Broadband

WiFi startup stops

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/20/2004 - 07:15

Cometa, a startup national WiFi hotspot firm, has shut down. Cometa was bankrolled by Intel, AT&T, and IBM, and planned to create 20,000 hotspots nationwide and wholesale them to other companies who would actually provide the end user service.

It was a good plan, but apparently poorly executed. No doubt the company was stuffed with execs from Intel, AT&T, and IBM, who apparently acted arrogantly and spent too much money too soon.

The problem with all of the firms planning national networks is twofold. First, WiFi will not take off, really take off, until there are widespread roaming agreements in place. Right now, if I'm at O'Hare in Chicago and want to check my mail via WiFi, I probably have to spend $10 for 15 minutes of access. Two hours later, in Omaha, some other company will want $10 for another 15 minutes. Even dumber, T-Mobile thinks I'll happily pay yet another $10 two days later as I pass back through o'Hare.

That's the state of WiFi right now. National roaming agreements, just the way cellphones can roam, where you pay a fixed monthly subscription, is the only thing that makes sense. Why are so many firms in the market despite the lack of roaming? Because WiFi is in a growth phase; for every customer who stops paying T-Mobile $10/day, two new ones pop up. It's exactly like the early days of dial-up modem access. But it won't last. Cometa is the first of many firms that will go out of business after wasting a lot of investor funds.

But I said there were two problems. The second is local, rather than national. Communities need ubiquitous WiFi to make it really useful, and just putting hotspots in hotels and McDonald's is not enough. Rural communities are especially unlikely to get much attention from the big national firms. The sensible approach is for communities to get involved in identifying appropriate antenna locations, mapping out a hotspot grid so that everyone in the community can get service, and in that fashion creating the incentives that will attract local and regional wireless providers to come into the market and sell services.

A la carte cable television?

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 05/16/2004 - 08:20

An article in the business section of the Sunday Roanoke Times talks about cable TV and the growing clamor for a la carte rates--in other words, instead of paying for 60,70, or 200 channels at a flat rate, you could pick and choose which channels you want to watch, and pay only for those.

I see two problems with that approach. The first is that it probably would not lower rates. It would increase the cost of billing, and since we are already paying fifty cents a month per channel (or less) now, just the cost of tracking which channels a household watches and billing for that would probably result in a net increase in the cost of programming. It would also probably reduce the number of channels available, but it's debatable whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

My real objection is this: Why bother trying to force more rules and regulation on a dying medium? Cable TV is based on forty year old copper technology, and the current rate structure is based on what was technically possible in 1960 or so.

We already have a new, completely unregulated medium that is technologically ready for pay by the drink, consumer-choice driven television programming. It's called the Internet. Affordable, high capacity broadband (which we will all have in the next decade) is technologically able to deliver HDTV quality TV programming right now.

Let the cable companies continue to tinker with a dying and obsolete model. We don't need to waste time and effort at the local, state, and national level fussing with something that will be gone in ten years.

FCC Chairman says VoIP "biggest breakthrough...ever"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/10/2004 - 08:45

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has it exactly right in an article in the Business section of the Rocky Mountain News. At a speech in New Orleans to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Powell said, "I think it's going to be the very, very best and biggest breakthrough in our ambitions and dreams about competition ever."

Exaggeration? I don't think so.

VoIP is the killer app for broadband. It's what all those enormous dot-com investments in infrastructure were hoping for back in 1999 and 2000. It is the trifecta--it will lower prices for current voice services, it will introduce valuable new voice services at little or no additional cost, and the use of VoIP will spur competition and attract new and other kinds of services.

What's the catch? You have to have reliable, high capacity, affordable broadband. DSL and cable modems will only carry us part of the way. This is a core economic development issue, and rural communities, suburbs, and any part of the country that does not have a community-based telecommunications master plan is going to be in trouble from a jobs perspective in the next decade.

Estonia going wireless in a big way

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/06/2004 - 07:24

The former Soviet satellite Estonia has embraced WiFi, according to a BBC report. Admittedly, Estonia is small--smaller than some larger counties in this country, but that's a clue that this is can be done at the local level.

