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Archive for the ‘Telecommunications’ Category

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

A Strategic Retreat Into Yesterday’s Imaginings of an Analogue Tomorrow

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 17, 2008

After a frustrating week of wrestling with generative and applianced digital technology — including T-Mobile’s inadequate tech-support and customer-care overlay on international Blackberry service and the foibles of a premium-priced, too-many-mega-pixel pocket camera plagued by miserable “noise” at high ISOs and near-comic barrel distortion at the wide end of its zoom range — I’ve found a mid-summer panacea for the disappointments of the digital age: Visions of an analogue tomorrow as once foreseen in the now-yellowed pages of Modern Mechanix Magazine.  Happy nostalgia for a better future!

Posted in History, Media, Photography, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

A Zittrain Dilemma: Appliances, the iPhone, and the Solidification of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 12, 2008

I just finished reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It” (click here for Zittrain’s weblog of the same name)  … and now wish we could turn back the clock.

Zittrain’s thesis is that the internet has come to a turning point at which the collaborative and open and “generative” nature of the Net is being undermined by bad code, increasing complexities, and greater and lesser cyber-crime.   Fear of all three drives many of us to turn towards “applianced” devices in which a  trusted vendor controls hardware, software, and … content.  In the “generative” world we are threatened by malevolent outlaws, in the “applianced” world by monopolists and potential dictators.

Apple’s iPhone is a paradigmatic  “appliance.”  Apple ensures that the  iPhone’s physical form and the software that animates it unite into an powerful, capable, and aesthetically pleasing whole.  Apple also ensures and protects the safety of the device … albeit by controlling sources of content and deciding which applications can run on an iPhone and which cannot.

Apple also controls the iPhone’s connectivity.  In each national market in which the iPhone is sold it is permanently “SIM-locked” to the network and policies of a single “telco” thus depriving users of the possibility of switching SIM cards (i.e. the very “souls” of their phones) and, as a result, their carriers. To those who rarely travel or who live in large countries this is no tragedy.  Within each country, carriers’ price plans, coverage, and quality balance out more or less.  But in an international context, chaining users to a single provider prevents them from switching cards and carriers when crossing borders, thus holding them captive to roaming charges that are astronomical for voice calls and cataclysmic for data traffic.

The effect on monthly phone bills of overseas data roaming and push email is so extreme that even Apple’s US iPhone partner AT&T now posts on its website a warning advising customers to turn off the data and email capabilities of their iPhones when traveling abroad.  This spares customers the shock of outlandish bills but it also defeats the integration of capabilities and seamless connectivity that is the supposed hallmark and benefit of the iPhone.  The only alternative for loyal or compulsive iPhone users is the purchase of additional iPhones for each and every one of the countries they visit or work in.

Thus, the iPhone (and the manner in which it is brought to market and made connective) is so “applianced” that its forces users to conform to the arbitrary national boundaries we inherit from the 19th and early-20th centuries.  The irony: Within national markets the iPhone is a device that optimizes connectivity; seen internationally, however, the distibution and connectivity of the iPhone lead us on a retreat from the universality and border-transcending interconnectedness that many of assumed the merger of telecommunications and the internet would enable.

Posted in Books, Infrastructure, Innovation, Internet, National Identity, Telecommunications | 2 Comments »

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOceE7j–Oc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNzesOW2QG8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT0T4N-Hagk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaCNvONAlzs

Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Whimsy Trumps Solipsism Trumps Arrogance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 8, 2007

A few days ago, on Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami posted a piece about customer emancipation in which he described the irritation phrases and concepts such as owning content, owning customers, and owning pipes awakens in him. JP’s comments prompted me to think back on my years in the telecommunications sector and my many more years as a mobile telephone user. Instead of irritation, my reaction was a sad shake of my head and a glum look at my wallet.

Mobile providers indeed “own their customers” and shamelessly charge accordingly. I am writing this post from the Republic of Bulgaria, a country with Europe’s second lowest per capita income but with the continent’s highest charges for GSM services. A decade ago there was only one GSM provider in Bulgaria. With a naïve faith in the beneficence of competition and the efficiency of markets, many Bulgarians expected that the entry of new mobile operators into the fray would cause charges for basic — and, in an emerging economy, critically necessary — services such as voice traffic and SMS to plummet. Instead, the result was, and continues to be, a plethora of confusing price plans, hidden interconnect-charges, and an infuriatingly slow, barely noticeable decline in monthly bills and prepaid charges.

Thankfully, however, mobile providers in most countries have not taken as great advantage of their wish to own customers as they might have. Operators have been too inept or too solipsistic to dream up content or services attractive enough or useful enough to tempt consumers into paying for, let alone using. Back when WAP was introduced almost a decade ago, mobile phone manufacturers and GSM operators waxed euphoric about a plethora of location-based “push” services that WAP would occasion. These were to be based on complex, never-realized profiles of users’ identities, lifestyles and purchasing patterns. Such services never materialized. In the sage words of an Australian commentator: “WAP was CRAP.” GPRS, touted as Generation 2.5, proved no better.

The ultimate debacle was UMTS, Generation 3.0. Mobile operators worldwide flocked to auctions for UMTS broadband frequencies without giving as much as a thought to the services they would offer on them. It was a classic case of being seduced by technology rather than focusing on the customer. Bidding amongst operators for UMTS frequencies became so hysterical that license fees were pushed into the multi-billion Euro range, creating the greatest investment bubble since the tulip mania that nearly destroyed the economy of northern Europe in the 17th century. Proud winners of UMTS auctions waltzed home with “dark” frequencies for which thay had no specific uses in mind. To this very day, every time we place a mobile call or send an SMS at inflated prices, we are reimbursing operators for their folly. As to the one universal benefit that UMTS could offer, i.e. high-speed mobile internet access, operators indeed control the pipes and, until now, keep their fees correspondingly exorbitant.

From personal conversation, I know that JP (rightly) finds SMS charges to be artificially high. Still, SMS was a dark-horse winner that operators never expected to succeed. Despite its pricing, the universal popularity of SMS (outside of the US at least) was in large part a customers’ revolt against the high cost of mobile voice telephony, especially in international traffic. The other unexpected mobile money-maker has the ring-tone business. As exploitative and artificially overpriced as ring-tone sales may be, they at least targeted customers’ desires, albeit in this cause the irrational but wonderful human weakness for whimsicality.

Posted in Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »