Archive for Connectivity

Data Caps Removed During Pandemic

The UK government has announced that the UK’s big ISP’s are removing caps on data for fixed-line broadband during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fixed-Line Broadband

The joint announcement by the companies, government and Ofcom will affect fixed-line broadband packages, many of which (apart from discounted packages for people on benefits) already offer unlimited data.

Which Companies?

The welcome move, which has been agreed between the government and ISPs/telecoms companies and is effective immediately, is in addition to any deals that the ISPs have already announced and applies to Virgin Media, Sky, O2, BT (Openreach and EE), TalkTalk, Three and Vodafone. Also removing data caps are Gigaclear, Hyperopic and Kcom (but not for Kcom’s gaming, streaming and downloading media).

More Help

The agreement between the government and the ISPs also includes other helpful measures such as help for those customers struggling to pay bills as a result of the pandemic, moving vulnerable customers to the front of the queue for repairs, and improving mobile and landline package deals.

The government hopes that the deal agreed with the communications companies will help to support and protecting vulnerable customers and older people as well as helping the UK communications network cope with the extra demand, and help people stay connected while staying at home. This, in turn, will help businesses whose employees are working at home, and families who are also likely to need extra capacity.

Welcome, But More Detail Required

Although the deal has been generally welcomed, some have criticised the announcement has lacking detail.

Vodafone Helping The Vulnerable

Last week, Vodafone announced that it is offering 30-days free access to unlimited mobile data for half a million of its Pay Monthly customers as well as upgraded the contracts for those who are categorised as vulnerable. Vodafone is informing eligible customers by text.

Tips From Ofcom

Ofcom’s website offers some general tips on how to ‘stay Connected during the coronavirus’ on its website here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-telecoms-and-internet/advice-for-consumers/stay-connected.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Even though many fixed-line broadband packages already offer unlimited data, this is still likely to be a welcome and helpful development both for those working from home and the businesses they work for. Also, the deal is likely to be helpful for families and individuals simply using more data for entertainment while sitting-out coronavirus restrictions. It is also good that vulnerable people have also been considered in the government/Ofcom/ISP deal, and the fact that it is effective immediately.

The criticism, so far, is that despite the announcement, which was widely reported, there hasn’t been much more detail. This may be understandable, however, given that there is a global crisis and that everyone in the UK is currently living under restrictions which are undoubtedly affecting the normal flow of communications in many businesses and organisations.

Featured Article – Microsoft Teams User Numbers Up By 12 Million In A Week

Microsoft’s collaborative working platform ‘Teams’ is reported to have seen a massive 12 million user boost in one week as a result of remote-working through the coronavirus outbreak, and through Microsoft making the platform generally available through Office 365 from March 14.

What Is Teams?

Teams, announced in November 2016 and launched by Microsoft in 2017, is a platform designed to help collaborative working and combines features such as workplace chat, meetings, notes, and attachments. Described by Microsoft as a “complete chat and online meetings solution”, it normally integrates with the company’s Office 365 subscription office productivity suite. In July 2018, Microsoft introduced a free, basic features version of Teams which did not require an Office 365 account, in order to increase user numbers and tempt users away from competitor ‘Slack’.

Microsoft Teams is also the replacement for Skype for Business Online, the support for which will end on 31 July 2021, and all-new Microsoft 365 customers have been getting Microsoft Teams by default from 1 September 2019.

March 14

Microsoft Corp. announced on March 14 that Microsoft Teams would be generally available in Office 365 for business customers in 181 markets and 19 languages.

Increased To 44 Million Users

The move to make Teams generally available to businesses with Office 365, coupled with a mass move to remote working as a result of COVID-19 has resulted in 12 million new users joining the platform in a week, bringing users up from 32 million on 11 March to 44 million users a week later.  The number is likely to have increased significantly again since 18 March.

What Does Teams Offer?

Microsoft Teams offers threaded chat capabilities which Microsoft describes as “a modern conversations experience”, and built-in Office 365 apps like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint and Power BI.  Also, Teams offers users ad-hoc (and scheduled) voice and video meetings and has security and compliance capabilities built-in as it supports global standards, including SOC 1, SOC 2, EU Model Clauses, ISO27001 and HIPAA. Users are also able to benefit from the fact that workspaces can be customised for each team using tabs, connectors and bots from third-party partners and Microsoft tools e.g. Microsoft Planner and Visual Studio Team Services. Microsoft says that more than 150 integrations are available or coming soon to Teams.

