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Not exactly Uber-innovative

22 Jun


Uber is, or at least was, until recently, presented as a paragon of innovation. The company is, we have read many times, revolutionizing the transportation for hire industry through radical innovation.

I’ve had an instinctive distate for Uber from the start, failing to see how the various players in the ecosystem they built could make decent money. There is no doubt that Uber’s model ensured Uber was making money, but I had the feeling that the drivers certainly couldn’t, long term.

When their bully PR tactics emerged last year, my distate turned into frank dislike, but then what does that matter to anyone? The fact that I don’t use them doesn’t make an iota of difference. I did however get increasingly annoyed at them being used as an example of radical innovation. Let’s look into that for an instant:

Is the innovation in their app allowing you to hire a driver using the app on your phone? Sure that’s neat, but every large taxi company in the world matched that within months of Uber launching in their market. Could they have done it earlier? Sure. But the fact that it was so easily matched shows that that’s clearly not where the innovation lies.

Is it in the dynamic pricing? Beyond the fact that dynamic pricing is hardly a new thing in general (even if it hadn’t been applied to that industry until Uber did it), it doesn’t seem to be such a big selling point for users. Furthermore, at least according to one economist quoted in this fascinating article on Daily Finance, it’s ripe for abuse and will likely backfire as a consequence.

Uber is often presented as a great example of the “sharing economy”, is that where the innovation lies? Actually, Uber drivers are usually taxi drivers who moved to Uber, so there’s no “sharing” there, not more than there used to be. UberPop is a proper sharing platform, but it’s undermining the main Uber driver’s income, possibly undermining the whole business model. So how is that smart innovation? I’d say it rather gives sharing a bad name.

No, the innovation is in one simple, and as yet unadressed (at least until last week) regulatory issue: Uber has designed a model that allows it to completely avoid the labor and fiscal burden of employed drivers. Uber’s innovation, in a nutshell, is in fiscal evasion.

And the most amazing thing this about it is that everybody knows it: when the California Labor Commission last week decided to treat Uber drivers as employees every analyst and tech journalist on the planet said Uber was screwed.

Labor laws exist for a reason. They may seem frustrating to entrepreneurs (I should know) but they are, for the most part, individual rights earned after long labor battles. They protect workers, and they help finance the help needed by those who lose their jobs. Circumventing labor laws isn’t innovation, it’s just morally despicable.

So let’s forget about Uber as an innovator and focus on companies that truly are innovating, for the benefit of all rather than simply for the benefit of their own wallets.

What’s faster than superfast ?

2 Jun

This morning I watched the above speech by Göran Marby of Swedish Regulator PTS. It meanders a bit, and (anecdotally) I was shocked by the apparent confusion between IP and Internet, but it makes some good points, and in particular it raises an important question about the future of networks. The assumption seems to be that the millions of devices that we predict to be connected will do so on the basis of a mobile (cellular) network framework. But most of these devices won’t move. In Fiber rich Sweden, the alternative (that they be connected on the basis of a fixed network paradigm) is appealing indeed.

This is something that interests me a lot, but I don’t think my thought process is quite mature enough to really address yet.

Instead I want to (slightly humorously) latch onto a joke Marby made in his speech about the UK’s “superfast” broadband. If 30Mbps is “superfast” he says, the standard 100 Mbps in Sweden should be called “superduperfast”.

We’re currently delving back into a project that’s been on the backburner for too long, with the aim of analyzing advertising messaging and strategies for FTTP.

If I was Virgin or Hyperoptic (or Sky / TalkTalk, assuming their fiber plans in York are actually moving forward), I would latch onto this concept and launch a campaign arguing that if BT is delivering superfast, then either of these other players are delivering superduperfast. Done well it would be funny, and would degrade the “superfast” tag, which frankly means nothing. If copper champions can devalue the advertising power of “fiber”, surely devaluing “superfast” is fair game?

(Note: I notice that Cityfibre used “ultra-fast” in their announcement, but I still think superduperfast would work better)

The Future of Telephony (or Lack Thereof)

13 Apr


I have long been wondering about the part of Telephony services in the classic triple-play mixes. The cost of offering phone service is still significant, but the interest from end-users is dwindling. Dean Bubley has a very interesting post on this topic with data entitled Past the point of Peak Telephony.

