Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Softphones coming to Latvia?

Lattelecom and at least one mobile operator are considering the introduction of softphone solutions. This means that when the "ordinary" landline or mobile phone rings, it would also ring a softphone on a PC or laptop. One advantage to this is that the local line would be portable across the internet, to practically anywhere in the world. Estonia's Elion has something like this already. It would also make the home landline phone portable to, say, a summer house or second residence with an internet connection. Rumor has it that Bite might be the first to introduce such a service.

Look out Latvian cable operators

Had dinner with a couple of mid-level honchos here in Cannes. The upshot of it is that cable operators in Latvia have to start preparing to switch platforms, at least for their premium customers, who will want, say, Baltkom TV and IZZI to deliver HD TV when it is available. Also, as the price of flat-screen, HD ready TVs drops (and credit to buy these, say LVL 750, toys is easy to get). there will be a ready market for anyone who can deliver, meaning -- Lattelekom (if they push ADSL2+ to the max or run fiber to the curb and gigabit Ethernet), Latvenergo (for their fiber to the home customers) and the satellite people (VIASAT, LVL 5 HD Digital Dishes in late 2007, anyone). IPTV is the only alternative, providing you can deliver reliable last-mile bandwidth, which you may not be able to do with several HD channels over MMDS or coaxial cable. So time to think of the near future. Did I say Cisco? Worth considering...
Not writing in my usual typestyle because Firefox access to Blogger is AFU (all f**ked up).

Monday, January 29, 2007

Hanging out at Freddy Chopin, Warsaw

Well, I have several hours to kill on my way to the Cisco Networkers event in Cannes. The flight they sponsored involves about six hours at Warsaw Fredrick Chopin Airport. Not such a bad place, though the seats are hard and I was very lucky to find a mooch outlet for my MacBook. As for wireless internet, perhaps I hit a winner after trying three different networks, all of which directed me to Polish-language sites that appeared to explain the pricing structure. PlusGSM was the only decipherable one, offering 900 minutes (much longer than I will be here, but there is a return leg) for 15 zloty or just over USD 5. The log in to Plus GSM was a bit of a mess and it rejected one of my two Visa cards, but at the end of the day (or the 15 minutes I spent fucking around with the network) it works find and it is not some astonishing USD 7.95 an hour or 10.95 for all day rip off that I recently saw in the US. Can't vouch for those figures, but it was pretty close. So I guess I got a good deal, unless the 9.00 PLN (that means Zloty) figure embedded in incomprehensible Polish texts in the other two (Orange and Era.pl) wireless network pages was what they charge for 900 minutes. Oh well, time crawls when you are waiting. I will watch some videos on my iPod, then recharge it. These chairs were installed by the Anti-Ass-bone League of Poland or something worse.

UPDATE: A group of around seven nicely dressed middle-aged Poles (?) arrived to the seating area around 1115 local and ate a packed lunch of sausage sandwiches, then broke out a small bottle of whiskey and a starting to have a merry time of it. Did I say the airport was boring?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Going to Networkers in Cannes

I will be spending a few days in Cannes at a Cisco event, Networkers, where I will be blogging for my Latvian-language blog on www.nozare.lv and will try to do some posts here as well. I will also be researching a magazine piece on the idea that we are entering the post-telecoms era. What I mean is that the time when telecoms was just talking on the phone or sending a fax or even leasing a data line, is gone. What we have now (in some places) and what we will have in much of the developed world in a few short years is a kind of powerful information resource "field" that one can tap into anywhere, anytime, with a variety of devices, some of which can summon powerful information processing resources (for business and research) or a wide variety of entertainment and other content. Underneath is what we used to call the telecoms network, but it has entirely new demands placed on it and has implemented new capabilities. This may be obvious to people in the business, but it is something that make for a nice "futuristic" piece for the magazine Kapitāls (Capital). If any readers will be in Cannes, feel free to leave a comment here or e-mail me at j_kaza@yahoo.com

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The half-mother taken aback

I get the impression that TeliaSonera, the half-mother of Lattelecom, has been taken aback by the apparent failure of to get a resolution, any resolution, of its efforts to acquire 100 % in at least Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT). Instead of pressing ahead with a deal, the Latvian government is m(or is there a better letter?)ucking around with variations, alternatives and hesitations that essentially take everything back to square 1.
I think the Swedes are wondering what to do now. They seemed to have come very far:
1) accepting the fact that the government would never let them have Lattelecom and being prepared to trade their 49 % of Lattelecom for the true prize, LMT.
2) making an appraisal of both companies.
3) getting ready to sit down and discuss:
a) how to reconcile two somewhat (but not insurmountably) different appraisal values
b) how to set a price
c) how and when to do the deal.

