Archive for April, 2006

Okay, I get it!

I admit, I completely missed the point and I missed it for years but I do get it now.

What am I talking about?

The mindset in which a communications infrastructure needs to be planned around. For the longest time I focused in on the “business model” (something we all know is critical in sustainability) as well as the diversity of services that can/should be carried on the network. I have had incredible arguments with people over what a realistic ROI should look like and why grant money (read my tax dollars) being used against local businesses (like my business) was a self-defeating concept. At the same time I saw the total benefit of these networks as being centered on Broadband as well as providing different services all the while totally missing the point – all of it, every bit of it, is meaningless unless the community – every last member of the community – is getting benefit from the deployment.

What does this mean? I mean what does this really mean?

The fallacy is that a communications platform should be a business first is wrong – very wrong. A communications network is a benefit to the community, one that when properly implemented serves the community but does so in a way unlike other utilities. This may be the very first instance where we will see a real dramatic drop in real costs to any given area while increasing a myriad of services – but only if the design, build and most importantly the implementation is executed right from the conception to the actual launch with the community foremost in the designer’s mind.

Why is this different?

Let’s look at how the typical sales cycle would work in a fictitious network sale.

The salesperson contacts “Mr. Interested Party” and starts to explain all of the benefits of their product and what it will mean to “Mr. Interested Party’s” captive audience. As with every good salesperson, only the features will be touted leaving any unpleasant details out of the conversation because, after all, who likes to bring up unpleasantries?

Remember, “Mr. Interested Party” isn’t usually a highly trained technical guy, he is the man given the questionable task of gathering all the details, learning as he goes, and trying to make sense of it all in a three page report to “The Governing Body” who will eventually be charged with making a decision. Occasionally, “The Governing Body” will appoint “A Committee” which is another group of well intentioned people who have the function of interfacing with “Mr. Interested Party” and trying to learn as they go but really the only function “A Committee” serves is to help spread the blame around in case everything goes badly.

What needs to be kept in mind is that “Mr. Interested Party” is depending on salespeople to provide him with everything he needs to know so he can then regurgitate all of these facts back to “A Committee” allowing them to make an educated choice. And, as we all know (including “Mr. Interested Party”) salespeople are always a reliable source of unbiased information.

Eventually, this entire process comes to an end and a vote is taken allowing one or another salesperson to get a huge commission. Where the story goes from there is really up in the air. Based on my experience there is never a time when everyone (I mean like every single one of the people being governed by “The Governing Body”) is satisfied but that is human nature and we probably shouldn’t take that too seriously.

But this is how it works, what should we be doing differently?

Stated in its most basic form, we should be working from the bottom up, not the salesperson down.

What? What the heck does that mean?

This is a very simple process, one that takes the entire community’s perspective into account and aims to make sure that as big a percentage as possible not only takes part in the process but sets the boundaries for the process.

I see this process as taking on another tact when the decision comes to attack this problem. First, there needs to be a survey as to what the community needs. This survey should be centered on several things including first and foremost how this network will save the community money – real money. Once that issue has been addressed we then need to ask the community what services the community feels is important to them. Broadband might be one service but what about things like access to government services or reducing the time it takes to get answers out of their government? Will this network allow for interaction between more people and their government? If so, how?

Next up, but every bit as important, how will this network benefit ME? Seriously, we live in a society that is only really concerned about “ME” so let’s look at how this infrastructure will make MY life better – and I don’t mean indirectly. If I have an accident will this network improve the response time from the police department, fire department and the ambulance squad if I need one? Will I be getting better treatment while I am being transported to the hospital because of the network? Will traffic be routed around the accident scene and will the tow truck be dispatched any faster so that my neighbors will not be stuck in line (ah, never mind, that’s not really important to me – forget them, I might have been hurt and after all, who is important to ME?)

How about senior citizens, how will this improve their quality of life? Will they be able to live in their homes longer while having a safer life? Will the kids in our community also be benefited directly because of this network? Will a gaming server be set up so they can utilize this type of entertainment? Will there be a chat board set up, hopefully one with enough foresight to be multi-generational – not that adults or senior citizens don’t already have enough interaction with our kids, right?

How about education? No, not that education, I mean real, quality continuing education. We all know the Internet has become the largest inactive library on the planet allowing anyone to learn just about anything they might want. Will this new infrastructure allow for local information to be stored there for retrieval? Will WWII veterans be able to share their history with many of the kids who have an interest in that black and white war? How about the retelling of what it was like to live through the Depression? These stories could be gathered locally and be made available for posterity – because if there is anything we can all agree on, posterity needs this.

