Seven things we learned at Mobile World Congress 2017

Barcelona hosted the biggest mobile tech show on the planet this week.

Tech editor Adrian Weckler has been immersed in the sector’s latest phones, mobile gadgets and new technology. Here he reveals why 5G really will be the next big thing (as Samsung and VR struggle); why, as phone cameras take giant leaps, Nokia’s classic €50 phone was a surprise hit; and while Irish delegates are up, the number of women most definitely isn’t

1. A lot more is going to depend on 5G than we think.

One of the big themes at Mobile World Congress was 5G. But unlike 3G or 4G, 5G is about way more than mobile phone speeds or internet access from handsets.

It’s starting to become clear that almost everything we do in a few years may depend on solid, unbroken access to a mobile network.

Self-driving cars, for instance, will probably only work if they have guaranteed, unfettered connections to a wider network – and 4G doesn’t cut it.

Right now, you can watch a video in your car or get sat nav access.

But for precision timing, the latency has to be down to a few milliseconds, something that isn’t possible over current networks. At Mobile World Congress, several of the car companies were there, making this point, with the two biggest display areas in the whole event taken up by Ericsson and Huawei, which are vying to be the main 5G network providers around the world.

2. The hype around virtual reality has abated.

The last two years were dominated by the promise of a new era in virtual reality. But in 2017, there is a lot less being said about it at the main tech shows.

“There just aren’t that many people buying them,” one senior Google executive told me at Mobile World Conference.

As a result, generic mobile and tech companies aren’t showcasing virtual reality modules as future add-ons to whatever service they sell in the same way they might have last year.

There is still massive investment going into the genre, mainly because of bets placed by Facebook (which owns Oculus), Sony, HTC and – to a lesser extent – Google. But virtual reality is starting to be talked about more in niche terms than ubiquitous, mass-market parlance.

3. Phone cameras are taking the next step up.

Given the laws of physics, can cameras in phones get any better? Actually, yes. We saw some significant upgrades at Mobile World Congress to the lenses sitting in your pocket. Sony and Huawei, in particular, showcased beefed-up cameraphone tech that will result in significantly better photos and videos turning up on our Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat feeds.

Sony’s new Xperia XZ Premium, for example, has an unprecedented ability to shoot very slow motion video in high definition.

Huawei, meanwhile, has upped its Leica lenses to give pretty jaw-dropping portrait photo ability.

They weren’t the only phone companies improving on their camera tech. Oppo may not be a widely known phone outfit in Ireland, but it’s now one of the biggest handset brands in China.

It also debuted a dual-lens cameraphone at Mobile World Congress.

Undoubtedly, Apple and Samsung will respond with the S8, due out shortly, and the iPhone 8, expected in September.

But the bottom line is that the gap between cameraphones and €1,000-plus standalone cameras will continue to narrow this year.

To be clear, the two will never be equal: camera sensors and standalone lenses will always have a significant edge over necessarily small phone sensors and flat micro-lenses. But the scale of the superiority that once existed continues to decline.

4. People are still looking for quirky things.

The hit of Mobile World Congress came from an unlikely source: Nokia. Its revived  classic 3310 model caught the imagination of the public, taking experts and analysts by surprise.

For €50, the dinky little phone comes with a two-inch colour screen, basic camera and an even more basic web browser. Its battery will last a month on standby and it has a new version of ‘Snake’, said to be the most-played video game of all time.

But is it a gimmick or a product with real legs? Are people really about to give up their powerful smartphones for a gadget that would have been fairly basic even ten years ago?

Analysts say that it will appeal to a mixture of older people, festival-goers, travellers and those who want to reduce their addiction to social media all throughout the day.

There are even suggestions that people sensitive to their data privacy might use the pared-down phone when entering the US, to limit border guards’ exploration of their social information when asked for such data at customs.

5. Samsung continues to have a terrible time of it.

Can things get much worse for Samsung? In the middle of Mobile World Congress, news came through that its chief executive is to be investigated for corruption.

Not that things were going well for the company at the event before that bombshell dropped. Its keynote presentation, which is usually an anchor event at Mobile World Congress, was a decidedly awkward affair with more hand-wringing from the stage over its Note 7 overheating phone fiasco. It didn’t even have any significant product to launch, with no Galaxy S8 model ready yet.

That left it with nothing more than an Android tablet and two touchscreen Windows laptops as its main pitch to the thousands gathered and watching. In previous years, Samsung has utterly dominated Mobile World Congress, just as it has dominated the mobile industry. So far, 2017 is proving to be as challenging as the end of 2016.

