Apr 122016
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

Is the smart home worth the trouble? We live in an age of connected smoke alarms, kettles and even egg trays. For this month’s ABC Nightlife we’ll ask if these devices add to our lives or just make things more complex.

Earlier this month Google announced it would down their Evolv home automation platform leaving hundreds of users stuck with useless devices. So what happens to smart gadgets when they are disconnected from the Internet? We’ll also look at the new folding phone and just what a dire state the Australian telecoms industry is in.

Some of the questions we’ll cover include;

  • What was Google’s Evolv system?
  • Disabling the devices is a bit dramatic, why have they done that?
  • Do customers have any recourse?
  • Is this a risk with all connected devices?
  • What about connected cars, could they be turned off?
  • My computer needs updating, what about these devices?
  • What happens when the internet is disconnected, will my internet fridge work?
  • Samsung showed off a new folding phone last week. What exactly is it?
  • When will we see it on the market?
  • The Annual CommsDay conference was held last week in Sydney. Is there any good news for Aussie consumers?
  • Is the National Broadband Network looking any better?
  • How is the global telecommunications industry looking, can we expect anything exciting?

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at www.abc.net.au/nightlife.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to @paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.

Apr 062016

This week saw Australia’s telecommunications industry gather for the annual Comms Day Summit at Sydney’s Westin Hotel.

A constant in the telco industry is change and new technology – few industries have had to reinvent themselves in the same telephone companies have had to over the last 30 years.

For telcos, that period of change has been immensely profitable as the switch to mobile networks proved to be a river of gold for the industry as consumers enthusiastically moved away from fixed line networks and into lucrative products like SMS services.

Missing the passion

So it was notable how the Comms Day summit was missing a sense of excitement or vision about the approaching opportunities such as 5G networks, the Internet of Things and other new markets. Much of the conversations were mainly focused on the dysfunctional Australian industry and the flawed regulations that got it to where it is.

As an Australian event it’s not surprising that much of the focus would be on domestic failings – thirty years of misguided policy, political opportunism and schoolboy ideologies have left the nation facing the prospect of the “world’s most expensive broadband”  in the words of Megaport founder Bevan Slattery – however the stasis in the telecoms sector betrays a far deeper uncertainty in the global industry.

That uncertainty was on show at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona where most of the conference’s buzz was around virtual reality headsets and connected cars, areas where telecommunications providers are, at best, a ‘dumb pipe’.

We are not a utility

Being relegated to being a ‘mere utility’ is the fear of every telecommunications executive, which is why they spend so much on abortive Pay-TV, online and sports rights acquisitions. In the Australian context, Telstra’s acquisition of PacNet and Slattery’s own East Asian ventures are possibly the most interesting developments in the local industry yet they were barely mentioned at the Comms Day event.

While the Comms Day Summit told us much about the insular nature of modern Australian business – and the depressing mess three decades of poor regulation has left the local telecommunication industry – the bigger message is the global communications industry is struggling in a world of commoditised bandwidth where the opportunities to make huge profits is not immediately obvious.

It’s hard to see how telcos can be completely disrupted in the way media companies have been given how regulated their markets are – although the same was being said of the taxi industry five years ago – but it is clear their managements are struggling to find new business models.

Feb 222016
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

That telecommunications companies are taking the back seat at the global Mobile World Congress as virtual reality hogs the limelight, it may be telcos are facing the fate their managers fear most – becoming a mere utility.

Following the hype around virtual reality at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last months, it’s not surprising this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has continued the theme.

As Samsung and Huawei dominated the first day of the Barcelona event; Google, Facebook and a range of startups are also fighting to dominate a market estimated being worth $150 billion by the end of the decade.

What’s notable though are how the telecommunications companies are missing in this field, having lost the battle for payments – its notable how little telco money is now being invested in fintech and blockchain companies while the banking industry pours money into the sectors.

For the telcos, the industry that should be dominating Mobile World Congress, there seems to be very little promise in these technologies to their maturing revenue streams from their networks.

While telcos are focusing on new handsets, data centres, intelligent infrastructure and media plays it seems they are increasingly missing key shifts in the marketplaces.