What does this mean from the classic Triple or Quadruple play offerings? It means that the perceived value from end-users is increasingly on the broadband and TV, and even the latter may be dwindling soon as more and more online alternatives emerge.

Isn’t it time a little bit more of the marketing effort went on the access part of the mix ?

Photo Credit: Tim G. Photography

Falling in Love with Stockholm All Over Again

25 Nov


Last week I spent two and a half days in Stockholm, doing interviews and meeting various public officials and private businesses with the aim of updating the White Paper we published in 2013 entitled Stockholm’s Stokab: A Blueprint for Ubiquitous Connectivity. When we published this back then, Smart City issues were just beginning to emerge, and while we did cover a number of broadband enabled initiatives by the City in the report, it simply wasn’t a major focus. One of my goals with these meetings was to assess how that situation had changed in the last few years.

I still need to digest a lot of the information I gathered, and I need to do some follow-up interviews as well, but one thing came across loud and clear in each and every one of these interviews: the Stockholmers get it. The City has recently rewritten its strategic vision document to include ICT in every aspect of its missions, and no matter who you meet in the City government, they understand this at the core of whatever it is they are responsable for.

Actual implementations are still limited when it comes to Smart City applications, but there are a number of pilot programs in place, some of them financed in part by the European Union to design and build (or retrofit) entire districts of the City with “smart” in mind. I was going there believing that despite its infrastructure assets, Stockholm was going to be managed just like every other city out there: with no central governance on ICT related projects.

The more I look into this stuff and the more I’m convinced that the Smart City killer is fragmentation of vision, resources and implementation. Stockholm doesn’t have everything right, they don’t even have everything in place, but they get it, and that vision is shared across the whole city administration and even amongst the population, entrepreneurs and social workers. They are paving the way to do it right. That in itself is impressive. And it’s working already: there are 150k newcomers to Stockholm every year that the city has to accomodate. You don’t get to deal with that kind of expansion without either creating a big urban mess (that’s what I see here in China) or being very very smart.

I have some work to do still to clearly articulate how they’re doing it right, and that will be published in the white paper revision in a couple of months.

But I just wanted to say that I’m falling in love with Stockholm all over again…

Orange opens a Gigabit Testlab in San Francisco

2 Sep

 Capture d’écran 2014-09-02 à 15.55.17

It came to my attention recently that Orange, the French incumbent ISP and a powerful market player in numerous other European and non-European countries had launched a Testlab for Gigabit apps in San Francisco.

It’s an interesting move, one that on paper goes in the right direction although one might argue that it’s coming a little bit late. I’ve been advocating for years that ISPs need to understand how to integrate OSP innovation in their offers, either as an intermediary or simply through exposure. Step one is for said ISPs to be aware of what’s out there as early as possible in the development cycle. A form of externalized innovation.

The lab works very simply by giving start-ups access to gigabit connectivity for free to test their products and services. In exchange Orange, presumably, gets early visibility on interesting or innovative products that require heavy bandwidth to deliver. In fact, the blurb on the GigaStudio website suggests distribution opportunities through Oranges international footprint. In other words, once they identify a promising service, they can help spread it around because they have a critical mass of Gigabit customers already.

Let’s forget for a minute that most likely Orange does not have a critical mass of Gigabit customers (fiber is only deployed en masse in France, and Gigabit isn’t on the menu yet), the focus is on heavy bandwidth apps. Still, the move raises a number of interesting questions.

First and foremost is the following: is a gigabit app an app that requires a gig at the point of production or a gig at the point of delivery ? I would argue the latter, the former being, all things considered, easy to set up in most large cities (provided you can pay). Then what does the lab offer exactly? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to set it up in a city that has gigabit to the home already? Chattanooga, Kansas City, Austin, Wilson NC, etc. Hell, even closer to San Francisco in Brentwood just across the bay, where Sonic is deploying?

Tied to that is a second broader question: why Silicon Valley? Silicon Valley has been the hotbed of startup activities, but actually very few of these are wireline focused. Most of the investment in the last decade has been in mobile services and software, not wired services and/or hardware. That’s not to say there will be no interesting wireline start-ups there ever, but I suspect Orange set up the lab there because they already have a presence in San Francisco rather than go where they might find more interesting and relevant projects. A typical case of looking for your lost watch under the streetlamp even though you lost it elsewhere just because there’s light.

