All posts in “telecommunications”

Still a year away from launch, Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi keeps adding talent

Video won’t start rolling on Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new bite-sized streaming service with the billion-dollar backing until the end of 2019, but talent keeps signing up to come along for their ride into the future of serialization.

The latest marquee director to sign on the dotted line with Quibi is Catherine Hardwicke, who will be helming a story around the creation of an artificial intelligence with the working title “How They Made Her,” according to an announcement from Katzenberg onstage at the Variety Innovate summit.

Hardwicke, who directed “Thirteen,” “Lords of Dogtown” and, most famously, “Twilight,” is joining Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi and Lena Waithe in an attempt to answer the question of whether Whitman and Katzenberg’s gamble on premium (up to $6 million per episode) short-form storytelling is a quixotic quest or a quintessential viewing experience for a new generation of media consumers.

Katzenberg also revealed in a LinkedIn post that Quibi would be working on a basketball-related series with Steph Curry’s production company. He wrote:

I announced a new docu-series by Whistle called “Benedict Men” coming exclusively to Quibi. “Benedict Men” will be executive produced by Stephen Curry’s Unanimous Media and will give viewers an inside look at one of the most unique high school basketball teams in America at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, New Jersey.

St. Benedict’s Prep is an all-boys secondary school founded on the core belief ‘What Hurts My Brother Hurts Me,’ and aims to foster a legacy of strong character, community, leadership, and faith. As one of the top athletic high schools with a storied basketball program and the highest graduation rate in New Jersey, the series will follow the brotherhood of young men who seek to balance life in complicated surroundings.

In some ways, the big adventure backed by Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and founder of WndrCo, and every major Hollywood studio — including Disney, 21st Century Fox, Entertainment One, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Alibaba Goldman Sachs — is the latest in an everything old is new again refrain.

If blogs reinvented printed media, and podcasts and music streaming reinvented radio, why can’t Quibi reinvent serialized storytelling.

Again and again, Whitman and Katzenberg returned to an analogy from the early days of the cable revolution. “We’re not short form, we’re Quibi,” said Whitman, echoing the tagline that HBO made famous in its early advertising blitzes. That Whitman and Katzenberg’s project to take what HBO did for premium television and apply that to mobile media is ambitious. Now industry-watchers will have to wait until 2019 at the earliest to see if it’s also successful.

In the interview onstage at a Variety event on artificial intelligence in media, Katzenberg cited Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” as something of an inspiration — noting that the book had more than 100 chapters for its 500 pages of text. But Katzenberg could have gone back even further to the days of Dickens and his serialized entertainments.

And right now for the entertainment business it really is the best of times and the worst of times. Traditional Hollywood studios are seeing new players like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and others all trying to drink their milkshake. And, for the most part, these studios and their new telecom owners are woefully ill-equipped to fight these big technology platforms at their own game. 

Taking the long view of entertainment history, Katzenberg is hoping to win networks with not just a new skin for the old ceremony of watching entertainment but with a throwback to old style deal-making. The term serialization here takes on greater meaning. 

Quibi is offering its production partners a sweetheart deal. After seven years the production company behind the Quibi shows will own their intellectual property, and after two years those producers will be able to repackage the Quibi content back into long-form series and pitch them for distribution to other platforms. Not only that, but Quibi is fronting the money for over 100 percent of the production.

Katzenberg said that it “will create the most powerful syndicated marketplace” Hollywood has seen in decades. It’s a sort of anti-Netflix model where Katzenberg and Whitman view Quibi as a platform where creators and talent will want to come. “We are betting on the success of the platform — and by the way, it worked brilliantly in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s.” Katzenberg said. “Hundreds of TV shows were tremendous successes and [like the networks then] we don’t want to compete with our suppliers.”

In addition to the business model innovations (or throwbacks, depending on how one looks at it), Quibi is being built from the ground up with a technology stack that will leverage new technologies like 5G broadband, and big data and analytics, according to Whitman.

Indeed, launching the first platform built without an existing stable of content means that Quibi is preparing 5,000 unique pieces of content to go up when it pulls the curtains back on its service in late 2019 or early 2020, Whitman said.

And the company is looking to big telecommunications companies like Verizon (my corporate overlord’s corporate overlord) and AT&T as partners to help it get to market. Since those networks need something to do with all the 5G capacity they’re building out, high-quality streaming content that’s replete with meta-tags to monitor and manage how an audience is spending their time is a compelling proposition.

