Why Internet governance should be left to the engineers

4 Sep

It’s simple, keep the engineers in charge, not governments.

Source: www.washingtonpost.com

If there’s one thing you have to read today it’s this. Larry Downes articulates the uneasy truths of the political side of the Net Neutrality debate much better than I could have, but I wholeheartedly agree with him. 

See on Scoop.itConnected World

Behind the Great Firewall

3 Sep

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I’ve been living in China for close to 4 weeks now. Admittedly not long enough to get a real sense for what it is to live here, especially since my living conditions are not exactly similar to those of your average Chinese citizen, but enough to have faced a number of challenges on the connectivity side that I thought were worth sharing, especially since they cast a different light on some of the debates that are still raging in the west around Net Neutrality and traffic discrimination.

To clarify a number of things up front, I have fiber in my home, or at least what’s advertised as fiber (I suspect it’s FTTB, which is indeed considered fiber in most of the world) with a nominal service of 100 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up. As a foreigner here, I have essentially two issues:

  • the general low quality of any traffic outside of China,
  • the large number of blocked services.

The former is a challenge because most if not all of what I access is not hosted in China. As a consequence, no matter what I’m trying to do, my speed is close to what I’d expect of a slow DSL or even worse. And there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not censorship, at least not openly, but it’s traffic degradation for sure.

The latter is an addressable challenge, at least on paper. I subscribed to a VPN service before I came, and it’s been working fine, mostly, except that by definition the VPN tunnels to a non-Chinese destination (hence crappy bandwidth) and also that it’s regularly targeted by the Chinese authorities, so somewhat unreliable. Sometimes it kicks me out, sometimes it slows to a crawl.

What astonished me was the sheer scale of the stuff that’s forbidden. The most shocking discovery (and with a great impact for me) was to find out that all Google services have been blocked since the doodle on June 4th to commemorate Tienanmen Square. And when I say all, it really is everything: search engine, mail, maps, shared documents, everything. Dropbox is also blocked, for reasons unknown. Every large non-Chinese hosted blog platform (blogger, of course, but also wordpress, tumblr, etc.) is out.

And then there’s the sheer randomness of it all. Some services you can’t access for no apparent reason, others are so slow that you can’t figure out if they’re blocked or just snail-paced. And as I experience this, I wish some of our politicians and media people, those who see net neutrality as the enemy, I wish they’d come here and experience what a radical version of non-neutrality is. Again, I have a VPN service to overcome most of this (at the cost of speed) but most people don’t and/or can’t afford one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that not enshrining net neutrality is the equivalent of doing what the Chinese (or Iranian, or Indian) government does. But I look at the UK’s blocking mechanisms supposed to protect children but really targeting just about any kind of site for arcane reasons that no one can figure out, and I think that what I have here is an extreme version of the same thing.

After years of experiencing a reliable internet, one where you don’t have to wonder before you access content or as you wait for it to load whether it’s actually accessible, being behind the Great Firewall is a humbling experience. You suddenly become aware of things you had forgotten, like the importance of your page loading within a reasonable amount of time.

Etsy last week came out with an impassioned plea for Net Neutrality for that reason alone : the smaller commercial sites will actually lose business (more business) to the large retailers under a net discrimination regime, simply because they won’t be able to afford the cost of bringing down their page load times. Meanwhile, a moronic French representative of rights holders comes out with a speech where he argues that Net Neutrality protects the big guys (meaning Americans) against the little guys (meaning French) and I’m thinking this guy should come here a bit and experience a radical version of what he’s wishing for.

They say you don’t know what you have until you lost it. In the case of an open internet, I’m certainly here to tell you that that’s true.

Photo: The Great Wall of China (CC) lutmans

Orange opens a Gigabit Testlab in San Francisco

2 Sep

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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…

The race for place (passive telecoms infrastructure) is over

11 Jul

Why telecom has been a land grab for exclusive telecoms infrastructure – and why this needs to change.

