WBS: The Path to Leadership

What’s Being Said Dept.

They’re talking about Lafayette’s network in New Zealand. Or at least David Isenberg is. David visited recently and I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t written about it. (Yet. I will.) I’ve written about Isenberg & the Internet and his F2C conference here before. For now let it suffice to say that he has the sort of stature in the field that people happily fly him across the globe in order to get his advice on what should come next in telecommunications policy. (For a well-written overview of the man, and a review of his speech hit the NZHerald.)

He went to New Zealand intending, apparently, to walk the Kiwis through a path toward internet leadership that included fare like “structural separation,” and “unbundling local loops.” But he ditched that complex policy message and decided that the real message should be:

let’s face it, fiber, the all-optical network, is the end game.”

His recommendation to New Zealand: Just go for it. And he thinks its pretty reasonable financially. He uses Vermont’s rural and Lafayette’s urban networks to run up an estimate for the cost of fibering up the whole nation. Here’s what he said about Lafayette:

“In town, it costs a lot less. I visited Lafayette LA two weeks ago. Lafayette is a city of 110,000, or about 40,000 households. They’re building a municipal fiber network to every house in the city, rich and poor, black and white, for about 300 million, or about $2000 a house at a 50% take-rate. If you factor in OPEX and everything else, their cost will be about $50 a month. They plan to charge $70, for TV, telephone and 100 Mbit/s Internet.”

I think several of those numbers are off but the basic point remains true: It’s not too costly for a determined community. And Isenberg’s advice to the nation of New Zealand is to follow Lafayette’s lead in building fiber to every home.

That’s what I call good press. And sensible advice.

On Fiber in Europe (& Here)

Europe is pulling out in the race to fiber up and Holland and the Scandinavian countries are leading the way. A report from the European FTTH Council is stuffed with qoutables. Let’s indulge:

The battle over the future of broadband will be fought in the streets and houses…

Fiber Rules:

There is also evidence that operators that are first with fibre find it easy to attract and retain customers. John Quist of the Dutch incumbent KPN described how 85 per cent of households covered by one municipal FTTH network in the Netherlands converted to paying customers.

“The cable companies and KPN and the other telcos were just wiped out,” he said. Another Dutch municipal network, Neunen, claims 90 per cent take-up, while Sweden’s ViaEuropa claims 78 per cent. One municipal operator said that its FTTH services were so appealing that it did not need to market them to the younger population, hence the coffee mornings for the older generation…

First little piggy to market wins…

The problem for conventional telecoms operators is that there is more at stake than just subscriber numbers. If one operator beats others to wiring a house or apartment block, it will have a monopoly on that infrastructure that will likely last decades. In order to serve these customers, other operators will have to rent capacity at least on their competitor’s in-building wiring, even if they take the risk of laying their own fibre to those properties.

Municipal networks are scarfing the incumbent’s lunch:

Municipal networks in particular pose a challenge to conventional operators. Driven largely by social rather than commercial motives, these publicly funded projects are spreading from Europe’s northern states to its larger markets, having been sanctioned in France and Spain.

Reggefiber, the owner of the network Quist referred to, already has FTTH infrastructure covering 200,000, or nearly 3 per cent, of the Netherlands’ 7.2 million homes and is expanding. One of its projects, Citynet, plans to eventually cover 450,000 homes in the capital, Amsterdam. Municipal networks in Sweden, meanwhile, pass more than 6 per cent of homes and counting…

Municipal networks in particular pose a challenge to conventional operators. Driven largely by social rather than commercial motives, these publicly funded projects are spreading from Europe’s northern states to its larger markets, having been sanctioned in France and Spain…

Another advantage the municipal networks have over incumbents are their close links with communities. Organising town meetings, door-to-door sales and recruiting well-known local figures as ambassadors for their wares is not much of a stretch for them.

Who’d a thunk it?

Today’s New York Times waxes worrisome about the lead the Scandinavians and the Dutch have amassed:

“We have four countries that are world leaders — Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland,” said Viviane Reding, the European telecommunications commissioner. “We have eight countries which have higher penetration rates than the U.S. and Japan. We are not doing badly at all.”

