Category Archives: operators/carriers

It’s Infrastructure, Stupid

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It’s Infrastructure, Stupid

I recently interviewed Bob Frankston to add his expert view to my coverage of the FCC NOI on the National Broadband Plan, but what I got instead was an offer to take the Red Pill. So I did.

We started with my outline of what I thought were salient points.  ”How many times will we, the people, pay to build this network that is refereneced in the National Broadband Plan?” I asked. We built it 100 years ago, the military built a piece in the 1970s, various educationals initiatives built pieces in 1980s & 90s, the National Science Foundation unified and operated the military and higher-ed backbones, and then in 1991 the National Information Infrastructure offered tax breaks and incentives to Telcos to deliver fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) for 86% of American homes by 2010 at a cost of $200 billion to the taxpayer.  It sounded to me like a good start.

But Frankston quickly turned my attention, when he started talking about the transition from steam engines to diesel engines in the railroad industry.  He pointed out,

…not one of the steam engines companies survived the transition to diesel engines. It wasn’t because the engineers couldn’t build diesel engines, but because steam engines were one off designs with each engine requiring a different number of wheels and the ability to negotiate a grade or severe curves or longer distances, the DNA of marketing and customer relationship for steam engines was just different than diesel engines. Had the railroads realized that they were in the transporation business, they would have built airplanes.

He continued,

…they wouldn’t have built roads as there was no business model in roads.

Why is the railroad a good model for the telecommunications business as described by the National Broadband Plan?

First, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) was modeled on the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) who regulated railroads and sold rights for a price.

This is similar to the FCC’s revenue generating activity in auctioning spectrum to wireless carriers. Just as rights for railroads were treated as private property, so is spectrum.  In fact, spectrum allocations are specified in acre units.  It is counterintuitive to think of signal frequencies in the sky as acres of land, but that is the current process of transferring our national airwaves into property sold to carriers.

The steam engine versus diesel engine analogy is directly relatable to the battles between so called Bell heads (those specialized in circuit-switched networks that comprised the telephone network and long time employees of telcos) versus Net heads (those specialized in packet-switched networks that comprise the Internet and the newer engineers on the block in carrier staffs).  For cable companies, the conflict is between Broadcast heads versus Net heads.  The evidence for cable company dysfunction is Time Warner Cable’s inability to realize the opportunity of delivering TV as an application across AOL infrastructure resulting in lower costs and greater audience reach.

Back to railroads.

Modern railroads in the US have these companies reinvesting their profits into infrastructure.  European railroads separate the rails business and the by-rail-transportation business. They are two different businesses.  And yet, the Internet is more like driving, and you can’t just bend the railroad business and make it a road. With the Internet we create our own solutions.

Bob’s discussion on unneeded and even incompetent complexity in the effort to assure scarcity is best presented in his own article titled, Assuring Scarcity.

The analogy of telcos as railroads and the Internet as roads started to rattle around in my head.  Today’s service providers, telecommunications and cable companies, are trying to sell Internet service through artificial billing events. Sending messages is a good example. Why do we pay – at worst – 20 cents per text, but 75 cents per picture message.  Both are composed of bits. Once you have the ability to transfer bits, you can transfer more bits.

What would our use of roads be like if today’s telco and cable cos (ISPs) were in charge of roads?

Roads are built by city, county, state and the federal governments. Let’s say that those are the service providers in this case. If these road provdiers were like ISPs and potential broadband providers they might be telcos, cable cos and fiber cos.  Each of these companies strings a wire to my house. So,  to ensure my “access” to roads the city, county, and state would have to extend their roads to every house to provide access to their brand of transportation service.  That’s at least three roads running out to every house.

Each time I drove up on the road, I’d need a way to show that I’ve paid for access to the road.  For simplicity sake let’s say that I have an “E-ZPass” to present my crendentials to a reader that would allow me access. And to get the E-ZPass I pay a monthly subscription to either the city and would therefore be restricted to driving only on city roadways.  Or if I paid a monthly subscription to both the city and the county, I could drive on both city and county roads, but not on state roads.

This description isn’t different from paying for DSL and Cable TV. Or paying for Cable TV, phone and Internet Access commonly known as a triple play.

Now in this analogy, I’d need the right vehicle to drive on asphalt which wouldn’t work on conceret roads.  Concrete roads would require a different set of specs for the vehicle. A choice would require that one decide to drive on the more plentiful asphalt roads or the less plentiful but more stable concrete roads.

Roads have special features. Each time a bridge is crossed, or a tunnel driven through would be an event for a new charge.  In addition, if I wanted to take advantage of higher speed limits on the roads I’d be charged each time I increased my speed to a higher level. On city and county roads it might be one charge for 25 to 35 mph and then a fee increase for 45 to 55 mph.

And of course my monthly road subscription would limit the total number of miles I could travel on the road. Any additional mileage would result in a higher monthly subscription or a per mile charge 10x to 40x greater than the montly allotment.

To replicate the cable model, I’d be limited to mass transit. My road experience would need to be shared with a group.  The more subscribers on the bus or train, the more stops and therefore the slower my transportation.

If I wanted to use roads during rush hour, an addition charge would then allow me to use roads during those peak periods.  I would not be allowed to roam onto roadways even for short periods built by a provider with which I didn’t have a monthly contract.

Using road side attractions would each require it’s own fee.  Public restrooms, emergency lanes, emergency call boxes, and rest areas would each read my E-ZPass and transfer the appropriate charge to my bill.

