New hydrogen storage system

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 12:41

British researchers report that they have developed a new nanomaterial that stores hydrogen at low pressure. Hydrogen storage has been a primary obstacle to the development of a practical hydrogen-powered vehicle. To get enough fuel in a tank that will take a car a reasonable distance, until now, very high pressures were required.

The new nanomaterial absorbs hydrogen at high pressure but then stores the same amount of fuel at a lower pressure.

RTC Conference wrap up

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 08:51

I'm back from the Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference in Spokane. It's the oldest and one of the only conferences focused on rural issues related to telecommunications and broadband.

There was a definite shift in energy, conversations, and presentations at the meeting. In past years, much of the discussions have focused on the "why" and the "if" of rural community investments in technology. This year, the conversation has shifted to "how." And it was not just me. Everyone I talked to agreed that the time of talking about doing something "in the future" is past. It's clear that limited funds are going to be available from state and Federal sources, so communities have to dig in, roll up their sleeves, and get going.

Vendor booths were crowded, and the vendors I talked to were pleased with the response they were getting to their products. One of the most exciting product lines I've seen in years is from PacketFront, a network equipment vendor that is designing their equipment specifically for use in open access networks. Network leader Cisco, by comparison, does not have an equivalent set of products.

Presentations were information-rich, with communities coming online and now being able to report their experiences in detail, rather than having to talk about future plans. All in all, it was a terrific meeting, and I can't wait for next year. As it has been for the past several years, this is my number one, must attend conference.

iPod still very popular

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/13/2004 - 11:14

Despite the availability of several "iPod killer" products from companies like Dell and Sony, the latest marketing data shows the Apple iPod has captured 92% of the portable MP3 music players with hard drives, and 65% of the overall portable player market.

What the iPod has that the other products don't is superb cross-platform music management/player software (iTunes is available for Windows and the Mac) and superb integration with the iTunes Music Store.

What is encouraging about the popularity of the iPod is that we sem to be moving beyond buying technology purely on price. The success of the iPod shows that consumers are very discriminating, and are want products that are designed well and are easy to use. The iPod delivers both.

RTC Conference: What states can do about broadband deployment

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/12/2004 - 18:10

Bob Rowe, from the Montana Public Service Commission, is the first speaker in this session.

Rowe says that states have a role in assisting regional deployment of infrastructure and to coordinate facilities permitting.

Local governments have much potential, and can do training, form buying pools, encourage local government investments in infrastructure, and promote egovernment.

The FCC Section 706 Report from September, 2004 notes that the FCC defines broadband as 200 kilobits/second or faster, that the US still lags the rest of the world in broadband deployment, and that the FCC has a mission to encourage "reasonable and timely deployment."

Bill Gillis, from the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, is the next speaker. Gillis says that we can learn from "innovation businesses."

He says that an innovation business is knowledge intensive, makes extensive use of technology, is creative and flexible with respect o workforce functions, has a global business perspective, and has entrepreneurial management.

Gillis says that states can facilitate exchange of ideas, help the last 30% of residents that do not have broadband service, can help prepare the workforce for the innovation economy, and provide flexible gap capital. Innovation businesses are driving demand for broadband in rural areas.

The final speaker is Al Hammond, from the Santa Clara School of Law and the Alliance for Public Technology.

Hammond says that large parts of rural America lack adequate broadband services, with smaller towns at a real disavantage--only 5% of towns of 10,000 population or less have broadband.

BPL (Broadband over Power Lines) is getting a lot of interest. There are more electric lines to homes and businesses than phone lines, so BPL potentially can be widely deployed. At least 5 companies are manufacturing BPL equipment.

25 million homes have no cable modem or DSL service, and satellite broadband is becoming more affordable, with Wild Blue, a new statellite company, will be offering Internet access for about $50/month. TV programming will also be available, unlike some other satellite broadband systems.

RTC Conference: Building Last (First) Mile Infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 19:23

The second speaker is James Baker, from central Pennsylvania, with the Council of Governments--an 11 county area with 300 local government entities of one kind or another. Most communities are under 2500 population, and many are under 1000. Generally a very low density area--20-40 households per square mile as an average.

