Connected Research

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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Virgin Media in fibre trial

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Virgin Media, the UK’s consolidated cable operator, has announced that it will commence a trial in which glass fibre, used to deliver next generation, high-speed broadband services, is strung overground over telegraph poles (company press release; news media story [registration required; limited viewing time]. Households connected locally in this way can then be linked to the rest of the Virgin Media network.

The trial, which is taking place in the small rural Berkshire village of Woolhampton and which will last for six months, is significant in policy-making terms for a number of reasons:

1. it will test the viability of using telegraph poles to deliver fibre. Such a solution has been suggested in previous Ofcom statements on NGA (see Section 7) and could essentially provide a short-cut to the civil works required to deliver fibre technology. Typically, fibre optic cables are passed through underground ducts, but this accounts for the most significant investment costs in delivering next generation access, particularly the farther we get from urban areas. Fibre strung over poles is, however, much more common in the US, Canada and in Japan – from where, it would thus seem, that interesting deployment lessons may also be learned.

2. Virgin Media is a cable operator and is used to working with a different technology standard (DOCSIS 3.0 and its earlier variants) to glass fibre. The trial will thus test not only Virgin Media’s ability to work with a different standard, but also, given that the local fibre connections will plug into Virgin Media’s core cable network further up the line, how well the two different technologies communicate with each other.

3. If the trial is successful, it may provide a way in which the Virgin Media network, which has been stuck at around 12.5m homes passed (about 52% of UK households) for a considerable amount of time, can be extended beyond its current reach. Virgin Media’s lack of cash for investment in cable, given the history of the development of the sector in the UK, loaded as it was with debt and bankruptcy of the US parent operators, has completed inhibited it from extending its network beyond the core which is, inevitably, focused on urban, more densely-populated areas. This, in turn, would provide a greater capacity for Virgin Media to compete with BT, whose network is, of course, universal. At the same time, it opens up the question as to the point at which the Virgin Media network, which is currently protected from the wholesale regulatory requirements imposed on BT, might be opened up to similar obligations.

Virgin Media is being quite conservative in its press release about the number of homes that may be connected in this way: it has identified one million homes that stand to benefit from the deployment of fibre over telegraph poles – although, at the same time, it is apparently:

Keen to ensure that all communities, in towns, cities and villages right across the UK, stand to benefit.

Clearly, there is an unresolved tension there. It might be that there are technological reasons why such a deployment is suited to so few additional homes – which the trial could well help to iron out – if, for example, glass fibre, which tends not to lend itself to corners, proves not particularly amenable to this sort of deployment. Or it may well be, for instance, that existing capacity on telegraph poles is limited. Of course, it could also reflect the company’s own lack of investment cash, or indeed a fear that widespread deployment would result in regulatory intervention imposing a wholesale obligation.

Nevertheless, the trial is a welcome test bed opportunity and could well act to extend the reach of the market of the number of homes connected to next generation access technologies outside urban areas. It is also an interesting test of the extent to which the growth of ‘market’ based approaches to the deployment of next generation access is reliant on, or fearful of, the regulation required to deliver both extended levels of access and effective competition.


Written by Calvin

12/03/2010 at 12:21 pm

Mobile companies and strategy issues: where next?

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Verizon Wireless, the US mobile company joint-owned by Vodafone, this week announced a partnership with Skype. The agreement will see Skype added to smartphones offered by Verizon – the largest mobile operator in the US.

The agreement, which was announced during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, follows a similar deal with AT&T and after a similar announcement putting Skype into Nokia’s Ovi application store, thus enabling Nokia smartphone users also to make calls using Skype.

Skype is essentially a piece of software allowing users to make telephone calls over lines which are usually used for data transmitted over the internet. The quality is, therefore, not as good as you would get from a voice call made over the traditional telephone network, but is getting better. The real attraction is its cheapness – international calls (the same as would made as a result of dialling websites or servers located in other countries) for the price of a local one. Skype is already used by some 15% of iPhone and iTouch users, and is reported to carry 12% of international call minutes.

The agreement between Skype and Verizon was heralded as telephone operators beginning to lose their fear of collaborating with voice over internet providers. It’s clearly far too early to make that sort of call just yet. All the same, it is true that the usual view of Skype is that it does threaten the typically lucrative international call market, a clear source of shoring-up revenue for fixed-line telephone operators faced with revenue falls in other markets. Its application in the mobile sphere is thus likely to present the same challenges to mobile carriers. The puff around the agreement is that Skype doesn’t threaten customer numbers – this would be true in the sense that customer numbers won’t be reduced by the agreement and they might even increase were Skype to bring some of its customers over to whichever operator it hooked up with. 3, which has a similar deal with Skype, reports increased customer usage and lower churn  – an interesting lesson. Nevertheless, the reduced revenues associated with calls made over Skype facilities that the operators’ own network are, however, surely likely to remain an issue. Inevitably, therefore, the true worth of the agreement from the perspective of the strategy of mobile operators thus seems to lie in that keeping hold of customers represents a greater prize than maintaining revenues.

It is also an interesting development in the light of ongoing capacity issues created by increasingly intense network demands made by smartphones – though Skype was quick (and mostly correct) in downplaying the network demands placed by pure voice calls in comparison to the data calls made also from smartphones. And Verizon says that it has heavily tested this aspect.

The Mobile World Congress is now concluded and has been a source for many stories in the sector this week including, at the headline level, the new alliance between mobile operators to launch an app store of their own, heralded as mobile companies fighting back against their relegation to a role as no more than pipe suppliers (and likely to reflect how mobile operators see the future monetary value of keeping hold of their customers); the BBC offering iPhone apps for news and sport (subsequently attacked by the Newspaper Publishers Association and likely as a result to be subject to political scutiny as well, depending on the outcome of the next general election); and Vodafone launching a spat with Google over the latter’s dominance of internet advertising revenues. You can find a good round-up of the themes of the week – which are likely to drive technical developments in the sector as well as its strategic focus in the forthcoming period – here.

Written by Calvin

19/02/2010 at 2:26 pm

Posted in Technology, Telecoms companies

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Camera reunited with owner by Facebook

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A story is popping around about Facebook’s role in re-uniting a camera lost on holiday on Mykonos with its owner.

The finder, having failed to locate the owner by wandering around Mykonos’s chora, and attracted by the six degrees of separation theory, set up his own Facebook group (Needle in a Haystack) determined that, if all his contacts signed up all their contacts and all their contacts… the owner would eventually be found. Starting in mid-October from a membership of 40, the group grew to over 230,000 before its French owner was eventually found (though within how many degrees is not known) after a friend spotted himself in one of the pictures taken off the camera and posted on the group’s page.

It’s a sweet story – provided, of course, that the professions of those involved that this is a genuine story are accurate and this is not another balloon boy hoax – but perhaps most of all in that it demonstrates the power of the internet to shrink the world: an Australian man working on the UK music festival circuit over the summer finds a camera while holidaying on a Greek island and manages to locate its French owner currently working in London…

Written by Calvin

05/11/2009 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Technology

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