What’s up with… United Group, Google, Huawei

  • United Group up for grabs, reports suggest
  • Analysts pile on Google over AI strategy
  • Huawei’s appeal in Romania falls on deaf ears 

In today’s industry news roundup: The private-equity owner of United Group, which provides telecom and pay-TV services in multiple countries across south-east Europe, is looking to cash in, according to reports; Google’s spluttering AI strategy is putting its CEO under the spotlight; Huawei’s appeal against its 5G supply ban in Romania has failed; and much more! 

Private equity firm BC Partners is keeping shtum on speculation that it is looking to sell its majority stake in United Group, the multi-country telecom and pay-TV service provider that has operations across south-east Europe (Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Greece, North Macedonia and Montenegro). The rumour mill has it that BC Partners is looking to cash in on its investment and is seeking a buyer for its entire stake, though it is also reportedly willing to offload parts of the multi-country operation if that is a more attractive option to potential buyers. BC Partners has declined to comment on the speculation. Various local reports suggest that Saudi operator STC might be a willing buyer as it is seeking to expand internationally and previously acquired United Group’s tower assets for €1.22bn, while e& is also regarded as a potential suitor as the United Group assets might fit neatly with the controlling stake it acquired last year in the telecom assets of PPF Group across four markets in central and eastern Europe – see e& accelerates European drive with €2.2bn PPF deal.

The wind that wafts through the concrete canyons around Wall Street is a fickle thing. It can swing from one point of the compass to another very quickly to give analysts a sudden fit of the gibbering conniptions. It’s happening again now, this time with Google, which is now adjudged to be lagging behind in the AI race in which so many big tech companies are presently competing. Over the weekend, multiple US media outlets were reporting that Manhattan’s financial district was echoing to a growing chorus of “woe is me” wailing for Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, to “step down” or be deposed. Last week, the share price of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, fell by 5.4% and its market capitalisation dipped by almost $97bn to just over $1.7tn as the company pressed the pause button on its much-vaunted Gemini AI tool. Gemini is the name now assigned to what was Bard, Google’s old generative AI-powered ‘conversational’ tool – it was renamed just last month. Gemini disappeared after users found it produced “historically inaccurate images and text” that “offended our users and showed bias” – and then some! Pichai, who has made much of his ambition to make Google an “AI-first” company, called the situation “completely unacceptable” and announced that a revised version of Gemini would be released in the coming months, but the damage had been done. Analysts queued up to critique Google’s performance and give the CEO a kicking, saying that the company is a late-entrant also-ran in the dash to achieve market dominance in AI and is in need of “a transformation” that will only be possible if Pichai is removed. The main thread of analyst criticism, as reported by Business Insider, is that while Google’s “traditional” income from its cash cow internet search services will continue for now, it won’t last forever and therefore Google must change, focus on innovation and become an undisputed leader in AI. A recent Gartner report suggests that by 2026, “AI alternatives” will cause a 25% drop in the “traditional search” market and Google, which is accused of becoming complacent and bureaucratic, must accept that fact and change now. To do so it must adopt a “challenger” mindset as opposed to that of an “established market leader’, otherwise it will eventually fail, perhaps sooner rather than later. A coterie of analysts are suddenly of the opinion that change cannot be made under Google’s current CEO. Pichai, who earned $226m in 2022 (and no doubt more last year, though the figures are yet to be released), has been at Google since 2004, when he started as a product manager. He became CEO of Google in 2015 and of Alphabet in 2019. He has concentrated on Google’s incredibly lucrative search business and has been effectively emollient in relations with regulators and politicians. Shareholders have supported him not least because, under his tutelage, Google’s market capitalisation has grown from $400bn to $1.7tn. However, analysts now complain that the company is getting sclerotic and altogether too set in its ways. Therefore, they say, it’s time to jettison the pilot, even though none of them seem to have any suggestions as to who might take his place on the bridge as the huge vessel threads its way through the choppy waters and rocky shoals of change.

The Romanian government has reportedly rejected an appeal by Huawei to overturn a ban on its equipment being used for 5G network deployments in the country. According to Chinese newspaper the Global Times, an official announcement by Romania’s government on 29 February rebuffed a submission by Huawei to have its 5G gear authorised. The decision by the country’s officials is in line with legislation from 2021, which prohibits Huawei kit from being used in 5G networks in the country. In response to the government’s decision, the Chinese Embassy in Romania suggested that the move undermines fair competition and could harm the interests of Romanians, as well as the economic and trade ties between Romania and China, the report added.

Digi Communications, which has operations in Romania, Spain and Italy, has reported a 13% year-on-year increase in revenues to €1.69bn, while its adjusted EBITDA increased by 17% to almost €593m. Across all of its operations, the company ended 2023 with 23.9 million revenue-generating user agreements (RGUs), up by 14.8% from a year earlier. (Note: Each RGU relates to a single service provided to a single subscriber – a subscriber may sign up for more than one service and, therefore, account for multiple RGUs.) Romania is Digi’s main market, with 5.82 million mobile users, 5.68 million pay-TV users and 4.57 million broadband users, while Spain is its second-largest market with 4.66 million mobile and 1.37 million broadband users. Digi’s Spanish operation is about to get bigger, though, as it is taking on additional spectrum licences and is gaining a national roaming agreement with Orange Spain as a result of the conditional approval by regulators of the merger between Orange and MásMóvil in Spain.  

