a week in wireless

Other people’s lives

When Mark Zuckerberg announced the death of privacy last year, The Informer thought the little dweeb was talking about Facebook, but recent events in the British media world would appear to suggest otherwise.

Never mind the Winkelvoss twins, if anyone can lay claim to prior art when it comes to the innovation of making money from information that people thought was private, it seems to be the British media and police establishments.

Never one to miss a trick, however, Zuckerberg looks set to take advantage of what we can only assume will be a lengthy hiatus on eavesdropping over at News International with the announcement that Facebookers can now voluntarily leave their conversations open to possible public scrutiny by making Skype video calls to their 555,467,032 closest friends without ever leaving the site.

When Skype vice president Neil Stevens said the alliance –announced Wednesday – had the “potential to unlock even more conversations”, The Informer is quite sure he didn’t mean it in a News of the World kind of way. But the recent granting of a patent to Microsoft for illicitly recording Skype calls must surely mean that the kind of people who need superinjunctions won’t be touching the new service with a bargepole.

Facebook users who aren’t pushed about privacy (i.e. all 750 million of them) won’t need to have Skype already installed on their systems, a quick click on a Java plug-in will do the necessary. The partnership builds on an existing alliance between the two companies, which enabled users to message Facebook friends or ‘Like’ their status updates from within the desktop version of Skype.

The announcement of the deal came a week after the launch of Google+, Mountain View’s latest foray into the social networking playground, which the search giant is no doubt hoping will prove a lot stickier and less annoying than its initial offering, Google Buzz. Taking a leaf out of the Cupertino recipe-for-success book, Google decided to go the desirability-through-exclusivity route by limiting the number of people who can initially join up, a risky move for a product that relies on mass participation for success. So far, it appears to be working, as the sort of people who can normally be found queuing outside Apple stores for weeks ahead of any product launch have taken to eBay in an effort to secure a Google+ invitation before the rest of their friends.

When the plebs finally do get the call up to Google+, they’ll be able to one-up it on their Facebook friends in the video calling stakes at least. While Facebook’s video chat is limited to one-on-one conversations (group calls can only be accessed through the desktop version of Skype and is subscription-based), Google+ supports group calls through its Hangout feature.

In a week that’s seen its fair share of paranoia about privacy, Taiwan has become the latest in a lengthening line of markets to voice concern over using network equipment made by Chinese vendor Huawei. The Taiwanese National Communications Commission (NCC) has ruled that core network kit from Huawei may not be cleared for use in the country because of national security worries. Huawei has met with similar objections recently in India and the US.

The NCC made the announcement last week and, according to an article in the Taipei Times, the ruling will affect a number of local carriers, including Far EasTone, Taiwan Mobile and Vibo, which had all bought kit from Huawei. According to the Times, some of the purchased kit was being held up at customs and the carriers will have to get approval from both the NCC and the Taiwanese Investigation Bureau before any of it can be installed.

While this isn’t great news for Huawei, the spat may represent little more than a spot of flag waving from the Taiwanese authorities. Technically, and despite having its own government, the island falls under Chinese rule and the two countries have a somewhat fractious relationship. Perhaps bolstered by its recent face-off with Google, Taiwan may simply have moved into “who’s your daddy?” mode, with Huawei getting caught in the crossfire of a larger dispute.

Earlier this year, Huawei’s most senior US executive wrote an open letter denying alleged links between the company and the Chinese state security services, after the firm was forced to withdraw from its acquisition of 3Leaf.

It’s been a good week for the chest-beaters, with EU Digital Agenda Commissioner “Steelie” Neelie Kroes once more taking on the might of the European mobile operators in a bid to end what she termed “roaming rip-offs.” Yes, the woman who fined Microsoft $1.8bn has decided it’s time to shake down the European mobile market where, she said, competition was too weak and operators “still enjoy outrageous margins, particularly on data downloads.”

Kroes was announcing a “fundamental new approach” to the EU’s mobile market that should see an increase in competition and lower prices for consumers. According to Kroes, some carriers charge consumers as much as €2 per meg of data when roaming, despite charging each other “substantially less” than 50 cents. “This has got to stop,” she said, and the Commission’s suggestion for doing just that include making it easier for alternative operators to enter the roaming market and forcing them to share their networks with providers from other member states at regulated wholesale prices. In addition, consumers should be allowed to choose alternative providers for EU-wide roaming, availing of lower prices when they’re on the move while staying with their usual provider in their home country. Under that proposal, Kroes said that customers would be able to switch to their pre-selected roaming provider without having to change number or SIM card.

According to the Commission, recent retail caps imposed on carriers were being treated as price floors because of the lack of competition. Rather than regulate prices “forever”, Kroes said that time had now come to introduce “profound structural market changes” that would enforce competition, stimulating both supply and demand for roaming services.

