Tag Archives: planet earth

Billions to be spent replacing Iridium satellites – will the business fly this time?

A flood of cash was ploughed into building telecommunications systems in the 1990s, with generally bad results for the original investors. Some companies went through bankruptcy, but more or less came out the other side still functioning. Others collapsed completely, with the assets selling at fire sale prices.

The most glorious of those failures had to have been Iridium. Backed by Motorola, it launched a low earth orbit constellation of 66 satellites that were designed to communicate with brick-sized phones from any point on or over the planet. And it worked. I beta tested a unit, taking it to New Zealand where it easily handled a call from the top of Mt. Tongariro, all the way around the world to England. And kept me in touch with day to day business back home, the occasional dropped call notwithstanding.

Shortly thereafter, though, the company imploded and its initial investment of something like $6 billion was wiped out. An entrepreneur bought it out receivership for about $25 million, and has been operating it ever since.

Unlike the fiber networks of the same era, though, the Iridium constellation won’t last forever. It’s approaching the end of its useful life, and the company has to start replacing the birds soon. The plan is to begin launching Thales Alenia Space-built replacements 11 at a time on Space-X Falcon rockets beginning next June. According to a company spokesman, the total cost is in the $3 billion range, with the French government floating the necessary loan.

The difference between then and now is that Iridium claims to have “nearly a million” customers, which translates into actual cash flow. The service isn’t cheap – talk time and data connections cost more than $1 per minute, with speeds of 2.5 Kbps or slower typical – and the U.S. military accounts for about a quarter of total revenue. That’s a slow connection, but sufficient for M2M purposes, which is a growth area for the company. Whether that’s enough to pay off the note by 2019 as planned remains to be seen, though.

CES exhibit floor grows in size but not in global reach


The eyes of the world.

The Consumer Electronics Associations warns journalists that it produces a global technology event called International CES and that none should dare speak the name Consumer Electronics Show. The problem is, it’s still a consumer electronics show and it’s still noticeably weak on the global, if not International bits. At least where exhibitors are concerned.

African and South American participation is painfully slim. South Africa-based Geco Action Cam – was the only representative from that continent: same count as last year and down from 2 in 2013. A pair of Brazilian companies exhibited. They represented the entire bona fide South American delegation. Still, that’s double last year’s figure.

India is up slightly, with 7 exhibits this year against 6 last year. But that compares to 10 in 2013. At a trade show with more than 3,600 exhibitors – a record, CEA says – the difference is insignificant.

Only 20 companies from the ASEAN region were on the CES floor this year, versus 18 in 2014 and 23 in 2013. And most of those are from Singapore – 15 this year, a gain of 1 from last year. Thailand sent 3, and the Philippines and Vietnam sent 1 each. Even though a large and growing share of the world’s electronic devices are being made in ASEAN countries, companies and brands based there are not climbing the value chain. At least not as far as Las Vegas.

CES attendees come from nearly every nation on the planet – more than a quarter of the 170,000 registered were from somewhere other than the U.S. But they come to buy from east asian, north american and european companies. If CEA wants to truly be a global technology event, it needs to figure out how to get them to come and sell, too.

Perfect security is beyond the realm of science fiction


The cracks keep getting bigger.

Around this time last year, we were worried about credit and debit card details being stolen from Target stores. Bad, but not bad enough it would seem to drive retailers into doing a thorough security overhaul. The past year has seen similar breaches at Home Depot — even bigger than Target — Staples and Bebe, to name just 3.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the worst of it? But no such luck. The past couple of weeks has brought what looks like the launch of a cyberwar between the the U.S. and North Korea over the mega-crack at Sony — most properly denied by both sides, of course — as well as a damaging shutdown at a German steel mill and the release of sensitive documents and the threat of more damage at a South Korean nuclear power plant.

