Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Not A New Year's Resolution

I'm not the type of person to make New Year's resolutions because why should a person pick just one time of the year to say that they are going to evaluate how they are going to live their life or run their business. This philosophy comes from my grandmother that use to say, "Why should I wait until your birthday to give you a present to show my love? I love you all of the time so anytime is a good time to give you a gift." So while I tend to evaluate my plans and life on a continual basis, the beginning of a new year is a psychological new beginning for many people. More importantly for most of us in the business world it the beginning of a new fiscal year for many of our customers.

The start of a new fiscal year is my motivator for implementing the plans that I made last year. I previously lamented about the malaise in the telecommunications industry. My assertion was that all of the excitement was in the equipment attached to the network. Looking at the excitement surrounding the CES that just ended, one could agree with my statement. Instead of an either/or option for intelligent network/intelligent CPE, the truth is that they have to operate synergistically to achieve their desired aim. There is a tremendous amount of heavy lifting behind returning your "OK Google" request or bringing you a Uber car. It may be the application developers that appear to create magic on smartphones and tablets, but it is that work of thousands of telecom network professionals like us to make it look like magic.

Although today's mobile device has more computing power than a supercomputer from 1980, that device cannot do everything necessary to deliver information or intelligence from the far-flung reaches of the Earth. There are thousands of protocols and API designed to allow systems to interact with each other to assemble disparate pieces of information into a simple result displayed on a screen. We use catchy marketing terms like Big Data and Internet of Things to make these interactions understandable by the layperson and to sell products and services to our customers. Although I cringe every time I hear buzzwords like these or cloud, I know that they are euphemisms for a complex set of interactions taking place in the network on the user's behalf.

So there are exciting things left to do in telecommunications afterall. They may not be as straightforward as the creation of DSL or SDH/SONET technology, but we have built that layer of the network and it is mature. We are in the phase of more complex interactions between different layers of the network to automate and simplify how services are delivered. For those veterans that built the foundation of today's broadband optical network, it may appear that there is not much left to do, but that is not the case.

The industry will continue to develop the SDN-based network and take advantage of powerful inexpensive computing to virtualize more functionality (NFV) into the cloud (ouch that hurt). As we continue to optimize the transport network to add more connected devices like doorbells (Ring), lights (LIFX), and cars, we will need the added sophistication that the network provides to provide near real time interactions with us.

There are still plenty of problems to solve such as ubiquitous connectivity. With only 40% of U.S. rural population having access to wired broadband and much less connectivity in many other parts of the world, there is still a tremendous effort needed to make broadband universal worldwide.

Security of data and information is another significant concern. Up to now, everything that we have done is just treating the symptom. Personal information is being stolen and sold every day from governments and private enterprises. No organization is immune to a data breach. Privacy goes right along with data security. Privacy is a basic human right that is constantly being violated globally by governments, corporations, and individuals. I question why my identity was compromised by a company that I never did business and used against me by the government. This situation is inexcusable, and it demonstrates the fact that security has not been a priority in our industry. Our liberty depends on these two tenants which is why the industry's brightest minds must develop a holistic solution that includes end-to-end encryption of all information on devices and traversing across the network. There can be no backdoors for any reason.

Millions of new devices being connected to the network monthly requires scalability. With increased scalability comes increased power consumption. We need to put our minds on how to grow these networks without exponentially increasing power consumption. Actually power consumption should be decreasing.

I could go on and on but those are the big three topics that I see the industry addressing in 2016 and beyond. Closer to home, I will continue to be involved in the larger trends in the industry while solving some of the more tactical problems to get us there. ComTech Sales and myself can be relied upon to work with service providers to develop and implement solutions to expanding broadband penetration, security, and power consumption. We will continue to grow our business on the telecom side of the industry that we started in the fall of 2015. Please rely on us for solutions to your equipment needs.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Time for A Transition

Almost a year has passed since I last written a blog, why? Maybe after almost three decades in the industry I'm not excited by the technology these day. Maybe it has been the associations with my last two companies that have deflated the once full sails that I had for navigating through the industry. Or maybe it is the malaise that has wandered into the industry after the deflation of the bubble. Most of the innovation has migrated to the services delivered and customer equipment and out of the network. The pendulum has swung back to intelligent CPE/dumb network. Of course there are those that will argue with me that there is more intelligence in the network than ever with bandwidth on demand, SDN, NFV, IP-centric data transport, and the cloud. All of this technology are just techniques to optimize data transport from point A to point B. Exciting as it may be, we are just at the asymptote of the Moore's Law curve.

After reading this first paragraph you may begin to think that I am jaded. I prefer to think of it as experienced. I believe that the industry will still create breakthroughs in technology but they will be focused on the customer experience more than the network experience. There is still much work to do making access to the network ubiquitous and inexpensive. The creation of Inphotonics Research was to leverage the concept of open-access broadband infrastructure to increase customer choice and broadband penetration outside urban and suburban areas, but we were a bit ahead of our time. I know that open-access infrastructure would be the best alternative for consumers and municipalities, but I am not going to fight that fight again unless some unforeseen circumstance were to unveil itself.

