What’s up with… Vodafone, Altice, SoftBank

  • Vodafone’s M&A plans thwarted by Portuguese regulator
  • Drahi struggles to seal deal for sale of Altice Portugal
  • SoftBank fleshes out its non-terrestrial network (NTN) strategy

In today’s industry news roundup: Vodafone’s plans to bulk up in Portugal have been kicked into touch by the country’s competition watchdog; Patrick Drahi’s efforts to sell Portugal’s leading telco to STC seems to have failed; Japan’s SoftBank has articulated its plans to connect all manner of devices from space and the stratosphere; and much more!

Vodafone’s plan to bulk up in Portugal by acquiring Nowo Communications (formerly Cabovisao), the country’s fourth-largest service provider, has been thwarted by the country’s competition watchdog, the Autoridade da Concorrência (AdC), following a lengthy and in-depth investigation. The regulator concluded that the proposed acquisition, which was first announced in 2022, “would likely create significant impediments to effective competition in the identified relevant markets, thereby harming consumers.” In a nutshell, the AdC, in this extensive explanation of its ruling, decided that Nowo’s presence in the market had been keeping its three larger rivals – Altice Portugal (Meo), Vodafone Portugal and Nos – in check and that if Nowo wasn’t there to keep the big three honest, prices would likely rise dramatically at a time when the cost-of-living crisis continues to put pressure on the disposable income of the Portuguese population. So it wasn’t the scale of the deal that was the issue – Vodafone would have remained the second-largest player behind Altice – but the seemingly likely impact on competitive pricing. Vodafone has managed to get one Iberian deal over the line, having offloaded its Spanish operation to Zegona for €5bn, but it looks like this relatively minor deal, which was reportedly valued at €150m, is going to fall by the wayside. 

Vodafone isn’t the only operator that has been looking to close an M&A deal in Portugal: Patrick Drahi has been trying to offload market leader Altice Portugal (formerly Portugal Telecom) for more than a year and has been whittling down the interested parties in recent months to a very short list of companies that might be willing to stump up the €8bn-plus price tag. Drahi needs to raise as much as he can from the sale to help slim down the $60bn debt pile accumulated in building and expanding the Altice empire. Saudi telecom giant STC and Xavier Niel’s Iliad Group were believed to be the final two on the shortlist, with STC emerging as the preferred buyer but now, according to Reuters (citing local digital newspaper Eco), the takeover talks have been abandoned as the two parties could not agree on the details, even though STC was prepared to pay €8bn for Portugal’s leading operator. Can Drahi afford to walk away? And will STC want to rekindle the talks so it can pursue its dream of positioning itself as an Iberian telecom mover and shaker? Surely this saga isn’t over just yet… 

Still with Altice PortugalMeo, the brand name of its mobile operation, has signed a multi-year contract with Nokia to modernise its radio access network (RAN) infrastructure and enhance its 5G capabilities. The deal covers the replacement of the operator’s existing 2G and 4G infrastructure, and will improve its 5G network so that it can deliver advanced solutions for consumer and business customers. “Our partnership with Nokia has already resulted in impressive projects, and we are excited to continue working together to fully realise the potential of 5G technology. This modernisation will enable us to bring in exciting possibilities and generate new value for both individuals and businesses,” explained José Pedro Nascimento, CTO of MEO. Read more