New Features

Microsoft reports that it has added more than 100 new features to Teams since November 2019.  These include an enhanced meeting experience (with scheduling), mobile audio calling, video calling on Android (coming soon to iOS), and email integration.  Teams has also benefited from improvements to accessibility with support for screen readers, high contrast and keyboard-only navigation.

Walkie-Talkie Phone

In January, Microsoft announced that it was adding a “push-to-talk experience” to Teams that turns employee or company-owned smartphones and tablets into walkie-talkies.  The Walkie Talkie feature, which can be accessed in private preview in the first half of this year and will be available in the Teams mobile app, offers clear, instant and secure voice communication over the cloud.

Competition

There are, of course, other services in competition with Microsoft Teams. Slack, for example, is a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services.  Slack enables users (communities, groups, or teams) to join through a URL or invitation sent by a team admin or owner.  Although Slack was intended to be an organisational communication tool, it has morphed into a community platform i.e. it is a business technology that has crossed over into personal use.

That said, Slack reported in October last year that it had 12 million daily active users, which was a 2 million increase since January 2019.

Slack has stickiness and strong user engagement which help to attract businesses that want to get into using workstream collaboration software but, it faces challenges such as convincing big businesses that it is not just a chat app and that it is a worthy, paid-for alternative to its more well-known competitors like Microsoft’s Teams.

Like Teams, Slack has just introduced new features and has experienced a surge of growth in just over a month.

Another competitor to Microsoft’s Teams is Zoom, which is a platform for video and audio conferencing, chat, and webinars that is often used alongside Google’s G Suite and Slack.  It has been reported that Zoom is now top of the free downloaded apps in Apple’s app store, and Learnbonds.com reports that downloads for Zoom increased by 1,270 per cent between February 22 and March 22.

Real-Life Example – Teams

A real-life example from Microsoft of how Teams is being put to good use is by bicycle and cycling gear company Trek Bicycle.  Microsoft reports how Teams has become the project hub for the company where all staff know where to find the latest documents, notes, tasks relating to team conversations thereby making Teams a central part of the company’s “get-things-done-fast culture.”

Looking Forward

Many businesses are already using and gaining advantages from the speed and scope of communication, project context, and convenience of a cloud-based, accessible hub offered by collaborative working platforms like Teams.  The decision to make Teams generally available with Office 365 for business can only make the platform more popular and the need for companies to quickly set-up effective remote working has stimulated the market for these services and given users a crash-course in and a strong reminder of their strengths and benefits.

The hope by Microsoft and other collaborative working platform providers is that companies will go on using the platforms long after they technically need to in order to deal with COVID19 lockdown and that they will decide to use them going forward to keep improving the flexibility and productivity of their businesses, compete with other companies that are getting the best from them, and guard against excessive damage to the business from any future lockdown situations.

Facebook Video Quality Reduced To Cope With Demand

Facebook and Instagram have reduced the quality of videos shared on their platforms in Europe as demand for streaming has increased due to self-isolation.

Lower Bitrate, Looks Similar

The announcement by Facebook that a lowering of the bit-rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe highlights the need to reduce network congestion, free-up more bandwidth, and make sure that users stay connected at a time where demand is reaching very high levels because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The move could have a significant positive impact when you consider that Facebook has around 300 million daily users in Europe alone, and streaming video can account for as much as 60% of traffic on fixed and mobile networks.

Although a reduction in bit-rates for videos will, technically, reduce the quality, the likelihood is that the change will be virtually imperceptible to most users.

Many Other Platforms

Facebook is certainly not the only platform taking this step as Amazon, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Netflix have also made similar announcements.  For example, Netflix is reducing its back video bit rates while still claiming to allow customers to get HD and Ultra HD content (with lower image quality),  and Amazon Prime Video has started to reduce its streaming bitrates as has Apple’s streaming service.

Google’s YouTube is also switching all traffic in the EU to standard definition by default.