When I started my telecommunication career in the mid-80 at AT&T Bell Laboratories, I was fascinated by the possibilities of fiber optic communications, and I chose to be a part of it all the way from basic research on III-V materials to make better laser diodes and photodetectors to the systems that used those devices. I was a part of many industry firsts though the innovation that myself and my colleagues created and delivered. As my career progressed, I evolved from a development/technical role to a business/management role but I still stayed on top of the technology because it was my differentiator. I continually educated myself on the latest technology and standards to remain on the leading edge of technology. My companies and customers benefited from this skill.

After the bubble broke, I made some decisions that were more family than career oriented. I was disillusioned with the industry because of the corruption and ineptness that I witnessed firsthand. Maybe I would have been less disillusioned if I had cashed in on some of the spoils, but despite my best recommendations our owners decided to take a different course. Still I ended up working with some great people over the last decade and a half while at Accedian Networks and even Sunrise Telecom. Through it all it was my customers that kept me going. It was the satisfaction that no matter what happened that I was giving them the best recommendations and value that I could provide.

All is not doom and gloom though. I have been involved in many industry firsts, and gained extensive knowledge and experience along the way. I have had the privilege of working with some great people both as colleagues and customers. A few months ago, I was contemplating what I should do for the next stage of my career. I am in Boulder, Colorado which I love and have ties to my family and community. The Denver/Boulder area is not known for being a hot-bed of telecom activity these days and investors are more interested in mobile applications and social media over investing in big infrastructure companies. A Sphero-like device has a better chance of being funded over an inexpensive device that can deliver broadband services to remote areas. It is a shame because we have a vibrant communications services industry in the region still the money is going elsewhere.

What to do? Fortunately my industry colleagues and friends are always there for me, and I reconnected with one of my best manufacturer representative to expand his business into the telecom sector. Charlie Fajardo built ComTech Technologies to serve the cable TV (a.k.a. MSO) industry. Charlie and his team have been extremely successful building a relationship with MSO customers over the years to build a great business that not only sells a wide variety of products to these companies, but is a unbiased and reliable technical source to provide recommendations to these service providers.

I have joined ComTech Sales to start the telecom practice to provide the same services to customers in the telecommunications industry. We will build on the already extensive list of manufacturers that we have partnered to service our telecommunications service provider customers. I am excited to embark on this new venture with Charlie and the team to grow ComTech Sales business to the level the team has done in the MSO space. I look forward to continuing to build relationships with my existing customers plus add many more as well as forge new and stronger relationships with our manufacturer partners. We are here to be a reliable resource to all communications companies to serve your needs from the customer all the way through the network. This will be an exciting new journey that I am thrilled to do.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Obama Proposes Overriding the Tenth Amendment

Obama’s speech at Cedar Falls, Iowa was like most of his speeches; much to do about nothing. He is proposing nothing short of allowing municipal governments to use taxpayer funds to compete against private enterprise, and he is encouraging the FCC to override 20 state laws in contradiction to the Tenth Amendment. I make no bones that I am a free market capitalist and I am strongly against the government taking over or competing against private enterprise. What Obama is proposing is not only anti-capitalism but also illegal.

I have written here that our current duopolies are not optimal for consumers, but replacing them with a subsidized government bureaucracy is a move in the wrong direction. I support municipal governments determining their own broadband destiny as much as I support removing restrictions allowing new entrants into the market by removing obstacles that municipalities and states have created. Twenty states have created laws to protect taxpayers from having to pay for cities failed attempts into the broadband services markets. These states realized that the communications market is competitive and fast moving. They have seen how over 50% of all municipal broadband efforts have failed leaving taxpayers to pay off creditors and bondholders (link, link). Proponents of government broadband, including the press, are quick to point out the few successes like EBP in Chattanooga and Cedar Falls, but they don’t bring up UTOPIA or Longmont, Colorado that is going for its forth attempt to provide residential broadband services. There are a variety of reasons that municipal broadband efforts fail which is why it is better to leave the risk to private enterprise.

Obama cannot instruct the FCC to just override the 20 state laws enacted to protect taxpayers. The Tenth Amendment gives states the ability to make its own laws without the federal government overriding them except for powers expressly granted by the Constitution and states. The Supreme Court has already upheld the authority of the states to prevent municipalities from providing telecommunications services in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League by a 8 to 1 decision. He can say what he wants but case law is already pretty clear on states’ authority granted by the Telecommunications Act of 1986.

