Tag Archives: smw

Hope still flickers for thoughtful Internet policy at the FCC

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There might yet be an intellectual debate at the FCC about network neutrality. A debate on facts and philosophy, rather than a negotiation for spoils or a partisan punch up. Four commissioners – the entire FCC minus chair Tom Wheeler who did a solo turn earlier – had an hour-long conversation with new CTIA head (and former FCC commissioner) Meredith Baker at a standing room only session at the CTIA show in Las Vegas last week.

When the talk turned to the FCC’s current net neutrality proceeding, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put Exhibit A for an open Internet on the table: the new virtual economy that’s been built, starting in the U.S., on a ubiquitous network that runs without centralised control, either by government or industry. “Our Internet economy is the model for the world”, she said. But as control of the Internet, particularly the last mile, becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of large incumbent companies, government regulation is a necessary counterweight.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, on the other hand, characterised net neutrality as “a solution in search of a problem”, and particularly so in the U.S. mobile industry, where there is comparatively robust competition and a history of light regulation, and billions of dollars of investment as a result.

Rosenworcel seems to lean toward stricter, or at least more specific, net neutrality rules than the draft floated a couple of months ago by Wheeler. Pai doesn’t want any at all. They’re both right on the facts and they both start with the facts and reason the problem through from there. So long as the conversation continues on that basis, there’s still hope for a rational, rather than political, outcome.

It’s not about the watch, it’s about Apple diving into health care

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When Tim Cook unveiled the Apple Watch on Tuesday, and launched into a rapturous description of the digital crown – the old school winding wheel on the side that’s redesigned into a user interface – the first thing I thought was “they made the damn watch for right-handed people”. Any southpaw old enough to remember having to wind a watch every day – yes, me – remembers having to unstrap it and shift hands first. The crown is on the right side, which is the wrong side if you’re a lefty.

Well, not exactly. The display can be flipped around so you can wear the watch on your right hand with the crown pointing left, albeit sub-optimally positioned lower down. But enough grumpiness.

The big take away for me isn’t the design or functionality. It’s Apple’s determination that smart watches are about health and fitness. The Apple Watch will display text messages and otherwise serve as an iPhone extension, but the killer app is health and fitness, with Apple forming a high caliber development team around it.

Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player or the first smart phone or the first tablet. But it figured out what those devices were good for and how to build supporting platforms and content to make them useful and attractive to consumers. That track record is reason enough to presume that Apple has done the same for smart watches, and could do as well for other wearable categories.

Health, particularly, has been a tough sector for technology companies to penetrate. Microsoft has been trying to run an online medical record platform for years, with little success. Stringent legal requirements and the threat of further regulation has been a stumbling block for nimble startups. Apple has the market strength, development talent and raw resources to succeed, though. It’s not a done deal – an Apple Watch and health platform would be the first post-Jobs attempt at a category breakout – but that’s the way to bet.

CTIA successfully reboots its mobile industry trade show

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It’s still a work in progress, but the reengineered CTIA wireless trade show looks like it’s relevant enough to mobile industry execs to keep drawing them to Las Vegas. The new show tries to blend content from the CTIA’s traditional big springtime convention and MobileCon, its fall technology conference (or content or apps or whatever – usefully, it never stagnated), and consolidate the show floors.

The exhibits were workmanlike and generated a fair amount of traffic, at least on the first day (the only full day I was there). The keynote sessions offered an opportunity to take the measure of industry execs, including Meredith Attwell Baker, the new president of CTIA. But the quality of the keynote presentations was uneven, a problem shared by the conference program.

The panel discussion with FCC commissioners was excellent, but some of the others were pure sales pitches. Not unusually so, though. Like many trade shows, CTIA has reached the point where the aftermarket – the online audience for live streamed and archived speeches and conference sessions – is more important to corporate marketers than the actual attendees.

My one big complaint is that exhibit halls are bad places to put presentations and panel discussions. I understand why trade show organisers do it – they want to generate traffic for both exhibitors and speakers – but it’s distracting and dissipates attention. The best thing about the old MobileCon show was a well organised conference program, and the occasionally claustrophobic sessions only added to the energy.

