What’s up with… Inmarsat and Viasat, SK Telecom, e& and Vodafone

  • Merger of Inmarsat and Viasat gets a step closer
  • SK Telecom develops its own AI chatbot that does more than ChatGPT
  • e& ups its stake in Vodafone (again)

In today’s industry news roundup: UK watchdog gives the marriage of Inmarsat and Viasat its blessing; SKT has developed a chatbot “super app”; e& takes its stake in Vodafone to 14%; and much more!

Following a thorough investigation by the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), plans for the $7.3bn acquisition of UK satellite company Inmarsat by its US-based rival Viasat are a step closer to coming into fruition. Provisional findings issued by the CMA concluded: “While the companies compete closely in the aviation sector – specifically in the supply of satellite connections for onboard Wi-Fi – the deal does not substantially reduce competition for services provided on flights used by UK customers”. It backed up its preliminary stance with evidence pointing to rapid expansion of the satellite sector, which is expected to continue due to increasing competition from the likes of Starlink (operated by SpaceX), Panasonic and Intelsat. “While Viasat and Inmarsat compete closely, the evidence suggests that the merged company will face significant competition in the coming years – from both emerging players like Starlink and from established firms like Intelsat and Panasonic,” noted Richard Feasey, chair of the independent inquiry group carrying out the phase two investigation for the CMA. He added that the CMA found “airlines and their UK customers will not be adversely affected by the deal”. The authority will hold consultations about its findings by 21 March, before making its final decision which is due by the end of this month. The CMA’s move comes after it initiated a probe into the proposed merger in August 2022. The deal is also under scrutiny by the European Commission.

South Korean telco SK Telecom is already well known for developing technologies for use in its domestic market, which it then licences to partners in other geographic markets – its ifland metaverse platform, in the news today, being the latest example. Now the operator has developed an artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot called A. (pronounced A dot) which, once more mature, it plans to take to the international stage, reports CNBC. According to SKT vice president Eric Davis, who is leading the development work on the so-called “super app”, A. is different from OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the generative AI tool that sprung onto the global stage late last year. It’s different, according to Davis, because it has integrated services and applications, such as music streaming and e-commerce. Check out the CNBC report for more details.   

Vodafone continues to be an attractive investment opportunity for other telecom players. Middle East operator giant e&, formerly known as Etisalat, has once again increased its stake in Vodafone, this time to 14%, having previously upped its holding in January. E& originally bought a 9.8% stake in May 2022, but has been acquiring additional tranches of stock since then. It has always said it has no intention of making a full takeover offer, but that doesn’t quell the speculation circulating at Mobile World Congress. Of course, e& isn’t the only operator to have sunk considerable sums of money into Vodafone stock recently: Liberty Global splashed about £1.2bn to take a 4.9% stake in Vodafone just a few weeks ago, while Iliad’s owner, Xavier Niel, holds a 2.5% stake via his investment firm.

As part of a reorganisation of its business unit, Telecom Italia (TIM) has launched TIM Enterprise, in a bid to improve the value of “all reference assets related to connectivity, the cloud, the IoT and cybersecurity,” the Italian operator noted in a statement. TIM Enterprise is led by Elio Schiavo, the group’s chief enterprise and innovative solutions officer dedicated to the public administration and key accounts. The telco expects to see“major synergies” from the new organisation, enabling its business division to be “quicker and more efficient in the design and sale of ICT and professional services.” It also claimed that the new entity comprises “a more streamlined, integrated operative model that maximises the benefits deriving from the organisation.” TIM Enterprise employs more than 5,000 staff, as well as “the most capillary sales network on national territory and 16 datacentres constructed to the highest standards of security, efficiency and sustainability,” according to the company. The business unit made leadership changes in 2022 and, as a result, it recorded “growth that outperformed the market” and an 8% year-over-year increase in total revenue, driven by gains made across its cloud, security and internet of things (IoT) services.

Adding to the 6G action this week, Ericsson has signed a 5G-Advanced and 6G memorandum of understanding with Taiwanese operator Chunghwa Telecom to jointly develop new applications and business opportunities in private wireless networking, network slicing and energy-efficient networking. It’s not like 6G has been thrust into the faces of MWC delegates this year, but there’s a strong undercurrent that’s not hard to detect as you roam the halls of the Fira. 

In a riven US Congress, Republicans and Democrats are actually in bi-partisan agreement that something, urgently, needs to be done to avert next week’s automatic lapse of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) right and power to auction telecoms, broadband and broadcast TV spectrum. Should that happen, on 9 March, the US telecom sector would be thrown into disarray and the US government could lose a lot of money as federal coffers will eventually be depleted by many billions of dollars. According to official US figures, since 1994, spectrum auctions have raised over US$258bn for the Treasury Department. The last time the FCC’s “auction authority” expired was in 1993, a different time and a very different world where the impact of mobile phones and importance of ubiquitous broadband access was nothing compared to today. As Congress suddenly realised that the implications and legal consequences of allowing legislation to lapse could be dire indeed, daggers-drawn opposing politicians put their differences aside for a while as they sought quickly to extend the lapse date to 19 of May this year. The document extending the FCC’s authority by two months has to be signed by President Biden before next Wednesday. Back in 2012, the US Congress passed a 10-year-long FCC auction authority that expired at the end of September 2022. Since then it has been kept going by resolutions granting the regulator very short-term extensions. Now though the chickens are coming home to roost because even a very divided house can see that a sensible extension of the FCC’s authority will allow for the long-term planning of federal telecoms safe in the knowledge that spectrum licence money will be available to fund them, notwithstanding politically ideological differences between what to sell to the private sector and what to devote to federal programmes, such as the much-needed upgrading of US emergency services networks that is usually referred to as “Next Generation 911”.