Now in bone-wearying fashion the good gray lady of the New York Times doesn’t ask HOW those countries pulled ahead. Even though it’s apparent that the municipalities of the the Northern countries have been the engine. But the NYT in a fine fit of presumptive understanding knows it must be some new competitive scheme that the European regulators are cooking up. (The European Regulators are happy to tout that as the explanation.) But contemplated competitive regulation does NOT explain how the leading European countries got out front. The real explanation for the burst of energy from Europe is that the municipalities of the north were free to compete. And their stunning success has scared the rest of the European Union into action.

It’d be nice if Lafayette and few of its brethren could do the same for the United States.

F2C: Highly Recommended

The 3rd Freedom To Connect Conference (F2C) is being held in Washington on March 1st and April lst.

I recommend it highly. Go get on board now. Prices go up March the 7th (this Friday!) I went to the inaugural meeting and am going again this year. A fascinating crew shows up and, like most good conferences the best takes place in the halls and over lunch-time hoagies — but unlike most the sessions are worth every penny. Smart people saying what they actually believe. Nothing is more invigorating—including that silly trip to Cancun you thought might be energizing.

F2C is the brainchild of David Isenberg, a funny, fiesty fellow of just the gadfly sort we approve of here at LPF. The idea is to get a bunch of smart committed people interested in sustaining our “Freedom To Connect” over modern networks together and let them go to it. (Isenberg has a more reasonable-sounding description, I think he’s being politic.) This year the theme is “The NetHeads Come to Washington” and the contrast is implicitly between the beltway “bellheads” and the insurgents from the restless hinterlands. Isenberg is the “Original NetHead®;” he is the fellow who coined the approving phrase “the stupid network” to describe the architecture of the internet, which places processing “intelligence” at the edges of the network (i.e. at Google and at your ‘puter) and to contrast it with the old Bell telephone network (where all the intelligence is in the switches and your phone is as dumb as a rock). You might be under the impression that Net Neutrality is a new issue. You’d be wrong–at least about the underlying philosophical differences involved. Those are as old as the internet itself. Check out the 1996 Wired screed that is the first reference I know of to “Netheads vs. Bellheads.” The contrast between the two sides—right down to the core issues of money, control, and Quality Of Service vs. raw bandwidth have been on the table for years for those in the know. Isenberg gathers up those sorts of prescient folks. If you’d like to be a decade ahead of the curve you oughta consider the conference.

Take a look at the agenda. You’ll find folks from all over the world (Amsterdam’s FTTH guru Dirk van der Woude anyone?), industry stalwarts (like Ron Sege, head of Tropos that is supplying LUS’ wireless network), all around brilliant types (Clay Shirky, Susan Crawford and almost anyone you care to pick off the list), legal eagles and advocates, (Jim Baller, Matt Stoller) and even the occasional local activist type (modesty forbids)…

It should be interesting.

Get a clue: if you can, go.

And if you can’t click into the web stream; that’s what I did last year and thoroughly enjoyed it.

French & Fiber

The old saw goes: “Play to your strengths.” The Advertiser’s Bob Moser pens a blip that points to a set of new economy jobs for Lafayette: “Foreign” language call center agents. It’s a work-at-home job that routes calls from non-english speakers to bilingual agents. The money, like all call-center money, isn’t grand but the job setting can’t be beat, especially for shut-ins or stay-at-homes.

Many of Arise’s larger clients in retail are expanding their call center contracts to regions of Canada where they sell to French-speaking customers. They’ve begun rerouting more English and French language customer calls from Canada to bilingual agents in the U.S., said Jared Fletcher, vice president and ACP of admissions and certification at Arise.

The job requirements are fluency in a second language and fast internet connection.

It’s no wonder that Arise Virtual Solutions is recruiting in Lafayette–according to the last census a healthy 13% of the city speaks french in the home. And, as readers well know, a really fast net connection—more than sufficient to access reams of data for customer suppor—will soon be both cheaper and faster from LUS.

Fiber and French make a good pairing.

Inventing the Future in Korea (and Lafayette)

Korean broadband is regularly cited as some of the best in the world ranking number 4 in the percentage of connected users and first in the percent of users working from a fast fiber optic connection.

Lafayette is set on the path toward having an even higher percentage of its population on fast fiber than the Korean average. Some folks (well the incumbent providers Cox and AT&T) suggest in ways subtle and not so subtle that people just can’t use all that bandwidth.

