Weekend news roundup

4 Oct 2010

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A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers, from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg’s working arrangements to attempts to put a rover on the moon.

Terms of endearment

The New York Times carried an endearing feature on the nonconventional CEO/COO working relationship between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley "superstar" Sheryl Sandberg. Zuckerberg (26) relies on Sandberg’s (41) experience and savvy to whip Facebook into a professional 1,800-strong new media giant. Sandberg has in her time worked with the World Bank as well as spearheading the massive growth of Google internationally before joining Facebook.

Since she joined the company more than two years ago, Facebook has successfully navigated one of the more perilous stages in a start-up’s life: a period of hypergrowth. Facebook’s work force has expanded sixfold, to nearly 1,800, and its global audience has multiplied by more than seven, to half a billion. Revenue, once little more than an afterthought, is expected to balloon to around $1.6bn this year, according to estimates from Wedbush Securities. (Facebook, a private company, doesn’t disclose its revenue.)

Part of the reason for that sales growth is Sandberg’s close ties to many of the world’s largest advertisers, relationships she first developed as a senior executive at Google. Sandberg also brought stability to Facebook, which had suffered from a long period of turmoil and the departure of several executives and early employees, including the company’s other co-founders.

Putting fibre in our diet

The Sunday Tribune carried an interview with E-net’s Conal Henry who has been responsible for the running of the 94 Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) across Ireland. In the interview, Henry warned that Ireland needs to invest further in its telecoms network.

The industry has seen its revenues fall by 10pc and investment in new technology is under pressure. Not for Henry, the chief executive of Enet, the company that builds and maintains the MANs that hook up rural towns to super-fast fibre broadband. The company has just posted the first profit since it was set up (about €1.7m in the year to end of April) and revenues rocketed by 50pc to nearly €14m. It’s no surprise then that Henry was in good form when we met in the company’s Dublin office in the IFSC. The main base is in Limerick, where more than 40 staff are employed, but the small office in the city’s financial heartland is necessary as most of the company’s clients – a mixture of traditional phone companies, mobile-phone operators and cable-TV firms – are based in Dublin.

"We’ve grown from a standing start to €14m in revenue in five years. I’d look for us to grow at a similar level in the next three to five years," Henry said. "The telecoms companies like us better because they don’t feel we are competing with them."

US$7bn telecoms mega deal

The Financial Times reported that Russia’s second-largest mobile phone operator, is close to finalising a $7bn deal to combine with most of the telecoms assets of Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecoms entrepreneur.

Under the deal, which could be announced as soon as Monday, Vimpelcom would secure most of Sawiris’ telecoms assets in emerging markets, plus Wind, Italy’s third-largest mobile operator. The enlarged Vimpelcom group would be the fifth-largest mobile operator in the world by number of customers, with a market capitalisation of $24bn. Vimpelcom’s current market value is $19bn.

Weather Investments, Sawiris’ private investment vehicle that controls Wind and the Cairo-listed Russia’s second-largest mobile phone operator, is close to finalising a $7bn deal to combine with most of the telecoms assets of Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecoms entrepreneur.

The enlarged Vimpelcom group would be the fifth largest mobile operator in the world by number of customers, with a market capitalisation of $24bn. Vimpelcom’s current market value is $19bn.

Weather Investments, Sawiris’ private investment vehicle that controls Wind and the Cairo-listed Orascom Telecom group, could receive about $2bn in cash under the deal, plus a 20pc stake in Vimpelcom, worth $4.8bn.

Vimpelcom’s board was due to meet on Sunday evening to approve the deal with Weather, and people familiar with the situation said the transaction could yet founder because of its complexity. Two said Vimpelcom could assume at least $12bn of debt held by Weather.

Iran arrests Stuxnet suspects

The New York Times reported Iran has arrested an unspecified number of “nuclear spies” in connection with a damaging worm that has infected computers in its nuclear program, the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, said Saturday.

Moslehi also told the semi-official Mehr news agency that the ministry had achieved “complete mastery” over government computer systems and was able to counter any cyberattacks by “enemy spy services.”

Iran confirmed last week that the Stuxnet worm, a malicious self-replicating program that attacks computers that control industrial plants, had infected computers in its nuclear operations. Officials said it had been found in personal computers at the Bushehr nuclear plant, a power generator that is not believed to be part of a weapons program, and that it had not caused “serious damage” to government systems.

While the origins of the worm remain obscure, many computer security experts believe it was created by a government with the intent of sabotaging Iran’s nuclear programme, which Western countries believe is aimed at creating a nuclear weapon. The United States and Israel have cyberwarfare programs and both countries have sought to undermine Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, but neither has commented on the Stuxnet worm.

Iran has portrayed the worm as a cyberattack by Western powers and Israel intended to derail the country’s nuclear program, which the government says is for peaceful purposes.

They’ll put a van on the moon, van on the moon …

The Guardian carried an interesting story about how dozens of entrepreneurs and space engineers will gather on the Isle of Man tomorrow to finalise plans for one of the world’s most technologically ambitious and financially lucrative competitions: the Lunar X Prize.

The $20m (£12.6m) award, which is being backed by Google, will be given to the first company that builds a robot rover craft, lands it safely on the moon, and directs it on a journey of more than 500 metres. The competition organisers hope to galvanise the exploration of the moon by opening it up to private industry. A deadline of 2012 has been set for all attempts to win the full prize.

"NASA currently puts the cost of landing a robot rover on the moon at more than $1bn," said Julian Ranger, the UK financier who is raising cash for Astrobotic, one of the prize’s key competitors. "We believe we can get that cost down to less than $50m, a price tag that will transform lunar exploration and make the moon a target for all sorts of commercial operations."

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com