What’s up with… LG Uplus, Telecom Italia, Telstra

  • LG Uplus joins South Korea’s GenAI gang
  • Telecom Italia nears NetCo sale completion
  • Telstra to cash in on its VC investments

In today’s industry news roundup: LG Uplus follows its competitors’ lead with the launch of its own generative AI platform in South Korea; the end is in sight for Telecom Italia as it prepares to sell its Netco division to KKR on 1 July; Telstra looks to get some ROI on its venture capital investments; and much more!

South Korea’s third mobile operator, LG Uplus, has launched its own generative AI (GenAI) platform, Exigen, giving it a competitive offering to the ever-expanding enterprise GenAI offerings from its domestic mobile operator rivals SK Telecom and KT Corp. The company describes Exigen, which has been developed using its research unit’s hyperscale LLM Exaone and “clean” data from its own operations, as a GenAI that can be used by companies in multiple industry verticals. According to the company, Exigen has been developed to “significantly reduce the time required for fine-tuning” and offers companies a secure way to enhance and develop their own operations and customer interactions because the system is a “lightweight” model that can be run on in-house servers. As a result, the data used for the learning process is never exported, making it a good solution for companies in the “public, financial, and manufacturing fields that are concerned about sensitive data leaks” (aren’t we all?). LG Uplus is already using Exigen for its own network operations, helping engineers to “handle failures more smoothly and quickly”, and plans to extend its use to business development staff to enable faster responses to enquiries and cut internal communication times by 50%. LG Uplus also unveiled Exi Solution, which can be used by application developers to create new AI apps and enable people without any AI expertise to test, use and create simple applications. For further details, see this announcement (in Korean).    

Still with LG Uplus… It has entered the country’s renewable energy supply market in partnership with two local specialists, solar power business development consultancy Smart Green Village and energy supply technology expert Hanwha Systems. LG Uplus will deploy virtual power plant (VPP) technology to connect solar and wind power plants so that the power generated can be managed and supplied effectively in line with demand. In addition, LG Uplus plans to enter the power purchase agreement (PPA) sector to supply electricity produced by renewable energy power plants directly to corporate customers. For further details, see this announcement (in Korean). 

Telecom Italia (TIM) says it is on course to complete the sale of its NetCo division to Optics BidCo, the acquisition vehicle headed up by private equity firm KKR, on 1 July. The Italian telco formally accepted KKR’s acquisition offer in November 2023, much to the chagrin of key investor, French media giant Vivendi, which vowed to do everything in its power to halt the deal but is running out of time to intervene. The driving force behind the move is to help Telecom Italia get itself back on an even financial keel and significantly reduce its debt pile, which stood at about €26.6bn at the end of March: The sale agreement values NetCo at €18.8bn but the Italian operator might also gain €3.2bn in earn-out payments, taking the potential value of the deal up to €22bn. Not all of those proceeds will go directly to cutting the debt, though: The operator expects the sale to reduce its net debt to about €6.1bn and caused consternation among its investors earlier this year when it explained that, due to costs associated with the sale plus additional working capital requirements, the telco expects its net debt to increase by €1.4bn to €7.5bn during the course of this year. Despite that admission, which is in part linked to the telco’s new business plan, CEO Pietro Labriola survived the company’s annual general meeting in April with his job intact and stated at the time that the company’s 2024-26 strategy will “put TIM back on a path of growth and development, building on 22 months of improving performance and delivery of our financial objectives.” Closing the NetCo sale will at least conclude a saga that has eaten away at the company’s resources for the past three or more years and at least allow it to focus on its mobile network and services-focused strategy in Italy and Brazil. But Labriola and his team have a lot of work to do: Telecom Italia’s share price is currently languishing at €0.23 on the Milan stock exchange, giving the telco a market capitalisation of just €5bn.      

