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Post-MWC Extra Edition: Telco 2.0 News Review

5G Accelerating Along the Hype Curve

This year’s MWC was all about three things: 5G, the cloud, and the Internet of Things. It was almost a mantra, endlessly repeated, or one of those Chinese political slogans that always come as a numbered list. As Informa’s Scott Bicheno points out, though, the big difference between this year and last was that there was no more talk of “special generations”, “the last G”, or 5G being a “behaviour” or a “state of mind”. Instead, there was action.

Inside 5G has a round-up of demos. Every significant vendor had something to show off; the main distinction was whether they claimed it was already 5G, like Nokia, Ericsson, Intel, SK Telecom, Ooredoo, Samsung, DTAG, and Huawei, or contented themselves with “pre-5G”, like ZTE. Also, there were a whole swath of new “partnerships” - Vodafone says its 5G partners are Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Intel, and Qualcomm, or to put it another way, everyone.

After AT&T and VZW, T-Mobile USA has taken a partner, or rather two, for 5G trials - Nokia and Ericsson.  Tests are expected to begin this year, but CTO Neville Ray is playing it down and says it won’t be a big deal before 2020.

That said, the results from VZW’s field trials with the two vendors are in and they seem…encouraging. The “early 5G” consensus around the key semiconductor vendors plus Nokia and Ericsson seems to be stronger than ever - Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri went as far as suggesting we might see production deployments in 2017. It’s probably no coincidence that’s also the timing VZW suggested, especially as VZW is usually joined at the hip to what used to be Alcatel.

Intel, especially, is emerging as an important actor. It has partnerships with a wide range of carriers and plans to run field trials with KT in 2018, and it also brought a 5G experimental cell site to the show. Fascinatingly, the site consisted entirely of three Xeon rackmount servers running a virtualised base station and a pair of CDN nodes, plus a whole lot of National Instruments USRPs, open-source software radios. It wasn’t what you’d call femto, but the high content of IT hardware and open source was telling.

A standards initiative has been set up by NTT DoCoMo, the Koreans, and VZW to standardise 5G test methods and configurations. Meanwhile, some poor souls were on the road again immediately after MWC, as the ITU-R met in Beijing and agreed the criteria it would use to evaluate potential 5G air interfaces.

As always at these moments, there’s a race to come up with the most hype-tastic names possible. Turk Telecom says it’s launching “5G Internet” on the 1st of April, but this actually turns out to be 4.5G LTE-A or A-Pro with aggregated WiFi. Interestingly, they’re licensing the solution KT uses in South Korea for its gigabit wireless service.

ETSI is sounding suitably concerned about all the marketing, but another reading of its warning is just that the European carriers are falling badly behind. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg said as much, and so did CTO Ulf Ewaldsson later in the week. Ewaldsson compared EU spectrum policy with the FCC’s efforts since 2009’s National Broadband Plan very unfavourably. Here are some Eurocarrier executives being really defensive.

You can’t say that about the European vendors, though. Nokia Networks has completely redesigned its core base station products, announcing a new architecture to replace the Flexi BTS line everyone’s familiar with. Interestingly, it uses the AirFrame servers they offer for Mobile Edge Computing to support the software elements of the setup.

Nokia, Intel, Ericsson, Qualcomm - you just kept running into those four at MWC, in some configuration or other. They seem to be getting very much interested in neutral-host or shared small cell systems, which is the key use case for MuLTEfire, the unlicensed 4G technology they announced together at MWC.

Interestingly, they seem to have convinced at least one WiFi vendor, and probably the technology leader at that, that they’re not planning to crush WiFi under the wheels of LTE-U - Ruckus Wireless is on board! Their CEO explains why in this FierceWireless piece.

Speaking of LTE-U, Qualcomm was telling everyone who’d listen that they’d fixed LTE-LAA and it actually makes the WiFi go faster. Well, than it would if only other WiFi networks were interfering. For some reason, though, they’re still determined to deploy the original LTE-U, i.e. without the listen-before-talk coexistence protocol, in the US.

All this radio innovation is likely to hit the backhaul before it hits anywhere else. The end points don’t have to be tiny and don’t need to be marketed to billions of consumers, and they work in obscure and uncontroversial corners of the microwave spectrum, so they can move quickly. Hence Mobinil is deploying 5Gbps fixed-wireless links.

Another interesting consequence of RF innovation was on show at Qualcomm’s pre-MWC briefing, where they wanted to demonstrate how they plan to recover from the surge of competition in mobile SoCs and the topping-out of smartphone adoption (100% global penetration, how are you?). All eyes are on their IoT products and their effort to break into the data centre market, but fully half, $18bn, of their projected growth is meant to come from RF Front End products like filters, antennas, tuners, and such.