The Korean stats tell a different story. If you build it, the Koreans at least, will come. I suspect that Americans too would find their own field of dreams.

So what do all those Koreans do with all that bandwidth? Invent the future. An article in the Korean Times suggests the shape of that future:

The Samsung Economic Research Institute said that the so-called Web 2.0 movement is the main reason behind the surge of online traffic. For example, the number of blog users has increased 16 fold in the past two years, and the number of monthly blog postings by 10 fold, it said.

The most dramatic growth was seen in the circulation of short video clips, often referred to as UCC (user-created content) in Korea. Visitors to video sharing services at major portal sites more than quadrupled between March 2006 and March 2007.

The volume of information flow on the Internet will continue to expand at an ever-increasing speed, the report said.

The amount of two-way data traffic has soared as the role of Netizens has changed from that of spectator to active participant…” (emphasis mine)

Koreans are becoming producers of content and in the process are eating up bandwidth an ever-accelerating rate. Their patterns of use are changing and they are becoming the worlds first natives of a new communications regime. In that new regime they are becoming the writers and the video producers and easy uploading of their product has become one of the drivers pushing up bandwidth usage.

This bodes well for Lafayette. Our system will provide symmetrical bandwidth to all subscribers. The “intranet” feature—meaning we will be able to communicate with each other locally at the full speed of the local net, probably upwards of 100 megs—will facilitate just the shift that is taking place in Korea. It also bodes well for LUS—LUS’ bandwidth potential will be unmatchable by the competition. It is in LUS’ interest to push this transition and help push bandwidth consumption since a shift to higher consumption broadband habits would play to their advantage.

The most significant difference between Lafayette and Korea is the size of the local population. Korea’s population was large enough to provide for local lift-off without much aid. They were in a position to exchange information between people spread out over a larger region. (Korea is about 75% of the size of Louisiana so Southern Louisiana to above Alex would be a rough equivalent.) Friends in adjacent Korean cities could participate in the net-based exchange. Most of my friends live in the city but some do not–they are in Boussard, Sunset, Baton Rouge or Lake Charles. It would be helpful if all of them could particpate as well.

So if Korea is any indicator LUS will make Lafayette an interesting place to be as far as “web 2.0” usage is concerned. But LUS should try and do two things to help this along:

1) Expand in the region. Take in, as rapidly as possible the surrounding parish and try to move beyond. Not just because this would benefit more of our citizens but because a larger network would drive more of the high levels of broadband usage that will give the advantage to the locally-owned network.

2) Support citizen production of local content and, especially, the local trading of local content. The Korean experience suggests that “ The most dramatic growth was seen in the circulation of short video clips, often referred to as UCC (user-created content.)” Support AOC. Support clubs & classes. Provide an online locale where nice, big video clips can be stored and used for in-system display—let people store the local parent-filmed football and soccer games there. In HD. (No more postage-stamp video). Make it cheap. Make it easy. Supply some online editing and storage to users….LUS should do what it can to make using big broadband the norm.

It’s gonna be quite a ride.

AT&T in South Africa

A reader sends a link to a South African article on AT&T’s (nee SBC) behavior there. The gist is that AT&T’s leadership saw an opportunity to secure a (limited life) monopoly as part of the reform in post-segregationist South Africa, took it, reaped monopoly profits, did not complete its build-out commitments, and exited when its monopoly period ran out with pots full of money.

It’s a rare moment when the monopolist mentality of our Telecom Overlords is clearly visible. From the article:

…recounts the manner in which the new democratic government’s worthy intentions – to roll out telephone service to the previously disadvantaged and establish an independent regulator to oversee the reform – were thwarted by lack of trust in democratic structures outside of the ANC’s immediate control and the ANC’s inability to control powerful international players involved in privatisation. SBC, described as “congenitally litigious”, is said to have played a major role in the failure of South Africa’s telecoms policy to develop a competitive telephone service.

Under SBC’s control Telkom not only failed to meet its roll-out obligations but behaved “as a tax on industry and a drag on economic growth”.