The Telstra Ventures name is no more, following a change in investment strategy by the Australian telco. In 2018, Telstra spun out its venture capital (VC) unit (originally set up in 2011) to form Telstra Ventures, in which it retained a stake. Now, though, the Australian telco is seeking to sell its “current investments in Telstra Ventures’ funds as part of its focus on capital discipline and active portfolio management,” and the VC firm has changed its name to Titanium Ventures. The San Francisco-based company “will continue to identify and scale the most promising companies across a variety of AI, digital and software sectors by complementing its strong, experienced team with proprietary Data Science insights and its Revenue Acceleration platform. The firm, which has almost $1bn funds under management, has invested in 99 portfolio companies during which there have been 12 IPOs, 17 unicorns [and] 42 liquidity events which have returned $678m cash to investors,” the VC firm noted in this announcement. Telstra’s CFO, Michael Ackland, noted: “Consistent with our focus on capital discipline and active portfolio management, we are exploring options to sell our current investments in Telstra Ventures’ funds. We believe that through the relationships we have fostered over the years, we can continue working together and Telstra will be able to access leading-edge technologies in the portfolio companies of Titanium Ventures.” Telstra recently announced plans to cut up to 2,800 jobs, almost 10% of its workforce, as part of a cost-reduction plan focused on its enterprise services division. 

Europe continues to be a regulatory minefield for the big tech firms… The European Commission has accused Microsoft of breaching antitrust rules by unfairly bundling its collaboration and communication application, Teams, with its Office 365 and Microsoft 365 suites. In a statement issued on 25 June, the EC noted that a preliminary investigation raised concerns that since April 2019, “Microsoft has been tying Teams with its core SaaS [software-as-a-service] productivity applications, thereby restricting competition in the market for communication and collaboration products and defending its market position in productivity software and its suites-centric model from competing suppliers of individual software.” The EC added that following the launch of its probe into the tech giant in July 2023, “Microsoft introduced changes in the way it distributes Teams. In particular, Microsoft started offering some suites without Teams. The commission preliminarily finds that these changes are insufficient to address its concerns and that more changes to Microsoft’s conduct are necessary to restore competition.” If Microsoft doesn’t play ball and meet with the EC’s requirements, it could face a hefty fine. In fact, Reuters pointed out in this report that Microsoft could be fined up to 10% of its global annual revenues if found guilty of the breaches and, based on its most recent full financial year (to 30 June 2023), that could mean a fine of up to $21bn. 

The notion of the digital Euro has been bandied about the corridors of power at the European Commission (EC) for years, seemingly with little effect other than to create an amorphous consensus that it might be sort of a good idea at some indeterminate time in the future but it’s a bit complicated to make it a reality, so best not to rush things. Now though it seems that the EC may actually have to galvanise itself into an unseemly trot since Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), has announced something akin to a timetable for the implementation of the digital European currency for use within the 20 member countries of the Eurozone. She thinks it will take five years from now, so it’s a possibility that it could be a reality before 2030. However, that will depend on the years of discussions that will have to take place before a legal framework is agreed and ‘all functional features’ have been specified. Then there is the little matter of issues including payment privacy, security and, of course, the full definition of the role and remit the ECB will have overseeing the introduction and operation of the digital euro. Currently, the ECB manages the physical euro and frames and implements EU economic monetary policy with the primary aim of maintaining price stability and promoting/supporting European-wide economic growth and job creation. The plan is for the digital Euro to be an electronic means of payment available free of charge to all citizens of EU Eurozone member states. It will be the equivalent of cash and, it is loudly proclaimed, will be private and completely secure. Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we? Lagarde says the business model for the digital Euro will be based on the payments that service providers will be able to charge merchants, i.e. a fee for enabling them to accept digital euros, with a limit on what that charge will actually be. More details of the plans are given in the ECB’s ‘First Progress Report on the Digital Euro Preparation Phase’, published this week. It shows the bank is “designing high privacy standards to make online and offline digital payments as close as possible to cash transactions” and is starting work “on designing methodology for calibrating digital euro holding limits.” Previously, it was suggested that the limit would be €3,000. Meanwhile, the ECB “continues to provide technical input to legislative discussions with European co-legislators.” The report says consumers will be able to use mobile phones to make payments in digital euros online and via peer-to-peer connections. Additionally, the bank is “investigating alternative form factors for an offline digital euro, via the use of battery-powered smartcards and non-powered smartcards.” These offline transactions will provide users with “a cash-like level of privacy for payments in physical shops and between individuals.” In terms of the privacy issues that concern so many different interested parties where digital currencies are concerned, the report attempts to reassure the public and critics within Europe’s financial industries by claiming that, “when paying offline, personal transaction details would only be known to the payer and the payee and would not be shared with payment service providers, the Eurosystem or any providers of supporting services. The Eurosystem would use state-of-the-art measures, including pseudonymisation, hashing and data encryption, to ensure it would not be able to directly link digital euro transactions to specific users.” ‘Pseudonymisation’ is a process applied to protect personal data by removing identity attributes and replacing them with fictitious ones, while ‘hashing’ is the conversion of data into a string of characters of a fixed size made up of letters and numbers. For mobile phones, “delivery of the offline functionality is contingent on access [to] the near-field communication (NFC) antenna and the secure element.” Good to know. Furthermore, the ECB has been “looking at the modalities of accessing the hardware component (‘secure element’) in mobile devices and smartcards to allow settlement of transactions in end users’ devices.” Piero Cipollone, the chairman of the High-Level Task Force on a Digital Euro, commented, “The digital euro preparation phase is progressing well, and we support the ongoing democratic debate on the legal framework for the digital euro. The digital euro is a common European endeavour. As such, we will continue engaging with all stakeholders, including the European public, to ensure that it is successful and benefits us all.” Furthermore, “in recent months, the ECB has agreed on the technical features required to guarantee that online digital euro transactions will provide even higher privacy standards than current digital payment solutions, while still ensuring robust end-user protection against fraud.” Excellent. It’s obvious that nothing could possibly go wrong. Incidentally, back at the start of the year, the ECB was searching for someone to take up the position of “head of positioning and outreach division (Digital Euro)”. Happily, that job has now been filled by Ryan Gawn, formerly of the Danish company Lego. How pleasingly appropriate – he’ll be reaching out to place all the pieces exactly where they need to go. 