There is no question to the value of broadband services to a community, but it should be delivered in a competitive environment to enjoy all of the value that it brings. Either industry partnerships or cities should be allowed to come together to build open-access broadband fiber infrastructure as done in many cities and countries outside the United States. Sharing a common infrastructure will reduce the barrier to developing a profitable business model for a service provider; therefore, promoting competition that will benefit everyone in the community. This is the direction that Obama should be encouraging states to go.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

There May Be Hope Yet

2014-07-14-opendoorbluesky1Over the past couple of weeks, I have been encouraged that there are more people discussing open-access infrastructure than before. Maybe it is because they have started to read Title II and realize that it is not the panacea once thought. By definition more government intervention/regulation means less freedom, and the hundreds of pages contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1934 is no exception. Title II is jam packed with regulations designed around telephone service in the 1930’s when we were under the control of the Bell System. Needless to say that it will control every aspect of our Internet services. The Internet was founded based on a loose federation of networks survivable if any one link disappears. It was meant so any node could reach and freely exchange information with another node. Even the technical aspects that the Internet was designed were not called standards or regulations, they are called Request for Comment that implies they are fluid and optional. Imposing laws and regulations on the Internet is contrary to its founding principles.

The FCC has indicated that if they impose Title II regulation, it will chose which parts to enforce. If you expect the FCC to exercise any forbearance of any section, you have not been living in America long. Bureaucracies live to grow and expand their power. Eventually piece-by-piece the FCC will implement parts of Title II over the years. Also included in Title II is the allowance of paid prioritization which is a no no for many net neutrality wonks. People that support this heavy handed move either are ignorant of what it will really means or have ulterior motives such as lobbying to influence control of the Internet for their business advantage (i.e. crony capitalism).

Thankfully some people are waking up and realizing what regulation will really mean to the Internet, and they realize that competition is the real solution to the yet to be encountered net neutrality issue. Karl Bode wrote an article yesterday on Techdirt that concluded that open-access broadband is a superior choice to regulation. Leo Laporte had a well-balanced panel discussion about net neutrality on TWiT that touched on the fact that competition would be superior to regulation. My neighbor to the north, Brett Glass, delivered intelligent arguments against regulation and for open-access on TWiT. These intelligent and technical discussions are ones that we should have had two years ago when net neutrality reared its ugly head. Broadband competition can be achieved if we remove the barriers that are preventing it from happening.

Fortunately there are solutions that can be adopted that eliminate the need for heavy-handed FCC regulation: open-access fiber infrastructure. I am not discounting other means of access such as wireless, but there are impediments to wireless access as well such as spectrum allocation which is also under FCC control. I have already extolled the virtues of open-access in other posts so I will refrain from being repetitive. Suffice it to say that there are a few different models for open-access. Network unbundling is the least favorite of mine but in a pinch that will work. Most of the incumbents don’t have fiber that deep into the network to make unbundling an option. We need to build fiber to every home and well as provide spectrum to do it as well. The FCC should be working to support those efforts and eliminate barriers for new and existing entrants that want to provide infrastructure. Working on some convoluted semi-regulation scheme is a fools-errand that will only lead to lawsuits and more complaining. Let’s work on providing a competitive broadband environment instead.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Avoiding the Pitfalls of Municipal Broadband Networks

I just posted an article on municipal broadband from Forbes that is one of many that points out the pitfalls of municipal broadband. Lest we forget all of the muni-WiFi follies of the last decade. It is not the purpose of government to compete with free enterprise in a capitalist economy. Government should only step in when private enterprise will not or cannot financially serve a market.

This article touches on the fact that fiber-based broadband networks are extremely costly to build. That last-mile access is the most expensive because it is the portion of the network least shared. Add to it the fact that we have a much lower housing density in the United States than in most countries, and you have added even more to the cost of providing service to a single home. Now consider the fact that the electronics that power the network will be replaced typically every 5 years to keep up with the demand for more services and bandwidth and you have offset most of the benefits of the 40-50 year life-cycle of the fiber. Do not forget the pressure to lower cost due to competition and the increasing costs for content. Now maybe you can see why there are only two providers at best in each market.

The business case for broadband services (i.e. voice, video, and data) works for at most two providers if they build and operate their own networks. Most areas of the United States are currently in this situation. A duopoly does not promote competition; hence, the desire for a third player. Google has chosen to stir up the pot in several markets by competing with the incumbents but their business objective is to use these captive eye-balls to push more Google advertising. I personally applaud Google for taking a long-term and different approach to provide true competition in some markets. The down side to what they are doing could be the "walled gardens" that so many net-neutrality wonks are afraid with managed services on the Internet. What's to prevent Facebook from doing the same as Google? Why not? The problem is if Facebook and Google start limiting content to competing services. It could happen. Remember AOL and CompuServe?

These fears and the fact that Google has only announced a limited number of markets it is entering. In Google's defense what is limiting the speed of their penetration is the byzantine regulatory environment that they have to navigate. Many cities and towns do not want to wait for Google or someone else to come so they have turned to government to fill in where private enterprise will not. A persuasive argument could be made for wanting municipal broadband which citizens of Chatanooga and around Salt Lake City have bought.

Cities have not considered out-of-the-box solutions such as they lay and manage the fiber infrastructure and allow service providers to lease the fiber access from a centralized location to the subscribers' home. Locales in Europe and Asia have successfully implemented this model. Where they have open-access broadband infrastructure, competition has flourished. I have challenged several municipalities to try open-access but they had employees more interested in building and running their own little networks. Civic leaders need to reach beyond their own bureaucrats or desire for bigger government and look for solutions that will work for the economic growth of their cities.