Last year the problem seemed to be a skin flint reliance on 1970s magnetic stripe technology (which, by the way, still plagues us). This year the problems have multiplied, but the common factor is people, not gadgets. Subversion or defection by insiders appears to have played a role. So have spear phishing attacks aimed at critical, but credulous and careless personnel.

Doc Smith’s solution — a telepathic wristband crafted by the galaxy’s sublimest intellects — is getting closer to reality: we have the wrist bands and the smartest minds in the known galaxy (admittedly, a small sample). Unfortunately, even he had to limit distribution to the infinitesimal few who were provably incorruptible. The rest of us will have to accept the necessary inconvenience of ever more bloody minded security measures and the personal responsibility that goes along with it.

In the Lensman universe of the future, the bad guys are never defeated. They’re just pushed further out beyond the galactic firewall. Then and now, the battle is eternal.

Mobile operators are short term cure, long term cause of broadband divide

Wireline upgrades get low priority on the wrong side of the divide.

Mobile broadband networks are increasingly ubiquitous throughout the world, and are the most widely used way of accessing the Internet in developing countries. But that’s despite high costs and stingy caps on data transfer. As a solution for increasing primary household access to broadband and encouraging people to use it, mobile networks have limited potential, according to a South African broadband policy study

Of the access mechanisms, mobile coverage is the most extensive, but mobile broadband access is limited to lucrative urban areas and data costs are relatively high. Extending broadband access is dependent on allocation of high demand spectrum. It is also dependant on higher tower density, which requires additional investments by mobile operators.

The problem isn’t limited to the developing world. The California Public Utilities Commission has put itself in a similar box by, on the one hand, recognising that it’s economically difficult, if not impossible, to rely on mobile operators for household or business Internet access but, on the other, giving mobile coverage claims equal standing with wireline networks in determining which communities lack minimum service and are eligible for infrastructure subsidies.

One company – Comcast – is tightening its grip on Californian cable customers and the two biggest telephone companies – AT&T and Verizon – are cutting off wireline support for less affluent communities and pushing subscribers toward more costly mobile data. All three are spending big money lobbying California legislators and policy makers in largely successful efforts to protect their turf. If you allow incumbents to write the rules for subsidising competitive infrastructure construction – rules that relegate low income areas to high cost mobile service – you will only increase the digital divide. Whether you’re in California or South Africa.

Mars is underserved

NASA is asking for private sector ideas to upgrade broadband infrastructure on Mars. Right now, there’s a 2 Mbps link between Earth and Mars orbit, and 500 Kbps between orbit and rovers on the surface. More bandwidth is expected to arrive in orbit in the next few years, but not enough to keep up with planned surface missions. So NASA has issued a request for information, in the hopes of finding a partner who can offer a sustainable solution

The RFI details possible new business models that would involve NASA contracting to purchase services from a commercial service provider, which would own and operate one or more communication relay orbiters. The solicitation is open to all types of organizations including U.S. industry, universities, nonprofits, NASA centers, and federally funded research and development centers, in addition to U.S. government and international organizations.

The press release mentions a recent experiment that achieved a 622 Mbps link between Earth and the Moon using a laser, which offers a clue to NASA’s backhaul bandwidth expectations.

It’s easy to gripe about the federal government spending money upgrading Martian broadband infrastructure while so many U.S. homes lack access to even the 500 Kbps that’s currently available on the Red Planet. But that’s a cheap shot and completely misplaced. Real world problems inspire practical solutions, regardless of the planet.

I can’t think of a tougher telecoms problem than finding a cost effective way of building a reliable link running at hundreds of megabits, if not a gigabit, between Earth and Mars. The technology that makes it possible will do even more here at home.

ET could have phoned home faster on fiber

In case you missed it, today was World UFO Day, a good time to pause and reflect on why strange things happen. There’s no dispute that UFOs are real. Pretty much any night of the week – usually around the time that people come stumbling out of bars, according to ground-breaking research in the Economist – people look up in the sky and see flying objects they can’t identify. Not only that, but none of their friends can either. Which leads to only one rational conclusion: it must be a spaceship from another planet.

The only mistake here is to limit the application of what is undeniably perfect, universal logic. UFOs come in many forms. Take unidentified fiber objects. AT&T’s GigaPower service, for example. Like a flying saucer doing loop-the-loops over North Dakota missile silos, there’s an other-worldliness to a service that’s claiming gigabit bragging rights for legacy copper-to-the-home plant. Sure, Bell Labs did it in, well, a lab. And hey, it’s 300 Mbps now so why quibble about what it’s going to be when the fiber goes in? You can trust that it’ll happen real soon now because it’s coming in on the next container ship from Alpha Centauri.

The Economist also uncovered the fact that, by far, the most UFO sightings per capita in the U.S. are in Washington state. That’s where Gigabit Squared kept trolling for megabucks to build an FTTH system, or something like that, for more than a year, until it left town town owing kilobucks. Coincidence? I think not.

Monopoly broadband network problems are common, solutions are not

Better markets attract better supply. Everywhere.

It’s not just best practices for broadband development policy that’s common to countries and communities, regardless of location or circumstance. Lack of competition at the network level is as big a barrier in South Africa as it is in California.

In South Africa the biggest gap in the national broadband infrastructure is currently in the access network illustrated by the fact that 86% of the population is within 10km from a fibre access point. Broadband access is provided via mobile, fixed wireless, ADSL and, to a very limited scale, by fibre to the premises (FTTP).

The difficulty and high cost of building broadband infrastructure – whether it’s for last mile connections to homes or middle mile backhaul to core Internet exchanges – is a natural barrier to competition. Without competitive pressure, incumbents can keep prices high and focus investment on lucrative, high income areas while effectively cutting off less affluent communities.

The South African government’s solution, according to it’s national broadband policy roadmap, is requiring network owners to allow access to competitors at wholesale rates…

The intent of this policy is to provide a clear framework for the implementation of an open access regime for the wireless and fibre networks planned for the country. Bearing in mind that there is no single definition of “open access”, for the purposes of this policy open access refers to mandatory wholesale access to network infrastructure or services that is provided on fair and reasonable terms, for which there is some degree of transparency and non-discrimination. It is considered as applying to fixed and mobile access networks, backhaul and backbone networks, undersea cables and Internet exchange points.

The mechanism for achieving this goal could be problematic, however. Large scale public sector broadband spending isn’t an option. So the recommended fix is to try to entice or coerce private sector investors to participate in a government-coordinated national broadband network. In effect, replace market forces with central planning.

That’s hard enough – arguably, impossible – when governments invest their own money. It’s even less attractive to private capital, which has other options, internationally and in South Africa. Long term, the result will be even less competition.

Developing countries take the lead in global broadband adoption

By the end of the year, 3 billion people will be on the Internet, according to the latest projections by the International Telecommunications Union. Of those, three-quarters will be getting broadband access via mobile networks (with or without wireline access, too), a five-fold jump since the end of 2008. The majority of Internet users will be in the developing world, according to the report

The new figures show that, by the end of 2014, there will be almost 3 billion Internet users, two-thirds of them coming from the developing world, and that the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions will reach 2.3 billion globally. Fifty-five per cent of these subscriptions are expected to be in the developing world.

Growth in fixed broadband subscriptions is slowing, particularly in the developed world, where the growth rate is expected to slip to 3.5% in 2014, versus 4.8% in 2011. Growth is expected to fall back in the developing world, too, from 18% in 2011 to 6% in 2014.

Regionally, Europe is doing great: 75% of Europeans are using the Internet and 78% of homes have access. Africa is lagging far behind with only 19% of people online and 11% of homes having access.