While several Japanese telecom companies, including NTT, KDDI and Rakuten Mobile, are collaborating with low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators to develop direct-to-smartphone services from space to devices on terra firma, SoftBank is determined to do its own thing. Three years ago, the Japanese multinational company, owned by Masayoshi Son, introduced its own ‘concept’ of a non-terrestrial network (NTN) to “provide connectivity from space and the stratosphere”. The broader NTN plan includes collaboration with geosynchronous earth orbiting (GEO) satellite operator Skylo Technologies for NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT) services and OneWeb for LEO-enabled data connectivity, but it also includes SoftBank’s own HAPS (High Altitude Platform Station), a solar-powered “base station in the stratosphere” developed by its subsidiary HAPSMobile Inc. that can provide services to smartphones from the stratosphere. The unique selling point of HAPSMobile was that users would be able directly to access LTE and 5G connectivity on any smartphone (and other mobile devices) from any manufacturer and on any network, anywhere. Its commercial introduction was initially slated for 2023, but it still hasn’t happened, although last year HAPSMobile did fly a HAPS drone in Rwanda to “demonstrate” a 5G connection (the lowland gorillas seemed unimpressed.) Central to the SoftBank system is the operation of a high-altitude platform station, which, basically, is pilotless aircraft on which a repeater is carried. The aircraft should be able to fly for prolonged periods – “several months”, it seems –  in the stratosphere at an altitude of 20km above the earth. That’s the vision but sometimes these things take longer than planned, especially when the purse strings are being tightened. Since 2021, SoftBank has been quietly but consistently either selling off or writing down billions of dollars worth of investments made in publicly listed companies by the group’s venture capital Vision Fund, as Softbank, capitalising on the spectacular success of its 90% holding in the chip designer ARM, pivoted towards investing in semiconductors and AI. Meanwhile, last summer, SoftBank “absorbed” HAPSMobile into itself and ‘dissolved’ the business to “maximise synergies with research and development efforts, streamlining operations through the consolidation of management, and accelerating decision-making speed” whilst promising to continue to fund R&D into the commercialising of high-altitude comms technologies. Let’s see how that works out. Meanwhile, as Telecom Review Asia reports, the telecom sector is having a marked influence on Japan’s growing space sector as private companies, including telcos, take an increasing interest in an area that has traditionally long been within the purview of the Japanese government and several of its agencies. Japan’s $6.47bn Space Innovation Fund is now operational and one of the fund’s first initiatives is to examine the feasibility of establishing a satellite-based communications network. In alignment with Japan’s “Basic Plan on Space Policy” the aim is to double the country’s domestic space industry revenues from the 4tn yen achieved in 2020 to 8tn yen ”by the early 2030s.” Meanwhile, NTT recently created a space unit and announced that it will deploy an “airborne space station” in 2026 in partnership with Aalto HAPS. The Japanese carrier claims, if its goal is met, it will be the first in the world to use the airborne stations in commercial applications, and provide Japan-wide coverage as it leaves Softbank’s proposed alternative earthbound. Rather more ambitiously, KDDI says it intends to build a telecom network to link the Earth and the moon by 2028. As yet, in space, no-one can get dial tone, never mind hear you scream. And finally, a quick trot down memory lane… Softbank was an early investor in the now-defunct Project Loon (there could be a message in there somewhere…) But hope springs eternal and all that, and HAPs may yet be a tremendous success - PerHAPS.

Motorola Solutions is to open a new R&D centre in the Republic of Ireland that will focus on designing software for the company’s portfolio of land mobile radio (LMR) systems. LMR is push-to-talk, two-way communication between radio transceivers and is used in various areas, including mission-critical public safety communications and private communications for commercial industries. The critical communications technology vendor noted that it has already deployed more than 13,000 LMR networks globally. With the new R&D facility that will be established in the city of Cork, Motorola Solutions is set to create 200 new jobs mainly for the development of software for LMR, but it also plans to expand into other technologies in the future. The centre complements the company’s existing footprint in the country, which focuses on providing the emergency services’ secure communications network, Ireland’s National Digital Radio Service. “Decade after decade, the durability of our mission-critical LMR technology helps protect those who protect us all,” noted Greg Brown, chairman and CEO of Motorola Solutions. He added that the new R&D hub will contribute to “advancing our future vision for LMR, while building upon the collective impact of our more than 20,000 employees who are innovating what’s next for our customers around the world.” Read more.

