's the consumer choice?

As we saw earlier this year from OFCOM's coverage map, 3G coverage remains far from nationwide. Merging Orange and T-Mobile may save over £3.5 billion "over time" (a helpful comment that gives no indication of timescale), but will these savings be invested in extending mobile broadband coverage?

The simple situation seems to be that while UK subscribers may have lots of brand choice in terms of which operator they choose, ultimately they will have the choice of only two networks.

Doesn't this sound like something that should excite OFCOM?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it

If like me you thought MWC 2008 was too big and actually quite enjoyed the more manageable and businesslike atmosphere of this year's Congress, then you'll probably mixed emotions at the news that Nokia will not be exhibiting at MWC 2010.

While the GSMA has tried to reassure other exhibtors that Nokia "remains committed" to MWC and the GSMA itself, it really is a sign of changing times.

Let's be honest. MWC is unrecognisable from the cosy industry get-together that was 3GSM in Cannes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The show (and I mean 'show', not 'Congress') was starting to become preoccupied with mobile entertainment and consumer devices. But it's not a consumer show, it's an industry event.

While sad news for the GSMA, it's perhaps reassuring news for the mobile industry. Maybe now it can get back to focusing on the business and the technology that powers it, and lose the fixation with celebrity keynotes. And anything that makes it easier to find catch a taxi in Barcelona in February can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Finally, someone who REALLY appreciates mobile phones!

In proof that 2G certainly isn't dead and can still bring unbounded joy to people's lives, the Pacific island of Nauru has declared today a public holiday in celebration of the launch of its first mobile phone network, courtesy of Digicel.

Admittedly, it is unlikely to set the world alight with its subscriber numbers (Nauru is the world's smallest independent nation with just 10,000 inhabitants), but it nevertheless is a good reminder of what mobile communications is really about, while the rest of us get caught up in hype around 4G and how mobile is going to save the world. Realistically, will this stop Nauru from disappearing into the sea as the oceans rise due to global warming? Well, no, of course it won't.

Mobile communications aren't going to save the world, but they can improve the quality of life by bringing access to otherwise disconnected communities. Indeed, maybe Nauru should go back to its previous name, now that it really is a Pleasant Island.

Friday, August 28, 2009

How to complain

OK, so the English are renowned for our manners, our politeness and our stiff upper lip. Which is clearly why OFCOM has felt it necessary to produce a video guide for consumers about how to complain about your telecoms provider.

The complaints procedure as it is today, is itself a cause for much complaint. A neighbour of my mum's signed up to Talk Talk in the Asda carpark (yes, I know signing up to anything in the Asda carpark is rarely a good idea) and then had to endure a month of intermittent service and the constant frustration of having to contact the call centre (using her prepaid mobile) and re-explain her situation on every occassion. Three visits by engineers later, and a failed attempt by Talk Talk to get her to pay "thousands" to get the fault fixed as it was on her property (even though the previous engineer had said the fault was kerbside) and she finally has a service. Oh, and was it fixed by Talk Talk? No, of course not. It was fixed by a good old BT engineer.

Today, you have to endure 12 weeks of this before you can complain to OFCOM for 'Alternative Dispute Resolution', but under new plans coming into force on the 1st September, this will come down to eight weeks. Still not good enough to help my neighbour Lorna, but a start.

So, if like me you're too English and really hate to create a scene, here's some helpful advice from your friendly OFCOM:

PS. TalkTalkHell has a helpful guide on how to complain here ... and three years on, and it seems they are no better at customer service.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The dawn of recovery in UK telecoms market?

So it seems I took the last bit of OFCOM advice to heart and kept myself safe online, by being offline! Anyway, I'm back, and so is OFCOM ...

This week they've released two more 'guides', both aimed to help consumers survive in these 'credit crunch' times. Obviously the publication is perfectly timed given that this is also the week that the IMF declared that the global recession is over and recovery has begun. (Though sadly not here, but luckily this isn't a political blog so I don't have to rant about the debt we are saddled with as a nation...).