Finally, can Orange really play an intermediary role in distribution? Can they really speed up the ramp for startups to worldwide critical mass? I doubt it, although I’m happy to be convinced otherwise. It would certainly require a massive shift in culture and commercial approach. Not that it would be wrong, quite the contrary. But if I look at a functional example of exposing customers to cool apps instead of developing yourself (albeit at a much smaller scale) I think the guys at Adamo are doing the right thing, embedding a Chromecast into every subscription. It’s (in my opinion) the smart and cheap approach to app exposure, but I can’t imagine Orange doing anything like that…

Still, I’m intrigued, and I might very well try to meet these guys next time I’m in San Francisco…

Net Neutrality Debate à la Française

16 Jan

Over the Seine

Since the recent (and thankfully short lived) decision by Free to block Google’s advertising content for users of their set-top box, the French net (from government to activists) has been abuzz. Even the international tech press has commented on what looks from the outside like an emblematic struggle between an ISP and an OSP (See FastCompany’s French ISP Free Blocks All Web Advertising and the thoroughly researched pre-kerfuffle article on GigaOm YouTube sucks on French ISP Free, and French regulators want to know why).

Government condemnation of Free’s patent net neutrality violation has been mild, to say the least. Fleur Pellerin (French delegate minister in charge of small and medium businesses, innovation and digital economy) did state that Free’s “approach was not acceptable” (Free: Fleur Pellerin demande de mettre fin au blocage de la pub) but that “it is not illegal under French law” (Pellerin : «Free et les éditeurs vont trouver un compromis»). Over the last week-end she even stated that Xavier Niel (Free’s CEO) “asked the right question, a question that needed to be asked” (Blocage de la publicité: Niel a “posé la bonne question”, selon Pellerin).

So it was with some trepidation that I attended a round table at the ministry on Tuesday morning entitled ‘Neutralité de l’Internet’ (Internet Neutrality). A lot of people were in attendance, an interesting mix of greybeards (and future hairy greybeards) and suits. The round table was organised in two sessions with different speakers although to be fair there wasn’t really a clear underlying theme to each. I tweeted extensively, and you can find my tweets here and here. I’m going to try to pull the many threads of the discussions into a coherent whole, using the things I quoted in tweets as anchor points. Forgive me if I don’t fully succeed. One last thing: moderation was excellently handled by tech and economy journalists Solveig Godeluck and Guillaume de Calignon from Les Echos who managed to keep things moving despite too many speakers with too much to say!

The first session started with a somewhat technical explanation by Kave Salamatian of why Net Neutrality was a new issue, the thrust of the argument being essentially that it stems from the Internet’s nature as the first separated delivery network ie. one that isn’t medium specific. Questioned on the academic’s views on what was really happening in the networks, he made an elegant analogy to Plato’s Cave:

Agustin Diaz-Pines from OECD and Vesa Terava from the Electronic Communications Policy Directorate at the European Commission both presented some slides. Diaz-Pines insisted on the inherent efficiency of the current financial (or, as the case may be non-financial) mechanisms underlying internet connectivity while Terava showed the results of a recent Berec study highlighting the extend of throttling on ISP networks in Europe. Neither really offered solutions though (more was expected there from the EC, and the general feeling in the room was that they were yet again stating the obvious: that there are net neutrality violations in Europe…)

Things started heating up a little when French MPs started talking. Laure de la Raudière and Corinne Erhel spoke about the main results of a parliamentary investigation they published on the topic nearly two years ago. It was quite clear from Laure de la Raudière’s arguments that at a political level there’s a mix of very different threads that should (in my opinion) be unraveled for the debate to move forward. This is what I said in the heat of the moment:

I thought MP Christian Paul‘s statements were much sharper in that respect. He started by stating that the dichotomy between managed services and “the rest” was dangerous:

He then addressed the often heard argument of ISPs needing a contribution from OSPs (in France, the polite way of saying it is “a better share of the value accross the value chain”) by asking if we really believed that more revenues in today’s networks would mean more investment in tomorrow’s network:

He didn’t lay it thick on that argument, but considering the French operators’ track record in FTTH so far, it’s certainly a potent argument. Finally he ended his short adlib intervention by stating that the emergency was to legislate on non-discrimination now:

And indeed, this ties back to the minister using the argument that it’s not illegal to absolve Free in one of the above interviews. On that note the first panel came to a close with Corinne Erhel stating the important notion that relationships between players on the internet should not be reduced to the (often contentious) relations between the big guys:

Consensus from the first panel was that non-discrimination was an issue everyone was in agreement on and the sense from the MPs was that the government should legislate on that. The twitter feed (mostly in French), especially during the EC presentation was very much all “enough commissions and studies and reports and hearings, we all agree on this, let’s act”. The second panel was a little more fact oriented, if only for the participation of Benjamin Bayart, the head of FDN a small not for profit French ISP. Bayart is vocal, articulate and seems afraid of nothing. On the same panel was Octava Klaba, the CEO of OVH, the largest French hosting company (and one of the largest in the world). In a sense, while their participation was very welcome, it also highlighted the complete absence of representatives from large ISPs or the large OSPs on either panel. The first real numbers mentioned all morning came from Klaba (whose name I originally misspelt):

One of the things he stated also that I was waiting for someone to express what the piddly little amounts that this whole debate revolves around:

When Yves Le Mouël started talking, we were hoping for some action at last: as a representative of ISPs in France, he’s known for being pretty adamant in defending their positions. I don’t know if he felt cornered (which, to be fair, he probably was, both on the panel and in the audience) but he wasn’t very combative. He tried to explain that the whole discussion was not really about the money

That in itself is interesting since that argument is repeatedly put forward by his members’ representatives. In fact he himself used that same argument a few minutes later stating that ISPs (more specifically network operators) represented 90% of the investment in the sector (and conveniently ommiting to mention how much of the revenue they represented) and as such deserved some solidarity. I wasn’t very convinced by that argument, to say the least:

The way he framed his argument though, probably paves the way for the way the government is framing theirs since a lot of his rhetoric was covered in the Minister’s speech a little later (sorry if I’m getting ahead of myself here). The core concept is that of an ‘economic signal’. When asked to explain exactly what that meant, how that signal was to be sent, to whom and what the results would be, Le Mouël was less than clear. What I could gather is essentially that because most of the peering does not lead to an exchange of actual money, it doesn’t send an inherent economic signal to the parties involved. And that’s wrong. As nebulous as that sounds, it seems to be the latest track that the steam train of legislative reform is on. Or rather regulatory oversight. Indeed, Le Mouël insisted that his members (ISPs) did not want a law, they just wanted to have the ability to appeal to the regulator (which, as I understand it they already can). Of course, he could not end by not stressing (quite subtly) that there’s an “us” vs “them” thing going on here. For full transparency, in the following tweetquote, the stuff in brackets is mine, not his:

In fact, Laure de la Raudière mentioned something about that recourse to the regulator a little earlier, she said:

ARCEP was on the second panel and seemed to take a relatively hands free approach, stating that they believed peering should be the result of commercial negociations and not regulation of legislative action. In a sense, that comment which came towards the end of the panel was a good summary of the panelists position. I’ll come back to what I think that means later, but the contrast with the minister’s speech which followed was striking. In that speech, she outlined again most of the arguments that had already been mentioned, strongly reaffirmed attachment to non-discrimination but argued for a more balanced share of revenues accross the value chain and expressed a (non-specific) need for an “economic signal”. In other words, she built the case for intervention… only to conclude that she would ask a commission to examine the issue. After that, there was a bit of a Q&A which I won’t bore you with, I’ll just quote a couple of statements from the panelists which I thought were both spot on and provocatively framed:



At the Q&A I raised two questions, one about asymetry and one about paid transit. The first one was aimed at Yves Le Mouël. I asked him if his members would be willing to pay the OSPs if the traffic flows reversed in a few years time when symmetrical access became the norm, as seen already in some Nordic countries. He hesitated and answered that his members would address that issue when the time came if it ever came.