Education? EDUCATION? Forget that, I want entertainment. Let’s face it, we could all have the Smithsonian in our backyards and a sizable portion of the residents wouldn’t even walk out back to see what it was. So, in addressing these people (hey, they’re part of the community too!) we need to explain how this network will benefit them also.

But probably the single most important question out there is how will this network help me financially? Will it allow me to make more money by working less hours? Certainly, there are a ton of nice people in Nigeria that want to reach out and touch someone but what about all those foreign lotteries I keep hearing about? Hey, I hear there’s online gambling that will certainly help me pay my bills – as long as you own that online casino.

Seriously, how does this network help me in my career? Can I now get a job that allows me to work from the comfort of my home? Will this network allow me to telecommute, not only saving me time and money but allowing me a choice – a real choice – on where I choose to live? Will video conferencing be a reality as well as real LAN connections to the corporate office from my home so I can get my work done? Will this help lower my company’s total cost of operation so I will get a pay raise based on there being more money in the company’s bank? (Okay, I admit, that’s not going to happen.)

How does this process happen?

The answer is amazingly simple, change the current perception of how we think the process should be handled.

No kidding. Sometimes the most complex situations have the simplest answers.

It has been a busy week in Washington, one with a lot of ramifications. I especially enjoy the slight of hand tricks that we are sometimes treated to when we are told watch what’s in my right hand as the left hand holds the key.

What was this week’s distraction? Net Neutrality!

But wait, you say, Net Neutrality is important and you would be right – except that while you were watching the right hand the left hand was really setting you up for the fall. I suppose some accolades are in order for the people (and I use that term with all the artistic license I can muster) who “engineered” this bill, they managed a coup that will cost this country in immeasurable ways for decades to come.

What we have been handed is not only a loss on Net Neutrality but also one on “anti-redlining” something that if you live in an underserved or unserved area, you have just been condemned to a second class citizenhood for the foreseeable future.

As quoted from this article,

“An anti-redlining amendment offered by Baldwin, D-Wis., lost 20-28 and was one of several such efforts to fail.

The committee did approve an amendment offered by chairman Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, that set it up so that refusal to serve homes based on income could cost a phone company up to $50,000 per day in fines until a remedy had been enacted.

However, Orton said that amendment names the Federal Communications Commission as the governing authority, rather than the local franchising body.”

What does this mean? Well, if the larger broadband providers do not feel your neighborhood will generate enough profit to justify a buildout of next generation services (read fiber) you are simply screwed. While it would still be illegal for these providers to refuse service to homes based on income there is nothing that says they would have to provide service in these neighborhoods.

To put that in perspective, if your community does not justify a multimillion dollar FTTH deployment you can quite literally expect to see economic development as well as any kind of next generation services (HDTV over fiber, Telecommuting, etc) to just not be available to you or anyone else in your community. I would think it wouldn’t take a lot of brains to understand that you and your community will not be competitive with other communities if you cannot utilize the inexpensive services (relatively speaking) they have at their disposal. In other words, this might be a good time for you to consider getting into the plywood business, it will only be a matter of time before your town is the 21rst century equivalent of a gold mining town when the gold ran out.

From my viewpoint, we could compare this to the US having allowed telephone and electricity to only be deployed in those wealthy neighborhoods on this country. How wealthy a nation would we be now had we made those choices back then? What if we had decided to only pave roads in those same neighborhoods or connected interstate highways from wealthy area to wealthy area?

Naturally, we wouldn’t have done that. If we had there would have been no way for food and other agricultural goods as well as the manufactured products to be transported inexpensively to the wealthy. And we all know the wealthy do not what slaughterhouses and manufacturing plants in close proximity to their homes.

Funny, the same thing holds true today but instead of agricultural goods as well as manufactured items we will now see a large portion of our “intellectual capacity” being left without the necessary virtual transportation infrastructure to bring their products/services to market.

If there is one thing I believe we can learn from history, it is the total population of our country that adds to the greater good – not just the wealthy. As we move forward into this new millennium, one where we are really not sure what the currency of the day will be, we need to understand that should we choose to leave a significant portion of our population out of the greater economy we also leave what might be some of our next generation’s economic powerhouses out of the loop.

