Archive for September, 2005

Most all of us have been fixated on the disaster in the Gulf Coast over the last few weeks. The destruction is something one would expect to see in a war zone with a significant portion of the communications infrastructure having been wiped out.

According to this article, we see the following damage as being reported to the FCC.

  • More than a thousand wireless towers were knocked down
  • Over 11,000 utility poles are down, 26,000 spans of cable are down, 22,000 line drops are down
  • Out of the 578 central offices in Hurricane-affected states, 545 remained in service.
  • The loss of connectivity on the wireline network quickly spilled over to the wireless networks.
  • Over 100 broadcast stations were knocked off the air.
  • Only 2 AM and 2 FM radio stations in New Orleans remained on the air following the hurricane. These local radio stations were the only way only getting news out during the crisis.
  • BellSouth estimates the damage at $400 to $600 million and will have to bear these costs now as it redeploys equipment.

    No matter how you view this disaster one thing is clear, the current infrastructure is incapable of handling the weather conditions it occasionally runs across. Of course, that won’t stop Bell South from rebuilding the very same infrastructure to replace it.

    Let’s take a look at what the real cost to you (after all, you really don’t think Bell South is going to pay for this out of their pocket, do you?) and what value you are getting for your money.

    Bell South estimates the damage to be $400 to $600 million to replace and upgrade the damaged infrastructure. While there has been nothing specifically said, there does not seem to be any losses calculated as to lost business revenue, or lost revenue going forward. That’s right, Bell South is going to lose customers to WISPs and other independent connectivity suppliers that did manage to keep their connections up and running. If we add in these factors and then factor in the additional damage that Rita caused (remember, the above testimony was after Katrina but before Rita) we can assume that Bell South alone will stand to lose a billion dollars plus when all is said and done.

    This estimate does not include the cost to the local television and radio broadcast industry, police and fire depatrtments or the Cell Phone providers, among others.

    One thing that was certainly conspicuous in its absence in the above testimony is the length of time Bell South estimates it will take them to repair the damage – especially considering that many of their local employees were also victims of the storm, losing homes and property. In other words, how long will some of Bell South’s worst case customers be without service?

    Perhaps, the most difficult question to ask is how long before this happens again? When will the next big storm hit? For this “investment” of a half billion dollars will we end up with a communications network that will be able to withstand the next category 5 hurricane? I would submit that the answer is no. In fact, if next year’s hurricane season produces another devastating storm like Katrina (and it seems likely this could happen) what have we earned for our money? The reality is not one damn thing.

    What could we do differently? More importantly, what should we do differently?

    How about this?

    I am proposing we engineer and build a network of wireless towers capable of withstanding a category 5 hurricane that can accommodate not just phone but Internet, first responder traffic, police, fire, radio, television, LMDS, MMDS, along with WiFi hot spot connectivity. These towers would need to be built on an five to eight mile grid, connected by licensed, carrier grade, microwave links and supplied with backup electrical power that could last for weeks without attention.

    If we were to look at the shared cost of rebuilding the infrastructure of all of the above services we can see that the total cost of a project like what I am proposing would be more expensive that each of these services being rolled out individually but this would be quickly recouped the next time there is a massive storm and the payback would continue on through every storm from then on out.

    This proposal isn’t a cure all for every one of the problems faced by the telecommunications industry during this last round of crisis. One of the glaring omissions is how we supply power to each customer because even if the cell phone network had remained functional the cell phones themselves would not have had the power to last for the length of time necessary. There are many of other issues that need to be looked at and addressed but there certainly isn’t space for all of them here.

    Of course, this only addresses the technical side of the issue, completely leaving out the benefit to people. Would there have been a real value to the population of New Orleans (and many other areas) if their communications had functioned? Would the desperation many faced have been lessened if they could have called for help, spoken to their loved ones, gotten an idea when help was coming or simply not been stranded, alone, isolated from the outside world? I will leave that up to you to decide and place a value on what that means to you as an individual.

    I recently attended a ribbon cutting ceremony that was very different from any other event I have had the displeasure of suffering through. I was expecting to be forced to politely sit through meaningless speeches provided by politicians who were only there to take credit and garner votes but instead I was fascinated by several very well informed people casually discussing how connectivity was going to change the geopolitical landscape.

    During a speech made by Aris Melissaratos, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development, I was introduced to a term that I was unfamiliar with, “Virtual Adjacency.” At the time I really didn’t put too much weight on the phrase as each speech contained enormous amounts of excellent information delivered by some very well educated people.

    Later that night, I was lying in bed and the full impact of the phrase hit me. Virtual Adjacency, this was something that somehow resonated with me. As I continued to think about this I decided to get up and do some reading on this concept. A quick Google search turned up several results including some from Cisco but nothing that defined the phrase as I was beginning to interpret it.

    The next day I was chatting with Kory Mohr and I told him about the phrase. I explained that it was my belief this phrase was the quintessential definition of where the Internet was going to evolve to. In his usual no-nonsense way Kory asked, “Why is this different from what we have now?”

    In trying to formulate an answer to this question this is the thought process that I followed. To my way of thinking, the Internet is some sort of loosely defined entity often depicted in diagrams as a cloud. (Don’t get me started as to how ridiculous I find that example. The concept almost seems as if it is magic, not some incredibly expensive grouping of high-end hardware that makes it all happen.) If I think back to the early days of dialup, we would connect, navigate somewhere (later, by using a search engine) find what we were looking for and maybe download it to our local computer for archiving. Certainly there were other purposes including email, reading the news or whatever else we needed to grab for information but this was largely a tool that was out there, we temporarily became a part of and then left.

    A few years ago, broadband allowed us to connect and stay connected. Several things started to happen that changed the way we interacted at that time. Many of us stopped downloading information and saving it locally, instead opting to “leave” the information “out there” knowing that we could find it again (probably faster) if we needed it at a later time.

    Lately, I am beginning to notice another behavior that is now becoming accepted in our usage, a tying together of distant locations in a near permanent connection between people. Yes, I know the phrase “virtual network” has been around for a while and that the phrase accurately describes how two locations can be considered as one LAN but this is now evolving into something entirely different. I see this as now morphing into a virtual office, one where I can attend meetings, share data, work collaboratively on a project as well or better than I could if I was actually present at the site! In other words, I am “virtually adjacent” to my coworkers. In fact, I can be adjacent to my coworkers in China, India, California and in my home town without ever leaving my livingroom.

    As technology progresses we can look forward to an even more realistic simulation of our adjacency. Take a look at this announcement. If/When this technology hits the mainstream we could expect to almost believe we are sitting right next to our coworker as we share virtual documents, collaboratively work on projects or simply discuss whatever the subject of importance might be that day.

    As the cost of fuel (and transportation in general) climbs, our ability to work together effectively with others remotely will become even more critical. The term telecommuting has been in use for decades but now our ability to telecommute is now making more sense that ever. According to this link, we have an estimated 129,000,000 commuters in the US. To put that into perspective, if each commuter uses an average of 10 gallons of fuel every week for commuting (I think we can all agree that is a low figure) we find a staggering 1.29 billion gallons of fuel are being consumed weekly by commuters! Even if we could lower that by 1/4 we would be saving roughly 32,000,000 gallons of fuel per week. As gasoline hovers around the $3/gallon mark the estimated saving in fuel alone reaches $100 million per week and that does not take into account wear and tear, depreciation on vehicles along with the incredible waste of time we are talking about. Couple that with the money we spend on roads including maintenance and cleaning up from the weather and I believe we can uniformly see that the fuel expense is only a small percentage of our overall cost to maintain this system.

    Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck Wilsker and Jack Heacock of TelCoa. It didn’t take very long for the three of us to understand that we were pretty much in complete agreement as to the benefits of telecommuting (or Telework as they like to call it) but I was astounded at the specific examples they brought up that explain exactly why this business model makes sense.

    For example, in this country we have a mounting problem dealing with an aging population (myself included) and the associated medical issues (not to mention the staggering costs) that we are facing. Complicating this issue is the fact that we don’t have enough health care providers to adequately deal with this problem. One of the most dramatic deficits is our shortage of nurses – especially ones with experience. Ironically, as nurses get older we see health problems that prevent them from being able to function in the physically demanding tasks we need them to do such as lifting patients, etc. We also have a need for people to be able to communicate with health care professionals without choking doctor’s offices and emergency rooms everywhere.

    It makes sense to set up a facility that allows people to get on the phone and have access to an experienced nurse. This is one way that we can provide a rudimentary form of health care to our population inexpensively. However, the idea of a traditional “call center” may not be the best way to handle this situation. In cases where a nurse is disabled (say back problems) the added commute along with the continued time spent sitting in a chair is something that is not conducive with the needs of this person effectively locking them out of gainful (and useful) employment while denying the rest of us the ability to benefit from their extensive experience.

    The answer, telecommuting! In fact, I believe that VoIP coupled with telecommuting will be one of the next big partnership between ISPs and business. As high speed connectivity becomes ubiquitous we will be able to employ many people that would otherwise be incapable or working. People who cannot drive temporarily (or cannot drive any longer) people who have loved ones at home that need care, single mothers with pre-school children will all now be able to work from their homes. Add to that the huge number of people living in rural areas that do not have the options available to their urban counterparts. More importantly, since these people have removed the ever-increasing expense of commuting they will effectively take home more money making them better compensated without costing their employers any more money.

    On the employer’s side of the equation there is the added benefit of not having to rent/own a facility let alone the cost of heat, light, maintenance, etc. Since employees are better compensated and people who had few or no realistic work options before can now work at a professional job the impact of job churn on both the employer and the employee are less likely to be a factor. This cost alone is something that should be seriously looked at. The savings that are made by not having to advertise, sift through resumes, answer the phone, interview, check references and then once an applicant is finally hired training is substantial. Additionally, in situations where someone relocates they can still keep their job by simply plugging in their SIP router into their new broadband connection almost without any interruption.

    So, how does a business model like this technically work? Simple, we create a virtual PBX that allows the real time routing of calls to the next available operator. From the operator’s perspective they can either choose to be “available” or “unavailable” and the PBX will route the calls accordingly. This allows for the single mother to feed her baby and put it down for a nap and then go back to work. The same holds true for an older person who has to attend to a sick loved one, personal needs or simply to take a nap. This is something that would be impossible in a traditional job where commuting was mandatory.

    An even more fascinating aspect of this business model is what it is going to do to the traditional workplace. From computer tech support to telephone answering services this is going to disrupt the norm. While it is nearly impossible to estimate exactly the savings realized from switching from a brick and mortar telecenter to a home-based virtual telecenter model I think it is apparent that the reduction in cost will be dramatic.

    As we all know, those that choose to adapt will displace those who don’t. This “Darwinism of technology application” is something that is going to happen at a greatly accelerated rate. Disruptive Technology is one aspect in business any manager worth his salary should be losing sleep over but the correct application of these disruptive technologies is where the magic lies.