6. The Irish presence is getting bigger and bigger.

A couple of years ago, Irish influence at Mobile World Congress was largely restricted to a state-subsidised stand with 14 plucky little companies selected to present on the big stage. Now, some Irish companies are starting to come into their own as legitimate, large-scale competition to big international players. Dublin-based telecoms software firm Openet had arguably the biggest stand of any of the Irish firms on hand, a very large corner edifice with public and private spaces within. Asavie, a Dublin-based ‘internet of things’ firm, also has a sizeable stand at the event and announced a pretty significant deal.

In all, there were well over 30 Irish companies officially on display, with dozens (perhaps hundreds) more on location for business meetings and pitches.

7. The telecoms industry is still run by middle-aged men in suits.

Think web-tech companies have a gender balance problem? A walk around Mobile World Congress shows you an industry that makes the digital tech business look like a model of progressive gender-balance.

Hardly any keynote speeches were by women and, from what I saw walking around the place for two days, very few of the senior executives on the floor were women.

In relative terms, Ireland actually does reasonably well on this score. Ericsson’s most senior Irish executive at the event was Zelia Madigan, country manager for the company which has over 1,000 people working between Athlone and Dublin. At home, Irish telcos have pretty visible female senior executives too, including Vodafone’s Irish boss Anne O’Leary and Eir’s head of networks, Carolann Lennon.

However, not a single one of the 14 up-and-coming companies showcased at by Enterprise Ireland on the state agency’s subsidised stand at Mobile World Congress was led by a woman.

This probably wasn’t for want of looking on EI’s part. But telecoms still appears to be a very, very male-dominated business.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

Virgin Media customers told their bills will increase from January

Customers of Virgin Media have been told that their bills will increase from January.

The new changes will see the average customer paying an extra €1.50 per month, the company claims. But one irate customer told Independent.ie that his bill will increase by €4 – an extra €48 per year. Customers were informed of the changes via email in the last two weeks.

In the correspondence top one customer, seen by Independent.ie, the broadband and TV company wrote: “We’re making some changes in January and we wanted to let you know that the amount you pay for your Virgin Media package will go up.

“This change will take effect from your first bill after January 1st 2017. Nobody likes a price rise, and we understand this. We’re always looking at how we can bring you an even better TV package and add value to your Virgin Media experience wherever possible.”

A spokesperson for the company said the price changes vary depending on the services that customers use, and they average 3.35% across the customer base.

The company told customers that they have until December 23 to cancel their package and can do so by calling 1908 and selecting option 1.

On customer said: “This is outrageous. I have lost count of the number of price increases we have experienced in the last number of years.”

In a statement to Independent.ie, a spokesperson for Virgin Media said: “Nobody likes price changes and we only ever increase prices when we need to. We do everything we can to keep prices competitive while also continuing to make necessary investments in the services that our customers want.

“The price change is necessary due to increased operating costs and, most notably, a near trebling of rates payable across our network.

Catch the full article here in the Irish Independent
– Copyright Online Editors | Newsdesk

National broadband plan will fail those in our country areas

High-speed internet access is more important than ever but getting fibre to all homes is not the way forward in rural Ireland.

The National Broadband Plan, the Government’s initiative to provide high-speed fibre internet connections to every home in the country, has been hit with setbacks, budget cuts and delays almost since its inception.

The latest Switcher.ie survey brought in to focus the huge variance of broadband speeds across Ireland and the real problems facing rural businesses and communities without high-speed internet access.

The National Broadband Plan, the Government’s initiative to provide high-speed fibre internet connections to every home in the country, has been hit with setbacks, budget cuts and delays almost since its inception. This problem seems destined to continue with no end in sight. What was supposed to be delivered in 2015 is now not even planned to start until mid-2018 and is unlikely to fully materialise until 2023 at the earliest. This will leave thousands of rural households and businesses with a prohibitively slow internet connection.

While it’s a difficult question to confront, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask it: is the National Broadband Plan in its present form actually feasible? Considering our geography and existing infrastructure, is it financially and logistically possible to deliver high-speed fibre-optic internet to every home in Ireland?

While more and more of us are gravitating towards major towns and cities, Ireland is still mostly rural. Laying fibre-optic cable isn’t easy, or cheap. Roads must be closed and footpaths dug up. These difficulties are multiplied significantly in the country, where kilometres of hi-tech cable need to be passed through private farmland, secondary roads and down boreens to reach solitary houses and isolated townlands.

There are still too many unanswered questions. If the Government puts down fibre- optic cable along a main road, will it be up to the household or the business to pay to have it connected the extra distance to their front door? This would cost thousands. Will this cost be subsidised or will the consumer have to pony up the money upfront? And how much of a monthly charge consumers will have to pay? We simply do not know.

