Archive for September, 2006

Without going into specifics, a number of interesting discussions have crossed my desk in the last few weeks which have forced me to look a little deeper into what is going on in this industry.

Let’s look back for a minute and check out one of the parallels that we can point to for a glimpse of what is really going on here.

Back in the early 1980s, IBM introduced their Personal Computer and within a matter of months the industry grew to a point where the was a severe shortage of technicians to build, install and service these computers. This was a problem for several years moving forward as more of these systems sold and the ability to train people could not keep pace. Were there problems because of this? Absolutely! In one case a furniture retailer went out of business (and we all know that never happens!) and when the autopsy was complete it turned out that their accounting system had a “bug” that mistakenly showed more money in the bank than was actually there. One can see where that might become a problem very quickly. Had there been one sharp network engineer in the company, he might have caught the glitch and saved the company.

You know, for want of a nail…

What has happened in our industry now seems to be taking a parallel course as we now have municipalities and extremely large deployments planned yet the people who should be employed to design and build these networks are not participating in this work. In the last three months I have listened to some pretty serious examples of what would be considered malpractice if it was a medical case as the details of failed deployments are relayed to me, usually asking if I can fix them – as though a wave of a magic wand could fix designs that should have been questioned before a decision to purchase the equipment was made, let alone the full deployment built out.

Where this gets to be interesting is that this shows a complete failure of the entire process, from design through final approval. Of course, one would have to ask what good the review board is if they have little to no functional experience in this field – heck, many of these people have never even heard the term WISP before. I can’t tell you have many times I have run into committees made up of a few ex-telecom employees (downsized out of a job) complimented by the office computer expert with some “networking” expert (I haven’t quite figured out what the qualifications for that position are yet) thrown in to round out the experience. As best I can figure they probably should have invited a protologist to completely round out their combined skill sets.

Whether we are talking about “designers” that believed one could engineer a network where over a dozen 400Kbps video streams could reliably be pushed down a 5.5Mbps WiFi connection or multipath would somehow not be a factor in their deployments many of the mistakes being made are the same mistakes that some of the early WISPs learned the hard way. I was one of those people having made nearly all of the mistakes one could make – or so I would like to think. Yet, this process repeats itself and in this iteration we see the fingers being pointed in every direction except where they should be right back at the designers.

The reality is that designing a wireless infrastructure isn’t as easy as deploying radios every X feet and then turning them on. Incredibly, this is the mindset of some of these “project engineers” who have extensive experience in setting up Linksys boxes in their homes to share an Internet connection with two notebooks or so one might think. Where some of these bigger metropolitan networks ever thought they were going to be rolling out adequate bandwidth based on a 512Kbps connection to even a 1Mbps connection to the end user shows a level of comprehension as to how the Internet actually works on par with Senator Stevens [R-Clogged Tubes]

We all know there is a widening gap in broadband happening in the industrialized world as many countries have outstripped the US in connecting their communities and I have heard all the excuses. If we dismiss all the excuses as nothing more than, well, excuses the bottom line is that we are not providing adequate connectivity for our businesses and individuals to effectively compete with the rest of the world – even though we are well ahead of many developing countries. GO TEAM!

Well, where is the real problem? That answer is actually easier to come by than we might want to believe. It is time for the people who made this industry to step forward and be employed in this endeavor. As I look back over the better part of the last decade I have seen many people struggle to learn how the pieces of this all fit together. Many dove in as complete novices, built networks while teaching themselves everything from RF theory through marketing and business management. There were some spectacular failures as we all know that one person companies are not going to be successful at being all things to all people. But that doesn’t mean the lessons learned by many of these people aren’t valuable – actually to anyone trying to build one of these networks out it should be invaluable.

Instead, I see large companies investing in people that have zero knowledge aside from what they read in an owners manual or what a manufacturer taught them in a two day class – with results that equal the effort and investment made.

If you really want to know where the value is in this industry, it is the people, many of them the original WISPs or more likely hobbyists who first started experimenting with this technology that is where everyone should be looking – not at the rocket surgeons that claim they have a clue. The funny thing is that there really aren’t a large number of these people and out of that number many of them never actually “got it” in any kind of real way. This is where the near future is going to get very interesting – if you consider massive failures with blame being pointed at the technology or anything else that can be found to complete the CYA mandate as being interesting.

So, where are the assets in this industry?

The people.

Until then I will keep answering the phone and answering the same questions. Whether it is the large corporations or the municipal network people I keep hearing the same things asked of me and to be honest with you, if you have to ask where the ignition key goes you probably shouldn’t be driving a car.