The collaboration between Vodafone and Intel on the research and development (R&D) and commercialisation of Open RAN has been extended to cover the optimisation of advanced algorithms for use in Open RAN platforms. The work, which is part of their joint research work at Vodafone’s innovation centre in Málaga, Spain, aims to deliver “the highest possible level of performance for customers, while reducing energy consumption,” Vodafone noted in a statement. The company added that the collaboration, alongside the Telecommunication Institute of University of Málaga, is also looking to advance the existing Open RAN architecture and grow the emerging ecosystem, including through the use of AI and machine learning (ML) to develop “ultra-efficient algorithms” for 5G massive MIMO (used to multiply capacity in urban areas). The research is expected to produce algorithms and other innovations, which will be integrated into test silicon, produced by Intel, and used to “create new benchmarks for the advancement of silicon needed to drive powerful industrial internet applications”. Santiago Tenorio, Vodafone’s director of network architecture, said, “Open RAN has opened the doors to unforeseen benefits through greater disaggregation. Vodafone and its partners are now focused on realising this potential to reduce costs and improve energy savings while enhancing performance for our customers.” Find out more.

Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo, has joined AT&T’s board of directors with effect from 1 March 2024. Mayer will serve on the US telco’s Audit committee, and its Corporate Development and Finance committee, AT&T announced in a statement. Her election brings the number of AT&T directors to 11 in total. Mayer currently serves as CEO of technology startup Sunshine Products, which she co-founded in 2018. Prior to this, she was the president and CEO of Yahoo between 2012 and 2017, when she resigned after Verizon acquired Yahoo for $4.83bn. She was also the first woman engineer at Google, where she spent 13 years. “Mayer’s extensive background in technology and her deep understanding of how consumers experience and engage with the internet will be a valuable addition to the board,” said Bill Kennard, chairman of AT&T’s board of directors. “We welcome her leadership and expertise as AT&T advances its investment-led strategy to become America’s best connectivity provider.”   

Ooredoo Group has beefed up its efforts to become a digital service provider (DSP) by introducing its first ever over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform for TV channels, video-on-demand and other forms of content. Called ‘Go Play Market’, the offering has been launched in six of the telco group’s markets, including Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and the Maldives. The company added that the platform, which was launched in collaboration with video technology company MediaKind with support from Microsoft in a partnership that was signed last week at MWC24 in Barcelona, is also available to non-subscribers to its other services. This step, according to Ooredoo Group CEO and managing director Aziz Aluthman Fakhroo, will allow the telco to create “a comprehensive entertainment hub, tailored to meet the diverse preferences of our customers, as well as non-Ooredoo subscribers, across multiple markets.” Read more.

A new semiconductor chip able to use light rather than electricity has been developed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science in the US. It’s a remarkable thing that holds the promise of the ability to massively accelerate the processing speeds of computers whilst, simultaneously, lowering their energy consumption. When it is in commercial production, the new silicon photonics (SiPh) chip will compute the complexities of training AI at light speed, which is, as far as we are currently aware, the fastest possible speed of communication. For years now, researchers have been looking at the possibilities of using interacting light waves to increase the processing speed of semiconductors and the new chip is based on the manipulation of nanometre silicon – and silicon is the cheapest, most easily available, tried and tested element used in the mass production of computer chips. In detail, the goal of the team at Penn University was to develop a platform on which to perform vector-matrix multiplication. This is a mathematical operation central to the development and functioning of neural networks, and neural networks comprise the architecture to power AI tools. The researchers slimmed down the usual uniform height of specific areas of a silicon wafer to 150nm. By varying the height, it was found that propagation of light through the device could be controlled as the variations in the height of the silicon can be distributed such that light is scattered in specific patterns. This characteristic permits calculations to be computed at light speed. The team of scientists is headed by Professor Nader Enghata and Associate Professor Firooz Aflatouni, who, in the academic journal Nature Photonics, announced that the new technology is complete and ready now for deployment in commercial operations, reports Penn Engineering Today. It also has the potential to be adapted for use in graphics processing units (GPUs), the demand for which has hit the roof in recent months and has propelled Nvidia to record sales and a $2tn-plus valuation. Aflatouni commented that the SiPh platform can be applied “as an add-on” to “speed-up [AI] training and classification.” Not only does the device work at light speed and reduce power consumption, it also greatly improves security and privacy because as so many calculations can be computed simultaneously there is no need to store sensitive information in a computer’s working memory. This feature will make any computer using SiPh chips virtually impregnable to hacking because, as Aflatouni succinctly points out, “No one can hack into a non-existing memory to access your information.” The new platform won’t be as powerful or efficient as future quantum computers and networks, but those are in their infancy and probably the best part of 20 years away from commercial availability. In the meantime, and into the future, the AI gold-rush is fuelling intense demand for computing systems that can process data at massive speed, to which the Penn University breakthrough could be a long-term answer.

- The staff, TelecomTV

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