One has to wonder if the US Telecoms aren’t exporting behavior they learned in dealing with the US states where their successful attempts to use state legislation to prevent the introduction of new competition was most recently expressed by phone company-written laws that forbid or crippled municipalities’ attempts to build competing networks. (See the endless coverage here on the (un)Fair Competition Act.) From further back, a summary of the problems pointed out in the “200 Billion Broadband Scandal” might be that the baby Bells hoodwinked state regulators and deceived state legislators to the tune of 200 billion dollars when they made bargins with the states build 45 meg (symmetrical!) fiber connections in return for the favorable treatment they sought and received. Needless to say those commitments weren’t honored.

As Mike is wont to say: “It’s in their genes.” —It’s certainly and undeniable part of their corporate culture. You can’t trust them…and you can’t say you weren’t warned.

Slovenia Surges

Slovenia, the subject of sardonic commentary here back in early ’06 (US poised to drop out of top 20, Slovenia surges) has vindicated my faith in Eastern European get up and go. Their incumbent telephone company, Telekom Slovenije, isn’t playing any silly fiber to the (rich) nodes games. From the Light Reading article that occasioned these musings:

European incumbent operator Telekom Slovenije plans to spend up to €450 million (US$620 million) between now and 2015 on a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) rollout in an effort to deliver high-speed access capabilities to 70 percent of households in the small Eastern European country of Slovenia.

Now why can’t our incumbent telephone company do the same? (You might recall: Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone! Talk about a first-mover advantage.)

Pitiful. Whupped by a country that didn’t exist a dozen years ago…..

PhotoSynth & Web 2.0—Worth Thinking About

Sunday Thought Dept.

Warning: this is seriously different from the usual fare here but fits roughly into my occasional “Sunday Thought” posts. I’ve been thinking hard about how to make the web more compelling for users and especially how to integrate the local interests that seem so weakly represented on the internet. As part of that exploration I ran across a research program labeled “PhotoSynth.” It offers a way to integrate “place” into the abstract digital world of the web in a pretty compelling way if your interest is in localism: it automatically recreates a 3 dimensional world from any random set of photographs of a scene and allows tags and links to be embedded in them. Once anyone has tagged a local feature (say the fireman’s statue on Vermillion St. or a associated a review with a picture of Don’s Seafood downtown.) everyone else’s images are, in effect, enriched by their ability to “inherit” that information.

But it seems that it is a lot more than just the best thing to happen to advocates of web localism in a long time. It’s very fundamental stuff, I think, with implications far beyond building a better local web portal…. Read On…

Photosynth aka “Photo Tourism” encapsulates a couple of ideas that are well worth thinking hard about. Potentially this technical tour de force provides a new, automated, and actually valuable way of building representations of the world we live in.

This is a big deal.

Before I get all abstract on you (as I am determined to do) let me strongly encourage you to first take a look at the most basic technical ideas behind what I’m talking about. Please take the time to absorb a five and a half minute video illustrating the technology. If you’re more a textural learner you can take a quick look at the text-based, photo-illustrated overview from the Washington State/MS lab. But I recommend trying the video first.

(Sorry this video was removed by YouTube).

You did that? Good; thanks….otherwise the rest will be pretty opaque—more difficult to understand than it needs to be.

One way to look at what the technology does is that it recreates a digitized 3D world from a 2D one. It builds a fully digital 3D model of the world from multiple 2D photos. Many users contribute their “bits” of imagery and, together, they are automatically interlinked to yield, out of multiple points of view, a “rounded” representation of the scene. The linkages between images are established on the basis of data inside the image–on the basis of their partial overlap—and ultimately on the basis of their actually existing next to each other—and this is done without the considered decisions of engaged humans.

Why is that a big deal?

Because its not all handmade. Today’s web is stunningly valuable but it is also almost completely hand-made. Each image or word is purpose-chosen for its small niche on a web page or in its fragment of context. The links that connect the web’s parts are (for the most part) hand-crafted as well and represent someone’s thoughtful decision. Attempts to automate the construction of the web, to automatically create useful links, have failed miserably—largely because connections need to be meaningful in terms of the user’s purpose and algorithms don’t grok meaning or purpose.