BT Say UK Networks Have The Capacity

BT’s Chief Technology and Information Officer, Howard Watson, has announced that the UK’s advanced digital economy means that it has overbuilt its networks to compensate for HD streaming content and that the UK’s fixed broadband network core has been built with the extra ‘headroom’ to support evening peaks of network traffic that high-bandwidth applications create. Mr Watson has also pointed out that since people started to work from home more this month, there has been a weekday daytime traffic increase of 35-60 per cent compared with similar days on the fixed network, peaking at 7.5Tb/s, which is still only half the average evening peak, and far short of the 17.5 Tb/s that the network is known to be able to handle.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For Amazon, Apple TV, Netflix, Facebook and others platforms, they are clearly facing a challenge to their service delivery in Europe but have been quick to take a step that will at least mean that there’s enough bandwidth for their services to be delivered with the trade-off being a fall in the level of viewing quality for customers.  Many customers, however, are likely not to be too critical about the move, given the many other big changes that have been made to their lives as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and the attempts to reduce its impact.  Netflix has even pointed out the extra benefit that its European viewers are likely to use 25 per cent less data when watching films as a result of the bit rate changes. However, with online streaming services being one of the main pleasures that many people feel they have left to enjoy safely, the change in bit rate should be OK as long as the picture quality isn’t drastically reduced to the point of annoyance and distraction.

Surge In Demand For Teleconference Apps and Platforms That Enable Home Working

The need for people to work from home during the Covid-19 outbreak is reported to have led to a huge increase in the downloads of business teleconferencing apps and in the use of popular cloud-based services like G Suite.

Surge In Downloads

Downloads of remote and collaborative working and communication apps such as Tencent Conference (https://intl.cloud.tencent.com/), WeChat Work (from China), Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack are reported to have risen by a massive fivefold since the beginning of the year, driven by the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak.

For example, services such as Rumii (a VR platform, normally $14.99 per month) and Spatial, which enable users to digital meetings in virtual rooms with 3D versions of their co-workers have seen a boost in the number of users, as has video communications app zoom.

Freemium Versions

Even though many of these apps have seen a surge in user numbers which could see users continuing to use them and recommending them in future if their experiences of the apps are good, the ‘freemium’ versions (the basic program for free and advanced features must be paid for) appear to account for most downloads.

Some companies, such as Rumii, have now started to offer services for free after noticing a rise in the number of downloads as Covid-19 spread in the United States.

G Suite

Google’s cloud-based G Suite service (Gmail, Docs, Drive, Hangouts, Sheets, Slides, Keep, Forms, Sites) is reported to have gone past the two billion monthly active users mark at the end of last year. It appears to have gained many active users due to people preparing to work from home following the Covid-19 outbreak.

Google has also offered parts of its enterprise service e.g. Hangouts Meet (video conferencing) for free to help businesses during the period when many employees will need to work from home.

Microsoft

Microsoft is also reported to be offering a free six-month trial for its collaborative working platform ‘Teams’, which surpassed the 20 million active user mark back in November.

Unfortunately, Microsoft Teams suffered a reported two-hour outage across Europe on Monday, just as many employees tried to log in as part of their first experience of working at home in what some commentators are now calling the new “post-office” era.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Cloud-based, collaborative and remote working and communications platforms are now providing a vital mitigating lifeline to many businesses and workers at the start of what is likely to be a difficult, disruptive, dangerous and stressful time.  Companies that can get the best out of these cloud-based tools, especially if they can be used effectively on a smartphone, may have a better chance of helping their businesses survive a global threat. Also, the fact that many companies and employees are forced to seek out and use cloud-based apps and platforms like these could see them continuing to make good use of them when the initial crisis is over and we could be witnessing the trigger of a longer-term change in working towards a post-office era where businesses make sure they can last out the effects of future similar threats.

Coronavirus Outbreak: Remote Working For Staff

With the whole of Italy’s 60 million population in lockdown and other countries taking drastic measures to control the coronavirus outbreak, the tech-giant companies are now asking their employees to work remotely.

Google

Due to fears of COVID-19 spreading through large numbers of staff, Google had already announced last week that it was temporarily closing its office in Dublin and asking the 8,000 employees to work from home.  Google has more than 70 offices in 50 countries and back at the end of January, Google also temporarily closed its offices in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan when the outbreak was still mainly based in China.

Amazon

Amazon, which restricted all nonessential travel in the U.S for employees as of last month has, after an employee tested positive for coronavirus, asked workers from its Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, offices to work from home until the end of the month.