The Commission is now proposing that, by July 2014, retail caps before VAT will include €0.50 per MB of data, €0.24 per minute for voice calls and €0.10 for a text message. These caps would remain in place until 2016 as a safety net by which time, Kroes said “structural measures to enhance competition will have delivered innovative pan-European roaming offers and cheaper prices significantly below the caps.”

How the mobile carriers will respond to the throttling of their revenue streams at a time when the need for network investment is high on the agenda remains to be seen but UK regulator Ofcom’s launch this week of an interactive map of the country’s broadband landscape means that, for fixed providers at least, there’ll be nowhere to hide on the quality front.

The map uses data provided by Britain’s communications providers to detail information including the availability of superfast broadband (24Mbps+), consumer up-take and average actual speeds for ADSL and cable services, including the percentage of homes not currently getting speeds of 2Mbps.

Areas with the best coverage and speeds are colour-coded green, with the slow pokes earning a red light. While the Greater London area gets a not-so-stellar blue, with an average speed of 8.8Mbps, citizens of what City-types like to call “The Provinces” are enjoying 9.9Mbps, with superfast broadband available to 90 per cent of those living in Bristol, Brighton, Portsmouth and Reading. Around 58 per cent of UK addresses are served by a super-fast broadband exchange or cable network, with Luton in England and Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland boasting 100 per cent availability. Northern Ireland emerges as something of a hotspot for superfast broadband: following the completion of a major investment programme undertaken by the country’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and BT, 97 per cent of addresses are served.

BT was on target to pass 5 million premises with fibre-based broadband by the end of June and expects to hit the 10 million mark by the end of 2015. The incumbent telco has allocated a budget of £2.5bn for its fibre rollout, which will entail a mixture of Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) and Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) technology. Virgin Media is also rolling out the fibre, working with Fujitsu on a £2bn FTTH project that should see 5 million homes across the UK connected.

If the Brits are keen on their super-fast broadband, it seems that those living in the land of kangaroos, tinnies and beetroot on burgers will require a little more coaxing to jump on the bandwagon. According to a report on ComputerWorld, uptake of Australia’s National Broadband Network hinges on Bruce and Sheila’s willingness to get jiggy with the world of adult entertainment.

Director of content provider The Project Factory, Jennifer Wilson, says that adult content will drive the uptake that is vital to success of Australia’s NBN project. Addressing the Australian Computer Society in Sydney, Wilson said that: “The single most important factor is the porn factor because pornography has always been at the cutting edge of technology,” adding that if Australia can’t get porn on the NBN, “we will have trouble getting consumer acceptance and uptake.” If you build it, they will come, as it were.

The Informer imagines that this news will inject an interesting new angle into domestic arguments over massive credit card bills for online entertainment. Droves of Australian men will now simply be able to state that they’re doing their bit for their country because, as Wilson has it, “No one is going to install NBN on the basis that one day they might need e-health services, but they will use that as a justification for getting the service in order to download movies and watch TV.” Think of it as the digital age’s equivalent of buying Playboy because the articles are actually rather good.

Staying with the tackier side of life, Japanese customers with a taste for a bit of expensive mobile bling will no doubt have been devastated to learn that Nokia is killing off its Vertu range of “luxury” handsets and services in the country. According to reports from Japanese newspaper Nikkei, the Finnish vendor will withdraw completely from that market at the end of August this year, having failed to make any meaningful impact on the country’s mobile communications ecosystem. Nokia’s Vertu partnership with local big gun NTT DoCoMo was due to end at this time also.

British-based Vertu is an independently run division of Nokia, manufacturing the mobile phone’s answer to high-end, status symbol watches and jewellery. Many of its phones are made using precious metals and gems – its most expensive device to date, the Signature Cobra, retailed for over £200,000. A Signature stainless steel model retails for £8,600. The phones run on Nokia’s Symbian operating system.

Nokia’s relationship with the Japanese market has been a troubled one. The vendor pulled out of the mass market there in 2008, having battled to compete with locally developed products and competing offerings designed specifically with the Japanese user in mind. According to commentators at the time, Nokia’s offerings didn’t support many of the technologies popular with Japanese consumers, leaving the company unable to compete with locally based manufacturers. While Nokia’s star waned, the iPhone and Android based phones saw exponential growth, with the latter in particular cementing a toehold for devices makers such as Samsung and LG. Following the 2008 withdrawal, Nokia continued to operate two Vertu outlets in the upmarket areas of Shibuya and Ginza. Nokia Siemens will continue to operate in Japan.

And speaking of moving on, it’s time to say goodbye for another week.

Take care,

The Informer

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