Maybe what this year’s Mobile World Congress really tells us is the telcos are on their way to being utilities. Their executives may need to swallow some pride.

Feb 162016
Cell phones in use

One of the Twentieth Century’s great rivers of gold was the telecommunications industry. As the world became connected, first by telegraph, then telephone and finally mobile networks, owning a telco licence became a path to riches.

Late in the century, the mobile phone was a spectacularly profitable device for telcos in the 1990s as consumers flocked to buy them and pay dearly for services, particularly SMS which was practically free to provide.

Just as the century was coming to a close things changed dramatically as the Internet became accessible to the general public and while data was still profitable, telco revenues started to fall dramatically. Then, early in the new century, the arrival of the smartphone disrupted the entire industry.

Becoming a dumb pipe

Twenty years later and the arrival of smartphones using data services has changed the economics of cellular networks, leaving the incumbents worried they are going to merely become ‘dumb pipes’ offering just a low margin utility.

Around the world incumbent telcos and mobile network operators have responded by moving up the value chain into managed services and cloud computing and one particularly interesting company in this respect is India’s Reliance Telecom.

Reliance has responded to the changes in its market, something made more problematic by India’s arcane and complex cellular licensing system, by strategically selling off various parts of its infrastructure and focusing on where it sees opportunity.

At a lunch in Sydney yesterday CEO Bill Barney of Reliance’s global network division was showcasing their cloud services for Australian customers and showed how the quest for profits is moving telcos into areas like data centres and managed services.

Emerging markets corridor

Barney argues that Reliance’s network, which spans South Asia, the Middle East and into Eastern Europe, gives the company a strong position in the “emerging markets corridor”. He also boasts the product the company offers allows easier development of smart services.

In this respect, the Reliance Global Cloud Exchange differs from similar plays like Telstra’s PacNet network across East Asia – which Barney previously headed – in that it offers services higher ‘up the stack’ making it easier for companies to deploy smart applications, something Barney sees as being particularly attractive to the media and financial industries.

While Reliance’s claims are yet to be tested in the market, the company’s shift to higher level services illustrates a struggle facing all telecommunications operators. To do this, Reliance and Telstra look to global networks and data services, Singapore’s Singtel tries its hand at media content in a similar way to Britain’s BT and Vodafone makes a strong Internet of Things play.

For each of these companies, diversifying into other fields makes sense however each strategy brings its own risks – in Reliance and Telstra’s cases this means competing with cloud services vendors like Amazon and Microsoft – that telcos haven’t been exposed to in their core markets.

Those core markets though are being disrupted and will never be as profitable as they were twenty years ago. For the world’s telecommunications companies it’s a matter of diversify or shrink.

Sep 082015
Girl with mobile phone using the camera

Can groups and communities build their own internet connected networks? The Mother Jones website describes how in Athens some neighbourhoods are doing exactly that.

Many of the new communications applications are enabling adhoc networks between smartphones and other devices. In times of civil emergencies and natural disasters, those networks may well turn out to be more reliable than the telecommunications networks.

With the various mesh technologies available, we’re seeing another way people can go ‘off the grid’ which will change many of the existing business models of many industries and possibly empower communities in unexpected ways.

Jan 072015
2015 Lincoln MKC at Louisville Assembly Plant

The CES extravaganza continues in Las Vegas with a wave of announcement, most of which I’m ignoring, however the motor industry continues to show off new developments with Mercedes displaying their vision of how a driverless car will look.

Other interesting links today include an analysis of the ill fated South China Mall’s flaws and how Amazon is reorganising its R&D efforts after the failure of the Amazon Fire.

Mercedes redesigns the car

A little while back I suggested that we could do better in redesigning the driverless carMercedes have gone ahead and done it.

Mercedes’ redesign of the driverless car indicates just what can be done when we rethink what passengers will need in the vehicles of the future.

Ford recalls a vehicle for a UI upgrade

Ford has recalled its Lincoln MKC SUV models for a software upgrade after discovering drivers were shutting down the cars by accident.

What’s notable with this story is how software changes are now one of the main reasons for recalling vehicles and how design flaws in an automobile’s computer programs are relatively quickly discovered and resolved.