Broadband services are expanding in the area. However, 98% of Pennsylvania urban areas have some form of broadband, but only 25% of rural areas have some kind of service. Providers view rural areas as not good markets.

The state of Pennsylvania has funded a GIS system that provides service maps for various kinds of services available (i.e. DSL, cable modem, etc). Good tool, but data quality varies, some limitations in granularity of data.

Wireless services were considered for expansion in one county by swapping tower space on an EMS tower with space on a commercially-owned tower in another part of the county. EMS would get better radio coverage, and residents and businesses would get more access and choice in broadband.

Murphy's Law kicked in...the six inch square antenna which was to be put on the county tower would require a $5000 engineering study to make sure it would not add significant wind loading to the 200' tower. No one would pay for the study, so the project got slowed down while a variety of funding sources were pursued. The ARC came to the rescue, but the $5000 grant application required almost the same amount of paperwork as a $150,000 grant.

After the engineering studies were done, it was discovered that the county did have legal control of the tower, and that has required additional effort. Testing by the service provider has shown that nearly the entire anticipated service area will be covered.

In the meantime, the government fiber project is using wireless to expand coverage beyond the ends of the fiber. Some nonprofits are getting service.

Issues include legal problems--one person, the county lawyer, has the power to stop these projects dead in their tracks. If the cable company expands service, the wireless provider may feel it is not worth it to continue expansion--it becomes very important for government to be able to move quickly to help private businesses.

RTC Conference: Building Last (First) Mile Infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 18:59

Dave Nelson is the first speaker, from Chelan County, WA. The PUDs in the state can provide wholesale broadband (not retail). Chelan decided to do a PON (Passive Optical Network) pilot project.

The project turned out well--high take rate, costs were close to estimates, and technology worked well. This led to a broader build out.

Take rates for the optical service is between 25% and 50%. By 2003 fiber had been placed by more than 3000 homes, and dial tone services were added to the network. In 2004, an additional 5000 drops are being added. Cable TV services are being studied--primarily a policy and administrative issue, not a technology issue.

By 2008, goal is to have 75% of county with fiber, or about 30,000 homes and businesses. This is an open access network with 12 ISPs offering access on the network. One provider offers fully E911 compliant telephone service. Television should be available in 2004; content and franchise issues have made this more difficult. Alcatel's B-PON system is being used.

The cable companies have been offered access to deliver programming, but so far, they have not been interested. Service providers pay the PUD for each port (Ethernet, phone line, etc) for which they deliver a service. PUD operates on a nonprofit basis. DSL and cable modem service is available in most areas of the county.

Take rates are ahead of projections. The PUD maintains the right of way and fiber distribution. The biggest problem is not being able to build out fast enough--"a million phone calls a day" about when fiber is getting past someone's house. The PUD had to design a real time Web site that shows construction progress on a daily basis to help ease the phone calls.

Wireless has been provided in some areas where it was going to be some time before fiber arrived. Customers have actually cried (true) when the fiber arrived, they were so happy. The PUD has a good relationship with the service providers (12!).

BPL pilot is also underway; there are some distance/repeater issues.

RTC Conference: Wilhelm keynote

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 11:27

I'm at the Rural Telecommunications Congress 8th Annual Conference.

Dr. Tony Wilhelm is the Director of TOP (Technologies Opportunities Program) at the Department of Commerce.

Wilhelm is emphasizing the need to tie technology investments to identified community needs. TOP does not fund infrastructure, it funds applications that use infrastructure to improve communities.

Demand for broadband is outstripping available funds. Demand exists because every facet of communities--first responders, businesses, citizens, local government--have a need for broadband.

Small businesses are using virtual business incubators, some funded by TOP, to help these businesses expand into international markets.

TOP priorities include economic development. Special emphasis this year is on broadband wireless technologies. Wireless projects are growing very rapidly. The third priority is to support faith-based initiatives. Some faith-based projects have included entrepreneurship development, sustainable economic development, and business ecommerce training.

TOP looks for projects that use technology creatively to help communities prosper. A major stumbling block for rural communities is lack of affordable broadband service. The Sevier River project in Utah has dramatically increased available water by providing more timely information to water managers. TOP looks for "infomation" projects that don't just automate (replacing people with technology). Infomation projects go beyond automation to provide leaders and decisionmakers with better tools to manage information and to solve problems.