Huawei 4.5G announcements. Ericsson and Mediatek sort out interoperability for VoWiFi in the mid-market. ZDNet complains bitterly about the 4G, but one thing that stood out at MWC this year was that Vodafone’s LTE-A coverage was singularly excellent. The company is currently running an ad campaign boasting of “la millor xarxa de veu e dades”, and in fact it worked more often than the WiFi and substantially faster. Which suggests this analyst might be right, and both DSL and even cable operators’ lower speed tiers need to watch out.

Merging the cloud and the network: Ericsson, AWS, AT&T, Facebook and more

So, here’s a turn-up for the books. Ericsson has a strategic partnership with Amazon Web Services, apparently to get its telco customers to use the force. Sorry. Use the cloud. You might also wonder if part of the point was to get AWS interested in using the telcos’ facilities in order to get closer to their customers.

There was quite a lot of that kind of distributed-cloud, edge computing stuff floating about. Nokia and EE brought their video solution from Wembley Stadium along. Nokia also wants you to store all the data in your network in its Shared Data Layer so the edge nodes can just plug into that. Orange is running the licensed version of Akamai’s CDN in its network, as an NFV virtualised app. To do this, they’re using the OpenStack virtual infrastructure manager, or rather HP Enterprise’s Helion flavour of it, plus HPE’s NFV Director orchestrator.

Brocade joined the ETSI MEC group in H2 2015, and they’re now touting their 5600 vRouter as the ideal solution. Between Quortus, ACS, and Stratacache, they came up with a complete MEC setup to demonstrate on the Intel stand (them again). EMC has a “Provider Cloud” solution.

Here’s the Telecoms Infra Project, modelled on the cloud’s Open Compute Project and inspired like it by Facebook. The key partners are Nokia, Intel, SK Telecom, and DTAG. We do seem to keep seeing them together.

Goldman Sachs reckons AT&T is going to be the world’s single biggest user of OpenStack, with upwards of 500,000 virtual machines. AT&T CSO John Donovan took part in a panel on Day 1, and provided quite a lot of data on AT&T’s transition to NFV and open source.

AT&T originally planned to have virtualised 75% of the network by 2020, and 5% by the end of 2015. In fact it achieved 5.7%, and now hope to have 30% of the network in NFV by the end of 2016, with 69 different VNFs in production compared to 21 at the moment, and 70% of its sites moved to a common hardware platform. Further, the usage of open-source software has gone from 5% of the total to 10%, and a new target of 50% OSS by 2020 set.

Interestingly, a blog post claims that efficiencies through NFV made it possible to start offering an “unlimited” data product again.

ETSI says its MANO NFV project is now going to consist of open-source software. This means it’s going to align with this project, OSM, which is actually cutting code and which includes both a lot of key OSS companies (e.g. Red Hat and Canonical), and some telcos.

One of them is Telefonica, which raises an interesting question. Telefonica is both taking part in the OSM project, and also deploying an NFV infrastructure. So far, the production infrastructure started off as being a multivendor standard, and then became a single-source contract to HP Enterprise, before Telefonica sacked HPE from the project. At MWC, Ericsson announced it had taken over the job. But why all this faffing around if there’s a decent solution somewhere in the lab?

Vimpelcom, meanwhile, is going to virtualise the core in five markets, starting with Kyrgyzstan and Laos. The contractor is ZTE.

Verizon is getting a SD-WAN service going, using Viptela’s technology. Here’s a use case.

Spotify is dumping AWS in favour of Google Cloud.

Internet of Dramatically Fewer Things Than Previously Expected

MWC had plenty of Internet and a great many Things. SK Telecom, always a good bet for something innovative or just weird, showed off a whole suite of wearable devices for pets but for some reason didn’t get an actual dog to wear them, just some vaguely creepy squeezy dolls (and some interesting technology).

But the biggest IoT news item, as Nick Hunn points out, was probably that Ericsson has shaded down its forecast for “connected devices” a bit. Well, a lot. Nearly half. Rather than 50bn things by 2020, they’re now saying 28bn. Still a lot of things, of course.

Worse still, they’re now saying that maybe 1.3bn of those will have their own cellular connection and the rest will talk to a gateway via one or other low-power radio network. Once you factor in the connected cars, that leaves only about 500m additional devices for the mobile operators to fight over.

The IoT’s alphabet soup of standards was also out in force at MWC, with the vendors demonstrating NB-IoT aka LTE-M, LTE Class 1, and EC-GSM. A new strategic partnership, Ngena, was launched centered on DTAG and SK Telecom (what, again?).