Each trip on roads would require an assessment of which providers I needed to pay to complete my transportation goal.  That’s right. Transportation is the service I want, but instead I’m paying for arbitrary road events that are artifically and inconsistently assigned some price.

Telecommunications is an application. This abstraction has been successfully demonstrated byTruphone, Skype and Vonage.  TV is an application successfully demonstrated by Hulu  They are not magically integrated into a physical cable.

We should be asking many more questions as we consider the FCC’s new national strategy.  Bob Frankston having thought about these issues since his work at Microsoft and creating “Home Networking” which freed consumers from the carriers owning the network in their house.  Sound far fetched?  Cable cos and DSL providers in the early days charged for the number of computers one connected to their network – not unlike charging for multiple cable boxes when such equipment was required just to watch broadcast video.

We must the consider this next question carefully.  Frankston asks,

Why do we tolerate the claim that fungible infrastructure is a telecom service?  

Roads are infrastructure and although they enable one mode of transportation we do not fund them with a service model.

Mobile Web – Just Say No!

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Mmetrics have released an interesting little data snack from their smartphone user panels. The chart shows the top “mobile web” destinations in the US versus in the UK.

Top Mobile Web Sites

What’s interesting here is that five of the top ten web sites accessed from mobiles in the UK are carrier/operator sites, while the US list more closely resembles the top www sites list. There are the very consistant top three, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft (MSN) and only two carrier/operator sites in the US top ten list. I’ve asked this question of a number of people in the mobile applications, infrastructure and operator businesses, “Is the US consumers’ entry to mobile data services impacted by the very high PC peneration rate and previous web experience in the US versus Europe?” The answers have varied and granted one should not draw conclusions from this one data point, but it validates asking the question.

The label “mobile web” creates cognitive dissonance and confusion in the marketplace. Is there a separate web? The real answer should be no, and in fact, as one observes the growth and evolution of mobile data services in the US what strikes the chord of recognition and apparently adoption are those services familiar from our web experience which add a mobile specific UI and uniquely mobile VAS (value added service) to existing behaviors.

For example, Alltel’s award winning Celltop application ties web services into a UI which works on handsets and tiny screens. Note: Celltop awards are both industry and user bestowed.

Celltop Business View Celltop Sports View Celltop Consumer View

Weather, news, sports scores, stocks and new ringtones/callback tones are services combined from the web and/or the carrier/operator presented in a handset specific UI. Alltel are also running polls to ask their users which web service they’d like to see offered next through Celltop. The options include a digg feed, Gmail, NASCAR updates or horoscopes. Sounds webilicious, no?

Another example is a personal favorite, Sprint Navigation by Telenav. I love this application.

Sprint Navigation Menu View Sprint Navigation Turn-by-turn Sprint Navigation Traffic

Most of you have used Mapquest, Yahoo! Maps, Google Maps or some combination of web based mapping and navigation applications. Telenav brings web services behind maps and navigation along traffic information together with GPS and voice capabilities from the handset and mobile network. The result is a powerful personal navigation solution.

First, your actual location is determined via GPS, then you have the option to type or speak the address of your destination. This is where Telenav have done a superior job of integrating with native handset strength in functionality. Screen viewing to observe navigation instructions is supremely difficult at 80 mph on a California freeway. (This is an illustration not an admission of guilt in case the CHPS are listening.) So, Sprint Navigation allows placing a call from inside the application to an automated voice search facility which locates and confirms your destination address, then returns the handset to application state on completion of the call. Your route is calculated and finally the application checks a web traffic conditions service and either reports traffic is good or reroutes to your destination, if possible.

So great! You’ve got a route, traffic considered, and now to get there you need to view the directions. Well, not nessarily. The application repeats turn-by-turn instructions periodically via voice. Using your headset or speakerphone (safety first people) you will hear updated instructions until the turn is reached or you bypass it. If a turn is missed, the application automatically informs you and recalculates the directions. That’s user fault tolerant which I often need give I suffer BADD (blogger attention deficit disorder) which is far shorter and more easily distracted than ADD or ADHD.

Here are two excellent and well adopted applications which do all the things that we’ve been told at countless events and conferences are essential to a successful application, and more importantly, they are implemented extremely well.

  1. web functionality
  2. augment with handset mobile network strengths
  3. mobile specific UI – this might require multiple modalities (don’t ignore voice)
  4. user centric design and fault tolerant

Okay, maybe the list wasn’t presented exactly this way, but it should’ve been. To all those evangelizing “the mobile web,” please stop. And reset to evangelize web services on mobile devices.

I’ll continue to try and persuade you on this logic. Stayed tuned for the next article of the series: .mobi winners and losers.

Back to the Mmetrics findings.   Well over half of the web browsing activity by smartphone users in the UK occurs on operator portals.  Well over half of the web surfing activity by smartphone users in the US is through Google.  It would be helpful to have a breakdown of the Google activity.  Is that all search?  How much is attributable to Gmail access?  Data always raises more questions.

These findings also highlight another consideration when combined with the illustrations of web services in this article.  What does it now mean to access the web from a mobile device?  Are web services through thick clients merely a interim step on the path to fully functioning web browsers on mobile devices?  I think not.  Again, with the example of Sprint Navigation, it takes a handset application to weave handset functionality into a complete solution.

And finally what does it mean that smartphoners in the UK rely upon their operator portals for web browsing?  Are the services offered by operators superior to those on the web?  Is it habit?   Or perhaps, the walled garden is simply more persistent in the UK than it is in the US.