In terms of speed, the top 19 countries are all in Europe or Asia, with the U.S. coming 20th. The ITU has not released country-by-country projections for broadband penetration in 2014, but in 2012, the last year for which data is available, the U.S. ranked 32nd in households with Internet access.

The ITU is the “United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies”, and collects telecoms statistics from governments and carriers worldwide.

Linux marches to the beat of broadband growth

Most of the world’s personal computers run on Microsoft Windows. Gartner, a tech industry research group, says that the 280 million Windows boxes shipped last year swamped 12.5 million Macs and 2.9 million Chromebooks. But Gartner is also predicting that the Linux-based Chrome operating system will overtake the Mac OS by 2016.

According to a BBC story

“There’s a couple of reasons – one is the number of vendors who are now pushing a [Chromebook] device,” explained Ranjit Atwal, research director at the firm.

“The second thing is the appeal they have in developing markets given their price points.

”You’re looking at large-screen notebooks for less than $200 with a good software ecosystem around them – that’s a compelling proposition. The only inhibiting factor is connectivity."

Because Chromebooks are essentially cloud computers that are centrally managed and maintained by Google, the comparative clunkiness of Linux user interfaces and the wonkiness required to install and upgrade software become non-issues.

It just works. If it has a sufficiently robust Internet connection. Which means broadband infrastructure initiatives in developing markets, such as South Africa, and edgy edge projects, like Facebook’s and Google’s drones and looney balloons could have as much bearing on Microsoft’s survival as continued refinement of Linux and associated open software applications.

Of course, Microsoft is moving toward a cloud-based model, too. But it’s stuck in the middle between Google’s purist approach and Apple’s tight OS-application-hardware-service integration. Premium priced Macs can never be an existential threat to Windows machines, but as Internet connectivity becomes ever more reliable and affordable across the planet, equally sleek and much cheaper Linux installations will.

South Africa endorses best practices for broadband development policy

South Africa’s goal is to bring a minimum of 5Mbps Internet access to half its population by 2016 and 90% by 2020, with 100% of school, medical and government sites getting at least 10 Mbps by then. To do it, the government is adopting essentially the same policy playbook as the European Union, Google, and Californian communities such as Santa Cruz, San Leandro and Loma Linda

  • Efficient permit granting: Responsible authorities will provide network operators with a clear, simple, transparent and efficient mechanism for granting permits for civil works.
  • Access to and use of existing physical networking infrastructure: [the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa] will enforce regulations requiring network operators’ obligations to meet all reasonable requests for access to infrastructure on a non-discriminatory basis to their physical infrastructure (such as ducts, conduits, manholes, cabinets, poles, masts, antennae, towers and other supporting constructions).
  • Coordination and exploiting synergies with other civil works: Transparency of information on and mechanisms for accessing on a reasonable basis existing and planned public infrastructure suitable for hosting high-speed internet such as electricity, water and sewage, transport infrastructures and high sites. Such sharing across different civil domains will also facilitate future smart cities and regions.
  • Transparency will assist in preventing accidental damage to water pipes or electricity and cables during construction of broadband infrastructure.
  • Coordination of civil works: Frameworks will be put in place facilitating coordination and cooperation of civil works amongst network operators.
  • In-building equipment:
    • All newly-constructed buildings and buildings undergoing major renovation will be equipped with facilities, such as ducting for fibre optic cabling, for high-speed-ready in-building physical infrastructure, up to the network termination points from 2015.
    • Every internet provider will have the right to terminate its network at a concentration point located inside or outside a building and will have the right to access any existing high-speed-ready in-building physical infrastructure on reasonable terms.

The full report – South Africa Connect: Creating Opportunities, Ensuring Inclusion; South Africa’s Broadband Policy – is interesting reading. The policy prescriptions for addressing the broadband needs of sprawling, densely packed townships and distant undeveloped rural communities are all but identical to those independently developed for European cities and Californian suburbs. Regardless of circumstance, there’s a growing international consensus that the basics of broadband development policy are universal.