What’s up with… Openreach & UK broadband, 5G in Malaysia, Starry

TelecomTV Staff
By TelecomTV Staff

Nov 1, 2022

  • Openreach set to bring joy and cause pain to the UK fibre broadband community
  • Another mobile operator signs up to Malaysia’s wholesale 5G network 
  • The lights are dimming at US fixed wireless access (FWA) service provider Starry

In today’s industry news roundup: The UK wholesale access network operator Openreach is reportedly prepping some new discount deals for ISPs; Malaysia’s wholesale 5G network signs up another mobile operator supporter; US fixed wireless access service provider Starry looks in desperate trouble only months after its stock market listing; and much more!

The regulation of the UK’s broadband sector is set for a major test, if a report in the Financial Times is correct. According to the FT, Openreach, the quasi-autonomous wholesale fixed access division of UK national operator BT, is on the verge of announcing a new long-term discounted price offer to broadband ISPs that sign up for an extended period. Openreach has done this once already with a pricing scheme called Equinox, and it caused quite a stink because while it’s popular with ISPs (fixed prices and discounts for those that take fibre lines only and meet certain targets enable long-term planning from an operational and fiscal perspective), it was very unpopular with rival wholesale companies, in particular CityFibre, which argued that UK regulator Ofcom did not scrutinise the Equinox offer correctly before approving it. CityFibre appealed against Ofcom’s approval of Equinox to the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), but in July this year the CAT rejected CityFibre’s appeal. However, in its judgement it noted that “while the consultation process could perhaps have been improved on, it was not so flawed as to be unlawful, and the tribunal found that no prejudice was suffered by CityFibre in any event.” In the run up to the CAT ruling, CityFibre CEO Greg Mesch told TelecomTV that while he had major issues with Ofcom’s green light for Equinox, he believed the big danger to the UK broadband market is the likelihood of a succession of Equinox price offers that would discourage alternative fibre infrastructure investment and squeeze the life out of the market. Mesch was confident that Equinox 2 was being prepared and now it appears to be imminent. Responding to a request for comment, an Openreach spokesperson said: "We're in constant discussion with retail providers about potential offers and options. Following on from our Equinox 1 offer – which has been really well received and driven record levels of demand for full fibre – communications providers naturally approach us to talk about what’s next. They want longer term certainty and we all want consumers and businesses to migrate even more quickly off copper based products onto ultrafast, ultra-reliable full fibre. So it's true we're in discussions to sharpen our FTTP pricing and drive faster migrations, and we continue to talk about a range of options with them." CityFibre has also been approached for comment. In the meantime, the original Equinox offer has indeed been very attractive to ISPs, such as Sky and TalkTalk, so much so that BT has been calling it out in its earnings announcements, noting in its full fiscal year (to end of March 2022) that 42 wholesale customers had signed up to an Equinox deal. 

Malaysia’s state-owned wholesale 5G network operator, Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), seems to be attracting more supporters for its goal to roll out a nationwide next-generation network. According to a report by Reuters, a total of five mobile operators have now agreed with the government to partake in the ambitious deployment. U Mobile, which in mid-October opposed plans to get itself involved in the deal, has now reportedly signed an agreement to access the 5G network run by DNB for a decade. The company joins Celcom Axiata, DiGi Telecommunications, YTL Communications and Telekom Malaysia, which have already agreed to the plan – see Malaysia’s wholesale 5G network finally attracts telco stakeholders. This leaves Maxis as the only one of the country’s mobile operators to have not signed up to the DNB.  

Starry, the US fixed wireless access (FWA) network operator, has hired PJT Partners to help it with “mergers and acquisitions, capital raising, and balance sheet solutions,” which roughly translates to ‘is looking for investors/a buyer that can keep us in business’. On 20 October, Starry issued a third-quarter trading report in which it provided an operational update stating that almost 6 million homes were reachable by its service, which equated to just over 91,000 customers. However, it noted it was burning cash too fast, so had to lay off 500 staff (half of its workforce), and that it needed to focus on making the most of its already-deployed network in urban areas, as well as withdraw from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) program, and was exploring all strategic options. News that PJT had been hired put even greater pressure on Starry’s share price, which lost 25% of its value to sink to just $0.22 on Monday, giving the company a valuation of just $37m. Starry became a listed company in May this year when it merged with special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) FirstMark Horizon Acquisition Corp. in a move that valued Starry at $1.76bn. It’s not like Starry is in a shrinking market – demand for FWA broadband services has never been stronger in the US. The problem is that major mobile operators are now leveraging their 5G networks to offer home and business internet access services, as well as mobile services, using the same infrastructure and so have the scale and marketing might to weigh down smaller rivals. This doesn’t look good for Starry.  