It’s not as if there’s any lack of innovation either. The Linux Foundation is building a new open-source real-time operating system for really constrained devices. We noticed LPWAN-focused IoT platform Actility signing up with Cisco - perhaps their strategy to ward off Amazon Web Services’ entry into IoT is to get bought, like Jasper? - and Jasper itself signing up to integrate with Gemalto’s eSIM provisioning. ARM has a new ultra-low power CPU. Vorto is a new approach to IoT interoperability that uses cross-compiling and information models rather than standards as such.

It’s just that, perhaps, there’s not that much money in there for operators that isn’t straightforward M2M, or else connected car. And AT&T might just eat all the cars. If you want to remember what IoT optimism felt like, try this VZW press release about the 4,000 developers who signed up for its platform.

Chinese webcams are always watching. How to steal any connected car. Apple vs. the FBI.

But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. If the Things end up on a LoRa network behind a gateway, at least it might not be as easy to cause a massive security fiasco as it is now. Behold the webcams that automatically join a P2P network in China and uplink dozens of gigabytes of….what?…every day. You can turn the “feature” off, but this doesn’t stop them doing it unless you turn them off using a hammer.

While that’s a bit worrysome, this is dangerous - you can do all sorts of things to any Nissan Leaf electric car over the Internet, so long as you know the vehicle ID number. Which is engraved on the windscreen. And can be guessed statistically. Extra detail - the fact there is NO AUTHENTICATION OF ANY KIND was discovered by Leaf owners hacking on the API to develop an alternative to the official app, because the app was so awful.

The popular Linux Mint distribution got hacked.

And while we were all at MWC, an epic courtroom battle was developing between Apple and the FBI. The FBI wants Apple to push a special update that would let them decrypt the storage on one specific iPhone, belonging to a dead terrorist. Apple refuses, fearing this would set an anti-encryption precedent and the exploit code would probably leak. Apple is getting support from surprising quarters (Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam) and less surprising ones (Google). Technical and legal detail is here.

Uganda had an election and the government censored the Web. Now they have 1.4m Android users with VPN apps. Telegram is up to 100m users, 15bn messages/day. Encrypted messaging app Cryptocat shuts down for a deep re-engineering effort, possibly after a major flaw was discovered. Open Whisper Systems dev Frederic Jacobs joins Apple. A new encrypted messaging app seems to be behind a sudden surge of dark website creation.

BlackBerry buys a security consulting shop. Robots invade the Google Play store, and all they want is pornography - rather, they open a hidden browser window and hammer away on porn ads to drive click-fraud revenue.

Robots; LG’s quirky weirdness battles the black slabs; HP, ARM news

Speaking of robots, there were a lot of them at MWC. We were torn between the disturbingly alien LG Rolling Bot, a pure white sphere made in two halves that can rotate independently so it can roll in any direction, and the heartbreakingly cute little fella on the Canonical stand who can kick a ball but not quite trap the return pass without falling over. (As well as Canonical’s bot that can’t quite play football, Huawei had a robot arm that can’t quite play air hockey, and IBM had an artificial intelligence that can’t answer questions about networking at all.)

Humanoid robots are technically difficult, and this one was really charming, but we preferred the LG bot’s random otherness. LG reckons the killer app for it is security - it hears a noise, rolls over to it, and sends you video of what’s happening - in which case they’ve reinvented the white spheres from The Prisoner. Beyond that, Ericsson had a flock of tiny drones they kept in a perspex tank next to a bust of L.M. Ericsson, and Intel had some bigger ones flying in a cage outside. Is it us, or is this emphasis on confinement somehow worrying?

Perhaps this is the explanation of all the bots - Mercedes-Benz has decided it needs to replace robots with human workers, because the cars have become too customised. Maybe they’re looking for work. It puts another light on the SK Telecom boss’s worryingly ambiguous contention that “the 5G robot is another killer app”.

Anyway, this wouldn’t be an MWC report back without shiny phones. LG announced the G5, a flagship Android device that brings back the modular phone concept. For example, you can clip on hardware camera controls, a better lens, and much more battery. Or high-end audio, or VR headgear. The idea is pretty close to Jolla’s Other Half, if anyone remembers that. (Jolla, by the way, is still around and has a distribution deal in India.)

LG has come up with 8 modules and presumably hopes an ecosystem will spring up. They’re aiming high - they want to be the No.3 vendor, and hope that the eccentricity will differentiate them from Samsung.

Speaking of Samsung, the S7s landed at MWC, and they went for a conventional or perhaps classic design, a high-spec black glass slab. They also threw Qualcomm a bone, perhaps in exchange for their manufacturing business - North American S7s will ship with a Snapdragon 820, everyone else gets an Exynos 8.