We will probably find in the near future car manufacturers will carry out the upgrades remotely rather than ask owners to bring their vehicles into dealerships.

A long running security flaw is exposed

In August 2013 a security researcher warned UK online greeting card vendor Moonpig that its system exposed up to six million users’ account and financial details. Until Monday the company had ignored him. This is a tale of classic management disregard for customer security and one area where business culture needs to dramatically change.

Rumours of an AOL – Verizon merger

It’s a speculative story but if a merger between US telco Verizon and former internet giant AOL goes ahead it may mark another wave of telcos moving into content services, although it’s hard not to think that Verizon could spend its money more wisely.

After a flop, Amazon restructures its R&D

The Amazon Fire was by all measures a miserable flop as a smartphone however it seems the company learned some important lessons from the device’s market failures. Instead of abandoning its research efforts, the online behemoth is increasing it’s R&D budget and reorganising its development division.

Design fails of the South China Mall

South China Mall just south of Guangzhou has been the poster child of Chinese malinvestment during the nation’s current boom. In a blog post from 2011, a shopping mall expert visits the development and points out the major design faults in the complex which may well have doomed the project from the beginning.

Dec 112014
Cell phones in use

What will the next generation of smartphones look like? Earlier this week the GSM Association released their roadmap for the future 5G network standard, the next generation of mobile communications that will start appearing towards the end of this decade.

The GSMA is the peak global telco industry body which includes amongst its membership most of the world’s telephone companies and the vendors who manufacture the network equipment, so the organisation’s view is a good representation of the industry’s long term vision.

Much of the future standard is actually an amalgam of existing technology and concepts such as heterogeneous networks where phones and mobile internet of things devices can switch from the phone network to private WiFi systems without users noticing the handover.

The GSMA sees eight main areas for the 5G standards;

  • data rates of 1Gbps down
  • latency of less than one millisecond
  • network densification in determining base station locations
  • improving coverage
  • making networks more availabile
  • reducing operating costs
  • increasing the field life of devices.

That latter point is particularly pertinent as battery life remains a major concern for smartphone users and getting power to internet of things devices is one of the greatest barriers to adoption.

With the 5G standard not expected before the end of the decade, it’s hard to imagine how much technology may have changed in that time, something the GSMA acknowledges; “Because 5G is at an early stage there may be many use cases that will emerge over the coming years that we cannot anticipate today.”

The report though does try to anticipate some of the applications we may see the 5G standard driving such as autonomous vehicles, cloud based offices and augmented reality technologies. All of these though are advancing rapidly under the existing fixed line, 3G and 4G telco networks.

For the moment rolling out the 4G standard remains the industry’s main game with the existing technology only making up five percent of the world’s mobile connections at present. This is the area the GSMA sees as being the big opportunity over the rest of the decade.

In another report the GSMA claims the 4G rollout in Europe, currently at less than 10% of connections but expected to be over half by 2020, will drive economic growth on the continent.

The mobile industry is playing a central role in supporting economic activity and recovery in the region, contributing 3.1 per cent to Europe’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, equivalent to EUR433 billion4, including EUR105 billion generated directly by mobile operators. By 2020, it is estimated that the industry will generate a total economic value of EUR492 billion.

There’s no doubt telecommunications networks are to the 21st Century what the highways were to the Twentieth and the railways to the nineteenth. As with the construction of previous century’s networks one of the big challenges will be raising the capital to build the systems and making wise investment choices.

For the developing world raising the capital required for those networks might be the hardest task of all, however for those countries and regions not making the investments may leave them further behind the western nations than they are today.

Ultimately what eventually is included in the 5G standard will reflect many of the political and economic realities of the next five years; no international standard is free from political or commercial influences during its drafting. The job for the standards bodies is not to get left too far behind market or technological advances.

In describing a vision for the sector’s future the GSMA 5G report lays out many of the opportunities and challenges facing the telecommunications industry over the rest of the decade. With these technologies becoming the centre of our working and home lives, what happens won’t just determine what smartphone we own in 2020 but the shape of our societies.