The ironic thing is that these corporations need to have an aggregate population that will provide all of the incredible diversity and richness the web has become for without it there really isn’t anything to do on the web, now is there? Remember, it was the idea of an Ebay, started quietly out of the public view as well as multitudes of other incredible ideas that has made the net what it is today. Take away the ability for these ideas to hatch out of whatever off the beaten path they come from and we all lose.

But don’t worry, everything is fine, there aren’t any problems we should be concerned about and American Idol will be on in a few minutes.

It is no secret that surfing the net has taken on a very different dimension since the early days when many of us started. There was a time when dialup over a 2400 baud modem was “adequate” and one could view just about anything they wanted if they had a modicum of patience. The compromise was a very stark web where color was used but graphics were kept to an absolute minimum. According to this site web pages have become static in size at somewhere around 60K being the optimal size. I found several other sites that also provided pretty much the same measurement but I need you to understand all of these sites were dated and used a 20 second benchmark time for load over a 56K dialup connection. Google has an amazing total size of 12K which is why many people use it as their homepage.

It’s no secret that a written message (email, forum posting, etc) does not carry the same weight in understanding of nuance as someone actually speaking “face to face” with you. This is a well known problem that has lead to the use of those annoying emoticons we see all over the place. As we all also know the inclusion of a picture (or pictures) will assist in getting the message accurately across but even though engineers have understood this process for centuries we still have a fair amount of miscommunication. With the decrease in time communication now takes (realistically approaching instantaneous) coupled with knowing that the wrongly interpreted message has at one time or another caused a war to break out, it doesn’t take a genius to realize we need to improve communications in every way we can.

Where are we headed?

Well, courtesy of Slashdot, I was directed to this article that talks about where web pages are more than likely headed. Let’s face it, broadband has redefined what we can do with the web and as we cross the point where the majority of users here in the US now have broadband this limit that has been imposed by dialup is now going to be abandoned.

Enter a new medium rich with high definition graphics as well as multimedia applications. We will see the texture of the web change dramatically, one where dialup will now be relegated to the dust bin of technical museums much like the trusty 300 baud modems of yesteryear.

How soon will this happen?

I am not sure anyone can correctly address the date when the entire web will be converted to high definition browsing but I can say that once it gets started history has shown that a better quality application (music, television, whatever) usually becomes adopted very quickly once the price point drops to where it is easily affordable. If we apply this supposition to the adoption by audiophiles to the best quality audio equipment available or the rapid adoption of High Definition TV we can rapidly see that once someone has been exposed to or acquired a taste for excellent quality audio/video experiences they will rarely opt to return to “AM radio” quality. I wonder if the adoption of “Cell Phone Quality” voice communications will one day be replaced with full fidelity voice communications. I know that we are willing to accept the miserable quality of cell phone conversations in order to have the capability to receive calls just about everywhere but I am sure nobody is overly pleased with it. I believe the same holds true with WebCams. We will tolerate 3-5 frames per second at a very low resolution but this would easily be replaced if 30 FPS at high definition levels were to become available.

So, what does this mean?

We will now start to see web locations that will be able to take advantage of the maximum definition of this latest generation of monitors. Imagine how beautiful an 8 Megapixel background image on a web site would look. At the same time there are applications for this technology in many developing nations where the illiteracy rates are through the roof. Conversely, the problem we all can see coming is that these nations are the last to be able to afford this technology even though I see them as possibly being the ones that will change that.

As we all know the scale of economics is the underlying basis for the cost of most equipment. If GigE radios were produced at a rate of 10 million per month the cost per unit would probably fall into the range of WiFi. If this technology were to be specifically designed for the outdoor deployment of communications and the necessary bandwidth were to be allocated this transformation could easily happen in the next decade. The benefit to all would be staggering.

This also supports the IPTV model as well as many other platforms that we can see coming but we are not quite sure how we will deliver them. Add to that the unknown business model that makes this service a reality and there is a lot of work to be done before we will see anything like a worldwide adoption of this communications platform. At some point, we will see radio, television, voice, data, video conferencing as well as just about everything else that can be converted to a digital bitstream be carried over this new infrastructure. At the same time this will free up wide swaths of spectrum from the cell phone providers, the licensed microwave users, radio, television and a myriad of other spectrum users that will now be able to share this common pipe we are discussing.

What will be the driving force behind this transformation?