Technology investments have created about half the productivity gains in the U.S. in recent years.

Successful TOP projects typically include:

Best predictor of success is an organization's ability to integrate new ideas and concepts--organizational maturity, not size. Leadership, leadership, leadership--solid principles and clear goals, good use of talented people, solid values clearly articulated with a willingness to take risks.

Why the airlines are bankrupt, Part 4

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/10/2004 - 09:04

I am at the Roanoke Airport, on the way to the Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference in Spokane. I have a Delta flight to Cinncinati, then switch to Northwest for the rest of the trip.

Delta can't give me a boarding pass at the check-in counter. I have to go upstairs to the gate. Huh? If they can assign seats at the gate, why can't they do it at the ticket counter? Apparently the Delta electrons, used in their IT system, are tired on Sunday morning and can't make it from the counter to the gate. This is beyond comprehension. It's all one system--if they can assign seats upstairs, they should certainly be able to do it downstairs. It creates twice as much work for Delta.

I then walk over to the Northwest ticket counter and try to check in for my other two flights. They can only give me seats, but cannot check me in. They have no explanation other than "the system won't do that." Huh? If you can assign a seat, why not just print out the bloody boarding pass? Another utter and complete IT failure.

This is particularly irritating because it means I have to start my trip without being checked in. If my Delta flight arrives late in Cinncinati, I could lose my Northwest seats. Nice treatment of customers by Northwest.

Counting jobs in the community

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 11:21

The U.S. Dept. of Labor has announced they are going to revise the way they count jobs. In the past, the emphasis was on the Payroll Survey. In this survey, employers are called and asked how many employees they have. Payroll jobs have been shrinking, hence a lot of political heat and smoke about whether the economy is improving or not. But Labor has also been doing what's called the Household Survey, in which households are polled about who is working in the household. Job counts based on the Household Survey have been increasing rather dramatically, but the government has not really factored those jobs into the "jobs" number that typically gets published and discussed widely.

If you have a self-employed husband and wife, both fully "employed" in their own businesses, those jobs never show up on the Payroll Survey. They would on the Household Survey.

This is an important issue for communities trying to measure the impact of new and diversified economic development efforts, like investments in getting affordable broadband and small business training and development. If economic developers are being rewarded for increases in payroll jobs, the community is losing out big time--that's not where the growth is.

Not only that, a factory floor payroll job is not necessarily equal to a self-employed job. A prosperous microenterprise owner with a gross business income of $150,000/year and take home "pay" of half that has a much larger impact on the economic health of the community than a $12/hour full time hourly worker, and it's probably much more than just a simple 3x factor. One economic developer I talked to thought that the impact of a single self-employed professional in the community might be worth as much as ten shop floor jobs, because of the indirect effect. Self-employed professionals are spending some of their business income on local businesses--attorneys, accountants, copy services, and other professionals in the community, lifting all of them.

eRate disaggregates community buying power

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 09:51

The papers have been full of stories this week about the suspension of eRate payments to schools and libraries. The FCC suspended the program because of chronic abuses by some recipients of the payments. That aside, let me point out some structural shortcomings of the effort.

Why USAir is bankrupt, part 3

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 09:40

It's hard to feel very sorry for USAir and the company's financial problems. Yesterday, I saw yet another example of IT stupidity. I got to Charlotte and wanted to catch an earlier flight. The Roanoke flight that was leaving was nearly full, so I had to stand and watch the poor gate agent laboriously hand key every boarding pass into the computer. Fifty boarding passes, each one requiring several keystrokes. And virtually every boarding pass had a bar code on it.

Now Delta has very expensive, custom made scanners that must easily cost $20-30K each (note that Delta is also bankrupt). Southwest, which is making money, has cheap, off the shelf barcode scanners (cost about $50) duct-taped to the side of their cheap off the shelf PC computers. So bankrupt USAir manages their seats by hand, bankrupt Delta buys hideously expensive custom terminals, and profitable Southwest makes good use of off the shelf technology. Get the picture?