“We want to work to have video that looks good on mobile [and] ramp up content in terms of quantity and quality,” Whitman said. That quality extends to things like the user interface, search features and analytics.

“We have to have a different search and find metaphor,” Whitman said. “It takes eight minutes to find what you’re looking for on Netflix… We will be able to instrument this with data on what people are watching and using that in our recommendation engine.”

Questions remain about the service’s viability. Like what role will the telcos actually play in distribution and development? Can Quibi avoid the Hulu problem where the various investors are able to overcome their own entrenched interests to work for the viability of the platform? And do consumers even want a premium experience on mobile given the new kinds of stars that are made through the immediacy and accessibility that technology platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snap offer?

“Where the fish are today is a phenomenal environment,” Katzenberg said of the current short-form content market. “But it is an ocean. We need to find a place where there are these premium services.”

UK sets out plan to spend billions on fiber and 5G broadband for all

The UK government has set out a package of measures it’s hoping will futureproof domestic networks and boost international competitiveness by supporting a nationwide rollout of full fiber broadband and 5G mobile technology.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, published today, follows the announcement of a market review last year as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy as it seeks to chart a technology-enabled course for growth and competitiveness.

Yet, at the same time, the UK seriously lags several European competitors on the fiber broadband front — so the strategy is also intended to try to reboot current poor performance.

The government says its telecoms plan emphasizes greater consumer choice and initiatives to promote quicker rollout — and an eventual full switch over — from copper to fiber.

It wants full fibre broadband to reach 15 million premises (up from the ’10M over the next decade’ set out in the Conservative party manifesto) by 2025, and also 5G mobile network coverage to reach the majority of the population.

By 2033, it wants full fiber broadband coverage to reach across all of the UK.

Currently the UK only has 4% full fiber connections, which compares dismally to 71% in Spain and 89% in Portugal. While France has around 28% — which the government notes is “increasing quickly”.

Included in the government’s strategy is public investment in full fiber for rural areas; and new legislation to guarantee full fiber connections in new build developments; as well as a series of regulatory reforms intended to drive investment and competition — which it says will be tailored to different local market conditions.

It’s also planning for an industry-led switch over from copper to full fiber — to avoid businesses being saddled with the expense and burden of running copper and fiber networks in parallel.

There’s no fixed timing for this, as the government says it will depend on the pace of fiber rollouts and take-up, but it suggests it’s “realistic to assume that switchover could happen in the majority of the country by 2030”.

To boost competition to drive commercial fiber rollouts, the government is proposing regulatory reform to allow for “unrestricted access” to BT Openreach ducts and poles — i.e. the company’s own physical infrastructure where fiber can be laid — for both residential and business broadband use, including for essential mobile infrastructure.

It also wants to open up other avenues for laying broadband fiber, saying other existing infrastructure (including pipes and sewers) owned by other utilities such as power, gas and water, should be “easy to access, and available for both fixed and mobile use”. 

And it says it will shortly publish consultations on the proposed legislative changes to streamline wayleaves and mandate fiber connections in new builds.

Another key recommendation in the review, given that the expense of digs to lay fiber remains one of the biggest barriers to broadband upgrades, is for a new nationwide framework aimed at reducing the costs, time and disruption caused by street-works by standardising the approach across the country.

With its planned regulatory tweaks, the government reckons that market competition will be able to deliver full fiber networks across the majority of the UK (~80%) — leaving around ~20% which it’s expecting will require “bespoke solutions to ensure rollout of networks”. And for around half of that fifth it also expects taxpayer funding will be needed to deliver a fiber/5G upgrade.

It estimates that nationwide availability of ‘full fiber’ is likely to require additional (public) funding of around £3BN to £5BN to support commercial investment in the final ~10% of areas that would otherwise be overlooked — stressing that these “often rural areas must not be forced to wait until the rest of the country has connectivity before they can access gigabit-capable networks”.

So it’s planning to pursue an “outside-in” strategy, allowing network competition to serves commercially viable areas while laying down government support investment in parallel on what it describes as “the most difficult to reach areas”.

“We have already identified around £200M within the existing Superfast broadband programme that can further the delivery of full fibre networks immediately,” it notes on that.

Although it’s not clear at this stage how the government intends to fund the full proposals for a taxpayer-funded broadband bill running to multiple billions.

On the mobile connectivity front, it’s proposing increased access to spectrum for “innovative 5G services”, and says it will allow mobile network operators to make far greater use of government buildings to boost coverage across the UK.