My guess is desperation, desperation by a country that has little or no choice in the matter. As a matter of fact I could see this as also being instituted in a disaster zone like what was created in the wake of the tsunami or after Katrina. In both cases the length of time and overall expense necessary to put everything back to where it was cannot and should not be justified. This is a “greenfield” opportunity to strive for something better, experiment with new ways of doing things and move forward. Of course, we all know that instituting a change like this on a massive scale is going to cause some consternation among those who stand to lose – especially if they stand to lose big. If we look at which companies are in a position to lose their control over their markets we find a uniform pattern that closely matches up with the same group that are already losing control of their markets. IP Radio is huge and it is just getting started. IPTV, the promise is there however the infrastructure isn’t ready for it quite yet. Telecommunication and advanced data services? Please, they should shut off the lights and just go home.

This isn’t about disruptive technologies any more, it is now an all out open warfare based on the best business model. The day of tying stuff to petrified sticks stuck in the ground is now rapidly coming to a close. This is closely followed by the 1930s mentality that each operator needs to have their own slice of spectrum to provide its service even if this means that huge areas have zero utilization of this band.

There was a time when the WISP field seemed like David and Goliath. Those days have ended and a new era has begun. This is the time when the horseless carriage will have to do what it can to prevent the automobile from dominating the field. There are case studies where one industry has overcome another, street cars were almost completely replaced in California at one point but eventually even that tactic dies off. California is now rebuilding the mass transit system to alleviate the congestion on their roads as well as providing choice for their residents. Ironically, even as this progression continues the communications industry is now working to reduce the need for transportation as we usher in a time of telecommuting.

Look out, this is going to come in fast. As usual, the aware among us will get it and the rest will be taken by surprise. It will be those who adapt that will prosper and the rest will curse their luck.

Remember, luck is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. I would like to add that (channeling Yogi Berra) the other half is researching understanding good, solid information.

Every once in a while even an “expert” like myself has one of those humbling experiences that drives home the point that I really don’t know anything at all. While I welcome those instances, as they usually are times when I learn a lot, I will also willingly admit that these occurrences tend to be more than a little unnerving to someone who has always believed that I knew everything there was to know.

As they say, pride goeth before a fall…

I had the pleasure of attending the Wireless Summit in St. Charles, MO last week/weekend. While I would be the first to tell you that one never knows what any trade show, conference or event will turn out like, this one was very different from what I was expecting.

The Pre-Conference show on Friday featured many of the speakers that I had seen at the MuniWireless show in Atlanta a few weeks back so there was a repetition of information in many ways for me – even though it was all excellent information. Among others, Jonathan Baltuch of MRI and Jeff King of Northrop Grumman presented pretty much the same information they did in Atlanta – but sometimes the second time I hear something different points resonate with me. In this case Jonathan really hit home and I believe it was the fact that much of what he said became intertwined with other messages during this weekend.

Let me also take a moment to mention that Sascha Meinrath managed to bring together a very wide range of people with very varied backgrounds to come together and exchange differing viewpoints – something which is not only difficult to do but also to orchestrate. Let me clearly state that it is people of vision that can understand the value of events like this and Sascha definitely meets that criteria.

Okay, on to the meat (or soy, for those of you who would prefer) of the matter…

This industry is evolving (DUH) and as soon as there appears one model that “revolutionizes” the way we look at these networks someone else comes along and adds to that model. For whatever reason, I try to keep track of these changes, document this evolution (perhaps punctuated equilibrium might be a more apt term) and package it for everyone to follow along with. I suggested the term “punctuated equilibrium“ as opposed to “evolution” because I see it as a better fit. We don’t slowly evolve in a steady process but rather make leaps forward. As a specific example the term Municipal Wireless became part of our vocabulary as few years back and now that term (or the shortened MuniWireless) is used by everything from city officials to the main stream media. So too is the term Community Wireless even though it is not as popular – yet.

What I find amazing is the fact we are seeing a fragmentation happening in this field and an artificial fragmentation at that. Is there really a need for the term Community Wireless or have Municipalities now stopped being communities? Where this distinction was made last weekend seemed to be in the ownership of the network, did the Municipality (meaning the government) own this infrastructure or should the Community own the actual network? Can we trust the local government to own and operate this infrastructure or must control be maintained by the entire community (or as many people who wish to assume responsibility for this communications platform) be given the responsibility to run it. I would suggest that there is no one absolute solution which should work in every case and the flexibility to create whatever the community itself wants needs to be allowed for the maximum amount of freedom to be encouraged.