But the new CTIA show – branded Super Mobility Week – and its escort of smaller events, like the Competitive Carriers Association conference, does bring people to town, and that is the point of holding conventions. The greatest value is in the chance conversations, one-on-one meetings and corporate parties that result, and in that regard this week’s show delivered.

Setting the Vegas stage for a declaration of net neutrality victory

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“Our goal in this proceeding is to establish the rules of the road for Internet openness that will provide certainty in the marketplace”, FCC chair Tom Wheeler told his former clients at the CTIA wireless show in Las Vegas on Tuesday. He was talking about network neutrality rules that he drafted and hundreds of thousands of people and organisations are commenting on now. Rules that set up a process for governing the Internet that will be anything but open and certain.

A key question for the mobile telecommunications industry is whether it will have to play by the same “rules of the road” as wireline providers. Right now, it doesn’t. Or at least it wouldn’t if version 1.0 of the network neutrality rules – written in 2010 and tossed out by a federal court earlier this year – was still in effect. Back then, the wireless industry successfully lobbied to be effectively exempt from restrictions on how last mile providers might or might not cut deals with content providers and third-party service platforms.

The reason then was that restricted and expensive mobile bandwidth required different network management practices. Wheeler asked his audience whether that justification is still valid. True to form, Wheeler posed it as a rhetorical question – something for mobile industry lobbyists to refute – rather than an expression of vision or principle. And he not-so-subtly set out a negotiating position: give ground on mobile data caps and throttling and maybe you’ll keep your special status.

Balancing interests is not necessarily a bad thing for a regulator to do. But that doesn’t seem to be the game that Wheeler is playing. Instead, he’s offering to make a populist swap: getting something his “new client, the American people” can understand without thinking too hard – a warm and fuzzy and loophole-ridden declaration on data caps, say – and giving mobile carriers, his former clients, the ability to make up the difference and more on the back end by dodging arcane network neutrality rules imposed on their competitors.

Microsoft won’t win consumer hearts by appealing to IT minds

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Suit, check. Hair cut, check. Mojo, oops.

You have to give Microsoft credit for trying. It was a distant third (or fourth or fifth or worse, depending on how you count) in the mobile operating system and smart phone races coming into the CTIA trade show in Las Vegas. No matter what happened, it wouldn’t narrow the gap significantly leaving it.

But if it ever wants to matter in the mobile world it has to start changing perceptions, and CTIA is a good place to begin. So when Stephen Elop took the keynote stage yesterday, a few short hours after Apple’s iPhone 6/Apple Watch extravaganza, he needed to demonstrate, by example, that Microsoft can make and sell things consumers or, indeed, anyone other than an IT professional, want.

He failed.

It’s hard not to look like a dweeb by comparison when you come on stage after an Apple mega-event, but Elop – Microsoft’s executive vice president in charge of devices, including Nokia products – would’ve done no better if he’d followed a Caterpillar tractor roll out.

His biggest clunker came while trying to explain Microsoft’s Digital Life positioning. The idea is to convince consumers to integrate Microsoft products and services into their daily, non-working lives like they have with iTunes and iPhones. The best example he could come up with was using Microsoft technology to have a “meeting” with a daughter who’s just gone off to college. At least he had the grace to look a little embarrassed and do the “air quotes” thing when he said “meeting”.

Microsoft has good products that fit well in an enterprise environment. Elop needed to explain why that’s a competitive advantage in the consumer world. He might have simply misread his audience: assumed he was talking to fellow IT guys rather than mobile execs who weave together phones, apps, content, services and networks into mass market selling propositions. Or it might just be the best Microsoft can do.

Transparent auction rules and a clear business proposition needed to get more mobile broadband spectrum says FCC commissioner

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Finding new radio bandwidth for mobile broadband services and then figuring out how to pry it out of the hands of businesses and government agencies that don’t use it particularly well is a perpetual challenge for the FCC. Four commissioners – the whole bunch except for chair Tom Wheeler – took questions from CTIA president Meredith Baker at the CTIA show in Las Vegas this afternoon. Not surprisingly, given the venue, much of the hour-long session focused on moving twentieth century technologies and analog users off of spectrum, particularly in the coveted 600 MHz bands, to make way for twenty-first century digital services.