Facebook

In addition to cancelling its annual developer conference which was due to be held on May 5 and 6 in San Jose, California (which attracted 5,000 people last year), Facebook has closed its Seattle office and asked all 5,000 of the office’s employees to work from home until the end of the month. Facebook has also closed its three London offices after an employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 and all 3,000 employees from those offices have been asked to work from home.

Slack

After an employee of Slack returned from travel and was suspected to have contracted COVID-19 (which turned out not to be the case), Slack closed its offices in San Francisco at the end of last week and a deep clean of the premises took place at the weekend.  Meanwhile, employees were encouraged to work from home.

Others

Microsoft has advised its Seattle and San Francisco employees that they can work from home until March 25th, Twitter has encouraged its employees to work from home, and Apple CEO Tim Cook has encouraged employees at several global offices to “work remotely from March 9th to 13th”.

One piece of positive news for Apple, however, is that all but four of Apple’s stores in mainland China, which is a vital market for Apple, have now reopened after being closed there during the main coronavirus outbreak.

Musk Sceptical

Some scepticism about closures and reactions to the coronavirus outbreak has been expressed by Elon Musk who tweeted that the “coronavirus panic is dumb”, a tweet that was liked by around 2 million people.

Pay

In the UK last week, prime minister Boris Johnson announced in parliament that new rules will mean that statutory sick pay (SSP) will come into force on the first day of absence in order to make those who feel they may have the virus and want to self-isolate, by staying at home rather than coming into the office and potentially infecting others.

Tech Industry, Work From Home

On the plus side, the nature of many tech industry jobs means that working from home is perhaps more possible than for many other industries, and for the UK as a whole, a 2019 CIPD Job Quality Index survey reported that 54% of the UK’s workforce works flexibly.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For those businesses that can’t easily allow employees to work home e.g. manufacturing, bricks and mortar retail, construction, events and entertainment, transport and logistics etc, the threat of a shutdown of work for what could be an unspecified period creates a real threat to the life of the business. The situation also presents a threat to many small businesses, sole traders, and self-employed people who may not have resources to last-out ‘lockdowns’, self-isolating, disruptions and complications caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

For companies that are forced to close offices, they now need to make sure that relevant staff can access company systems and intranets remotely, and that they have VPNs installed.

This situation is also a reminder of how business continuity planning and disaster recovery plans should have disease epidemic and pandemic scenarios built-in to them for the future, and this situation is likely to expose what work needs to be done by many companies in this areas of planning.

Gigabit, Ultrafast Broadband For One Million Households In The West Midlands

Virgin Media has announced that in the UK’s largest gigabit switch-on to date, it is launching its next-generation Gig1 Fibre Broadband services for 1 million+ homes in Birmingham, Coventry and surrounding areas across the West Midlands.

Speed

Virgin Media says that its Gig1 Fibre Broadband offers broadband speeds up to 20 times faster than the regional average with an average peak-time download speed of 1,104Mbps.

Also, the Hub 4 gigabit-capable router is Virgin’s fastest to date and can manage multiple devices at the same time around the home, thereby sharing the hyper-fast speed.  This could mean that ultra-high-definition 4K films and TV programmes, large files and 360-degree videos could be downloaded almost instantaneously, even with multiple devices using the connection at the same time.

Virgin Media says that it now has the largest gigabit-capable network in the UK which currently passes nearly 15 million UK premises.

Government

The government’s Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, has said that Virgin Media’s gigabit switch-on for households in the Midlands puts them “a million homes closer in delivering our plans to deliver gigabit broadband to everyone in the UK” and stresses that his government are investing £5 billion to make sure that “even the hardest to reach areas aren’t left behind”.

Electronic Communications Code Changes

In October 2019, the UK’s Electronic Communications Code was amended to help speed up fast broadband rollout across the UK. The change to the law gave broadband operators compulsory rights to install their apparatus on another person’s property, thereby getting around the problem of landlords not responding to requests for access to blocks of flats and apartments.

Full Fibre By 2025?

Back in June last year, while on the campaign to become the next Conservative party leader, Boris Johnson proposed a target of full-fibre broadband for the UK by 2025.  This target has since been seen by many not realistic because ‘full-fibre’ would mean digging up land and laying down cables, even in the most remote of homes.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For those in the Midlands who actually need these kinds of speeds, this service could be advantageous, and it could benefit small (home) businesses with large data requirements.

