What’s up with… Orange, AI in the UK, Swisscom and Ericsson

  • Orange taps Augtera Networks for AI-driven network operation gains
  • UK competition regulator has “real concerns” about AI players
  • Swisscom expands Ericsson tie-up to make its network smarter and greener

In today’s industry news roundup: Orange partners with Augtera Networks to add AI and machine learning (ML) to its daily network operations for increased efficiencies and failure prevention; UK’s competition regulator is now seriously concerned about developments in the AI foundation model domain; Swisscom builds upon its ties with Ericsson in a bid to have the “smartest” network with an emphasis on sustainability; and more!

Orange has announced it is to use AI and machine learning (ML) in its daily network operations by integrating an AI platform from Augtera Networks. The French telco group noted that the Augtera Network AI platform will be added to its network operations centre (NOC) tools. This, the company points out, will reduce the daily number of alerts in the NOC that need to be addressed by 70%, while AI will also help prevent network failures as the technology is tipped to be able to identify incidents before they even occur. The integration will kick off this month and is set for a full deployment by the end of the year across Orange Global Networks, a global Tier One IP network service for wholesale and B2B customers. “Over the past two years, we have been evaluating Augtera AI in various production environments to assess both the technical capabilities and business outcomes. Through a systematic evaluation of multiple use cases, we have identified two initial ones that produced excellent results during the trial. We are pleased to be moving forward to integrate Augtera with our existing NOC tools to bring transformative efficiency and predictability to our operations. This aligns with our ongoing commitment to pioneering the adoption of AI/ML and innovating to provide the best-in-class experience to our customers,” noted Jean-Louis Le Roux, EVP of international networks at Orange. Read more.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has expressed “growing concerns” related to the role of a small number of big tech players in markets for AI foundation models (FMs). In an updated version of its report on AI foundation models, the watchdog expressed concerns that “some firms may have both the ability and the incentive to shape these markets in their own interests – both to protect existing market power and to extend it into new areas. This could profoundly impact fair, open, and effective competition in FM-related markets, ultimately harming businesses and consumers, for example through reduced choice, lower quality, and higher prices, as well as stunting the flow of potentially unprecedented innovation and wider economic benefits from AI”. Furthermore, the regulator had identified what it refers to as an “interconnected web” of more than 90 partnerships and strategic investments involving the same firms: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon and Nvidia (which is the leading supplier of AI accelerator chips). “The CMA recognises the huge wealth of resources, expertise and innovation capability these large firms can bring to bear, and the role they will likely have in FM markets, as well as the fact that partnerships and arrangements of this kind can play a pro-competitive role in the technology ecosystem,” the body noted. It outlined three main risks to competition: Firms controlling critical inputs for developing FMs may restrict access to shield themselves from competition; powerful incumbents could exploit their positions in consumer or business-facing markets to distort choice in FM services and restrict competition in deployment; and partnerships involving key players could exacerbate existing positions of market power through the value chain. To address these, the CMA has suggested market investigations and merger reviews, as well as further scrutiny over developments in foundation models. “When we started this work, we were curious. Now, with a deeper understanding and having watched developments very closely, we have real concerns,” said Sarah Cardell, CEO of the CMA. Read more.

Swisscom has signed a new deal with Ericsson that will see the Swedish vendor continue to supply the hardware and software for the Swiss telco’s network for another three years. In a joint statement, the pair explained that the extension will aim to transform Swisscom’s mobile network into “a smart network”. They intend to harness automation, AI and innovation, which is expected to modernise the network and provide “the best customer experience now and in the future”. The companies said there will be a focus on sustainability and that they will strive to “make the Swisscom network one of the most efficient mobile networks in the world”. The operator claimed that its network is already fully powered by renewable energy and now, the partners have taken it up a notch by launching the so-called Energy Sustainability Programme to “intelligently reduce the energy consumption of their mobile communications systems”. According to Daniel Leimbach, head of Ericsson’s customer unit for western Europe, “Swisscom’s characteristically Swiss pursuit of perfection meets the global technology leadership from Sweden’s Ericsson. Our common goal is to raise the bar even higher and continue to develop Switzerland’s best network into its smartest one”.