“We should consider whether more flexible, shared spectrum models can maintain network competition between MNOs while also increasing access to spectrum to support new investment models, spurring innovation in industrial internet of things, wireless automation and robotics, and improving rural coverage,” it writes on that.

Over the longer term it says is expecting to see a more converged telecoms sector — so it’s leaving itself some ‘last mile’ wiggle room on the ‘full fiber’ push, for example by pointing out that: “Fixed fibre networks and 5G are complementary technologies, and 5G will require dense fibre networks. In some places, 5G may provide a more cost-effective way of providing ultra-fast connectivity to homes and businesses.”

“We want everyone in the UK to benefit from world-class connectivity no matter where they live, work or travel,” said the new Secretary of State for digital, culture, media and sport, Jeremy Wright, commenting on the review in a statement, and dubbing it a “radical new blueprint for the future of telecommunications in this country”.

“[The strategy] will increase competition and investment in full fiber broadband, create more commercial opportunities and make it easier and cheaper to roll out infrastructure for 5G,” he added.

The UK’s incumbent telco, BT, which owns and operates the country’s largest broadband network, has long pursued the opposite strategy to the one the government is here pursuing: i.e. by seeking to eke out its own ex-monopoly copper infrastructure, such as by applying technologies that speed up fiber to the cabinet technology, instead of making the major financial commitment to invest in substantially expanding full fiber to the home coverage (and thereby futureproof national network infrastructure).

For years competitors (and, indeed, frustrated consumers) have also accused the company of foot-dragging on providing access to its network — thereby undermining other commercial players’ ability to fund and build out next-gen network coverage.

Last year BT agreed with telecoms watchdog Ofcom to legally separate its network division Openreach — around a decade after a functional separation has been imposed by the regulator. Albeit, it’s still not the full structural separation some have called for.

“It is too early to determine whether legal separation will be sufficient to deliver positive changes on investment in full fibre infrastructure,” writes the government in its review, adding that it will “closely monitor legal separation, including Ofcom’s reports on the effectiveness of the new arrangements”.

“The Government will consider all additional measures if BT Group fails to deliver its commitments and regulatory obligations, and if Openreach does not deliver on its purpose of investing in ways that respond to the needs of its downstream customers,” it adds.

One aspect of the strategy the government is not trumpeting quite so loudly in its PR around the announcement is an intent to promote what it describes as “stable and long-term regulation” as part of its strategy to drive increased competition and unlock business investments.

On this it writes that the overarching strategic priority to “promote efficient competition and investment in world-class digital networks” should be “prioritised over interventions to further reduce retail prices in the near term, recognising these longer-term benefits”.

In the review it suggests moving to longer, five year review periods, for instance — saying this “could provide greater regulatory stability and promote investment”. It also writes that it wants Ofcom to publish guidance that “clearly sets out the approach and information it will use in determining a ‘fair bet’ return”.

It’s therefore possible that UK consumers could end up paying twice over to help fund national fiber broadband infrastructure upgrades; i.e. not just via direct subsidies to fund rural rollouts but also, potentially, via higher broadband prices too. Albeit, the government says that in its view “the interests of consumers are safeguarded as fiber markets become more competitive”.

Though in less commercially attractive areas, where there could be a greater risk of price inflation, the government’s small print does include the recognition that regulatory interventions — such as price controls — may indeed be required. Though of course any such controls would only come in after consumers had been being stung…

“For areas where there is actual or prospective effective competition between networks, Government would not anticipate the need for regulation,” it writes. “For other areas, we would expect the regulatory model for to evolve over time as networks are established. If market power emerges, regulated access (including price controls) may be needed to address competition concerns. These detailed regulatory decisions will be for Ofcom to take.”

FCC may soon charge you $225 to investigate your complaint

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai drinks out of his infamous giant coffee mug. Perhaps the proposed $225 fee to have the FCC read your complaints are going to buying Pai a new very large mug.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai drinks out of his infamous giant coffee mug. Perhaps the proposed $225 fee to have the FCC read your complaints are going to buying Pai a new very large mug.

Image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Late last December, nearly 24 million comments poured into the FCC after the agency revealed its plans, spearheaded by its chairman Ajit Pai, to roll back net neutrality. 

The FCC’s rules, as they stand, require all comments from the public to be forwarded to the commissioners, and for the commissioners to take these comments into consideration when casting a vote on a new measure.

Well, it seems like the current FCC doesn’t want to bother having to read through all your comments anymore. At least, not without getting paid for it.