In the EU, the Digital Markets Act (DMA), designed to curb the monopolistic and anti-competitive instincts of big tech “gatekeeper” companies, is getting closer to developing some teeth. The DMA legislates for smaller, rival companies to be able to sell their apps on a gatekeeper company’s platform. For example, new and different messaging apps could be sold through Apple’s App Store and Apple could be compelled to permit a competitor’s messaging app to run over its platform. The Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC, or the European Office of Consumers Unions in English), which was founded 60 years ago, acts as the overarching “consumer voice of Europe” and “represents its members and defends the interests of consumers in the decision-making processes of the Institutions of the European Union”. It calls the DMA a “landmark law for the EU’s digital transformation”. A BEUC press release stated: “This legislation will rebalance digital markets, increase consumer choice and put an end to many of the worst practices that big tech has engaged in over the years.” Well, maybe, to some extent and only eventually: The legislative process is leisurely. The Digital Markets Act now trundles into a six-month long “implementation phase” and only after that expires will aspects of it become legislatively operable (on 2 May 2023). However, what are described as “more advanced features”, such as audio and video calling between individuals or groups of end users on different technology platforms, do not have to be implemented before 2026 at the earliest. Meanwhile, the big tech companies continue to mount rearguard actions designed to at least slow, if not altogether stop, some aspects of the legislation in its lumbering tracks. The DMA does not, as yet, identify the gatekeepers to which the new law will apply, but it is evident which companies expect to be on the list because they are self-identifying to get their retaliation in first. For example, Apple claims to be “concerned that some provisions of the DMA will create unnecessary privacy and security vulnerabilities for our users". Google adds that while it supports “many of the DMA's ambitions around consumer choice and interoperability, we're worried that some of these rules could reduce innovation and the choice available to Europeans." And if you believe that… The EU will name the target companies by 6 September next year, but the current criteria to be included on the list includes financial size, numbers of users and having an "entrenched and durable" position in the market. Gatekeepers that fail to comply with the requirements of the DMA will face a financial penalty of 10% of their annual worldwide turnover for the first offence and up to 20% for subsequent offences. No wonder the big tech firms are concerned.

Despite the impact of US trade sanctions and security-fuelled restrictions in multiple markets, giant Chinese vendor Huawei is still the world’s largest supplier of telecom infrastructure, thanks mainly (but certainly not exclusively) to the volume of business it gets from China’s three large operators. While its consumer product (mobile handset) sales have dipped dramatically in recent years, its carrier business group is still generating almost half of its sales, based on the numbers the company published for the first half of the year. Now the company has provided a sales update for the first nine months of the year, but hasn’t split out the numbers by division this time around. Its unaudited revenues for the first three quarters of 2022 are 445.8bn Chinese yuan (US$61.4bn), with the vendor claiming a “profit margin” of 6.1% (it’s unclear whether this is net or operating profit). Normally Huawei only provides any kind of granular detail when it publishes its annual report, usually in the second quarter of the following year, so we have about five or six months before we can see how its international telco business has been shaping up this year. 

Canadian test and measurement, network monitoring and analytics system vendor Exfo has been handed CAN $15.9m (US$11.7m) by the country’s federal government to “establish a 5G Centre of Excellence in Montreal and create 50 high-skills job opportunities” mostly in Montreal. The capital comes from the Strategic Innovation Fund of Canada’s Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and “will allow Exfo to leverage advanced cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to accelerate solutions delivering better insights while automatically predicting and detecting issues and outages in 5G networks,” stated the vendor’s CEO, Philippe Morin. “Ultimately, our innovations will help service providers in Canada and beyond deploy 5G networks faster and more efficiently than ever before,” he added. Read more.