Puffing with unaccustomed exertion, the US regulator has nonetheless arrived too late to stuff the AI chatbot genie back in its bottle. As the hoo-ha, hope and horror stories surrounding the (allegedly) sentient and either massively helpful and beneficent or intrinsically evil (depending on your point of view) likes of ChatGPT, Bard, Bing and their angelic or devilish ilk continues to spread, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued a warning that chatbot companies are “overselling” their AI products and misleading consumers by remorselessly hyping their products. Surely not? Heaven forfend! Nothing like that has never happened before in the entire history of technology companies. In a statement, the FTC said: “Marketers should know that – for FTC enforcement purposes – false or unsubstantiated claims about a product’s efficacy are our bread and butter.” Unfortunately for the agency, by the time it gets round to doing anything meaningful, that bread will be so stale that even the hungriest vulture will baulk at taking a nibble for fear of upsetting its far-from-delicate stomach. In a blog post, the agency’s attorney, Michael Atleson, wrote, “AI hype is playing out today across many products, from toys to cars to chatbots and a lot of things in between.” He added, “Some products with AI claims might not even work as advertised in the first place,” and noted that the “lack of efficacy may exist regardless of what other harm the products might cause.” Neither ChatGPT, Bard or Bing is mentioned by name, but the FTC post has “you know who you are” written all over it in invisible ink. Atleson warned that the FTC has its own in-house technologists who can “look under the hood and analyse other materials to see if what’s inside matches up with your claims.” Central to the FTC’s plan to try to keep pace with the advances being made on a daily basis by big tech companies is the opening of an Office of Technology. The agency boasts that the dedicated new unit will have double the current number of technologists. It sounds impressive, but it’s not. Just 10 people currently work for the FTC’s existing technology office and funding for new personnel will pay for no more than an additional 12 staff whose salaries will be very markedly less than those that can be earned at companies such as Apple, Google, Meta and the rest. The FTC will face a challenge in hiring even a handful of new, highly-qualified staff able to keep up with the relentless development of new products from companies with pockets deep enough to pay for hundreds or thousands of employees. Thus, despite the FTC’s bluster, it will quickly overwhelmed by its immense potential workload and it will either collapse under the weight of its underfunded and understaffed responsibilities or will go, cap in hand, to beg for additional federal funding that will be less than is needed and may not be forthcoming at all.

In the UK, YouTube (an integral part of the Alphabet/Google empire) stands accused of collecting and manipulating data gleaned from the TV viewing habits of millions of children under the age of 13 in direct contravention of British data privacy regulation designed specifically to protect the young, Reuters has reported. The alleged behaviour has been brought to the notice of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) via an official complaint from father-of-three Duncan McCann who works for the 5Rights Foundation but has lodged the complaint in his capacity as a private citizen. He alleges that YouTube gathers data about the videos watched by children as well as where and when they watch them and what kind of devices they watch the video content on. The ICO introduced its children’s protection regime back in 2020 and content delivery companies have had to abide by its provisions since 2021. Its purpose is to protect the privacy of those under the age of 13 in general, by ensuring that deceptive “design features” do not encourage them to provide yet more detail about themselves and protecting them from exposure to targeted advertising. The 5Rights Foundation, whose tagline is “Creating a digital environment fit for children and young people”, is an international non-profit, non-governmental charitable organisation that is headquartered in London. On its website, the foundation writes, “Protections that children and young people enjoy as norms in the offline world do not meaningfully exist online. The digital sector defends its ‘exceptional’ status as unregulated and unregulatable. Governments around the world have yet to legislate for the online protection of children and young people from: ‘content’ risks (eg exposure to harmful or age-inappropriate material); ‘contact’ risks (eg exposure to unsolicited contact from adults); ‘conduct’ risks (eg cyberbullying); and ‘contract’ risks (eg data harvesting, commercial pressure and exhortations to gamble). This lack of coherent, comprehensive child online protection legislation, both at a global level and within individual jurisdictions, has seen the introduction of products and services that pay little regard to, and assume no liability for, the welfare of children and young people. Digital service providers must be held accountable and liable for the welfare of children and young people. Simply put, the protection of children and young people’s wellbeing is the price of doing business.” McCann believes YouTube should alter the design of its platform and delete the data it has been gathering. He says, “It is a massive, unlicensed, social experiment on our children with uncertain consequences.” In response to his complaint, the ICO’s deputy commissioner of regulatory supervision said, "The Children’s Code makes clear that children are not like adults online, and their data needs meaningful protection.” He added that the agency will “consider the complaint carefully.” Meanwhile, a YouTube spokesperson said, “We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the ICO on this priority work, and with other key stakeholders including children, parents and child protection experts”, adding that the platform has increased child privacy by introducing more protective default settings, making investments to protect children and families by launching a dedicated kids app and introducing new data practices. Furthermore, YouTube treats children’s content as though children are watching it, whether or not it is viewed on an adult’s account. According to figures supplied by the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, an astonishing 89% of children in the UK aged between 3 (!) and 17 regularly accessed YouTube last year. YouTube has previously fallen foul of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and in 2019 was fined $170m for contravening children’s protection and privacy regulations and collecting data without parental consent. YouTube denied the charges but nevertheless paid the financial penalty. 

- The staff, TelecomTV

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