Although it is the beginning of ultra-fast broadband rollout in an area where there is a large population and is, therefore, a step in the right direction, critics say that many users may not need a connection that fast and may simply not know the speed of the connection that they already have.

Broadband and Wi-Fi are now essential services for business, and businesses would obviously welcome any improvement in broadband speeds in the UK as soon as possible as it would undoubtedly help UK companies to become more competitive and would boost the economy.

Featured Article – 5G Explained

5G (fifth generation) is essentially the next step up and the replacement for your current 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) connection.  The main benefits that this new generation of mobile broadband should bring are faster upload and download speeds and faster communication with wireless networks (latency).

Spectrum Difference

Most carriers currently use low-band spectrum or LTE, which offers great coverage area and penetration yet it is getting very crowded and peak data speeds only top out at around 100Mbps.

5G, on the other hand, offers 3 different Spectrum bands, which are:

  • Low-band spectrum or LTE/sub 1GHz spectrum.
  • Mid-band spectrum.  This gives faster coverage and better latency than low-band but isn’t as good at penetrating buildings. Mid-band spectrum will offer peak speeds up to 1Gbps.
  • High-band spectrum /  mmWave .  This spectrum can offer peak speeds up to 10 Gbps and has very low latency, although it has a low coverage area and building penetration is poor.
  • In the UK, it is likely that there will be 2 different, location-based frequencies. Sub-6GHz (gigahertz) is likely to be the first offered to users, and the (expensive) high-band spectrum / mmWave for use in densely populated areas. This could mean limitations on where an owner can use their 5G phone (when they eventually get one).

What Can We Expect From 5G?

More frequencies, faster speeds and less latency should mean big improvements in broadband (particularly commercial) and an end to slowdowns during busy times of day that have been experienced due to the overcrowding of the current limited LTE.

How Fast is Faster?

Theoretically, the maximum speed for 5G should be a hundred times faster than the current 4G technology can provide i.e. 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) rather than 100 megabits per second (Mbps).

Peak data rates with 5G could reach 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station (for all users in the cell), but 5G users will not actually experience this speed unless they have a dedicated connection.

Speed Record

Swedish phone company Ericsson’s research and development team have just reported setting a new maximum speed record on 5G connections, by achieving download rates of 4.3Gbps on the millimeter wave spectrum during interoperability testing using commercial products.

Finite Frequency

Also, the frequency spectrum needed for 5G is finite, and even with additional spectrum that has been auctioned to the UK’s mobile networks, more will be needed. This may mean some crowded traffic in the first wave, with things not improving until more auctions have taken place.

It is also likely that other technologies will need to be developed and trialled in order to help 5G live up to its promise. Lessons learned about 5G in other countries (e.g. China) will take time to be noted and incorporated in the UK network to help it deliver maximum benefits.

Real-Life Business Applications

Anticipated ways that 5G could improve things in our lives and for businesses include:

  • Improvements to health care.  Communications and sensor networks in health care are likely to be improved, therefore benefiting patients, doctors and other staff.
  • Improvements in the IoT as devices require fewer resources, and huge numbers of devices can connect to a single base station, making them much more efficient. IoT improvements could help with all kinds of services e.g. public services such as smart bins and smart lighting, remote healthcare services, and CCTV / surveillance services.
  • A boost to virtual and augmented reality.
  • Benefits for the growing autonomous vehicle market as 5G provides the constant, guaranteed connection that they need, enables better communication with other vehicles on the road and better provision of information to other cars about road conditions, as well as improvements in the performance of information given to  drivers and automakers.
  • Advantages for companies operating delivery drone/robot services e.g. Amazon may also get a boost from reliable and powerful 5G connections.
  • Advantages for local authorities and local infrastructure (monitoring and control for streetlights, drain/flood information) and for utility and other companies that use remote sensors.
  • The low latency of 5G offering allowing more remote device control e.g. reducing risk in hazardous environments and allowing technicians with specialised skills to control machinery from anywhere in the world.

Challenges For 5G Phone Manufacturers

For phone manufacturers, manufacturing 5G phones is a slightly different and more complex proposition. For example:

  • 5G phones are more complex e.g. they need a more complex antenna. These mean extra production costs which are likely to be passed on (with first-wave prices) to customers. It is thought that 5G compatible phones will be priced between £450-£540, with higher prices for leading brand models e.g. Samsung, Apple and Huawei.
  • The miniaturisation of more complex 5G phone presents challenges. The first generation of 5G phones may, therefore, be a little larger than a normal smartphone.
  • Launching new handsets before the new network has been rolled out could simply annoy buyers and damage brand reputation, and many customers may simply delay buying a 5G anyway until they are confident that 5G is performing well and will offer them all the benefits.
  • The first 5G smartphones need two modems, one standalone 5G modem, and one that still works on 4G and older networks (for when 4G isn’t available).