OFCOM's first report - a consumer guide on the cost of calling different numbers - aims to dymystify the different codes, helping separate the 03s from the 08s. In theory a very useful guide it is too ... did you know that every time you phone your GP on their 'local rate' 0845 number, they are actually making money by getting a kick-back from using a non-geographic number. And who said the NHS is free at the point of delivery ... sorry, veered back on to politics again.

However, the bit I liked was the caveat that "The prices in the guide are based on the cost of calls from a BT landline and other providers’ prices may vary". Given that OFCOM this month revealed that the number of local loop unbundled (LLU) lines is now over six million, that's 6,000.000 households etc. for whom the guide isn't really that much use. Oh well. They tried.

The second report, out the same day, is a guide to how to stay connected in case your ISP goes bust. Again, in light of news that France, Germany and Japan are all emerging into the bright dawn of recovery, it's not an encouraging sign that the UK regulator has decided now is the time to put plans in place for UK service providers going out of business.

Maybe I'm being unduly harsh and negative (well, the sun has hardly shone all summer, so who can blame me), but talk of a recovery in the UK telecoms sector seems some way off, if the runes of the OFCOM reports are being read correctly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How to be safe online this summer ... get yourself outside instead!

With summer holidays now upon us (well, if you're 14 maybe but not if you have to work for your living), OFCOM has launched an online safety campaign.

According to OFCOM:
  • Two-thirds of 5-7 year olds now use the internet at home, rising to over three-quarters of 8-11 year olds and over four-fifths of 12-15s.
  • Of these, one fifth of 5-7 year olds use the internet without an adult present, as do almost half of 8-11 year olds and two-thirds of 12-15s.
  • 12-15 year olds say they spend an average of nearly 14 hours a week online.
  • Over a third of 12-15 year olds say they mostly access the internet in their bedroom. During this time they could encounter inappropriate or even potentially harmful content.

Their advice video is here:

Though surely the better advice is that handed out by that classic children's television, "Why Don't You ... just switch off the television [or computer], go outside and do something less boring instead."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mobile broadband spectrum battles

Following on from Viviane Reding's comments last week, the European Commission has formally opened a consultation period on how the digital switchover spectrum should be managed on a pan-EU level. Predictably, given the success of GSM, they are trying a repeat performance with mobile broadband.

Germany, France, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and, of course, Finland have already committed to releasing some of the digital dividend spectrum for mobile broadband... and as we've seen from the Digital Britain report, the UK is heading in a similar direction too.

However, the point isn't that regulators are making spectrum available for mobile broadband, the point is what spectrum is available. We're seeing auctions at 2.6Ghz, refarming of 900mhz and now 790-862mhz (the so-called 'digital dividend' band).

You can see why the Commission is claiming that at extra €30 billion in economic benefits could be realised through continued EU co-ordination.

However, this all brings me back to a point I raised last month - who manages the spectrum? Is it the national regulator (you only need to look at Finland to see a regulator happy to plough their own furrow)? Is it the ITU? Well, it should be the ITU. Afterall, its of limited use having an LTE dongle that only works in the. We may as well go back to CDMA v. GSM battle of yesteryear.

So you can see why the European Commission is getting involved. But there are much bigger stakes to play for than just what happens to the old analogue TV spectrum. If mobile broadband is going to deliver real economic benefits, we need to think much bigger. And the ITU needs to step up to the mark.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Digital switchover spectrum worth €200 billion - Reding

It looks like Viviane Reding is alive and kicking at the European Commission after being nominated for another five year term and issuing her customary rallying call to governments and the telecom industry to move faster down the path of liberalisation.

Less than a month after the UK government released it's Digital Britain report restating it's ambition to complete the digital switchover from analogue TV by 2012, Reding has urged European government's to bring forward plans and not wait until 2012. What's more, Reding reckons the EU-wide switchover would increase the value of spectrum by between €150 billion and €200 billion.