I think the half-mother has gotten used to Latvian weirdness when the government let lapse a LVL 9 million offer in 2004 to be paid by TeliaSonera to make a deal, any deal, by year end. It will soon be three years. But at some point, TeliaSonera may start wondering how far it is from having a huge stranded investment in at least one of its Latvian companies. What else can you consider it if nothing happens and the goal posts are uprooted just as one team approaches the goal?
Lattelecom, for its part, would probably not mourn the departure of the Swedes. well, not very deeply. They believe that TeliaSonera is sometimes slower to make decisions at a time when corporate strategy may have to be reviewed on a quarterly basis. At the same time, Lattelecom would probably prefer the Swedes as owners to being wholly owned by politicized domestic crazies, which, given the way things are run in Latvia, is a real possibility.
As I have already written, the new non-socialist government in Sweden is set on fully privatizing TeliaSonera and a number of other state holdings, so the half-mother should be looking over her shoulder as well as at developments in Latvia. Any number of huge beasts could be looking to eat up the cash-fat medium sized fish that TeliaSonera is, by global comparison.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Weird new schemes for divesting LMT, Lattelecom

TeliaSonera, aka the half-mother, can continue wringing her hands and pushing ahead any date when there will be some kind of final resolution of ownership of Lattelecom (the half-mother owns 49 %) and Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT--where the half mother formally holds 49 %, but actually is a bigger mother through the 23 % that Lattelecom holds).
The excessively well informed Diena reporter Baiba Rulle writes that the government is considering an alternative scheme to current swap proposal (49 % of Lattelecom plus cash for the remainder of LMT) that has been under discussion since springm 2006.
The alternative scheme would involve breaking the so-called Umbrella Agreement of 1994 and requiring TeliaSonera to sell its 49 % holding in Lattelecom to a third party, preferably financial investors. At the same time, the Latvian government would be free to sell its 51 % of Lattelecom in a public share offering unfettered by the first-refusal rights of TeliaSonera under the Umbrella Agreement. That appears to be the point of annulling the much criticized document. However, as I understand it, the Latvian laws on corporations would require a first refusal right to TeliaSonera in any case.
Assuming the government gets its way, Lattelecom would be sold by both parties on the stock exchange, while the government would sell the rest of LMT to the ex-half mother, presumably, for cash. This might be a better solution for Lattelecom than having it owned by the Latvian government (whose core business should not be running a telecoms business) and it would bring a lot of cash into the state treasury.
However, the present scheme under discussion would also involve a cash payment in addition to a swap of Lattelecom holdings for the rest of LMT, and it would leave the Latvian government with the opportunity to sell 100 % of Lattelecom on the stock exchange if it chose to do so. Now the government seems to want to saddle TeliaSonera with selling its 49 % of what could be seen as an unattractive fixed-network-only operator. It is also rather presumptuous of the government to dictate what a foreign company may or may not do with its property -- in this case, 49 % of Lattelecom -- by urging it to sell to the holding to private financial investors.
One scenario that could arise, assuming the half-mother goes along with the scheme, is that it arranges to sell its holdings of Lattelecom to a future new owner of TeliaSonera, since the Swedish group itself is likely to be 100 % privatized in the near to medium term. In other words, TeliaSonera sells its 49 % of Lattelecom to say, Deutsche Telekom or Telefonica, who then buys into TeliaSonera and picks up the rest of Lattelecom on the stock exchange when the government sells its 51 %. At the end of the day, the 100 % private TeliaSonera and its new foreign parent control both Lattelecom and LMT, which is what TeliaSonera has wanted all along.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Bite in good hands, probably

Well, I am back in Riga, but not my luggage (delay in Amsterdam) nor a bag of Target purchases (left at my parents' house).
The news I missed (but anticipated) was the sale of the Bite Group for EUR 450 million to Mid Europa Partners, a private equity group. They are sufficiently transparent so that one can see they have experience in managing telecom assets. That's good news, also a signal that telecoms are of considerable interest to those who make money with their money (private equity) rather than put their money into just telecoms for one reason or another. In other words, the sector is looking bright again.
Not so bright, or non-existant are the chances that Lattelecom could acquire a mobile operator. It was in talks about Bite, but -- probably wisely-- decided not to try to outbid the private equity folks. That leaves Lattelecom with the alternative of joining the merry bunch of virtual operators (I see Telekomunikaciju Grupa -- TG-- has joined the party) mostly hosted on Bite's network.
Next interesting question -- what will happen to the (temporary?) half-mother of Lattelecom, TeliaSonera. The recent boardroom changes reported in the Swedish press are interpreted as foreboding changes in top management, perhaps ahead of a sale of most or all of the remaining state shares in TeliaSonera. The insatiable private equity funds will be out there waiting, I am sure.