Despite the challenges, 5G phones have been available for some time now many people have been holding off from buying them until the 5G connection services become more widely available.  It is estimated that 260 million new 5G phones will be produced worldwide in 2020.

Whereas Sony has recently announced that it is launching its first 5G smartphone this month (Xperia 1 II flagship handset), which many see as a bid to prop up its struggling smartphone business, Huawei and Samsung are currently ahead in the 5G phone market.

Some commentators have noted, however, that although 5G services have now been rolled out in the UK by many of the networks and 5G phones are available, there is still some scepticism in the UK marketplace about the benefits vs costs of getting 5G phones at this early stage, and there appears to be a general feeling among consumers that 5G is not ready for mainstream adoption yet.

When?

5G has taken nearly 10 years to develop and so far in the UK, EE launched its 5G service in May 2019, Vodafone followed in July 2019, O2 launched its 5G service in October, and BT Mobile also launched its 5G service in October 2019.

Sky Mobile entered the market with its 5G service in January 2020 and although the Three network launched for home broadband in parts of London in August last year, it has not yet expanded this to its phones.

Where?

Viavi Solutions (The State of 5G Deployments report) reveals that commercial 5G networks have now been deployed in 378 cities across 34 countries, with the most cities with 5G availability in South Korea (85) and with 5G now available in 31 UK cities.

Looking Ahead

The same increased speed and lower latency of 5G that allows downloading films and games in seconds and watching them without any buffering is also likely to provide many new and innovative opportunities and could help provide a boost to new industries.

Many different types of businesses could benefit from improved connectivity with remote workers or with salespeople in remote areas.

Also, the news from an O2 forecast is that 5G could deliver time savings that could bring £6 billion a year in productivity savings in the UK, and that 5G-enabled tools and smart items could save UK householders £450 a year in food, council and fuel bills.

We will, however, have to wait for 5G networks and services to be operating fully and offering all the predicted benefits, and as well as being somewhat expensive, purchasing a 5G phone may be something that many people will still hold-off doing until they’re confident they’ll get the promised value from it.

Worries About Huawei Persist

Security fears about Huawei products being used in the new 5G networks are still being expressed by the Trump administration, while Google has clarified its position on the matter.

What’s So Bad About Huawei?

Back in July 2018,  espionage chiefs from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. (the so-called ‘Five-Eyes’), agreed at a meeting in July this year to try to contain the global growth of Chinese telecoms company Huawei (the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment) because of the threat that it could be using its phone network equipment to spy for China.  This led to the US, Australia and New Zealand barring Huawei Technologies Ltd. (with Japan more or less joining the ban) as a supplier for fifth-generation networks.

At the time, the Trump administration drew attention to the matter when Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, was detained in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities for violating US sanctions on Iran.

Since then, other countries have joined the ban and other allegations have been made against Huawei e.g. the US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Huawei with bank fraud and stealing trade secrets back in January 2019.

What About The UK

As for the UK government, it will allow Huawei equipment to be used in the country’s 5G network, but not in core network functions or critical national infrastructure, and not in nuclear and military sites.  This has led to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney visiting just last week to help dissuade the UK from using Huawei’s products in phone networks.

Latest Warning From the US

The latest warning about Huawei products from the US has been voiced by Robert Strayer, who is the US deputy assistant secretary for cyber and communications. Mr Strayer, who is on a tour of Europe this week, warned that allowing Huawei to provide key aspects of the 5G network infrastructure could allow China to undermine it and to have access to “sensitive data”.  Mr Strayer piled on the pressure by warning that if the UK adopts Huawei as a 5G technology vendor it could threaten aspects of intelligence sharing between the US and UK.

Google Clarifies

As a US company, tech giant Google has been banned by the Trump administration since May 2019 from working with Huawei which last year led to Google confirming (via blog post) that it wouldn’t be working with Huawei on new device models or providing any Google apps (Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Play Store) for preload or download on Huawei devices.