That's a hefty sum, although just how much operators are able and/or willing to pay for spectrum right now is a different matter. Indeed, the tone coming out of the Digital Britain report was far more about maximising coverage rather than maximising the monies generated by any spectrum auctions... which when you consider the still poor 3G coverage in the UK, is probably a sensible move.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

OFCOM releases UK 3G coverage map

OFCOM has today released its first UK maps of 3G mobile network coverage, and it makes interesting reading.

The maps come with some caveats. The benchmark they've used is already pretty low, that is to say the signal strength needed to count as 'coverage' was just 10% of maximum transmit power and this had to be exceeded for 50% of the locations for 50% of the time. Oh, and it only measures outdoor coverage, not indoor where signal strength degrades even further. So it's a very conservative map, designed to give the operators the best chance of succeeding you might say.

And who comes out looking best? Well, H3G is the clear winner when it comes to nationwide coverage (although if you're Welsh, Scottish or from Norfolk you can still forget it). Orange comes a credible second. Quite frankly though, for all the naming and shaming, O2 is still pathetic. You can maybe drive from London to Liverpool and have 3G the whole way, but you'd have to pick your route damn carefully. The one that surprised me though was Vodafone. I expected better (and to use the same 'test' as for O2 as above, you can't even do London-Liverpool and stay within Voda 3G coverage because of a 'Not-Spot' that looks to be around the Northampton area!).

But all is not lost, because while the nationwide 3G coverage is still poor for many operators, the coastal coverage is excellent! That's right, if you want to sail from Margate to Falmouth, 8 out of 10 sailors say their yachts prefer Vodafone!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Intel/Nokia tie-up - what does it mean for Qualcomm and connected devices?

The news that Nokia and Intel have teamed up to “define a new mobile platform beyond today’s smartphones, notebooks and netbooks” raises interesting questions about who the winners will be in the brave new all-IP world that is LTE. Or, more pertinently, what will this mean for the previous goliath of mobile chipsets and licencing - Qualcomm?

In May, Qualcomm 'launched' a new category of device (if you can launch a category) called the "Smartbook". Ostensibly, this is “the smartphone experience in a larger form factor” and based on QCOM's Snapdragon chipset, which apparently "as a single chip solution combining GPS, multimedia, the processor, wifi and 3G on one chip, promises to make smartbooks lighter, thinner, cheaper and give them a longer battery life". The thing is, I'm not entirely convinced by this form factor... indeed, the clue is in QCOM's own description ... it's larger than a smartphone but does the same stuff. Well, that's a winner.

The Intel/Nokia tie up in many ways looks to the same inspiration, but with a difference. Intel knows how to make computing devices; Nokia knows how to make mobile phones. Crucially, they are talking about the devices being "pocketable" (and hopefully they're not working on the assumption that everyone in 2010 is going to be wearing baggy cargo pants!). The details are still vague but there are a few things that the tie-up suggests:

First, it's a real shot in the arm for mobile Linux and other open source projects. Potentially, it's not good news for Symbian, although you could argue that it's already given up the fight now that it has also gone the route of reinventing itself as the Symbian Foundation.

Furthermore, the implications go further than this deal because of Intel's acquisition of Wind River earlier this month. This really could be the beginning of something big in the broader connected devices market. As we're already seeing with devices such as TomTom embedding connectivity into them, more and more consumer electronics devices are being connected. This isn't about Smartphone functionality in a device as big as book, it's about taking devices we already use and connecting them to new services and creating new revenue streams for operators. The combination of Intel, Wind River and Nokia is potentially a powerful one here especially.

At the moment, the deal gives Intel an HSPA 3G licence but continue the line of thought and the Intel/Nokia tie-up is bad news for Qualcomm. The new mobile platform that it creates goes far beyond netbook and smartbooks. It potentially sets the scene for a much bigger play in the wider consumer electronics market, leaving Snapdragon on the sidelines.

