Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for the ‘Telecoms companies’ Category

The politics of fibre

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Alongside its annual results, BT announced its plans for an expansion of its investment in fibre earlier today. The clear link between the two is that the cost reductions and greater efficiencies identified in the company’s financial reporting have freed sufficient resources for an acceleration of the investment programme so as to allow a further £1bn to be put into fibre projects, extending the reach to two-thirds of UK homes by 2015.

Current investment plans had envisaged 40% of UK homes being fibred up by 2012: thus, an expansion of 67% in the investment budget brings about the same percentage expansion in the number of homes within the reach of a fibre network at the local level. This is interesting in itself, since cost models predict that fibre investment should become more expensive on a per home basis the further investment travels, although this seems to apply largely only once fibre roll-out has been extended into rural areas, i.e. above about 58% of homes (Figure 1.5).

(Incidentally, the Analysys Mason model looks to remain fairly accurate at this point: it seems to predict that, with an investment of £1.5bn in fibre to the cabinet solutions, BT ought to reach about 46% of homes (compared to the 40% in the company’s plans); while a total investment of £2.5bn ought to see it through to about 72% (compared to ‘around two-thirds’). Either the model is slightly out, and the costs associated with roll-out to particular stages are slightly higher than envisaged; or else BT’s mix of fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the home solutions has raised the cost slightly, since the model is based only on the former. The BBC news report of today’s story identifies that around one in four of all homes envisaged as being covered by fibre by 2015 will have fibre to the home – and, therefore, much faster connection speeds. This would seem to suggest that the Analysys Mason model actually slightly under-estimates the cost of fibre roll-out.)

The announcement of BT’s roll-out plans has clearly been well-timed, given the events of the last seven days; and appears to put BT on the front foot.

Firstly, this takes BT to what we might call the ‘Digital Britain’ point – i.e. the two-thirds of homes that ‘the market’ would identify as being suitable for fibre investment. Taking fibre installation beyond this was intended to be the purpose of the ‘Final Third’ fund, raised by the landline duty, which of course has now been scrapped – and without actual plans for its replacement which are more than mere suggestions.

Secondly, the plans will achieve download speeds of (up to) 40 Mbps. The Tories’ manifesto commitment was to getting ‘a majority’ of UK homes wired to (up to) 100 Mbps connections by 2017. BT’s current plans seem to indicate that, by 2015, only around 17% of UK homes will have download speeds at this level. If the manifesto commitment is to be realisable – though today’s reporting seems to indicate that Digital Britain may well not be a priority for the new government – then plans need to be made for how this is going to be achieved. This is not the same as what also needs to be done to roll-out broadband in rural areas (into the ‘final third’) – which mission also needs to be accomplished – since this 17% seems to leave plenty more homes in urban areas with download speeds of much less than 100 Mbps.

Thirdly, Ian Livingston’s announcement contains a strong caveat: that the plans assume ‘an acceptable environment for investment’. This is clearly critical and is an evident acknowledgement not only that the regulatory environment plays an important role in investment decisions, but also that the change in government brings uncertainties in this area which will need to be settled. Inevitably so. But what matters here is that the announcement of the plans now indicates that the existing environment, both known and in the pipeline, is acceptable in terms of the plans – what is unknown is whether that will change and, if so, what impact that will have on the investment. The caveat is a clear indication that the plans are predicated on at least the continuation of the current regulatory environment (if not its further improvement) and that any deterioration may well lead to a reconsideration of them.

How the government responds will be interesting.

In terms of BT – well, it’s clear that more needs to be done to get Britain faster online so as to realise the benefits of Digital Britain, though the importance in this of a healthy, financially strong BT needs not to be forgotten (as well as that the company is still rebuilding its profitability). It should also be remembered that the expansion of the investment in fibre will be ‘managed within current levels of capital expenditure’ – something which implies cut-backs in expenditure on investment in other areas.

