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Ring! Ring! Telco 2.0 News Review

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So you thought content was king? Think again; Comcast, the huge US cable operator, star of multiple net-neutrality rows, and now significant wholesale provider, has bought a controlling stake in NBC Universal. In a slightly curious deal, they’re paying GE some $6.5bn in cash and $7.25bn in kind - specifically, in rights to programming they own. That gives them 51% of NBC, owner of movie studios and TV channels.

There has been much comment; Informitv points out that the whole thing raises serious questions about the future of Hulu, in which the new company will have a minority, but significant, stake - it’s not long until the content licensing deal between Hulu and NBC Universal runs out.

The deal inspired Harold Feld to develop a new metric of industry concentration - the trade association index. The closer you are to joining all the top 10 lobbies, the bigger the anti-trust problem you are. It’s worth reading.

Meanwhile, Google is supposedly in talks about charging for streamed TV shows on YouTube.

In related news, the BBC’s Project Canvas is being relaunched with a new website, a partnership with the Digital TV Group (a standardisation forum), and an intention to publish all the specifications and SDKs. We can’t help but think the BBC might do well to suggest making all the Canvas work open-source…

One thing that’s been helping to drive the video traffic up is the iPhone. AT&T is suffering, with iPhone users burning about seven times the bandwidth of an average subscriber. Therefore, it’s suggested, they may be looking at going back to usage-based pricing; alternatively, there’s Benoit Felten’s suggestion of just putting up the price of a flat-rate data plan a bit.

He also points us to the announcement that Free.fr has fibred-up another 13 kilosubscribers in Valenciennes; the key detail is that the city of Valenciennes provided access to its ducts, pipes, trenches and the like. As Benoit points out in a related post, this should be almost a test case for broadband as an economic recovery strategy.

In other fibre news, Optical Reflection reports on the drivers of success in French fibre deployment - as well as Layer Zero openness, another key element was public investment in backhaul fibre to enable LLU operators to reach more local exchanges. And Univers Freebox has an interesting piece on their new data centre, with photos! It looks pretty neat now, but give it time; the place will no doubt end up looking like a technicolor rats’ nest…

John Naughton asks in The Observer whether Facebook will really make money from advertising; the real information in this story is an estimate from ComScore that the percentage of Internet users who clicked a banner ad in a given month went from 32% to 16% between 2007 and 2009. Apparently, 85% of clickthroughs come from 8% of users; but the really interesting number would be the percentage of users who never click on banners.

After last week’s disappointing 2.6GHz auction in Finland, Handelsblatt reports that the German auction of the old 800MHz TV band, planned for Q2 2010, is now looking like another disappointment; where early predictions had suggested that they might go for as much as €5bn, more recent ones revise that down to €2.5bn.

On the other hand, there are reports of a possible burst of tech IPOs as confidence gradually returns to the stock markets. A major Danish study shows no link between mobile phones and brain tumours. And the FCC wants to extract some 150MHz of spectral goodness from the TV networks and reuse it for mobile broadband.

The US regulator is also coming after Verizon Wireless over its contract termination fees and over a $1.99 charge levied every time a customer with no data plan presses the “Mobile Web” button on certain handsets. Verizon is also starting up a cloud-computing consulting company.

Ericsson’s new chief is confident that they can keep ahead of Huawei, and is emphatically denying that he might be complaining about their use of state funds, while making sure to mention their $30bn credit line with China Construction Bank, dedicated entirely to vendor financing. (That’s vendor financing on a scale that would impress even Nortel….)

On the upside, Indian state telco BSNL has kicked Huawei off a gigantic order for mobile network kit - the aptly named “megatender” runs to no fewer than 93 million lines. This comes after they landed a preliminary contract for 8 million lines in southern India. Ericsson is reportedly still in the running for preliminary contracts in northern and central India, but they must stand a chance of getting the biggy.

Fring has launched an iPhone app that permits you to make video calls over its SIP VoIP system; the only problem is that the iPhone doesn’t have a user-facing camera, so you can see the other party but they can’t see you. Anyway, video calls are famously a feature nobody uses, so it probably won’t matter. But it does remind us of a good story told us by Zygmunt Lozinski of IBM and OSA-Parlay.

Sometime in the 1980s, the British government commissioned IBM to install a video-teleconference system in the offices of top officials and ministers around Whitehall. As some of the end points were located in the military command-and-control system, it had to be hardened against electromagnetic pulse and TEMPEST-shielded - so the gadgets were quite tough and overengineered. A few weeks after go-live, IBM engineers were called back to investigate a wave of inexplicable hardware failures; to their mystification, there seemed to be no common mode to the failures whatsoever. It was as if they were being randomly battered until something broke.

In fact, user interviews showed, the problem was that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, insisted that all other users of the system keep the cameras switched ON at all times, so that she could see if they were conspiring against her. For her part, she kept hers permanently OFF. The reaction of the various Sir Humphreys to this repurposing of the system as a CCTV network was simply to throw the devices on the floor and kick them about until the camera failed, or something else broke.

So Fring’s one-way video call might be surprisingly popular. Privacy control is valuable.

Deutsche Telekom is about to demonstrate this; in an effort to combat the black market in subscriber data, they are planning to withdraw several million heavily spammed telephone numbers and issue new ones, in the hope that the lists on sale will be rendered worthless.

Spinning in like an Atlantic storm, here comes the next surveillance scandal: Sprint-Nextel apparently provided location data from their E911 system to the police on some 8 million occasions. There’s even a secret website. But is there an API?

In other paranoid news, Google is now offering a public DNS server; but will they use their powers for good…or evil? They’re also starting Visual Search, a service which accepts a photo of an object and searches for it. What happens if you send it a photo of a person?

Meanwhile, PayPal can’t tell the difference between one of its own messages and a phishing attack.

In devices news, Nokia is planning to cut its range of smartphones back sharply next year, while launching the heavily trailed N900 Linux phone and radically revising the S60 user interface. So the plan is to have fewer SKUs but to put more effort into each one.

Steve Jobs reportedly intervened to clear an iPhone app that otherwise breached the App Store terms of service by using a private API (to scrape the screen). RIM has joined a wireless power standards body. DARPA released red balloons at random this week, in an effort to test how effectively a search for them could be crowdsourced. MIT researchers won the $40,000 prize, finding them within hours using a private social network.

Rich Karpinski will be editor in chief of the new Connected Planet, which stands up this month after Telephony magazine stands down. They’ll be covering sessions at this week’s Telco 2.0 Americas. And if you’ve ever wondered how you go about cooking a DSLAM, Rich has photos of Adtran’s thermal test chamber here.

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