I would submit that each model has its advantages and corresponding flaws. While the Municipality has more resources and the ability to leverage these resources in significantly more ways they also tend to move very slowly and in a field that changes by the minute this could be a serious drawback. There is always the concern about free speech and censorship – something that each ownership scenario has to deal with. Regardless of whether the network is owned by the Municipality or the residents can lead to local control and perhaps the outright banning of content that the powers that be find offensive. For a clear definition of what I mean, think of a town that decides that only “approved content” will be allowed on “their” network. As an aside, I have seen ISPs make the statement that they do not want “obscene content” traveling over “their” networks which kind of defeats the entire concept of a “free” Internet. Ah well, I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

This does bring up the point that what are these networks real purpose in our society? To my way of thinking, the answer to that question would be, to bring the greatest good to the most people – as they themselves define what is good for themself. This is the key to this discussion and something that needs to be explored further.

What started off as being a discussion directly concerning the Internet really needs to be reshaped into an entirely different discussion.

How so? I’m glad I asked.

One of my recent disagreements with many in this community has been to try to educate people that a WiFi cloud over a community should only be a small part of the entire package – a very small part. If we look at what the CONXX (yes, the company I work for) has managed to supply in the way of useful services to a community we find a multitude of very valuable services being employed on a 24 hour a day basis with zero WiFi involved – even though we are now looking at adding WiFi into the mix.

What we need to be looking at here is the need for the full range of services that can and must be part of just about any Municipal Network as well as included in any Community Network. Jeff King gave his presentation about how much money AMR (Automatic Meter Reading) saves the City of Corpus Christi, TX. This is a real application that utilizes the wireless cloud in a way that provides not only measurable saving to the community but also removes a very real risk to the city workers that used to perform that job. The same holds true with Public Safety utilizing the network or the very real saving that can be realized for government in the form of cost avoidance through utilizing the services a high quality wireless infrastructure can provide as opposed to paying the traditional telecommunications industry for voice and advanced data services. This isn’t small amounts of money we are talking about here, it can be quite substantial and that translates into very real savings directly to the taxpayer. This is an indirect value these networks bring to an area and there are quite literally hundreds more.

Even better, what I learned this weekend is that there are innovations that when allowed to flourish will bring even greater value to any given network. I met an very interesting gentleman from Montreal (I am sorry, I didn’t catch his name) who is rolling out a pretty spectacular multimedia platform and an inexpensive one at that. What he is doing is using SAN boxes like this one to roll out a “local content” service in his city.

How this concept works is very simple, he takes one of these boxes, fills it up with all kinds of local content from the area’s best bands, independent film makers, amateur news reporters as well as photographs from local photographers and deploys these boxes in the city’s various hot spots. This allows the people of Montreal to go to their favorite coffee shop, grab an espresso, open up their laptop computers and browse through a half a gig’s worth of constantly changing content. The content is rotated during non-business hours over the establishment’s Internet connection and is ready for the next day’s audience.

The artists that contribute content get exposure to the public as well as being able to include advertising for their schedule and the same holds true for the artists in any digital medium carried on these boxes. This is a win/win/win for the establishment that hosts the boxes as it provides an incentive for customers to stop in at their place, helps the local artists get exposure as well as the establishments that are also featuring the artists – and all for a few hundred dollars of hardware as well as some dedicated effort.

This was only one of the many excellent ideas that were presented at the Wireless Summit. While I like to think I stay on top of things it is nice to sometimes get that reality check and be taken down a peg.

Where this all ties back into the network is the most important point – It is the cumulation of all of these services that brings about the real and total value of these networks. It is not just about WiFi access to the Internet, it is about everything we do to leverage the use of this platform that justifies the expenditure. To say it another way, it is not all the “gee whiz” technology we employ, it is the enhancement to daily life where the real effect is made.

No one is arguing that these networks are not expensive – when they are built correctly they are very expensive. What we are saying is that based on the measurable improvements in the quality of life we are now documenting the investment (regardless of how hefty it may be perceived to be) provides a very solid return to a wider segment of the population than perhaps a skateboard park or a basketball court would. While I have nothing against either basketball courts or skateboard parks in a world with finite resources we need to make sure the majority of resources provide the best value to the majority of people.