So it's just struck me, substitute Snapdragon for Puff the magic dragon in the well known ditty, and you get a sense of what the future may hold:

Qualcomm, the snapdragon lived by the sea*
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called honah lee,
Qualcomm, the snapdragon lived by the sea
And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called honah lee.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, jackie paper came no more
And snap that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.

And all together now ...

* [Ed note: San Diego is by the sea, so it works!]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Femtocells go commercial

All of a sudden, the world seems to have gone femto-crazy ... or more accurately, operators have finally decided to bite the bullet and deploy services. Disapppointingly, this seems to mean that my big brave prediction for 2009 has been shot down only six months into the year. I still maintain that LTE will be the bigger opportunity for femtocells, but nevertheless the news that Vodafone and AT&T are launching commercial services this year goes to show that there is some immediate and real opportunity as well.

However, looking deeper into the news and you get a sense of some of the underlying themes which will now start to come to the fore.

  1. Quality of Service: Suffice it to say, if I used a Voda femto in my flat in London, I would struggle to get more than three words out so bad is my Tiscali broadband. The simple fact is an operator can never guarantee QoS. In a conventional network, they can guarantee it throughout the core as far as the cell site, but as soon as it hits the RAN, there are so many environmental variables (pesky things like buildings that get in the way) that the operator can only then do a best effort. Now, in theory, femtocells solve this problem - it fixes the in-building RF problem. But, if operators such as Vodafone then use the subscribers' own DSL connection to backhaul the call, they have again surrendered control over QoS. In fact, they've taken a step back. While they can optimise the RAN, they have no control over the ISP.
  2. The Form Factor: At the moment, AT&T and Vodafone are planning to go to market with standalone femtocells. The marketing wizards at AT&T have branded theirs a '3G microcell, clearly expecting the US consumer to be tech-savvy, while Vodafone have gone the route of calling it an 'Access Gateway' (access to what, you can already hear consumers asking). However, AT&T has also alluded to 'integrated femtocells' coming later, and this is perhaps where it becomes a real consumer market. I sat in a briefing by Continuous Computing* with Ovum this week and this point came up. Although a lot of the details are still under wraps, Continuous Computing said that not only are about half of their femtocell design wins are with set-top box manufacturers and the like, but that we should be seeing the first integrated femtocell products shipping around late 2009 / early 2010.
  3. The Pricing: Well, this really is the big one, isn't it. The pricing from Voda has that the femtocell with be free on selected tariffs (so operator subsidised like handsets) and also bundled in some phone packages. If you buy the femtocell as a standalone, you're looking at £160 or £5 per month. I won't even try and digest the different phone packages since I've always maintained their are designed solely to confuse but it's clear that the subscriber is going to have to pay extra to solve a coverage problem which you can be pretty sure they weren't warned about when they first bought their shinny 3G handset.
But let's not be churlish. Femtocells are going commercial with two tier 1 operators and for an industry that has invested time, money and effort in creating the market, that can only be a good thing. Well, provided they work and deliver on the subscribers' expectations that is ...

* Continuous Computing is an AxiCom client

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mobile comms on Olympic starting line

London 2012 is already starting to have an impact on the infrastructure of London, and that includes communications.

OFCOM today "published proposals under section 107(6) of the Communications Act 2003 to extend Airwave Solutions Limited's powers under the electronic communications code to enable it to rollout a private mobile radio network for The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralmypic Games."

It seems like every company in the land is fighting for its share of public money sloshing around in East London right now, so who might be some of the winners?