Source: richardmedcalf.com

I’m not sure that I fully agree about the degrading value of the last mile argument, but I really like the way Richard looks at it, especially in light of considerations on structural separation: an alternative to value going down is keeping the monoploly separated and regulated. A better (in my opinion) way to keep the investment going. 

Keith McMahon left us…

2 Jul

It’s with great sadness that I learned about the passing away of Keith McMahon on Monday. I only met Keith on a couple of occasions, but he was at the top of the analyst game when it comes to meaningful, insightful and no-nonsense analysis. I followed him on twitter and his feed was one of those that rarely failed to make me ponder. He will be sorely missed.

How much money is there in Net Discrimination?

1 Jul

One of the striking realizations of my Analyst career was when I found out that very often companies in the broadband ecosystem defend, or even lobby for positions that they assume to be in their interest for ideological reasons, but without having worked out rationally if indeed they are. I have many an anecdote about crestfallen faces when real numbers are worked out and exposed.

And in fact, this has long informed my own approach to research: the idea is, based (ideally) on hard data or failing that on documented modeling, to assess whether a policy position actually makes sense or delivers what it’s supposed to deliver. This was the genesis of our short report Net Discrimination Won’t Buy You Next-Generation Access (still available, dirt cheap) in which we modeled a top-down revenue share between OSPs and ISPs to figure out the financial impact it would have. Long story short: not a lot, and certainly not enough to shift the lines in terms of network investment (as often argued by ISPs).

Fellow analyst and provocative thinker Dean Bubley has just gone one step further in what I consider to be a groundbreaking piece of analysis entitled Non Neutral Mobile Broadband Business Models. In this report, Dean doesn’t look at the classic arguments for or against net discrimination, he examines in-depth which business models net discrimination would enable and how much revenue they might generate.

You can get a feel for the material that’s in that report through the following presentation he’s made available on Slideshare:

The report is thorough, very well documented and enlightening. A highly recommended read.

Photo (cc) by Tax Credits

One Leg in Europe, One Leg in Asia

20 Jun

The Two Towers

As some of you may have heard on the grapevine already, I am moving to Asia over the summer. More specifically, Shanghai. I am moving for family-related reasons, but I am very excited about the opportunities this move represents for me professionally.

First of all, I should reassure the friends, colleagues and customers in Europe that have been kind enough to trust my company Diffraction Analysis to assist them with their various needs for insight in the last years: we will continue to do so.

I’m not turning my back on Europe, far from it: there are many valuable projects, companies and initiatives here that are examples for the rest of the world and we will keep looking for them, analyzing them and meeting with their representatives. I will personally be traveling back to Europe on a regular basis to connect with customers, prospects, policy makers and more generally anyone in the broadband and telecom ecosystem worth talking to.

I see moving to Asia as an opportunity to broaden our understanding of best in class companies and policies. I think that the Asian NGA story has yet to be told ; I keep hearing partial analysis or misplaced examples that simply aren’t enough to understand how countries that are 10 years ahead of Europe in infrastructure deployment have evolved and what that means for Europe and the US.

So part of the opportunity for me will be in being really close to two key markets, Japan and South Korea that I will strive to understand more thoroughly. Of course, proximity to Hong-Kong, Singapore and Malaysia will also be opportunities for better insight as well. Here are some of the questions that are already on my curiosity list:

  • why is NTT changing its corporate structure now (and only now) and how does it affected the growth of Japanese next-generation broadband (or lack thereof)?
  • how much profit (if any) have the Korean broadband operators made with fiber, and assuming (as its often told in the West) that they didn’t make profit, how much has the rest of the Korean IT economy benefited from highly adopted ultra-fast broadband?
  • is Singapore turning into the footprint for a Smart City built from the ground up, with infrastructure as an enabler as opposed to a constraint? Also, what are the impacts of a three-tier market model (infra, wholesale, retail) on Smart City initiatives?
  • is Malaysia paving the way for emerging market connectivity, demonstrating the value of mass deployed fiber for economic development?