The country has more than 280 WiFi hotspots (how many does your county have?) covering more than two-thirds of the country, and every hotspot has an attractive and easily identifiable blue and orange sign. Here in the United States, you find hotspots in urban areas by looking for chalkmarks on the sides of buildings--not exactly a well-organized economic development strategy.

As entrepreneurs, business owners, tourists, and families drive through your community, can they easily find WiFi hotspots? Good signage is good marketing, as the signs effectively shout out, "We're connected here....we get it."

But the article gets better. Estonia's government has wholeheartedly embraced technology, with government meeting rooms fully wired and broadband enabled (again, can you say the same about your town or county supervisors?). And here is the money quote that should send chills down the spines of economic developers who still think their job is bricks and mortar:

...."You don't need to invest in an office anymore," Haamer says. "You have an idea, a computer with a wireless card, and a space to work (at a cafe with wireless). You can use your time more efficiently."

So if there is a trend (and there is clearly a trend in Estonia) to move away from bricks and mortar offices for business, how do you measure business activity in your community? It's a conversation you need to have.

A Model Technology Council

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/04/2004 - 07:33

The Redwood Technology Council may well be the best example of a successful Tech Council in the United States. The work that the RTC is doing gives me hope that it is possible to develop, run, and sustain a regional tech council. Located in the Eureka/Arcata area of northern California, the RTC is trying to overcome rural isolation, create jobs, and get more fiber and broadband options into the region.

I had the privilege of giving some workshops at their annual Tech Expo, and while I was visiting I learned a lot about their activities. The RTC's most significant achievement was to break a permitting logjam that had prevented the phone company from bringing fiber to the region. The Tech Expo, a two day technology fair that showcases the products and services of local firms, attracts thousands, and is especially notable because they offer workshops and seminars to the public throughout the event. And it's practical, useful stuff, like how to use Photoshop, which was jammed. The number and variety of booths was terrific, and I found two vendors that had products I had never seen and am likely to buy.

In fact, the RTC is doing many of the things that community networks do, and the group is well-positioned to do much more.

Bush calls for broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 10:15

President Bush came out strongly for broadband yesterday, and called for a permanent tax ban on Internet services. Bush also seemed to recognize that more regulation is not the way to get more broadband alternatives; let's hope that the FCC was listening, as the agency seems reluctant to let go of the legacy taxes and regulations.

Phone number registry completes the puzzle

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 09:05

Stealth Communications has announced the ENUM registry, which will allow VoIP providers to complete calls without going through the public switched telephone network (PSTN). When a VoIP called completed, it usually goes over the "old" telephone network at least part of the way. In turn, the VoIP provider has to pay an access fee to the network owner (e.g. Verizon, SBC, Qwest, etc).

The ENUM registery is a free service that links a VoIP telephone number with the IP address where the phone is plugged in, so the VoIP provider can simply look up the called number in the registry and send the voice packets straight to the IP address of the receiving phone.

This sounds simple, and it is. But it is critically important, because it provides a way to build a "pure" VoIP global voice system without ever using the old switched system. It's the last piece of the VoIP puzzle.

Don't count out fiber

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 08:37

There is much interest in wireless systems right now, and rightly so. Wireless broadband is inexpensive and a great way to get people a broadband alternative quickly. But many of those wireless hotspots still need a wired connection to the Internet, and most homes and businesses will want both--it's not either/or. Fiber is going to be needed for high definition television, high quality videoconferencing, and network backups, among other bandwidth-intensive applications.

The good news about fiber is the falling prices. LENOWISCO Planning District, one of the nation's leaders in community fiber initiatives, was budgeting $30,000/mile a year ago for duct/fiber installations. Today, their cost is about $8500/mile, due in large part to the falling cost of fiber, which is now about the same price as copper. Fiber switches and Ethernet interfaces are also much less expensive than a year or two ago, so the overall cost of fiber to the home and fiber to the business systems is lower.

Updated news page

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 04/25/2004 - 20:31

Welcome to the new and improved news page. I'm using some blogging software that will enable me to add stories and news more frequently and with less effort.

This news page is now syndicated, so if you are using an RSS news reader, you can now point it here as well. To get the URL of the news feed, just click on the orange XML button over on the right.

If you have any problems or encounter errors, please let me know (info@designnine.com).

Thanks,
Andrew

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