Sweden's Dagens Nyheter calls the January 17 changes in TeliaSonera's boardroom "the most brutal in Swedish corporate history. Board members Carl Bennet, Eva Liljebom, Lennart Låftman, Lars-Erik Nilsson and Sven-Christer Nilsson were voted out and replaced on smaller board by Lars G Nordström, Conny Karlsson, Maija-Liisa Friman and Jan Risfelt. The move is seen by analysts as a purge of board members seen as close to the Social Democratic movement and, thereby, opposed to complete privatization of the company. A sell-off of TeliaSonera has been in the cards since the non-socialist government was formed in the fall of 2006.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

In the US, little broadband access

I am in the US for 10 days, my dad turned 90 today (Friday) so I am mainly at my parents' home with no internet (was mooching some unreliable neighbor WiFi nets). Writing from my brother's house, fast Comcast link. Heading to Orlando, resort with free wireless, so hopefuly will be back online. Back in Latvia January 21

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lattelecom looks to plan B or Plan C on mobiles

I'll make this quick as I am up to my arse (the British spelling) in alligators at work because I am heading off to the US tommorrow and have to finish several things.
It looks pretty much like Lattelecom will have to implement plan B (a virtual mobile operator) or plan C (waiting for mobile WiMax). Denmark's TDC will be selling the Bite Group in the next couple of weeks, either to a private equity group or another, big telecom player. Lattelecom could afford to, but is unlikely to pay the close to EUR 500 million one is probably talking about.
Plan B is not so bad, Bite welcomes all comers. The only stumbling block (aside from what strange ideas the new owners of Bite, whoever they will be, may get) are Telia Sonera's objections to Lattelecom going into the mobile market anything less than a year after it will be traded back to 100 % government ownership.
This is silly, as TeliaSonera will then become 100 % owner of Latvian Mobile Telephone, which, in terms of revenues and profitability, is the MMFITV. This is from an sacriligious version of the 23rd Psalm-- Yea (this is not a cheering yea, it is a Biblical "yea") though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for I am the Meanest Motherfucker in The Valley. " As the MMFITV of the Latvian mobile market, LMT doesn't need this shit, it can do fine against Bite/Lattelecom without TeliaSonera's help.
Oh, and by the way, the word is out that TeliaSonera is on the selling block as well with the same crowd of Telefonica, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom and the private equity money gathering for the sale.

Friday, January 05, 2007

In Latvian--whatever soon means

This is a note to all my readers in Latvia, especially those whose mother tongue is Latvian. LETA will be launching my Latvian language blog on telecoms, IT & technology "soon" --whatever that means. The blog will probably be about a lot of the same stuff as here, perhaps more politely phrased, since it is a publication of a reputable news agency and not the personal rants of a journalist, a profession that has been called disreputable :). Nonetheless, in one of the many test posts I wrote while LETA was still f**king around with how the blog would look, I call the Latvian government "billy-goats" (āži), which loses something in the translation (just don't call anyone an āzis in Latvia, trust me... that's pronounced aah-zis. One exception to my suggestion--at your own risk-- the way many Latvians drive, you can give someone who cuts you off the finger and shout āzi! at him or kaza at a her -- whuch means goat and brings me to remember the non-diacritical spelling of my last name that appears in everything I write for foreign media :) ) .
Please, let me know if that link is working (open to the general public) yet. Whatever I have written here, I hope it doesn't cause any road rage fights...

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The mailman might bring IPTV in Latvia

It doesn't sound credible with the Latvian Post Office in the middle of a huge clusterfuck regarding delivery of newspapers and periodicals , but Lattelecom's upcoming IPTV on regular television sets service may be delivered as a do-it-yourself kit. The kit will include a Motorola decoder and, probably, a new DSL modem with extra Ethernet ports for attaching the decoder plus software or some gadget to split the signal between ordinary broadband and the IPTV bitstream.
This should be on the market by the end of Q1 2007 and one option will be to have it delivered by mail, once the customer has signed a contract to either lease or buy the decoder and the service. Several thousand Lattelecom DSL connections were sold as do-it-yourself kits at supermarkets, and this was apparently a success. However, the decoder will, initially, be a high price-tag item that one is unlikely to put in a shopping cart (the DSL kit was around LVL 25) so it may be delivered by a mail babushka or more likely, a courier service like DHL.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A f**ked internet bank