A new statutory duty for Ofcom to promote investment in the communications infrastructure in its approach to regulatory decisions would help enormously right now…

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Written by Calvin

13/05/2010 at 5:02 pm

UN launches Broadband Commission

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The International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the UN, has set up a Broadband Commission whose aims will be to define strategies for rolling out broadband networks worldwide and to examine the applications for the improvement in the delivery of a wide range of social services.

An impressive list of global private sector business leaders, UN agencies, regulatory bodies and politicians, including the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, are to sit on the Commission, which will present findings to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals review summit in September. The Commissioners are intended to provide ‘expert input’ alongside an analysis of the deployment of broadband at all stages of economic development, with the ultimate intention of providing ‘practical recommendations on the possible routes towards the goal of high-speed networks at affordable prices.’

Hamadoun Touré, Secretary-General of the ITU, commented that:

In the 21st century, affordable, ubiquitous broadband networks will be as critical to social and economic prosperity as networks like transport, water and power… Not only does broadband deliver benefits across every sector of society, but it also helps promote social and economic development, and will be key in helping us get the Millennium Development Goals back on track.

There’s nothing much wrong with that, and it helps to reinforce the notion that the developing world does – perhaps controversially – need modems and routers just as much as it needs other basic essentials as a means of delivering the social and economic benefits that will improve life expectancy and the social situation. So, the initiative is welcome, although it is important to emphasise that it needs indeed to look at the full range of ‘possible routes’. Whether decent debate about the range of ways of potentially achieving these goals is likely to ensue from the Commission’s appointments, and the short time-scale for its work to be concluded, is a moot point. Alternative visions than ones based on deregulation and the removal of barriers, and on a centre stage for competition, are both possible and need to be explored if the initiative is to achieve its aims.

Written by Calvin

13/05/2010 at 12:18 am

everything, everywhere

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So, it’s not going to be T-Orange after all, then. T-Mobile and Orange have resisted the temptation of the obvious and have decided to run in a completely different direction, calling their joint venture everything, everywhere – perhaps a slightly hyperbolic name for a mobile company, even if it is the largest one in the UK, and one which appears something of a mouthful in comparison to the available competition (it has more syllables than the three other network operators put together).

Its ‘vision’ includes a single ‘super-network’ giving ‘unsurpassed coverage and capacity’ for customers (though 3 might take issue with this bit), and at a lesser impact on the environment. Few details are as yet available other than that the company will seek to combine both the Orange and T-Mobile networks and, by cutting out duplication, reduce the number of stations and sites that the company uses (which currently stand at some 27,000). Nevertheless, how this network looks, and operates, is a vitally important consideration not least given the terms on which the JV was approved (i.e. the guarantees given to 3; and the sale of spectrum). The company has, however, confirmed that all four of the companies served by the network (including both 3 and Virgin Mobile) will run on a common infrastructure.

The new company claims a customer base of more than 30 million people – ‘over half of the UK adult population’ (I can’t recall the companies trumpeting this sort of statistic while the regulators were looking at the proposed JV: funny, that!) and its press release helpfully breaks these down into pre-paid and contract mobile customers and Orange’s fixed network (the management of which was outsourced last month to BT) – so would seem to incorporate the potential for some double-counting.

The merged company will have 16,500 employees – 2,500 fewer than they had when the JV was announced seven months ago – and is, according to the same report, seeking savings of some £3.5bn by 2014 in shared infrastructure, technology and in the savings resulting from job cuts.

Not everything, everywhere for everyone, then.

Written by Calvin

12/05/2010 at 11:21 pm

OK, on with the show

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Though before we do, some interesting reaction to the overnight events picked up via TIGMOO by Anna Rose at Unison Active, as well as by Tom over at labour and capital.

In what is otherwise, given its timing, likely to be one of my more immediately unread posts in the one year (next week!) that this blog has been functioning, I did find this week that there were some interesting things happening in the world of regulatory broadband policy, both in Australia and in Italy, and in the world of net neutrality, in the US, which reflect some aspects of why the blog exists.