What we do know is that similar commercial and government initiatives to get fibre to the home in other countries have proved too costly and expensive and are being replaced with more advanced, future-proofed wireless technologies.

The Australian government launched its own broadband initiative a number of years ago, and these very problems were encountered; it was not cost-effective or practical to deliver fibre-optic cable to remote areas. They turned to fixed wireless as a solution.

And it’s not only cost-conscious governments reassessing their plans: Google, arguably the world’s foremost tech company, with virtually unlimited funds, has made drastic revisions to its own broadband project in the United States, which was initially focused on delivering ultra-high-speed fibre-optic connections.

When consumers proved unwilling to pay the price of connecting their homes to a fibre-optic network and paying for a service they didn’t need, Google realised the impracticality and commercial reality and announced that a switch from fibre-to-the-home to fixed wireless.

Fixed wireless bypasses the difficulties of laying down kilometres of cable by transmitting a signal through the air which is then picked up by a receiver.

The National Broadband Plan is promising internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second (or a thousand megabits). Does the average household need that kind of speed? As the Switcher.ie survey shows, the average and perfectly sufficient broadband speed in Dublin is 45 megabits. Today, advanced fixed wireless can provide a connection speed of up to 200 megabits and is more than capable of servicing the average household and business. Indeed, this is way beyond what the average household uses, and even as internet consumption increases in the years ahead (and wireless speeds along with it), we’re still a very long way from requiring a full gigabit.

But even fixed wireless internet is under threat. An upcoming auction of the wireless “spectrum” – the available bandwidth that internet companies can use to provide advanced wireless services – could see mobile operators and larger telecoms companies with a vested interest in being subsidised to rollout fibre, snap up large sections of it, squeezing out wireless suppliers essential to the provision of rural broadband.

If this happens, compounded by further delays to the National Broadband Plan, accessing high-speed internet could become even more difficult for thousands of homes and businesses, and those who rely on fixed wireless internet already may actually lose their existing connections. As we stand, thousands of homes and businesses dependent on existing fixed wireless connections are about to be put into limbo by the communications minister.

Over the past two years, we have advised the Government, the Communications Regulator and Minister for Communications Denis Naughten of the global shift to fixed wireless as a solution to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas urging them, in the national interest, to safeguard part of the spectrum for fixed wireless, thereby assuring internet access for thousands of people into the future. To date, this has been ignored.

There are undeniable problems with Ireland’s internet infrastructure and these need to be addressed as a matter of urgency; but that doesn’t mean that the National Broadband Plan is the all-curing panacea. Indeed, assuming the most optimistic rollout of fibre, our own estimates suggest that there will still be roughly 200,000 homes and businesses that will need a fixed-wireless solution. If the spectrum for fixed wireless is no longer available, in addition to hindering the provision of real, workable solutions in a much shorter time frame, these homes and businesses could be the collateral damage of the Government’s blinkered view of broadband provision.

Tech multinationals and other national governments are reconsidering fibre fundamentalism, and we should be doing the same. A refusal to rationally examine the National Broadband Plan and explore more economic alternatives will see us locked into a costly project for decades to come, especially if wireless providers are forced out of the market. Creating a new financial black hole, like Irish Water, is not desirable for either the public or the Government. By 2023, it’ll be too late to say we got it wrong.

Catch the full article here in the Irish Independent
– Copyright Brian O’Donohoe

Slower broadband and lack of job opportunities frustrate rural dwellers.

Aspects of life that frustrate rural dwellers are slower broadband (63%) and a lack of job opportunities (45%), according to research by Macra na Feirme for its ‘Know Your Neighbour’ campaign.

The campaign, which is in partnership with Calor, aims to bring everyone together at community events, to get to know these neighbours and establish a strong support network, Macra President Sean Finan has said.

A lack of amenities (59%) and a lack of local infrastructure (48%) are also among the grievances of rural dwellers. Read more

Kerry Farmer Rural Broadband

The absence of Rural Broadband is killing jobs.

For vast areas of rural Ireland, the absence of good broadband is proving to be nothing short of disastrous.

The absence of broadband is killing jobs.

It is a resource that has become as essential in Ireland as electricity and water, and the absence of good broadband is killing jobs in areas that desperately need recovery, paralysing schools and leaving farmers on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent – http://bit.ly/24eD1j5 

Article by Kim Bielenberg

Photography off Kerry dairy farmer Patrick Rohan with his son Liam on his farm outside Annascaul. Photo: Don MacMonagle.