One of the "dark secrets"of e-commerce is about labor practices. It employs a lot of free labor -- us, that is. Instead of going to a bricks and mortar shop ($$$ for the shopkeeper), and asking the salesperson(salary $$$ for the shopkeeper) for a look at some, say, Clarks shoes, we find a website selling shoes and find the brand ourselves and figure out the size and color and fill in the order and payment details and make the transaction. A better example is books, which I have bought lots of on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. You do all the work yourself, assisted sometimes by a robot that knows one's preferences.
Most of the work we do online at all hours (I have ordered from amazon at 1 am) is very simple, which is why, for convenience sake, we are so easily tricked into working as sales assistants, order takers and bank clerks in the middle of the night (often leaving a "tip"of personal information so that we can be approached by marketers more precisely and effectively).
Having said that, I had the most unpleasant experience with the Baltic Trust Bank, a bank thrust upon me by my new employer (for years I have been with Hansabanka and intend to stay) for the purpose of transferring salaries. I duly opened an account and got an envelope for my internet bank, hoping, as soon as possible, to set up an automatic forwarding of my salary to Hansabanka.
There were no clear instructions for using the internet bank. I guessed that one used one's bank card pin code to access the ibank. Wrong. Fortunately, I stopped doing trial and error with this before automatically locking down the account. I had to call the bank to find out that my password was, in fact, a code printed on a code card (one of these things where, as double authentication, you enter "code 26" or something after your password clears). I was then offered to change my password. Each time, I had to re-enter the original gibberish of numbers and letters, because, it seems, the system insisted I use both one capital letter and one of a defined set of symbols *%( etc and a number, of at least eight characters all together. For some reason, the system did not recognize symbols entered fromt the ordinary QWERTY keyboard, but finally responded to a symbol from the numerical keypad on my desktop iMac (will it work from a MacBook laptop? We shall see...). So after some ten infuriating and frustrating attempts, cursing the lame-ass BTB every time, I seem to have gotten it right.
I can understand the need for security, but it goes a little far to make the customer do a lot of repetitive and frustrating work. At the same time, BTB gives potential hackers an interesting formula: at least eight characters, one capital letter, one numeral and one of a limited number of symbols. Let us assume that most people will chose passwords that at least make some phonetic if not actual sense, rather than utter gibberish like &gbBzjq9, but rather fucKbtb*7 (that is not my password, btw, but I did think of this wording at one point), is it not a tractable problem to break the password? I'm not a programmer or mathematician, but it seems doable. Now BTB and other banks will say that the combination of the password plus the hundreds of thousands or more code card combos TOGETHER are impossible to crack short of using your 2070 model zillion multiverse quantum laptop. And they are probably right. But in that case, why make changing the password such an onerous chore?
Recently, BTB was acquired by GE Money. Maybe it is time to make the iBank service less of a frustrating task?

More Baltcom (Fiber) buzz

A couple of years ago, a weird corporate contrivance called Foco-16 proposed building an undersea fiber optic cable from Gotland to Ventspils in Latvia with the general idea of making it the next to last link in a fiber optic network from Russia to the Nordic countries. The link from Gotland to the Swedish mainland was built by the Stockholm municipal fiber company STOKAB, which also was involved in the Gotland to Latvia link.
To make a long story short, Foco foco-ed everyone and left a Dutch company (part of the consortium, but specializing in laying and burying subsea cable) with unpaid bills and a dark fiber optic cable. In came Peteris Smidre, the owner of Baltcom TV, and bought the better part of the cable (50 %?). It has 56 optical pairs, roughly enough for the data transmission needs of God, if all pairs are used at full, multi-terabit capacity (possible with state-of the art equipment). Smidre has put the cable under a company called Baltcom Fiber, which has not exactly been selling huge capacity of late, certainly not at a great price. But since the deal was a firesale, Smidre considers it a good long-term investment. With prices for bandwidth stabilizing somewhere above absolute zero, there is hope for making money from fiber again. In the long run, Smidre and Baltcom Fiber are looking to provide managed data transmission services, implementing MPLS and routing datastreams from one IMS network to another and the like. Presently, interest in such services is lukewarm at best, but Smidre believes that content providers (broadband TV, eventually broadband HiDef TV and the like) will come around and let their carrier do the work of shaping their signal and keeping it near perfection. So, a couple of years down the road, look for Baltcom Fiber as a player on the transnational multimedia carrier market.