In Australia, the centre-left government has published a A$25m (£15m) report commissioned by McKinsey and KPMG that says, essentially, even if Telstra, the former incumbent, doesn’t decide to throw in its lot with the government’s plans for an initially publicly-owned national broadband network company, NBN Co can still go ahead on its own as a viable commercial entity (see here [registration required; limited viewing time] and, when that runs out, here for the basic news story].

Such a conclusion is really no great surprise, and perhaps its most important function is the practical assistance it will provide the government in its continuing negotiations with Telstra on the folding of its assets into NBN Co (although whether that’s a suitable use of public money is a different matter) – both that and the re-starting of structural separation discussions in the Australian parliament, scheduled for next week. The government’s intention to create a ‘Telstra 2’, having not so long ago sold the last one off to a lot of individual (‘mum and dad’) shareholders, with a long-term intent to do the same thing with NBN Co, is the subject of a lively debate, as the comments in The Australian show.

Meanwhile, a proposal for a super-fast broadband network in Italy was made by Vodafone, Wind and Fastweb (the latter two being existing Italian network operators) in Milan today. La Repubblica originally broke the story on Tuesday (you’ll need to speak Italian or else have a good translator – or else, if you’re quick, see either here and/or here for an English language version). The consortium of three want to spend €2.5bn on building a 100Mbps fibre network in Italy over the next five years – but che sorpresa, they want to build it only in the 15 major towns and cities. At the launch, it was also made clear that, over 5-10 years, the network could be extended in an €8.5bn investment to all towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants (representing around half the Italian population). Former incumbent Telecom Italia, which was invited into the project and which has always welcomed the notion of joint partnerships (provided that it keeps its finger on its existing network), has its own €7bn investment plans over three years but deployment so far has been somewhat relaxed.

Cynicism aside, any investment in high-speed broadband is welcome – but it does need to be part of a nationally- planned advance in fibre installation, and one that extends high speed broadband provision on an equitable basis right throughout the country: to rich and to poor; to urban and to rural; to young and to old. Where the market is allowed to dictate investment in nationally-important infrastructure, the end result can only be inequity, exclusion and a widening of the social and digital divides as a result of the inevitable cherry picking that will occur. Leaving the poor old incumbent to pick up the pieces for the rest is hardly reflective of a level playing field, while the concept of social justice – as well as that of evenly-spread economic development – deserves better treatment.

An interesting parallel between Italy and Australia is also that Agcom, the Italian regulator, has been looking at the creation of a separate, new company responsible for the country’s next generation broadband infrastructure.

Finally, in the US the Federal Communications Commission has made progress with its response to last month’s legal ruling against its sanctioning of Comcast for traffic management policies. I blogged about this here. The danger of the ruling was that an inability of the FCC to take action in this way, because broadband internet access is classed under US regulation law not as a telecoms service but as an information service (and thus subject to a different, lighter regulatory regime), left it unable to guarantee net neutrality – i.e. the freedom of internet users not to be subject to the ‘management’ of their surfing by their ISP. This impasse in turn seemed to threaten the FCC’s ambitious National Broadband Plan.

What the FCC has done, according to the BBC – a bit of a lighter read than the FCC’s own statement – is to develop a ‘third way’ (just like 1997 all over again!) which classifies the ‘transmission component’ of broadband access as a telecommunications service while taking a principled non-intervention approach to much of the rest of broadband access. The Chair of the FCC was at pains to point to the ‘narrow and tailored… cautious’ approach, and the need to overcome the difficulties posed to the National Broadband Plan by the legal decision, but even this limited compromise appears to have left the two Republicans on the FCC behind. Here, the Chair’s view is likely to be supported by the two Democrats, indicating it will thus prevail, but ISPs themselves already appear (according to the BBC report) rather unhappy.