Coming up on the FCC’s docket for a vote on Thursday is a proposed measure titled “Streamlining the Rules Governing Formal Complaint Proceedings.” What does this streamlining include? Forwarding your complaints directly to the telecom company for them to deal with rather than the FCC.

And what if you really want the FCC to get involved? They’ll charge you.

The Verge reports that two high-ranking Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Senator Mike Doyle and Senator Frank Pallone, have sent a letter to FCC chairman Ajit Pai voicing how they are “deeply concerned” about the proposed rule change.

Under current FCC rules, the commission reviews and acts on consumer complaints. Under the new rules, these type of free-to-file informal customer complaints would be forwarded to the telecommunication companies. If consumers are not satisfied with the outcome in dealing directly with the telecom company in question, the customer can come back to the FCC with a formal complaint, an existing commission legal process – one which the FCC will review – that costs $225 to file.

If the new FCC rules are passed, consumers are left with the option of letting the very service provider they’re complaining about decide the outcome of their complaint, or ponying up the cash to start the legal process with the FCC. And, as Senator Doyle and Senator Pallone said in their letter, this rule change would come “at a time when consumers are highly dissatisfied with their communications companies.”

The FCC has commented on the Democrats’ letter, disputing the details describing the rule changes in the measure. In an email to CNET, a FCC spokesman writes:

“The item would not change the Commission’s handling of informal complaints. The Democrats’ letter is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the draft order.”

As the Washington Post points out in talking with senior Democratic committee aides, while the $225 fee for the formal complaint process isn’t new, the updated wording of the FCC rules in this measure does free the FCC of its current informal complaint responsibilities.

Mashable has reached out to the FCC and will update when we receive a response.

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The Uberization of telcos

For the past decade, telecommunications companies around the globe have been grappling with falling average revenues per user equaling stagnant growth rates.

While particularly mobile operators have enabled increasing prosperity in third-world countries, new ways of working and fueled entirely new markets, much of the wealth created has landed on the books of companies that we look upon with increasing discomfort: Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent and others. And as if this was not enough, the very ingredient — ubiquitous connectivity — that has served as lubricant for the disruption of entire industries is now on the verge of being disrupted itself.

While many expect finance or healthcare to be next on the list of global serial disruptors, and technologies like wearables, blockchain and AI are cited to be the nails in the coffins of these industries, small players have cooked up the ingredients that could well marginalize today’s prevailing telco business models globally. There are three ingredients that could make that happen…

Lack of customer trust

Among the top 100 most trusted brands globally, you will find companies of almost any industry, except telco. You will find our serial disruptors, big brand consumer packaged goods, car manufacturers — even banks, payment companies and healthcare service providers. But you won’t find telcos. In their battle for growth, telcos globally have largely alienated their customers for the sake of managing yield and profitability.

Furthermore, simple customer engagement processes are often broken, and telcos have struggled to achieve a high quality of service with zero defects, high responsiveness and a great customer experience on even their most relevant customer interactions. They have broken the trust equation with their customers.

An existing trusted relationship is hard to disintermediate.

Why is that relevant? Because trust is an important ingredient in disintermediation, à la Uber or Airbnb. Uber has put trust and ease into the car-hailing business, while Airbnb has put the trust in-between guest and host. On the flip side, an existing trusted relationship is hard to disintermediate.

However, the telco-customer relationship, as global brand indicators show, is ready to be disrupted. Perhaps even more so than the bank-client or doctor-patient relationships.

Liquid infrastructure

While telcos are grappling with fixing their customer front ends, becoming more nimble and responsive to customer needs and putting “greatness” back into the overall customer experience equation, small startups (and large telco suppliers alike) are creating what is known as “liquid infrastructures.”

In today’s cloud-based world, global network traffic is exploding while traffic patterns, with globally scaled and load-balanced cloud-based back-ends, are becoming more and more fluid and less predictable. Likewise, decreasing enterprise assets actually connect to the enterprise network directly.

The internet of things (IoT) is creating massively distributed architectures with globally roaming assets that need to seamlessly blend into critical enterprise applications. So, enterprises are challenged with creating more flexible network infrastructures that not only connect their various operating sites, but also create reliable connections to public cloud service providers, while connecting remote and mobile IoT assets to the core network. And all that while accommodating massive shifts in traffic patterns depending on the day of the week, time of day or reconfigurations happening at service providers.

Liquid infrastructure promises to provide a solution for such challenges, and it’s not a concept telcos are capable of, or offering, in the market place as of now. It is players like Waltz Networks, a venture-backed startup from San Francisco, that are disrupting the market place by providing solutions for the completely self-managed, liquid infrastructure that can handle today’s network demand.