  • TETRA ... despite having over 150 organisations from 35 countries (according to the TETRA Association) backing the standard, it never has exactly hit the big time. But as the OFCOM news suggests, there's still life in the old dog yet.
  • Mobile TV ... every major global sporting event seems to spur an innovation in broadcasting. If the Beijing Olympics saw HD going mainstream (the 2006 FIFA World Cup was the first to be broadcast in HD), then what price London 2012 being the one to reignite mobile TV? The BBC is one of the few broadcasters with the resources to innovate and deliver it, and then there's that L-band spectrum that Qualcomm bought that's lying dormant ...
  • NFC ... the BT team responsible for the communications at London 2012 are apparently looking at NFC for micro-payments of under £10 within the Olympic Park. While the Oyster card is a success for Londoners already, this could be the spur to start seeing NFC embedded into more handsets and to see retailers equiped with NFC-enabled mobile terminals
.. and then of course there's everything else that comes with it ... the network planning, the extra base stations, the mobile apps (both officially sanctioned and those trying to pull a fast one), the list goes on. Hell, we may even have LTE and universal broadband by then ;-)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Digital Britain - what it means for mobile operators

Yesterday's publication of the Digital Britain report has predictably been met with headlines about the imposition of a broadband ‘levy’ (or ‘tax’ to you and me) to help fund the future investment in a national high speed internet infrastructure. But, as the appointment of Martha Lane Fox as ‘Digital Inclusion Champion’ perhaps mischievously suggests, is this all a little bit of a lastminute strategy?

There are some interesting points contained within the report (Martha's appointment not being one of them!), not least the news that ISPs are going to be made responsible for policing their own subscribers. This is maybe not such good news for the ISPs, but for anyone selling DPI-related products, it can only be a good thing ... but more on this in a later post.

One area that hasn't received much attention thus far has been what it had to say about mobile networks. There has been some moaning that mobile is just being seen as a stop-gap solution until fixed networks can sort themselves out and deliver the requisite speeds (a heady 2Mbps) to the more remote, broadband-deprived parts of the country. However, I think that's a bit harsh, to be honest.

The report not only acknowledges that next generation mobile networks will be able to deliver data rates of up to 100Mbps, but clearly says that both 3G and LTE have a key role to play in delivering the goal of universal broadband coverage.

What is of perhaps more significance though is:

  • WiMAX is essentially dead in the UK. While it advocates "the immediate release of WiMAX-suitable 2.6Ghz unpaired TDD spectrum for auction", the reports lays its cards on the table and states that there is "an encouraging consensus amongst incumbent mobile operators for the mobile broadband networks to be based on either 3G or LTE. This does not preclude a new entrant using other technologies, such as WiMAX, but in the highly competitive UK mobile radio market it is highly unlikely that such a new entrant would have the market power to de-stabilise the vital standardisation that underpins national and international mobile roaming for UK users."
  • The 'Big Auction' for 2.6Ghz paired FDD spectrum (i.e. the spectrum for LTE) is set for mid-2010. But, there is still a big debate to be had over spectrum refarming before this can happen. Essentially, if Vodafone or O2 (who occcupy 900Mhz spectrum for their GSM services) want any 800Mhz spectrum for future mobile broadband services they will have to trade in their 2G spectrum. The reason, simply, is that the economic advantages of 900Mhz over 1800Mhz (greater cell coverage etc.) are such that the regulator has to balance it out so T-Mo and Orange aren't penalised. So the auction of 800Mhz and deployment of LTE rests on how easily 900Mhz can be refarmed.
  • In a bid to drive universal mobile broadband coverage and so get 3G services as nationwide as 2G, the terms of the 3G licences are going to change from time limited to indefinite in order to give operators a chance to see an ROI from extending their 3G coverage. What's more, the Digital Britain report seems to favour network sharing in the sub-1Ghz spectrum as a way of expediting this network expansion, not least because lowering the cost of delivering broadband coverage to the last 10% of the UK is critical given that they are so well dispersed and "not a viable market" on their own.

Overall, the Digital Britain report seems positive for mobile operators. I've heard murmurings of people saying LTE could solve all the problems and so we wouldn't need to pay the 'broadband tax' to bankroll building a nationwide high speed fixed network, but realistically this was never going to be the case. Any anyway, the economics of delivering mobile broadband in remote areas is still something that needs help from the regulator to balance.

Either way, with several important spectrum issues to be resolved over the next 12 months, it's clear that there is still much to play for in the role mobile networks will have in policies to finally deliver a universal high speed internet in the UK.