But wait, there's more, as they say in the knife infomercials. The USAir agent finally established that there was a seat on the plane for me. By this time, the plane was about to leave. He looks at my ticket and informs me that there will be a $25 charge to change the ticket, and that I have to go to the Special Services desk in the main terminal to take care of it. He then apologizes there is not time to do that, and the plane takes off.

Before leaving, I observe the special, custom keyboard he is using has a card reader on it, but USAir's crack IT department apparently never bothered to give the agent software that would allow him to take customer money.

So we have a bankrupt airline that is not equipped to take money from their customers. Hmmm. Anyone see anything wrong with this picture?

Is space important?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:41

I keep hearing a lot of scepticism over my reporting on the emerging Space Economy. This article on the accomplishment of SpaceShipOne and future plans helps illuminate the growing potential.

If you are inclined to think there are more pressing problems on earth than getting tourists into space, you are both right and wrong. This is not some pie in the sky program for rich tourists--this is the beginning of the greatest economic boom in human history.

Remember the personal computer and the Internet? Those two little innovations touched off the second biggest economic boom in human history, but what enabled those two developments was the integrated circuit.

Guess where the IC (integrated circuit) came from? The sixties era space program. Anyone involved in economic development who thinks going to the moon was a waste of money needs to go back to the history books--not to study science, but economics. The moon was a bargain, because the money spent by the government to get reliable IC circuitry for the Apollo spacecraft was paid back many times over by the resulting IT boom that started in the late seventies and ended around 2001.

Earthlink adds VoIP services

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:23

Earthlink faces the same problem AOL is already struggling with--a shrinking market for dial access to the Internet. Earthlink has been staying in the black by slashing customer support and by providing barebones access, as opposed to AOL's tedious, ad-laden interface.

Earthlink has a lot of customers like me, who need occasional dial access from the road, and don't want the dreck AOL ladles out along with it. But I find I need to dial through Earthlink less and less as hotspots, especially in hotels, become more common. As I've written previously, I and many other travelers now pick hotels based on the availability of broadband, not on the kind of shampoo you find in the bathroom.

AOL has tried to keep its customers by extortion--for example, you can't forward your AOL email to another account, which makes it much more difficult to quit AOL if you have used your AOL email address for a long time. AOL is basically saying to customers, "Leave us and your life will be miserable while all your email goes missing for a while." Most other email account providers let you forward your mail.

But back to Earthlink, which is now providing limited VoIP services if you have an Earthlink broadband account. It's a clever move, because the appeal of free calling (at least to some of your friends and family) will help sell the access part.

We're going to see more bundling of services--the phone companies are trying to win back some broadband customers by bundling local, long distance, and broadband, and the appeal, aside from saving a little money, is that you potentially go to one bill from three. In theory, you should also be able to get better service and customer support (in theory).

Does WiFi work?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:15

In the Telecomm Cities mailing list, Barry Drogin wrote:

The ugly thing here is that in the short term, these [WiFi] deployments will work,
just like shared-media Ethernet networks worked well in the 1980's. But at
some point, user density gets so high that the protocols break down. They
spend more time recovering from errors than they do transmitting good data.
For Ethernet, switches saved the day. But for wireless, that won't work.

I call cheap WiFi the "pizza lady" model. In the grocery store, a little old lady hands out little pieces of pizza, saying, "Try this, it's good!"

WiFi is way of getting dial up users to move at low cost to broadband. What I tell communities is that WiFi will sell fiber. As more and more users crowd on to WiFi, the bandwidth degrades, but by then, people are hooked on broadband, and can't live without the pizza, er, bandwidth.

So they are more willing to support community fiber projects.

WiFi is not THE solution. It is A solution. Fiber is also a solution. There is no one transport mechanism that will satisfy everything we want to do.

Are you a digital immigrant?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/04/2004 - 14:04

CNet has a must read article on the digital divide. The divide the online news site discusses is the one between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants."

Digital natives are those 25 and younger, who have grown up immersed in the Internet, computers, and technology. Digital immigrants are the older group, especially 40 and above, who have had to "cross over" to the new digital world from the old, paper-based world.