In India, now the world’s most populous country, the telecom and IT industries are booming and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), determined to keep the pot on the boil, is to further foster technological innovation by inviting the telecom sector to come up with proposals to accelerate research into, and the development of, quantum communications networks. The plan is to establish “Quantum Standardisation and Testing Labs” that will serve as R&D hubs for quantum technology developers, test equipment manufacturers and academic researchers. The DoT wants, in particular, to foster research in “single photon and entangled photon sources, quantum memories and repeaters, quantum teleportation, and free-space quantum communications”, as well as “trusted nodes and untrusted nodes” for quantum communications networks. Thus, yesterday, the DoT issued an open invitation to all interested parties to submit their applications to take part in the work of the laboratories. The DoT release says the new labs will be used “to explore and harness full potential of quantum technologies for benefit of all citizens” and “aim at establishing benchmarks and protocols essential for seamless integration of quantum communication elements” as well as to “develop reliable testing facilities to validate quantum concepts, processes, devices, and applications.” As such, the move is a “significant step towards making India self-reliant in quantum technologies and setting global benchmarks in this cutting-edge field.” As far as quantum standardisation is concerned, the aim is to establish benchmarks and protocols “essential for the seamless integration of quantum communication elements, such as quantum key distribution, quantum state analysers, optical fibres, and components into existing and future communication networks”.  The Indian government introduced the National Quantum Mission (NQM) back in April last year with an eight-year remit. Interested parties have four weeks (until 5 August) to submit their proposals to the DoT, which is an agency of India’s Ministry of Communications & Information Technology. Successful applicants will be able to access the new labs and their facilities “for a nominal fee”. Oh, yes, there’s always a sting in the tail.

The three major operators in the US – AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon – have set plans in motion to prepare for Hurricane Beryl, which is currently moving toward the Mexico and Texas border. AT&T explained that it is relying on a team of qualified meteorologists for business-specific weather intelligence, analytics and forecasts, as well as a group of former first responders to offer support in the event of emergencies. T-Mobile US noted its network teams are working with utility companies to refuel fixed generators and ensure battery backups are charged, and said it is ready to quickly deploy rapid-response technologies and field technicians and engineers if needed. In a similar fashion, Verizon has bolstered its capabilities with a fleet of more than 550 portable network assets, including generator-powered cell sites and drones, “200 satellite-based portable network assets” and more than 1,000 mobile generators to assist with potential network recovery operations.

Liberty Global might sell a slice of its Swiss operation Sunrise ahead of its planned stock market listing, Reuters has reported. As part of a broad revamp of its operations in Europe unveiled in February, Liberty Global unveiled plans to list its shares in Sunrise on the SIX Swiss stock exchange in the second half of this year and then spin out its entire holding to Liberty Global shareholders. 

As China continues in its quest to become self-sufficient in chip production and other comms and IT technologies, it also has ambitious plans to increase the capacity of its national computing power by 30%, from 230 exaflops to 300 exaflops by next year! And there are plans to increase that immense figure further in the years to come. It’s hard to get your head around an exaflop (so to speak), given that it refers to the performance in excess of 1 quintillion floating-point operations per second. That’s the integer 1 followed by 18 zeros. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, reporting from the recent Global Digital Economy Conference 2024 in Beijing, new official figures show that as of the end of December last, the total number of standard racks in use at Chinese datacentres across the entirety of the country were in excess of  8.1 million, providing total computing power of 230 Exaflops. Wang Xiaoli, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Information and Communications Technology, said that in order to meet the goals set by the central government, much will depend on the further development of more green energy and the ability to integrate it efficiently with advanced energy management technologies to boost computing power. Later, Yan Gang, the technical director of Yovole Network, a Shanghai-based cloud computing datacentre service, provided a case study and commented, “Our intelligent computing centre employs combined cooling, heating, and power systems using hydrogen energy, photovoltaic storage, indirect evaporative cooling and liquid cooling technologies.” Furthermore, in addition to establishing infrastructure, such as datacentres, computing service providers across various Chinese industries, under the terms of the country’s Computing Power Plus initiative, are examining how to integrate computing power directly into enterprises, households and business districts.

- The staff, TelecomTV

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