The global public cloud services market is expected to be worth almost $592bn in 2023, just over $100bn more than its anticipated value in 2022, according to research house Gartner. “Current inflationary pressures and macroeconomic conditions are having a push-and-pull effect on cloud spending,” noted Sid Nag, vice president analyst at the company. “Cloud computing will continue to be a bastion of safety and innovation, supporting growth during uncertain times due to its agile, elastic and scalable nature,” he said. But… yes, there’s a but: “Cloud spending could decrease if overall IT budgets shrink, given that cloud continues to be the largest chunk of IT spend and proportionate budget growth,” added the analyst. Read more.

Yi Gang, the governor of the People’s Bank of China, has been in Hong Kong explaining the digital yuan (E-RMB) to an audience at the FinTech Week conference. The Chinese authorities are very keen, indeed, they are utterly determined, to promote the virtual currency as an “alternative to cash”, the idea being that as China’s paper money economy withers on the vine (if it ever does), the Central Bank digital currency (CBDC) will take its place. It is claimed that the digital renminbi will be just like cash and instantly transferable between account holders – except, of course, that will have to be done via some kind of an electronic device, most probably a smartphone. And that has enormous implications for privacy and security, especially the privacy of individual citizens, because all transactions will be recorded and archived for posterity. Yi said that banks will "collect data in accordance with the 'minimum and necessary' principles” thus providing the Chinese population with “controllable anonymity”. It’s a concept similar to that of being slightly pregnant. Warming to his theme, Yi Gang added: "We recognise that anonymity and transparency are not black and white, and there are many nuances that need to be carefully weighed. In particular, we need to strike a precise balance between protecting individual privacy and combating illegal activities.” The reality will be that an individual’s financial data will not be used against him or her – unless there’s a reason. And that reason could be anything from the suspected criminal to perceived criticism of the regime and its leadership, or any local party apparatchik with too much power and too thin a skin. 

The UK government’s so-called Levelling Up programme is not going well. A prominent promise and policy in the Conservative manifesto on which the 2019 general election was fought and won has gradually faded from the headlines and the embattled administration’s agenda. Levelling up promised to improve living standards across the country and “to help every place to reach its productivity potential” and “address regional equalities” by focusing on “improving the performance” of the UK's biggest cities and deprived areas outside London. It hasn’t happened. Here’s an example: Britishvolt, a UK startup manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for the automotive sector, was set to build a so-called ‘gigafactory’ in Blythe, Northumberland, in the north-east of England, which now, after a series of delays, is not due to open until 2025 when, it is claimed, it will employ 3,000 local people. The company was championed by former prime minister Boris Johnson as an ideal candidate for government support and his administration committed £100m to the Britishvolt project. Johnson also promised to get private investors to put up £1.7bn to fund construction. As time passed, and the UK’s economy teetered on the verge of collapse under the mercifully short-lived tenure of the second of our three prime ministers in three years, Britishvolt was negotiating to secure the required funding, but to little avail. By yesterday, the company was within hours of going bankrupt after the government refused to release early a £30m tranche of the £100m it had promised. Britishvolt said it was forced to ask for the cash before its payment date due to factors such as “difficult external economic headwinds, including rampant inflation and rising interest rates", all of which are undeniably true. After a frantic scramble to raise some investment, it seems Britishvolt has been successful – at least for now – and says it has secured enough to keep the company solvent in the short to medium term. However, it remains coy about the identity of the new investors. Critics say the company spent too much too quickly on R&D for innovative battery technology and that plans for the gigafactory were too ambitious and should be scaled back until production and sales indicated that it could be increased in size. The company also took a hit when The Guardian newspaper revealed that senior managers were living luxurious lifestyles and claiming what were described as “extravagant” expenses. Britishvolt’s two founders departed the company in August this year. In the UK, the sale of new petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles will be banned from 2030 and the manufacture of electric vehicles is rising fast. Which, given the state of international relations and teetering economies, begs the question of where (and at what cost) the UK will source the batteries it will need if Britishvolt goes to the wall.

- The staff, TelecomTV

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