My second question was to the minister who has been using the example in several interviews that Dailymotion paid for peering when Youtube didn’t and that wasn’t fair. I asked her if the fact that Dailymotion was the property of Orange might not make their example a little biased. She answered that the fact they were owned by Orange didn’t mean they didn’t peer with Free, SFR and other French players and therefore was neither here nor there. But then Octave Klaba took the microphone and made a statement that really stunned me:

That tells me I need to investigate this, which I’ll do in the next few days. I don’t know which payment the minister is referring to (since none of this is public), or who is right, but I’d sure like to know.

My feeling at the end of the conference was as follows:

I don’t think the ISPs want to push for a law, or even any more interference from the government or the regulator in this matter. I think they’ve been painstakingly building the arguments for government to tolerate known breaches of net neutrality as long as they’re not too visible. Since the OSPs don’t want government intervention (but would support a non-discrimination law) it’s a deadlock. What’s completely polluting the debate is the tax issue. The French government, like other governments in Europe, is mightily pissed off at Facebook, Google, Amazon and others for not paying proper taxes in France through tax evasion. I think they’re right to be pissed off about this. But the ISPs are using that as an argument to justify their misbehaviour: it’s the nice French guys who dutifully pay their taxes vs. the evil American guys who don’t.

That political ire is tainting the debate, and that’s why the government wants to be seen to take it seriously while not acting really (at least that’s my interpretation). The consensus on non-discrimination is there, from all political sides and both greybeards and suits. But there won’t be a law anytime soon. Because in the eyes of the government, the quid pro quo has become: be dutiful tax-paying companies, OSPs, and then we’ll look into it. Of course they’d never admit that that’s how it’s now framed, but I strongly believe it is.

All the rest, “economic signals”, “traffic asymetry”, “network investment”, it’s all window-dressing, aimed at suggesting that there is a legitimate reason to examine all of these issues when in fact it weighs so little in the cost structure of the ISPs that it shouldn’t even be a point of interest for government.

That leaves me a little concerned. On the one hand, I think (I hope) it’s unlikely that the economy of traffic exchange will be affected by any government decision anytime soon. On the other hand, the evident sympathy that Free has garnered with the government by dropping their little bomb a fortnight ago is worrying. That my government – or in fact any government – would think that such an action need not be strongly condemned is a big concern. That they might further think that it’s a good way of framing the argument is even more preoccupying.

More than ever I believe that network neutrality needs to be protected. If it won’t be protected by law, it must be protected by citizens who understand what there is to lose if breaches are tolerated any further.


Photo Credit: Sylvain Courant photographies

The Gigabit Race is On!

5 Jul

DiffractionLogo7big A few weeks ago we had a healthy bit of a debate on gigabit services and their use on fiberevolution. I didn't delve too deep into the debate because I was working on a report on that very topic. The report has now been released, it's called The Gigabit Race is On! and it examines the gigabit experiences around the world, the pricing strategies for gigabit services and the strategic meaning of launching gigabit services.

(Incidentally, I have decided to post about Diffraction Analysis reports here. I think they're infrequent enough that it wouldn't be an issue, but let me know what you think!)

Are we (just) catching up with our past future ?

7 Feb

Good friend and excellent reader Dirk points me (via twitter) to this 1962 advert by Bell Telephone Systems on the Telephone of Tomorrow. Tomorrow back then was of course the year 2000.

1962 videophone paleofuture crop
The full ad is here, and it's quite interesting to me to see that of the three major innovations highlighted, only was has really come to be (mobile telephony). Video-communication and home automation we still seem to be expecting, and it looks like if things stay the way they are, it won't be the likes of the Bell Telephone Systems who will be providing us with these staples of the year 2000…

Hopefully some of these "future" services will be on display in Milan this week at the FTTH Council Europe Annual Conference. Meet me there!

Living in the Cloud…

14 Jan

Fiber CC-18
(CC) Benoît Felten

The last few weeks have been an interesting journey in actually experiencing a number of cloud services first hand. One thing I was determined about going into this new business venture was not to weigh it down with physical assets from the start. A laptop and a mobile phone was really all I needed. I'd been working from my basement (or on the road) for the last 3 years, no reason why that needed to change.