So far, so bad. Vodafone Idea’s latest wheeze to raise fresh cash from investors has gone down like the proverbial lead balloon. As has the company’s share price. The Indian telco is trying to raise 450bn Indian rupees (US$5.4bn) through an equity deal based on a follow-on public offer (FPO), an exercise whereby an existing company already listed on a stock exchange issues new shares to the extant shareholder base and/or to new investors. Vodafone Idea’s FPO is designed to bring in some 200bn Indian rupees ($2.4bn). Immediately the FPO is completed, the second part of the masterplan is to raise a further sum of 250bn Indian rupees ($3bn) in debt funding. However, no details of how that might be achieved have been forthcoming. Yesterday, Vodafone Idea set the floor price (the lowest price level at which an FPO may be bid on) at 10 rupees a share (12 US cents). Meanwhile, the cap price of the offer is set at 11 rupees a share (13 US cents). Market capitalisation shows how much a company is worth as determined by the total market value of all outstanding shares. Thus, to calculate a company’s market cap the number of outstanding shares is multiplied by the current market value of one share. The minimum bid lot is set at 1,298 equity shares and progresses upwards through multiples of that 1,298 number. Vodafone Idea’s FPO will open on 18 April 2024 and close on Monday 22 April 2024. Much depends on whether or not Vodafone Idea’s claim that “anchor investors” (i.e. previous investors already well and truly on the hook) have already committed to buy “up to” 50% of the value of the FPO turns out to be true in practice. The Indian government owns 33% of Vodafone Idea. As well it might, indeed, as it must, the government says it “fully backs” Vodafone Idea’s latest attempt to raise fresh funds. As India Today reported, this morning, amidst heavy volumes of trading on the BSE (the Bombay Stock Exchange, which retains the British colonial name of the city despite the fact that Bombay was officially renamed as Mumbai back in 1995) Vodafone Idea’s stock price fell by 5%. That’s bad enough, but the independent global brokerage and investment company CSLA (formerly known as Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia) has twisted the knife by opining that the telco’s share price could plummet by as much as 61% (to a truly miserable 5 rupees or just 6 US cents) if the telco is unable to staunch the number of its subscribers who are churning away to other networks. The Indian Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) reported that Vodafone Idea lost a million subscribers in January of this year alone and a cumulative total of 17 million over the past 12 months. To put that into perspective, Reliance Jio increased its subscriber numbers by 4.2 million in the same month and Bharti Airtel boosted its customer base by 0.75 million. In a report, CSLA says: “Beyond capex and 5G rollout, Vodafone Idea faces a financial crunch in FY26 when annual spectrum and AGR payments of $4bn per annum will fall due.”

Private wireless radio access network (RAN) revenues grew by 40% in 2023, representing around 2% of the overall RAN market, according to a new study from Dell’Oro Group. Revenues are expected to hit between $1bn and $2bn in 2028, growing at a 21% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the period. At the same time, public RAN revenues are forecast to drop at a CAGR of 2% in the same period. “Although public RAN is still fuelling the lion’s share of the overall RAN capex and the overall investment levels are tracking below some of the initial projections provided by the vendors in the early part of the 5G enterprise hype cycle, the fact of the matter is that private wireless is now growing at a formidable pace,” explained Stefan Pongratz, VP at Dell’Oro Group. He added that this trend is in contrast to the public RAN and enterprise wireless local area network (WLAN) markets, as both segments are forecast to shrink in 2024. The top-three private wireless RAN suppliers globally in 2023 were Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson. Though China was not included in the list, Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung were also among the top suppliers in the world. Finally, the research house suggested that private wireless is “a massive opportunity, but it will take some time for enterprises to embrace private cellular technologies.”