These three highly separate, but highly linked, stories highlight the problems of regulating broadband access both in an environment of seeking control of the technology so that it serves the interest of the people, and in free market situations in which competition is supposed to prevail but which doesn’t necessarily always support the interests of the consumer, both taking place in the context of a neo-liberal dominated world view. You might wonder – just as bond markets opening in the middle of election night, as results are starting to come in, and subsequently with its intermittent results, was thought to be newsworthy as part of the BBC’s online internet coverage – just how we’ve got into this mess.

A lack of strategic thinking is one reason – and it’s clear that only strategic thinking can get us out of it.

A greener wireless industry

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Telecoms companies have united in another green initiative, this time with the aim of achieving a 50% reduction in the energy consumption of so-called 4th generation (or LTE) mobile wireless communication networks, and with the aim of commercialising its work by the end of 2012. The Earth (Energy Aware Radio and neTwork tecHnologies) project is based on research into ways of saving energy in mobile networks, network components and radio interfaces with the aim of laying the foundations for a new generation of energy-efficient communications equipment.

Other than that, the company press release is really rather dense (which may well account for the distinct lack of interest amongst the UK press, even on what seems to be a slow news day). Indeed, the initiative seems to have got underway some three months ago and only now has a press release been put together about it. Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are the lead names on the initiative (as indeed the former was on a previously announced green initiative, which I blogged about here) but it also encompasses 13 other partners, including research institutes and universities, and the European standards organisation, ETSI, alongside the telecoms partners.

LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is the name for the next generation of mobile, with a wide range of frequencies deployed to allow users to watch high-definition video and receive much faster downloads on their mobile devices. An auction encompassing LTE-appropriate spectrum has just been concluded in the Netherlands, while similar is currently underway in Germany. Plans in the UK, intended to have been facilitated by Kip Meek’s independent brokerage and accepted by the government, have been derailed both by operator objections and by the loss of key chunks of the Digital Economy Bill, but may return to the agenda after the general election.

So, the new initiative is timely and very welcome – even if the EARTH programme, if not its aims, suffers from an inevitable imprecision as well as the equally inevitable strong dose of corporate puff. Similar to the last initiative, however, my gripe remains the relative lack of UK involvement. The University of Surrey is one of the consortium partners, but UK involvement seems otherwise to be minimal. Leadership on these sorts of initiatives is up for grabs and it would be a shame were the technical expertise in energy efficiency generated by such initiatives to flow largely elsewhere.

Written by Calvin

28/04/2010 at 4:07 pm

Orange refused Swiss merger

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Swiss competition regulators have refused permission for Orange, the smallest of three operators in Switzerland, to merge with Sunrise, the Danish-owned second largest operator, on the grounds that the proposal would undermine market dynamics and damage consumer interests.

The merged entity, for which proposals had been developed last November, would have had a market share of 38%, compared to the 62% held by Swisscom, the former monopoly operator. However, the view of the Swiss authorities was that the merged operator: ‘would have been in a collective dominant position which risked eliminating effective competition.’ Uppermost in the authorities’ mind was that it would be more advantageous in a two-company market for both to collude over pricing levels.

An appeal, which must be lodged within 30 days, is thought likely [registration required; limited viewing time]. In the meantime, a knock-on effect of the decision has been to delay a planned flotation of TDC [registration required; limited viewing time], the Danish parent of Sunrise, which is currently owned by a consortium of five well-known private equity groups (Blackstone Group; Permira; Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co; Providence; and Apax Partners). Part of the Swiss merger would have meant France Telecom, Orange’s parent, handing over €1.5bn in cash to TDC in return for a 75% share in the merged operation – without which, on the face of it, the private equity groups concerned have been unable to realise sufficient gains prior to their exit from the Danish market.