Most days, I'm not actually working from my basement. My partners let me use a free desk in their cool architect house turned offices in Vincennes. That aside, I've been building Diffraction Analysis with the no physical asset philosophy in mind (so far).

The first step was using Google Apps Pro. $40 a year for an email account with your own domain name and a dozen or so apps is a pretty sweet deal. That led to an interesting and unexpected discussion with my partners. In all honesty, I was expecting them to tell me: "Look, we've got an Exchange server, it's paid for, why don't you just let us set you up with an account." Instead, they looked at what I was proposing to do and they said: "OK, you roadtest that for the rest of us. If it works, we'll switch."

So I launched into Google Apps Pro. The only downside was, in order to roadtest for them, I had to use the same devices, and that includes… a blackberry. I didn't think it would be so hard to switch back from an iPhone to a regular phone (and I can't wait for a new employee to join so he can get my BB and I can go back to an iPhone) but more on that another day. I've had no problem with Google Apps.

Actually that's not totally true. The main problem has been that my partners' external IT support resisted the move every bit of the way. They can see the writing on the wall: bye bye exchange servers, license and multiple add-ons, bye bye Blackberry Entreprise Server, licences, maintenance contracts et al. We've had to push, and push hard. But we got there (and now we're looking for a different IT support that embraces this instead of rejecting it).

The second step into the cloud was the website. That may seem more natural but in actual fact most websites – though hosted in the cloud obviously – are designed and built the good ole fashioned way in meatspace. Coincidentally, my partners just released their new website. I have no idea how much it cost to design and how much it costs to host, but I suspect it's a lot more than what I'm paying SquareSpace.

I've gone for the top tier service package at SquareSpace, at a little under $500 a year. Mostly, it's because that will allow me to have a delivery system for our research embedded into the website, a secured extranet for customers if you will, complete with document sorting, search, tagging, etc. It took me probably 1 1/2 day's work (actually night's work, but that's irrelevant) to build the website. Altogether it actually took me longer to think up the structure and write the text than to build the site. 

Now you may (rightly) argue that it isn't very fancy. At this stage it's true: it's sober and functional, which is really all I need right now. But I'm already looking into the possibility once we start bringing money in the door to get a graphic designer to do a custom CSS for us and a developer to build a watermarking module for our research. All that is feasible with the package I have. 

On Monday I showed the near final website to my partners. I think the thing they liked the most was the realisation that I had full control over it and could change anything within minutes. If they want to make any change to their site, like 95% of businesses out there, they're dependant on a third party.

The final foray into the Cloud was prezi. I had designed a powerpoint deck to present the company to a number of potential customers, and there was a static slide in there which was just a matrix of topics. I needed to include that in the webiste one way or another but thought just posting an image of the slide would be horrible. I explored prezi and with about three hours of work and an additional two of tweaking, I had my solution. The cost is actually zero, because I'm using the free version, but I'm considering paying the $59 per year to be able to keep prezi's private and put my logo up instead of theirs.

So, what have I learned? A few interesting things: 

  • In this day and age, virtually all you need to start a service business you can get online. My IT costs altogether will probably be in the area of $2500 fully loaded for the first year in between the laptop, the cloud software and the broadband.
  • The scope of what you can do and the ease with which you can do it (especially with the new GUIs coming up, SquareSpace is a great example) is astounding. Incidentally, I had my mom (she proofread a lot of my content) playing around with Prezi within minutes.
  • Broadband quality matters. By and large, I didn't feel the lag too often (not as often as when I'm filling a Google Apps spreadsheet, for example) but Prezi in particular would occasionally freeze and/or take a good while to load. I have good quality DSL, and I'm not saying it was anywhere near impossible or infuriating to use it, but if these pretty basic functions can feel slow occasionally, we have a good way to go before our broadband will support business grade applications for daily use in the cloud.

More importantly, I've started living in the cloud.

This is how they should sell Fiber

13 Oct

The following is an AT&T advert for the DVR capability of their U-Verse TV service. It's conceptually good and somewhat reminiscent of the topic of the old Pacific Bell adverts I posted a few months back.

Avoiding community or family conflict is a potent driver for acquisition, I think. And when I imagine the terrible experience that four tablet wielding family members will experience, I'm thinking the case for fiber may not be all that far out after all…