In the light of more recent allegations and warnings about Huawei, Google has chosen to clarify its position in an article on its support pages (find it here https://support.google.com/android/thread/29434011?hl=en).  The article states that “To protect user data privacy, security, and safeguard the overall experience, the Google Play Store, Google Play Protect, and Google’s core apps (including Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and others) are only available on Play Protect certified devices”.

Google says in the article that sideloaded Google apps will not work reliably on Huawei devices.  Sideloaded apps are those which haven’t been through a certification process to appear in the Store and to run on a Windows device.  The fear is that sideloading apps could mean that apps could be installed which appear to be genuine and normal, but which may have been altered or tampered with in ways that could compromise user security.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

The Trump administration in the US is keeping the pressure on as regards discouraging countries with which it has security and defence connections, and leverage as an ally or friend with to avoid installing Huawei products in networks, particularly in critical parts.  Clearly, a Republican administration (and in this case, and apparently inward-looking one championing US companies) in a country which has traditionally seen communist China as a threat is likely to be at least suspicious of Huawei products.  It is of course, unknown exactly what evidence exists to support the idea, and it should also be remembered that it is not long since President Trump launched a trade war with China, and may also be additionally conscious of spying issues from foreign powers after the allegations of Russian influence possibly influencing his own election as president.

For US, European, and other trusted tech network product companies from elsewhere, less for Huawei could mean more for them, and the rub-off bad publicity for Huawei also seems to have negatively affected Huawei’s sales of phone handsets, which has meant that US, Japanese and other phone suppliers have picked up more phone business.

In the run-up to next US presidential election, and with UK looking for trade deals outside the EU, it is likely that the US will continue to try and bring the UK and other countries round to its way of thinking about Huawei.

‘Runet’ Test – Russia Unplugs Itself From The Internet

A little later than its original planned date of April 1st 2019, a recent test-run has seen Russia successfully ‘unplug’ itself from the Internet and prove that it can create its own state-controlled Intranet.

Successfully Creating The ‘Runet’

The test, which was first announced back in February last year, is reported to have gone ahead without users noticing much difference and created what is effectively a giant, fully isolatable domestic intranet which has been dubbed the ‘Runet’.

Why?

Officially, the test to be able to pull up the drawbridge on the wider global internet is to ensure compliance with Russia’s new law called the Digital Economy National Program which came into force in November 2019.  This will require Russia’s ISPs to show that they can operate in the event of any foreign powers acting to isolate the country online with a “targeted large-scale external influence” i.e. a cyber-attack. For (state-owned) ISP’s, this will mean having to install deep packet inspection (DPI) network equipment which will allow Russia’s telecoms watchdog ‘Roskomnadzor’ to be able to identify traffic sources, filter content, and block certain sites. It has also been reported that, as part of the project to create and run the Runet, Russia is working on creating its own Internet address books.

Another official explanation for the value of the test to create the Runet is that it helped to show any vulnerabilities in the growing ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

Control

Although this is the official explanation, some western commentators see this as a move towards tighter control and authoritarian rule in a way that is similar to some other countries.  For example, China, which operates its own Great Firewall of China (GFW) for Internet censorship to block access to many foreign websites and to slow down and monitor cross-border internet traffic. Also, Iran operates its own National Information Network, run by the state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran, which controls access to the web and polices content.

Difficult To Circumvent

Those thinking of circumventing the Runet and other censorship are likely to find it difficult as virtual private networks (VPNs) will not work with the Runet in place and many commentators think that it is likely that the Kremlin will try to stop access to end-to-end encrypted apps e.g. Telegram or WhatsApp.

Interfering

It is likely that one good reason for Russia to be able to cut itself off from the wider Internet is to protect itself from cyber threats in what now appears to be an ongoing war of interference, misinformation, and cyber-attacks between many states.  For example, Russia was shown to have interfered with the last U.S. presidential election and has itself been the subject of large-scale cyber-attacks. That said, the Chinese recently accused the U.S. of conducting “large-scale, organised and indiscriminate cyber theft” after it was revealed that since the 1970s, America’s CIA has been monitoring hundreds of countries via the Swiss cryptography firm Crypto AG.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

For the Russian government, being able to exert tight control and conduct censorship on this scale, and to operate through a small number of state-owned suppliers not only guards against misinformation and cyber threats but also gives the government the opportunity to wield immense political power over its people. The move is, obviously, being greeted with suspicion and criticism from the west, with concern about the rights of Russian citizens.