There are many more fascinating stories to be told, around what’s happening in Indonesia, the turmoils of the Australian NBN, and of course the Chinese fiber story itself, and I hope to have the opportunity to tell all of these stories once I’m there.

So if you’ve been following me from Europe or the US, rest assured that it’s not the end of the story by a long stretch: it’s a new chapter, richer in meaningful examples and useful insight. And I’ve you’ve been following me from Asia, please ping me: I’ll be there full-time from August and expect to be fully operational by September.

Some telcos do understand customer service…

16 Jun

It’s refreshing to see that not all telcos are going the way of the phone tree, doing all they can to discourage you from talking to anyone on the phone.

US Cable Reviled by its customers

9 Jun

 

 

It’s hard to believe that profitable businesses would be so detested by their customers, and yet survey after survey shows how US broadband users revile their cable operator. The latest is the subject of an article in the Washington post entitled A Soup of Misery, which shows (amongst other findings) that over half of US Cable customers would switch to another provider if they actually had an alternative.

The amusing thing (or ironic, or sad depending on how you want to look at it) about this is that cable still insists there is competition. If this market was a free market, with satisfaction ratings like that cable would be bankrupt instead of being amongst the most profitable industries in the US.

There’s an added bit of irony for me. A few weeks ago I got into a bit of tiff on twitter debating with Luigi Gambardella, the head of the European Telecom Network Operators’s Association (ETNO). ETNO has been lobbying fiercely for a regulatory model that’s more akin to that of the US, despite overwhelming evidence that that market is dysfunctional and anti-competitive. I naturally took exception to this view (as well as to the preposterous assertion that wherever fiber was being deployed, it was not regulated), and the back and forth went south very quickly (you can read the whole exchange here, assuming it doesn’t get deleted). The point here is that Gambardella’s final stroke was the following:

Needless to say that baffled me…

Anyway, all this to say that looking at the US for a functional model for Europe is not just ridiculous, it’s dangerous…

The Right to be Forgotten

2 Jun

For the last few days I’ve been musing about the recent “right to be forgotten” that has been imposed on Google (and, presumably other search engines, although I haven’t looked at Bing and others in any detail on this issue). Read this good Techcrunch feature if you don’t know what I’m talking about. And then I watched the excellent segment above last night and things started to coalesce.

Needless to say, I think it’s a bad idea. If you are (to take a hypothetical example) a failed Spanish business man who is tired of people finding newspaper articles on your failures, you should turn to said newspapers and ask them to remove the incriminating articles from their online archives, or at least delete your name. The newspapers are the ones who wrote about you. Google changes nothing conceptually from someone finding an article on you in the paper archives of a library. Sure, it’s easier to find information on you via a search engine today than it was twenty years ago, but the search engine is not responsible for the information it links to.

The implementation seems even more ridiculous to me. Quite simply, here it is: I can see three circumstances here where this plays out, and all three are different :

  • first, you post stuff that you regret later. Then it’s your responsibility to remove it. Or it should have been your responsibility to not post it in the first place. Ignorance is a lame excuse in that instance: it’s been said enough that anything posted to the internet is there forever.
  • second, someone (an individual) posts stuff about you that harms your reputation (photos, sex-tapes, illegal recording). Then there are laws to protect you, you should sue their ass and get the content removed by law.
  • third, the (online) press at large writes about you. That’s not a search engine issue, it’s a freedom of the press issue. If it’s defamatory, you sue.

In none of these circumstances is the fact that potentially harmful information about you is available on the internet Google’s responsibility. None.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not about absolving Google on all issues, but on this particular issue, I think this is totally wrong-headed. Ironically, Google is playing this the way they play best: they’re playing dumb. The process to remove things is so manual and so subjective that the results will most likely be disheartening for anyone who wants out of Google.

And, as John Oliver points out in the video above, the Spanish guy who wanted his debts forgotten now is famous worldwide… for his debts.