Even as telcos continue to struggle to find ways to monetise and begin making some sort of a return on the huge sums that they have invested in public 5G, more and more is being heard about the glorious sunlit uplands that service providers, enterprises and consumers alike will frolic happily in once 6G arrives. A lot of it is just hype but some developments have real and far-reaching potential. One such development has been announced today: A team led by research scientists at the University of Glasgow in Scotland made a breakthrough in wireless comms technology that will enable the ultra-fast, software-controlled 6G networks of the future. A new paper published in the IEEE Open Journal of Antennas and Propagation, gives details of the university team’s development of a prototype digitally coded, dynamic metasurface antenna (DMA), controlled via a high-speed field-programmable gate array (FPGA). These are semiconductor devices, often bought ‘off the shelf’ that are based around a matrix of configurable logic blocks connected via programmable interconnects. Thus, FPGAs can be reprogrammed and reconfigured by users in post-manufacturing environments to meet specific use case requirements. The DMA is the first in the world designed and demonstrated at the high-operating frequency of the 60 GHz millimetre-wave (mmWave) band. This is the portion of the spectrum reserved by international law for use in industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) applications. The antenna’s capability to operate in the higher mmWave band could well result in it becoming a key piece of hardware in the still-developing field of advanced beamforming metasurface antennas. This technology has the potential to permit 6G networks to deliver ultra-fast data transfer with high reliability and seamless connectivity and thus enable new applications in communication, sensing and imaging. The DMA is able to operate at such a high frequency through exploiting the use of the unique properties of metamaterial structures engineered to maximise their ability to interact with electromagnetic waves in ways that are simply impossible in naturally occurring materials. A metamaterial is any material engineered to have properties and functions that are rarely, if ever, to be seen in naturally occurring materials. They are 3D structures made from assemblies of at least two elements fashioned from composite materials, including metals and plastics. They are usually arranged in repeating patterns, at scales that are smaller than the wavelengths of the phenomena they influence. The properties of metamaterials do not emanate from the inherent properties of the base materials of which they comprise but from their newly designed structures themselves. Their precise shape, geometry, size, orientation and arrangement gives them smart properties able to manipulate electromagnetic waves by blocking, absorbing, enhancing or bending them. The Glasgow DMA employs specially designed, fully tunable metamaterial elements that have been carefully engineered to manipulate electromagnetic waves through software control, thus creating an advanced class of leaky-wave antennas capable of high-frequency reconfigurable operation. The prototype device itself is remarkably small (it is described as being about the size of a matchbox) and uses high-speed interconnects with simultaneous parallel control of individual metamaterial elements through FPGA programming. The DMA can shape its communications beams and create multiple beams at once, switching in nanoseconds to ensure network coverage remains stable. Professor Qammer Abbasi, co-director of the University of Glasgow’s Communications, Sensing and Imaging Hub, and a lead author of the paper, says the Glasgow team’s prototype DMA “makes it a potentially very valuable stepping stone towards new use cases of 6G technology and could pave the way for even higher-frequency operation in the terahertz range.”

You know that advances in systems and technologies able to anticipate, detect, prevent and help victims to recover from ransomware attacks are hitting malicious actors and criminals hard when they suddenly change their preferred method of blackmailing victims via incursions into networks and datacentres, and instead just call potential targets on the phone to, sort of, demand money with menaces. According to TechCrunch, a frustrated wanna-be extortionist from the ransomware gang DragonForce, not knowing quite what to do when his demands were ignored, gave the target company a call to find out why. Apparently, it’s an increasingly common practice. TechCrunch provides parts of one such call between a hacker and a member of a target company’s HR department to where the call had eventually been routed, a staff member, “Beth”, asks the would-be blackmailer if she is dealing with someone from Dragonforce.com and asks why the company is being attacked. The hacker tells her that the company has eight hours to pay the ransom and if it isn’t paid the company’s data will be published and will then be used for fraudulent purposes by criminals and terrorists. To prove his credentials the hacker adds that he has a recording of a previous call with “Patricia” – one of Beth’s workmates – and will load it onto the dark web. Beth responds: “Did you record Patricia, that’s illegal in Ohio”, and adds that she will “never negotiate with a terrorist or a hacker as you call yourself” and rounds off the one-sided exchange with: “Alright, well then, I’m just gonna go ahead and end this phone call now. I think we spent enough time and energy on this.” The hacker replies: “Thank you. Take care” and presumably goes to lie down in a darkened room for a while. Incredible – and the exchange did not take place on the 1st of April.

- The staff, TelecomTV

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