Also, for non-Russian companies hoping to do business there, an inward-looking, state-controlled Intranet that favours Russian companies, particularly with tech and communications products and services would make trade there very difficult. Many western commentators are now worried that Russia may be going the same way as China in terms of censorship and access to the world by digital means.

Featured Article – Proposed New UK Law To Cover IoT Security

The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), has announced that it will soon be preparing new legislation to enforce new standards that will protect users of IoT devices from known hacking and spying risks.

IoT Household Gadgets

This commitment to legislate leads on from last year’s proposal by then Digital Minister Margot James and follows a seven-month consultation with GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, and with stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, and academics.

The proposed new legislation will improve digital protection for users of a growing number of smart household devices (devices with an Internet connection) that are broadly grouped together as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).  These gadgets, of which there is an estimated 14 billion+ worldwide (Gartner), include kitchen appliances and gadgets, connected TVs, smart speakers, home security cameras, baby monitors and more.

In business settings, IoT devices can include elevators, doors, or whole heating and fire safety systems in office buildings.

What Are The Risks?

The risks are that the Internet connection in IoT devices can, if adequate security measures are not in place, provide a way in for hackers to steal personal data, spy on users in their own homes, or remotely take control of devices in order to misuse them.

Default Passwords and Link To Major Utilities

The main security issue of many of these devices is that they have pre-set, default unchangeable passwords, and once these passwords have been discovered by cyber-criminals, the IoT devices are wide open to being tampered with and misused.

Also, IoT devices are deployed in many systems that link to and are supplied by major utilities e.g. smart meters in homes. This means that a large-scale attack on these IoT systems could affect the economy.

Examples

Real-life examples of the kind of IoT hacking that the new legislation will seek to prevent include:

– Hackers talking to a young girl in her bedroom via a ‘Ring’ home security camera (Mississippi, December 2019).  In the same month, a Florida family were subjected to vocal, racial abuse in their own home and subjected to a loud alarm blast after a hacker took over their ‘Ring’ security system without permission.

– In May 2018, A US woman reported that a private home conversation had been recorded by her Amazon’s voice assistant, and then sent it to a random phone contact who happened to be her husband’s employee.

– Back in 2017, researchers discovered that a sex toy with an in-built camera could also be hacked.

– In October 2016, the ‘Mirai’ attack used thousands of household IoT devices as a botnet to launch an online distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack (on the DNS service ‘Dyn’) with global consequences.

New Legislation

The proposed new legislation will be intended to put pressure on manufacturers to ensure that:

– All internet-enabled devices have a unique password and not a default one.

– There is a public point of contact for the reporting of any vulnerabilities in IoT products.

– The minimum length of time that a device will receive security updates is clearly stated.

Challenges

Even though legislation could make manufacturers try harder to make IoT devices more secure, technical experts and commentators have pointed out that there are many challenges to making internet-enabled/smart devices secure because:

  • Adding security to household internet-enabled ‘commodity’ items costs money. This would have to be passed on to the customer in higher prices, but this would mean that the price would not be competitive. Therefore, it may be that security is being sacrificed to keep costs down-sell now and worry about security later.
  • Even if there is a security problem in a device, the firmware (the device’s software) is not always easy to update. There are also costs involved in doing so which manufacturers of lower-end devices may not be willing to incur.
  • With devices which are typically infrequent and long-lasting purchases e.g. white goods, we tend to keep them until they stop working, and we are unlikely to replace them because they have a security vulnerability that is not fully understood. As such, these devices are likely to remain available to be used by cyber-criminals for a long time.

Looking Ahead

Introducing legislation that only requires manufacturers to make relatively simple changes to make sure that smart devices come with unique passwords and are adequately labelled with safety and contact information sounds as though it shouldn’t be too costly or difficult.  The pressure of having to display a label, by law, that indicates how safe the item is, could provide that extra motivation for manufacturers to make the changes and could be very helpful for security-conscious consumers.

The motivation for manufacturers to make the changes to the IoT devices will be even greater if faced with the prospect of retailers eventually being barred from selling products that don’t have a label, as was originally planned for the proposed legislation.

The hope from cyber-security experts and commentators is that the proposed new legislation won’t be watered-down before it becomes law.