As organizations retire more of the immigrants and are replacing them with more natives, the organizations are being changed. The old central command and central authority structures are being undermined and replaced by distributed command and control. Technology and the Internet are the catalysts for often informal lines of communication and collaboration that cut across top-down org charts and limit the ability of managers to "control" the work.

The challenge for communities is to help leaders recognize that this shift is taking place--that the old, authoritarian ways of making decisions in the community don't work anymore--the Internet lets citizens and businesspeople route around the old, top down procedures. If your community is worried that too many young people are leaving, could it be in part because they view community-decisionmaking as out of step with their needs and interests? Conversely, what is the community losing in jobs and opportunities because of outmoded control structures that are not able to lead the community successfully in the fast-paced, highly interlinked Knowledge Economy?

Kitty Hawk and Mojave, California: SpaceShipOne wins the X Prize

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/04/2004 - 12:00

Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the $10 million X Prize by sending a ship into suborbital space twice in two weeks. The second of two successful flights took place today, and Mojave, California will likely become a historical milestone alongside Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Outsourcing and economic development

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/04/2004 - 09:07

An op-ed piece in the NY Times (registration required) provides another data point to show that outsourcing jobs to other countries is not the national crisis the mainstream media has tried to make it.

The author provides data that shows the U.S., as other studies have suggested, is actually showing net gains from outsourcing. That is, outsourcing low pay, low skills jobs creates other business opportunities that more than offset the direct job loss.

As the author notes, this data is not a great comfort to a region that has lost those jobs. Factory floor workers who have had their jobs outsourced need training and help to be able to compete for the higher wage, higher skill jobs that are being created.

For rural communities, it's another indicator that business as usual just won't work. The Old Economy jobs being lost cannot be replaced by more aggressive industrial recruitment, better brochures, or a new logo--all things I've seen promoted as "proof" of a revitalized local economic development program.

What does work? Here are some things that are important in the Knowledge Economy:

AT&T slashes residential VoIP prices

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/01/2004 - 08:46

In an indication that the company intends to provide still competition to the regional telephone companies, AT&T has cut their CallVantage VoIP service price by 25%, from $40/month to $30/month.

CallVantage, which works only if you have broadband service, provides local and long distance service nationwide for a flat $30 a month--the lowest call plan we've ever seen, including those offered by some of the cellphone providers.

When you add up how much money the residents and businesses of a community are stuffing in envelopes every month for phone service, it turns out it is a lot of money. Broadband, despite the cost, can produce savings in other areas, like phone service. Anything that helps keep a community more of its money (i.e. broadband) is a very good thing.

RadioShark brings timeshifting to your desktop

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/29/2004 - 14:59

Griffin's RadioShark is another piece of the convergence puzzle falling into place.

The RadioShark is an AM/FM tuner that plugs into your computer via a USB port. You can listen to broadcast radio in real time through your computer speakers, but of course, an old-fashioned analog radio would do that as well.

The RadioShark comes with software that allows you to record broadcasts and listen to them later. So if you can't listen to Al Franken or Rush Limbaugh at work, your computer can record those and play them back later.

For iPod fans (both Mac and Windows iPod owners), the software is fully integrated with iTunes, so you can transfer the recorded broadcasts to your iPod effortlessly and take them with you.

What I'd like to see is an integrated AM/FM/TV tuner that does all this. You can buy the TV tuner and record television programs on your hard drive, and the RadioShark does the same for radio. But I want fewer devices that do more. It's only a matter of time before someone combines these functions into one simple box.

Who do you know?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/29/2004 - 11:08

Following up on the new Book of the Month (The Hidden Power of Social Networks), here are some of the conclusions from the book, and they may surprise you.

I've been collaborating with Rick Smyre of Communities of the Future on capacity-building needs for organizations and communities, and one of the key concepts we have identified is "learning webs."

A learning web is a small group of people who have a strong trust relationship and who are committed to helping each other learn about and stay current with new ideas, concepts, and information that may be important to individuals in the group.

Do you have a learning web? What about your personal relationship network? Do you have a small group of people with whom you are comfortable asking for help? What about your community? One of the things you can do to help your community get connected with the Knowledge Economy is to help form learning webs centered around economic development, civic affairs, and local governance.

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