Xiaomi’s new devices are out. They, too, use the Snapdragon 820, and the company best known for its low-cost Androids has gone for high spec. After all, 72% of urban Chinese now have a smartphone, so they face a choice between fighting ever harder for a smaller volume of ultra-cheap devices, or trying to rebuild margins a bit in the high end.

The official Best Product at MWC was a British-made, ruggedised smartphone that includes a thermal imaging camera. Surely the answer to the old chestnut “what phone would James Bond use?”

HP has an interesting business-focused phablet out, the Elite X3, and is trying to design its mobile devices around Windows 10. It comes with a Palm Foleo. Sorry. Huawei, meanwhile, has a device that looks a hell of a lot like a Elitebook Folio or Microsoft Surface.

A lot of people in the telco world like to talk about “offloading processing” from mobile devices to the cloud, especially for gaming. ARM would like to point out that they expect to be faster than dedicated games consoles next year. Perhaps the awful numbers from Nintendo aren’t that surprising.

Here’s a profile of Apple’s head of semiconductors, Johny Srouji. The Foxconn acquisition of Sharp has fallen through.

Microsoft is taking the Office 365 Android apps in some interesting directions.

OFCOM decisions are in; £150m, 15 mast project binned; those buried MWC week stories in full

OFCOM’s Communications Market Review hasn’t fully reported yet, but we now know some key details. BT gets to keep Openreach, but under conditions; OFCOM wants to impose duct and pole access, change the licensing regime to favour rural coverage, make it easier to complain, and change Openreach’s structure. The first point is already meant to be in force under PIA (Passive Infrastructure Access), and there’s a lot more detail here.

Changes to Openreach would mean giving it more independence from BT and perhaps letting other operators have more influence within it - see here for some reaction. As for the licensing changes, there’s more here. ISP operator RevK argues it was actually easier to deal with pre-separation BT, and points out that a lot of his problems are with relationships between BT Wholesale and Openreach.

The British government’s Mobile Infrastructure Project, famous for managing to build 15 masts in four years, is being wound up.

Not surprisingly, Sprint’s bid to be considered a CLEC rather than a mobile operator is getting pushback. AT&T sues Louisville, Kentucky to keep Google Fiber out. Google Fiber, meanwhile, is buying up dark fibre everywhere it finds it.

Vimpelcom has settled with the US and Dutch governments, paying a $835m fine for alleged corruption in Uzbekistan. It did so on the Friday before MWC. MTN Nigeria has dropped its lawsuit against the Nigerian government and paid the first $250m of “that fine” as a “goodwill gesture”. It did so the day after MWC.

Indian consolidation; T-Results; Sprint numbers; AT&T investment; Vodafone-Liberty deal; French PSTN shutdown

Indian consolidation is well under way. After Reliance Comms started the process of acquiring SSTL, Aircel is now selling up too. RCOM will take a 50% stake, while both companies will contribute an equal amount of debt to the joint venture. RCOM will also roll in the SSTL assets, while Aircel will contribute the block of 2.3GHz spectrum it was planning to sell to Bharti Airtel. That would create India’s second operator, behind Bharti and just ahead of Vodafone by a hair. Telenor, meanwhile, has given some details of its 4G launch, but not many. Vodafone is in trouble with the Indian taxman again. The Indian government says that Google’s Project Loon must pick a carrier partner, and it should probably be BSNL.

(Ulf Ewaldsson remarked at MWC that Loon consisted of “Balloons - in the cloud!” Burn.)

DTAG Q4s are out and they’re pretty decent, with revenue up 5% and a billion-euro profit. Most of this comes from “international”, or to put it another way, “T-Mobile USA”. T-Mo took a bit of a breather from frenetic subscriber acquisition in the quarter, but the reduction in smartphone giveaways meant an automatic boost to profitability. They’ve also been quietly buying up small operators’ 700MHz holdings.

If this was The Big Short, this would be the moment the analyst looks up from a spreadsheet and yells “It’s like 2+2 equals…FISH!” Craig Moffett reckons Sprint’s leasing model is concealing a seriously loss-making core business. Jennifer Fritzsche from Wells Fargo is more optimistic, but says she’s carefully watching Sprint’s cash flow. So, hedged then…

AT&T, meanwhile, is planning to spend $10bn CAPEX on its enterprise segment. No wonder the whole open-source industry wants to be its best mate these days. Verizon buys dark fibre player XO Communications for $1.8bn.

The big story at Telefonica was meant to be that the dark ages were behind them and revenue growth was back. Oops. O2 UK is apparently the standout.

Vodafone-Liberty Global is here! But only in the Netherlands.

Orange and Google are cooperating on a $40/mo, voice, data, and smartphone offering for the Middle East and Africa.

And Orange itself has named the date to shut down the French PSTN.

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