The web has been limited by its hand-crafted nature. There is information (of all sorts, from videos of pottery being thrown, to bird calls, to statistical tables) out there we can’t get to—or even get an indication that we ought to want to get to. We rely mostly on links to find as much as we do and those rely on people making the decision to hand-craft them. But we don’t have the time, or the inclination, to make explicit and machine-readable all the useful associations that lend meaning to what encounter in our lives. So the web remains oddly thin—it consists of the few things that are both easy enough and inordinately important enough to a few of our fellows to get represented on the net. It is their overwhelming number and the fact that we are all competent in our own special domains that makes the web so varied and fascinating.

You might think that web search, most notably the big success story of the current web, Google’s, serves as a ready substitute for consciously crafted links. We think Google links us to appropriate pages without human intervention. But we’re not quite right—Google’s underlying set of algorithms, collectively known as “PageRank,” mostly just ranks pages by reference to how many other pages link to those pages and weights those by the links form other sites that those pages receive…and so on. To the extent that web search works it relies on making use of handmade links. The little fleas algorithm.™ It’s handmade links all the way down.

Google was merely the first to effectively repackage human judgment. You’ve heard of web 2.0? (More) The idea that underpins that widely hyped craze is that you can go to your users to supply the content, the meaning, the links. That too is symptomatic of what I’m trying to point to here: the model that relies solely on the web being built by “developers” who are guessing their users needs has reached its limits.

That’s why Web 2.0 is a big deal: The folks designing the web are groping toward a realization of their limits, how to deal with them, and keep the utility of the web growing.

It is against that backdrop that PhotoSynth appears. It represents another path toward a richer web. The technologies it uses have been combined to contextually indexes images based on their location in the real, physical world. The physical world becomes its own index—one that exist independently of hand-crafted links. Both Google and Yahoo have been looking for a way to harness “localism,” recognizing that they are missing a lot of what is important to users by not being able to locate places, events, and things that are close to the user’s physical location.

The new “physical index” would quickly become intertwined with the meaning-based web we have developed. Every photo that you own would, once correlated with the PhotoSynth image, “inherit” all the tags and links embedded in all the other imagery there or nearby. More and more photos are tagged with meta-data and sites like flicker allow you to annotate elements of the photograph (as does PhotoSynth). The tags and links represented tie back into the already established web of hand-crafted links and knit them together in new ways. And it potentially goes further: Image formats typically already support time stamps and often a time stamp is registered in a digital photograph’s metadata even when the user is unaware of it. Though I’ve not seen any sign thatPhotoSynth makes use of time data it would be clearly be almost trivial to add that functionality. And that would add an automatic “time index” to the mix. So if you wanted to see pictures of the Vatican in every season you could…or view images stretching back to antiquity.

It’s easy to fantasize about how place, time, and meaning-based linking might work together. Let’s suppose you stumble across a nifty picture of an African Dance troupe. Metadata links that to a date and location—Lafayette in April of 2005. A user tag associated with the picture is “Festival International.” From there you get to the Festival International de Louisiane website. You pull up—effectively create—a 3-D image of the Downtown venue recreated from photos centered on the stage 50 feet from where the metadata says the picture was taken. A bit of exploration in the area finds Don’s Seafood, the Louisiana Crafts Guild, a nifty fireman’s statue, a fountain (with an amazing number of available photos) and another stage. That stage has a lot of associations with “Zydeco” and “Cajun” and “Creole.” You find yourself virtually at the old “El Sido’s,” get a look at the neighborhood and begin to wonder about the connections between place, poverty, culture, and music….

The technologies used in SynthPhoto are not new or unique. Putting them all together is…and potentially points the way toward a very powerful way to enhance the web and make it more powerfully local.

Worth thinking about on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Lots o’ Langiappe:

TED talk Video — uses a Flickr data set to illustrate how the program can scoop up any imagry. This was the first reference I fell across.

Photo Tourism Video — Explains the basics, using the photo tourism interface. Shows the annotation feature of the program…

Roots of PhotoSynth Research Video—an interesting background bit…seadragon, stitching & virtual tourist, 3D extraction….

PhotoSynth on the Web Video: a version of the program is shown running in a web browser; only available to late version Microsoft users. (Web Site)

Microsoft Interactive Visual Media Group Site. Several of these projects look very interesting—and you can see how some of the technologies deployed in PhotoSynth have been used in other contexts.

Microsoft PhotoSynth Homepage