Envision such an offering as a global OTT service and you have a recipe for a serious contender to the global enterprise telco services market.

“On the fly” mobile access

Redtea Mobile is another such interesting disruptor in the telco space. Imagine your IoT assets are roaming around the world globally. Which telco would you go to in order to buy a data plan, plus device management, which enables you to provision and deprovision your devices globally and on the fly?

Telcos globally have been struggling to come up with competitive offerings that make managing such global asset bases economical and a breeze. That is firstly because none of the globally leading telcos can offer a truly global network — be it of their own or partner assets. Secondly, given multiple telcos are forced to collaborate if they want to offer a global virtual mobile data service, long-standing roaming agreements often stand in the way of economical pricing models. Telcos are not yet willing to sacrifice existing global roaming revenue at the expense of a potentially growing global IoT mobility data market opportunity.

Companies are better off disrupting than being disrupted.

Despite these challenges, however, the demand is increasing. While global mobile traffic was 7 exabytes in 2016, it will skyrocket 700 percent by 2021. That’s where Redtea Mobile comes into the picture. With Redtea Mobile’s technology, you could imagine someone buying regional capacity with enough associated international mobile subscriber identities (IMSI), the unique numbers assigned to mobile phone users, around the globe at wholesale prices, bundling this capacity as a global mobile IoT data service, and reselling it to enterprises globally to fuel their IoT devices.

The way Redtea Mobile’s technology works is that it can reprogram eSIMs on the fly from the cloud, so a device that operates on one mobile network in one country can be reprogrammed to another network on the fly once it crosses the border.

Both Redtea Mobile and Waltz Network enable the disintermediation of telcos, cutting out the expensive middle man. In the scenarios described above, the end-customer relationship would likely not reside with the telco, but with a service provider smartly repackaging core telco services with new technology into an over-the-top (OTT) service that completely marginalizes the telco to a pure infrastructure provider — much like the Uber drivers or the Airbnb property owners. And, as my first argument suggests, it is unlikely that many customers will bemoan the demise of global telcos as customer-facing service providers.

So what can telcos do?

Enough cases have proven already that companies are better off disrupting than being disrupted.

True, telcos have one strength that is impossible to beat — they own assets that are hard, in most markets impossible, to replicate. However, while telcos will not vanish entirely, they run the risk of being completely marginalized. To prevent that, they should drive disruptive change of their own. While small companies are innovating, telcos could be at the forefront of deploying those technologies across their infrastructure and of developing new and innovative offerings that disrupt their prevailing products and business models on top of those technologies.

Will this be enough to win? No, telcos will still have to fix the trust equation with their customers, become more responsive, etc.

But if telcos rely on their stagnant existing revenue streams and are too timid in embracing disruption, they are likely to continue their slow path toward the ultimate horror scenario of many telco executives: that of becoming a dump pipe.

Russia starts blocking Telegram for failing to turn over encryption keys

The Russian state telecommunication regulator has started to block Telegramas expected. This comes after the messaging company refused to give Russian security services encryption keys. The service is expected to be blocked in the coming hours.

According to several reports, Telegram is still operational in the country, though several service providers have started blocking the company’s website.

Run by its Russian founder Pavel Durov, Telegram has more than 200 million users and is a top-10 messaging service made popular by its strong stance on privacy.

Russian regulators classify Telegram as an operator of information dissemination in Russia, therefore the company is required to provide keys to its encryption service to Russia’s Federal Security Service. This is so the FSS can reportedly read the messages of suspected terrorists. On March 20, the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor gave Telegram 15 days to comply. This was followed by Durov publicly decrying the order, saying Telegram will stand for freedom and privacy.

“The terrorist threat in Russia will stay at the same level, because extremists will continue to use encrypted communication channels – in other messengers, or through a VPN,” he said according to a report by Reuters.

Durov has long stood by this stance. Back in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, Durov revealed that ISIS was using Telegram.

“I think that privacy, ultimately, and the right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” he said at the time. “Yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. It’s a series of tragic events. But ultimately, the ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves. And if any means of communication turns out to be not secure for them, they’ll just switch to another one. So I don’t think we are actually taking part in these activities. I don’t think we should be guilty or feel guilty about it. I still think we’re doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.”

It’s unclear how this block will change Telegram’s plan for a billion-dollar ICO. We’ve reached out to Telegram for comment.