Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

January 26, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Three + O2 = ?

O2 and Three shops next door to each other in Trinity Leeds

Last week, news came that Asia’s richest man was in talks to buy UK mobile phone network O2. Li Ka-shing already owns Three in the UK and it’s likely that if he does buy it, the two will merge.

Right now, O2 is the second-largest mobile phone network in the UK with around 29% of the market. EE is the largest, although only just, and itself formed by a merger between Orange and T-Mobile. Vodafone is third with 23%, and then Three is a distant fourth with around 12% of the market. Combining O2 and Three would make it Britain’s largest network, but also reduce the four main players down to three.

The remaining 7% are MVNOs – Mobile Virtual Network Operators – who buy wholesale capacity from the big four networks. These include Tesco Mobile, Asda Mobile, Mobile by Sainsbury’s, Lebara, Lyca, Vectone, Virgin Media and many more smaller players.

Three

O2 and Three are quite different. Three is a relative newcomer – it’ll be 12 years old in March – and positioned itself as 3G-first network (although a deal with T-Mobile ensured 2G fallback coverage). It got off to a rough start as it initially only offered patchy 3G coverage in a time when its only selling point was video calling. But as feature phones became smartphones, Three developed a reputation for offering a reasonably consistent 3G, and later 4G signal and lower prices. It’s popular with people like me because it offers contracts with unlimited internet, free roaming in selected countries and free calls to 0800 numbers – something that almost all other networks charge ridiculous prices for. It’s got a more youthful and slightly rebellious brand image, but also a reasonably good reputation for consistent 3G signal, even in less-populated places.

O2

O2 has been around for much, much longer – 30 years, in fact. It was originally called Cellnet and was a joint venture between BT and Securicor, but BT bought out Securicor’s share in 1999 and it became known as BT Cellnet. Three years later, it was spun out of BT and re-branded O2, and in 2005 was bought by the Spanish company Telefonica.

O2 is very big on sponsorship and naming rights. The Millennium Dome in London is now ‘The O2′, and it has a deal with the Academy Music Group to name all of its venues ‘O2 Academy’. There’s also the ‘O2 Apollo Theatre’ in Manchester. These deals mean that O2 customers get earlier access to tickets and can sometimes jump the queue or access VIP areas once inside.

O2 was also the first UK network to get the Apple iPhone, and had an exclusive deal until 2009. Three started offering the iPhone in 2010, and that’s when I joined having previously been a Tesco Mobile customer.

Culture clash

So you have two quite different networks. You have one of the oldest networks in Britain which charges more money but offers its customers extra deals, and a young upstart that offers a cheaper, streamlined service. Combining these two may be difficult – Three customers will not want to lose their unlimited internet or free roaming, even though roaming charges will hopefully be abolished within the EU very soon. And O2 customers probably won’t want to lose their VIP access to venues and other bundled services. If the merger goes ahead, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Looking across the Irish Sea

There is a precedent for this, however. Li Ka-shing bought O2 Ireland last year, and merged it with Three Ireland. In doing so, the O2 brand was dropped and all customers were moved to Three. Ireland’s situation is quite similar to Britain, in that there were four networks and now there are only three: Three, Vodafone and Meteor, owned by Eircom, Ireland’s national landline operator. Notably Three retained O2’s naming rights – like London, Dublin had a venue called ‘The O2′, which is now known as the ‘3Arena‘.

Too much consolidation?

The aforementioned merger between T-Mobile and Orange to create EE was permitted by regulators as it wasn’t likely to adversely affect competition in the UK mobile phone market; both were smaller than O2 and Vodafone at the time. So going from five operators to four wasn’t seen as a bad thing.

But I reckon that the regulators will not be so keen on a move from four networks to three. I believe there are real implications for a loss of competition, and a potential for prices to go up. I mentioned that the EU are planning to ban roaming charges when abroad and the networks could take advantage of a less competitive market as an excuse to raise prices to compensate. In Austria, there has also been consolidation which has resulted in price rises. The decision to allow any merger (and remember it’s still at the negotiation phase, so it’s not guaranteed to happen) would be made in Brussels, rather than by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority.

There’s also the potential for job losses; any merged company ends up with duplicated staff, not at least in retail stores. Orange and T-Mobile often had stores next to each other and when these became EE, one closed. In the photo above, taken in Trinity Leeds, an O2-Three merger would almost certainly see one of those stores shut. We also lost independent retailer Phones4U last year – it’s not a good time to work in mobile phone retail.

As a Three customer myself, I really hope that the merger doesn’t happen. Three’s network coverage is pretty good on the whole and I can’t see it being significantly improved with access to O2’s cell towers. I’m concerned that prices will go up, and that I’ll end up paying for extra ‘priority moments’ that I never use through higher bills. And I can imagine the outcry if Three drops its free international roaming in non-EU countries like the USA, or starts charging for freephone numbers. We’ll have to see what happens.

January 25, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Crowdfunded

Fijian Banded Iguana

Last year, I ran a series of blog posts on Sundays called Kickstarted, about projects that I had backed on Kickstarter. It ran from January until April, by which point I had written about all of the projects that I had backed and had nothing more to say.