The most readily available sources are television broadcasters and the federal government, particularly but not exclusively the department of defence. As described by the commissioners today, that problem boils down to getting federal agencies to do two things they don’t do well at all: move quickly and give assets they’ve held for decades back to the public.

The more immediate opportunity is to buy back TV channel assignments from broadcasters who want to sell, via an auction. The hope was that would happen about a year from now, but it seems less likely now. The National Association of Broadcasters, like CTIA an industry lobbying arm, is suing to stop the auction as currently planned, the result of a lack of enthusiasm for the auctions among their members.

As commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel put it, to bring broadcasters back to the table, the FCC has to make it simple for them to participate and others – the wireless industry and the internal revenue service, particularly – need to make it easy for them to make a business decision. Wireless operators have to give broadcasters a better sense of how much money they stand to make, and the IRS has to let them know what the tax consequences are before they sell channel slots. The alternative is to wait for the federal courts to chew through the issues involved, a process that could take years.

CTIA leans in to the Apple punch

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All eyes were on Cupertino this morning, even – or maybe particularly – eyes that had flown to Las Vegas with the intent of being briefly at the center of the mobile telecommunications universe. So CTIA made the smart move, and built its opening keynote session around Apple’s iPhone 6 and Apple Watch announcements this morning.

New CTIA president Meredith Attwell Baker made her rookie appearance, earnest enough but lacking the easy stage presence of her predecessors in the job, like FCC chair Tom Wheeler, who was next up on the stage. A forgettable discussion about mobile video followed. And then it was time to bring up a panel of commentators – panel moderator and CNBC reporter Julia Boorstin, Shelly Palmer, Chetan Sharma and Glenn Tinley – and put Apple’s event up on the big ballroom screen.

Except Apple was having video problems. Or at least that appeared to be the case. The live feed cut in and out, giving everyone a laugh and panelists a chance talk about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s announcement of the iPhone 6 and 6-plus, and accompanying mobile wallet and health and fitness features and services. It wasn’t quite up to MST 3K standards, but it was more entertaining than just sitting and watching Apple’s production.

Finally, with “the crowd there in Cupertino clearly going wild”, as Boorstin put it, Cook intoned “we have one more thing” and rolled out the Apple Watch (more about that later). By contrast, the crowd here in Las Vegas was, in turns, amused and bored with the announcement. But not dismissive. Apple’s high-end hardware was clearly the highlight of the show in Las Vegas today, even though it’s not even here.

FCC chair Wheeler confuses market competition with Beltway negotiation

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America’s telecommunications lobbyist-in-chief showed up at the CTIA show this morning, full of sunny remarks and gentle chiding for the wireless industry. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who used to hold the top job at CTIA, was clearly coming home.

“It was ten years ago, ten years ago, that I last stood on this stage,” he said. He recalled that when he was up for confirmation of his current assignment, he told U.S. senators he hoped he was a pretty good representative of the mobile telecoms industry. But not anymore, he said with a smile.

“Now I have a new client, the American people,” Wheeler said, adding that his job now is “to aggressively represent the best interest of my client”.

And that’s how he sees his job: primus inter pares amongst Washington’s battalions of industry lobbyists. The guy who brings together the people who really matter – Beltway insiders – and works out a deal that he and they can sell to their clients as the best slice of the pie possible.

Wheeler aggressively played that role this morning, first telling the audience that shortsighted broadcasters are threatening to derail the planned auction of more mobile broadband spectrum, and then urging the wireless industry to put just a little more on the table. “Wireless showing interest in the incentive auction is the predicate to broadcasters showing interest in the auction”, he said.

Translation: I’m the good cop. Make it easy on yourselves and propose a deal that I can sell it to my client, the American people.

The mobile phone industry is at that table. So are broadcasters, cable operators, telephone companies and other industries with deep roots in the Washington way of doing business. As for the rest of us – including community broadband advocates and, at least until recently, most of Silicon Valley – we have Wheeler to look out for our best interests. And tell us that whatever we get is the best that can be done.