ETNO, the industry body (lobby group) that represents Europe’s largest telcos, is reminding the “new European leadership” (soon to be confirmed) of the vital importance of digital connectivity “to ensure the economic competitiveness and security” of Europe. It is also urging, not for the first (or last) time, the powers that be to consider making life easier for all Europeans but most importantly its members. In this announcement, ETNO calls for “the new European leadership to take swift action and to substantially adjust the telecom and competition policies in order to strengthen the connectivity ecosystem… Europe is one of the most digitised economies and societies globally. However, with the EU share in the global ICT market having dropped by 10% since 2013 [European Commission, 2023], we have fallen behind global peers in innovation and investment in the connectivity ecosystem. The next 12 months are vital to set the stage for improving Europe's connectivity, as our digital infrastructures are meant to benefit European citizens and businesses. Europe cannot wait to bridge its investment and innovation gap. Modernisation and simplification of current rules, delivered in a timely fashion, can be a gamechanger for the whole of our economy and society.” Stirring words that will likely fall once again on deaf ears. 

Paris, France-headquartered company Pasqal, which specialises in what is called ‘neutral-atom quantum computing’, has made a breakthrough that could be of great benefit in solving one of the technology’s three biggest challenges – decoherence, error correction and scalability. Scaling is the ability to increase the number of qubits in a quantum system and so be able to solve the most complex of problems. Neutral atom quantum computing enables scalability by exploiting the latest development in laser cooling – to slow the motion of atoms – together with magneto-optical trapping and the use of ‘optical tweezers’. Qubits, the basic units of quantum information, are frail and particularly susceptible to errors that quickly proliferate, decohere the quantum state and destroy the accuracy and reliability of quantum computations. Pasqal’s latest contribution to the science is to successfully have confined more than 1,110 atoms within some 2,000 ‘traps’ (the squeaking could be heard at the top of the Eiffel Tower) thus demonstrating the practical feasibility of large-scale neutral atom quantum computing. The remarkable feat, as reported by Quantum Insider, of trapping single rubidium (Rb) atoms in large arrays of optical tweezers over 2,088 sites was effected within a cryogenic environment at a temperature of 6 on the Kelvin scale (-276.15C). Rubidium is a soft, light-grey coloured alkaline metal that can burst into spontaneous combustion at room temperature (so you don’t want to be carrying it around in your pocket). The ability to trap atoms at large scale is utterly essential to the building of scalable quantum processors. The now proven capability of trapping 1,000 atoms or more is central to Pasqal’s plan to develop quantum computers, initially with 1,000 qubits, and then, by 2027, with 10,000 qubits. Commenting on the breakthrough, the co-CEO of Pasqal, Loic Henriet, said, “Achieving the 1,000-atom milestone illustrates the great scalability of Pasqal’s quantum processors” that, apparently, “will fuel the design of future hardware products with enhanced computational power.” So far, Pasqal has raised more than €150m in investor funding to help it achieve its goals. 

- The staff, TelecomTV

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