Since then, I’ve backed several more projects and so I’m going to resurrect this series. However, some of those projects were on Indiegogo, rather than Kickstarter, so I’m calling it ‘Crowdfunded’ instead to cover both – and any other crowdfunding sites I end up using.

I’ll start writing about each new project (i.e. ones that I’ve backed since April 2014) in two weeks’ time. Next week’s post is to be a review of those that I’ve previously written about, as almost a year will have passed and I figure it’ll be good to look at them again. In some cases they’re now complete, and others are still stuck in development hell. That blog post will go live next Sunday.

Like last year, Crowdfunded will run for as long as I have new projects to write about; as it stands, there’s enough content for at least a couple of months, but this could change if some really good Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns appear in the meantime.

January 24, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 24, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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January 23, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Home Shopping

Little Horton Green

As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, 2015 is the year that we will buy a house. Originally the plan was for one of us to pass our driving test, then buy a car, and then buy a house, but we’ve starting looking more earnestly at houses already. And today we had our first couple of viewings.

The first house was… well, pretty terrible actually. One of those that looks great in the photos on the estate agent web site, but is very different in real life. I get the impression that the current owner bought it cheap to do up and only got part way before having to emigrate, so whilst it has a nice kitchen and bathroom the rest of the house needed work. And the roof was leaking. We don’t really have the time or money to spend on major improvements like that, even though it was quite a lot cheaper than other properties in the area and was already vacant.

House number two was much better though. More expensive, but bigger – four double bedrooms (three is our minimum), not too far away from the town centre, in good condition with character. Not 100% perfect but it ticks off a lot of the things that we’re looking for and will definitely go on our shortlist.

We have a third viewing tomorrow morning; a cheaper house but one that’s hopefully in a reasonable state. Although the photos suggest that the current owners have a rather… ‘unique’ sense of style.

We’re looking to stay roughly in the same area, i.e. Sowerby Bridge, or perhaps some parts of Halifax that are not too far from the railway station so that I can commute to work in Bradford. We know the area and we like it here – plus, it’s ‘up and coming’ so hopefully if we do end up selling in a few years’ time the house will have at least held its value. But we’re hoping to stay put for some time if we can.

As first-time buyers the whole process is a bit daunting – it’s certainly a far more involved process than renting a house and the stakes are much higher. We’re lucky that there seems to be enough good houses in the area that are in our price range, but as I’m about to start a busy period at work it’s going to get harder to find time for viewings. I’ll keep you posted as we progress through the year, but I’m reasonably confident that by the end of the year we’ll be living in a house that we own.

January 17, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 17, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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January 16, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Beagle2 found

Beagle2 found on MarsSome good news from Mars: the Beagle2 lander appears to have been found intact.

Beagle2 was a European space programme led by British scientists that was supposed to have landed on Mars on Christmas Day 2003. After touching down and making radio contact, it was to play a song composed by Damon Albarn, best known as the lead singer of Blur and Gorillaz. But no transmission has ever been received and it was presumed that the Beagle2 had crash-landed.

Now, new photos from Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter appear to show Beagle2 on the surface of Mars, in a mostly intact state. Whilst it doesn’t seem to have deployed correctly, it shows that the mission was much closer to being successful than previously thought. Sadly the principal investigator of the Beagle2 mission, Colin Pillinger, passed away last year without knowing just how far his project got.

Since Beagle2’s failure, NASA has successfully landed three rovers on Mars. Spirit and Opportunity touched down within weeks of Beagle2’s planned landing; whilst Spirit went offline in 2010, we’re still in contact with Opportunity almost 11 years after landing. Since then it’s travelled over 25 miles across the red planet, setting a new record for the longest distance travelled by a rover not on Earth. In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed successfully.

The European Space Agency (ESA), in collaboration with Russia, are trying again with a new rover in 2018, called ExoMars. Unlike Beagle2, which was static, this will be like NASA’s rovers and will be able to move around the planet. My employer, the University of Bradford, is partially involved in the project.

Maybe in the dim and distant future, we’ll be able to reach Beagle2 and find out what really happened. Manned missions to Mars will be a long way off and I can’t see this being a priority for any space agency, but it would be interesting to find out what really happened on Christmas Day 2003. It may even be possible that Beagle2’s computers survived the landing and are trying to contact its base, but the signal can’t get through.

January 15, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Productivity Pack

The Productivity Pack

This week saw the launch of the Productivity Pack – premium subscriptions to five services for $60 USD – about £40. Buying them all together at once saves over $120, as individually they’re worth around $185.

It’s of interest to me as I use two of the services already. Here’s what’s included:

 Pocket Premium

In 2012 I made a new year’s resolution to use what was then called Read It Later, now known as Pocket, as a way of saving interesting articles and videos to read at a later date. It integrates with most Twitter apps, along with Reeder and Feedly, and I reckon I save around 10 things every day. I was therefore not surprised when Pocket emailed me to tell me I’m in their top 1% of users, both in 2013 and 2014.