Clearly, the Swiss mobile communications market is different to the UK one and Switzerland is outside the EU, so it’s not particularly interesting to examine the reasons for the approval of a merger in one market compared to a decision to reject a merger creating a still-small entity in another. At the same time, however, and taking these two recent situations together, it is interesting that the rationale for merger approval or rejection in neo-liberal societies seems, on the face of it, not to be so much the desire to create, or achieve, conditions of high competition but to minimise the point at which there is a potential for pricing collusion.

It’s also an interesting reflection on the role of private equity groups, and their ability to extract high rewards from relatively quiet situations (the Swiss mobile market is 9m consumers) – as well as a comment on  the involvement of private equity groups in telecoms companies. If the €1.5bn was as crucial as that to their exit from the Danish market, and sufficient to postpone it when its arrival has been blocked, then it is likely that the efficiency gains sparking their involvement in TDC have not been sufficient to make their involvement in Denmark worthwhile. At least – not yet; which may in turn spark a note of further warning to Danish trade union colleagues.

It would have been even more interesting had Deutsche Telekom, in which Blackstone has a stake, had been involved in the Swiss market.

Written by Calvin

26/04/2010 at 6:07 pm

COSMOS officially launched in UK

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COSMOS, a major five-country European study into the long-term effects of mobile phone usage, was launched in the UK yesterday. Over the course of the next two weeks, some 2.4m people in the UK will be invited to take part in the initial stages of the study, via an online questionnaire. The other participant countries are Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

The commencement of the research in the UK is the responsibility of the UK’s Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, itself set up following the publication of the Stewart Report into mobile phone use in May 2000. The Stewart Report concluded that, while exposure to radiofrequency emissions from handsets and mobile base stations at levels below the existing guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population, there was a need for a ‘substantial research programme’ into the isses.

The most recent MTHR report, published in 2007 (full report; press release), found no association between short-term mobile phone use and brain cancer, or evidence that brain function was affected either by mobile phone signals or by TETRA (high speed, high frequency communications networks used by the emergency services), and reported that there was no need for further research in this area. However, the report did acknowledge that there were ‘significant uncertainties’ as regards more long-term exposure, since available studies were based on very few people who had used their phones for ten years or more, and that these could ‘only be resolved by monitoring the health of a large cohort of phone users over a long period of time’. At the same time, cancers rarely show up as quickly as within ten years.

Consequently, the COSMOS research is a part of progressing this aim via a 20-30 year study of the mobile phone usage and health of 200,000 adults across Europe, 90,000 of which will be selected from network operator subscriber lists in the UK, for which funding has so far been made available for the first five years (£3.1m).  The study will focus on the risk of cancers, benign tumors and neurological and cerebro-vascular diseases, as well as changes in the occurrence of specific symptoms over time, such as headache and sleep disorders.

The number of mobile phones has increased dramatically in the decade since the Stewart report: then, there were 25m phones in operation (a market penetration rate of about 40%) while currently, according to Ofcom, there are 76.8m mobile phone subscriptions (a total of 1.26 connections per UK inhabitant) (Figure 4.42). Despite the increasing use of smartphones and mobile handsets in general as devices for a range of uses other than talking to people, mobile volume call minutes continue to grow sharply, as the following figure shows:

Source: Ofcom Communications Market Report 2009, Figure 4.71

At current levels of usage, we spend one day per year (24 hours), for each connection that exists, calling someone on a mobile phone. Given the penetration rate in the UK, each one of us actually spends more than 30 hours a year talking on the mobile. These levels of usage are unlikely to drop – smartphones add functionality without replacing the existing, and evidently expanding, need to call people on the hoof.

The study will thus make an essential contribution to filling important gaps in our knowledge about the effects of mobile phone usage in the long-term. As the COSMOS researchers say, there is no evidence that mobiles present any dangers to health – but we don’t know that they don’t. An initial report is expected in 2020 – perhaps an auspicious date for generating a vision as to what the overall conclusions at the end of the project might conceivably look like.

Written by Calvin

23/04/2010 at 2:06 pm