Because I use Pocket so much, I’d already signed up for a Premium account. I don’t use the extra features much: these include better search, tag suggestions and archiving of everything you save in case the original web site goes offline. But since I rely on Pocket so much I’m happy to pay to keep it going.

As an early adopter who bought the paid-for Read It Later app (before all Pocket apps became free), I’m entitled to a lower subscription fee for Pocket Premium. Whereas it normally costs $50 per year, I pay half of that.

Evernote Premium

I use Evernote from time-to-time – mostly for keeping shopping lists or anything that I need to note down quickly. I’m not a power user by any means. I’ve had an Evernote Premium subscription in the past – I think it came with a purchase of an app bundle – but I let it lapse as I don’t really use the extra features that it offered. I really just need it to keep my notes in sync between devices.

It’s nice to have, I guess, but not something I’d use very much. Normally this is $45 per year.

Wunderlist Pro

I’ve heard of Wunderlist but never used it. It’s a tool for managing lists, whether they be to-do lists, shopping lists, planning checklists, or anything else that’s listable. Lists are kept in sync between devices, with apps available on both mobile and desktop, and lists or list items can be shared and delegated. Whilst a free account will do these things, a pro account lets you attach bigger files, and delegate tasks to more people. This is worth $50 per year.

At the moment tasks are split between my work Office 365 account (for work things, obviously), Reminders on my iPhone and Mac, and the occasional to-do list or shopping list in Evernote. I suppose I could use Wunderlist to organise these things better, but I don’t think the extra perks of a Pro account would be useful for me.

LastPass Premium

Lifehacker readers named LastPass as their most popular password manager, and it’s certainly the one that I’d recommend first to people. That being said, I don’t use it – I use 1Password instead. LastPass is much cheaper – most of its features are available for free and Premium accounts are normally only $12 per year. Paying a dollar per month gets rid of the advertising and removes restrictions on its mobile apps. 1Password is more expensive, but it’s what I’m used to using and it works fine for me.

New York Times

As a bonus, the Productivity Pack includes free unlimited access to the New York Times web site, albeit only for 8 weeks rather than a full year as with the other four services.

Should I buy the Productivity Pack?

That depends on how much value you’ll get out of these. For me, I can’t see myself buying it – I’m already getting Pocket Premium at a discount and I don’t think I’d be able to get my money’s worth. However, if you can see yourself using two or more of the services included in the Productivity Pack, then it’s worth it. It’s a limited time offer which may expire at any time.

When you buy the Productivity Pack you’ll get redemption codes for each, which you can use yourself or give to someone else if they would find it more useful, and if you’re already a subscriber then you’ll just add an extra year onto your existing subscription.

January 14, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Diary of a Teenage Blog

Red phone boxes

As of today, this blog becomes a teenager, as I’ve been writing on here for 13 years now. I think this blog still counts as the longest project that I’ve persisted with; whilst I may go some time without writing anything, I’ve never seriously considered giving it up. Which is more than can be said for various other projects that I’ve abandoned over the years.

Naturally, now that this blog is in its teenage years, it’ll struggle to wake up in the mornings, be prone to mood swings and struggle with emotional changes.

And a scary thought is that in around four to five years time, this blog will be as old as I was when I started it. Hopefully I’ll still be blogging by then.

January 10, 2015
by Neil Turner
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Links from Pinboard for January 10, 2015

Here are the articles or web sites that I’ve found this week and linked to on my Pinboard Bookmarks:

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January 5, 2015
by Neil Turner
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The Vivarium at the Manchester Museum

Chameleon

On Black Friday (which is sadly now a thing in Britain too, but without Thanksgiving the day before) Christine and I decided to avoid the shops and go to the Manchester Museum. We’d stayed the night in Manchester to see Delain at the Club Academy and the museum wasn’t far from the hotel – and we both had all of Friday off work.

We’d been in 2013 and saw most of the museum, including its collection of stuffed animals and archaeological artefacts, but the vivarium where its lizards and amphibians live was closed. Thankfully it’s re-opened so we popped in.

A ‘vivarium‘ is basically any receptacle for keeping animals for observation and research, and the museum is at pains to state that this isn’t a zoo. The museum is attached to the University of Manchester and so the animals are kept as part of breeding and research programmes. Most of the animals are endangered in the wild.

It’s not a very big exhibit, and some of the frogs are particularly small and hard to spot. But they do have a particularly handsome chameleon, and lizards and snakes. There are also talks held on Thursdays.

I took a few photos, but only had my own iPhone on me – after all, we’d gone to Manchester primarily for a heavy metal concert, so I had left my SLR camera at home. Quite a few of the photos didn’t come out well so there’s just a couple up on Flickr – and it’s taken me until now to get these uploaded, despite visiting in November.

It’s a bit of a trek out of Manchester city centre: expect to walk around 15-20 minutes from Oxford Road station, or catch one of the many buses that run down Oxford Road past the universities. Entry to the museum is free (but donations are welcome) and it’s worth a visit, as there’s quite a lot to see there. When we went there was an additional exhibition about life in Siberia as well, which runs until March and was quite interesting.