Friday, April 23, 2010


Probably no posts for the next few days, as I'm Memphis-bound. Hopefully I will have some interesting news to report upon my return.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fiberfete, via coax

Having had my travel plans b(j)orked by the land of fire and ice, last night I tuned into the webcast of the opening session of Fiberfete. You can do the same today here, from 08:30 CDT (14:30 UK/15:30 CET/00:30 HK).

I have to confess that it was bittersweet when the conference kicked off at precisely the moment that UK airspace was reopened, apparently due to a reassessment of jet engine resilience (UK Transport Chaos Minister Lord Adonis this morning made the curious claim that tolerance levels are now 10x what they were previously, but "previously" was a zero tolerance regime as far as I know - this is obviously some New Labour Math beyond my grasp). Or was it really because of the bold move taken by Wee Willie Walsh, or the spectre of a general election? Alas, I digress.

I was really thrilled to see this event come to fruition, and I was very pleased to see that comrade Benoit Felten actually eventually made it Stateside to represent the largely stranded European contingent, though he sadly missed his speaking slot. I assume he will be tweeting day two of the event, as will I.

I was also pleased to see the attendees being accompanied into the conference room by the sound of a swinging jazz quartet (twin fiddles - this is Southern Louisiana afterall - upright bass and guitar) playing "Honeysuckle Rose." It's good to be grounded in the past as a point of departure in considering the future (and the futuristic), so what better than analogue 20th Century music?

This was a theme which continued in David Isenberg's fascinating panel session with City Mayor Joey Durel, Director of Lafayette Utilities System Terry Huval, and Jim Baller. In a refreshing departure from the usual geek focus of fiber discussions, the panel took as its point of departure the historical and cultural aspects of Lafayette which made the development of its fiber network at least likely, if not inevitable, echoing some of the opening remarks which preceded the panel.

The short version is that Lafayette has always been a community of outsiders and mavericks. Mayor Durel pointed out that the first four ethnic groups to settle in the area were all refugees displaced from their previous homes, and this had created early on a tendency towards self-reliance. When electrification began in the late 1890s, no commercial entity viewed Lafayette as worthy of investment, so the city fathers took it upon themselves to make it happen. The utility they created eventually took the strategic and operational decision in the late 1990s to deploy fiber for internal use, but then realized that the cost differential of expanding their deployment from 12 fiber strands to 96 was only 20%, and that the extra capacity would open up option value to be captured at some future date.

That future date is pretty much now, not only in the retail space, but also in the collateral benefits starting to be delivered to the local university and research community, the creative/interactive community, and other knowledge-based enterprises. The founding fathers of the city, who took the decision to self-provision electricity, could not possibly have envisaged how that decision has subsequently developed, but neither is this an accident of history.

Yes, the groundwork was there to build on, but the city's progress to date has been a product of a recognition of common interest between the city government, commerce, educational institutions, and grass roots activists. As Mayor Durel pointed out, one of his motivations as a newly-elected mayor to back the fiber vision was "to keep our kids here," in other words to stem out-migration by the younger generation to places which might offer more obvious opportunities for economic advancement. Such a phenomenon has been the cause of premature death for more than one community.

As a candidate receiving donations from BellSouth during the campaign, this was a bold move, and the city spent more than $4m in legal, consulting and associated fees in defending itself from legal challenges by both the incumbent and cable. Ironically, the more strident the opposition from the duopoly, the greater community awareness became, and at some point, this tipped over into a popular resentment of "outsiders" trying to dictate to the residents what was in their best interest. Mayor Durel stated, "The legal fees were the greatest marketing dollars we ever spent."

My feeling as the first day ended was that this discussion highlighted something which is almost universally overlooked at fiber events, in favor of discussions of technical and topological discussions: what ultimately may dictate success or failure is the local community, its values, history, political development and institutions. All the connectivity in the world will not bring affluence and entrepreneurial vigor to an environment where the cards are stacked against it, or where institutional fragmentation and apathy are overwhelming. (I am reminded here again of my unsettling discussion over lunch with some Japanese telecom consultants three years ago. I was singing the praises of Japan's "fiber miracle" and found my hosts exchanging embarrassed smiles. "The only driver we can see for fiber adoption is cheap voice." I left the exchange thinking that Japan might not necessarily be culturally or institutionally equipped to see an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship simply because fiber is everywhere - a sobering realization to a Fiber Taliban member, as I then was.)

Lafayette has had some obvious advantages by virtue of its history, character, and institutions. These won't be replicable everywhere, but that doesn't guarantee failure for others or rule out alternative approaches elsewhere. Nor does it mean that success is automatic for the relatively advantaged. The key, from what I can tell so far, admittedly as an outsider stranded in London, is that the community had the vision and motivation to capitalise on its advantages, to develop a plan and execute it.

And it seems that, having gotten this far, they are still in the learning and exploration phase when it comes to exactly where this goes from here, but having taken the decision to invest, they now at least have the opportunity to define and influence what option value is created in future - which puts them decades ahead of where I currently sit.

I found the first day to be inspiring and thought-provoking, and while it might sound strange, I am genuinely looking forward to the 9.5 hour webcast today. Special thanks and honorary mention to Lane Fournerat, who fulfilled my wish for multiple points of view/value-added extras by live-streaming the tour of the LITE facility on qik. I believe/hope he may be doing the same today, so check him out.

Lastly, and apologies for closing on a downer, but if I have to name and shame anyone, it's telco professionals around the world. On yesterday's webcast, the highest number of viewers I saw was 27. Yes, twenty-seven. Here we have one of the most interesting case studies I have ever come across, and an event full of collective wisdom and experience which is truly stunning (and free for the taking), and fewer than 30 people, of whom I know at least five, can be bothered to tune in. Bizarre.

Summary soundbite: it's not just fiber of the optical kind, but the fiber of the community and its institutions, which will separate the winners and losers.

Monday, April 19, 2010


I was hugely looking forward to taking part in Fiberfete, where I was due to do some sponsored coverage of the event, but Eyjafjallajökull had other ideas, and my flight this morning was cancelled. The earliest slot I could re-book for was Friday morning, by which time the whole event will be over. David Isenberg has tried in vain for years to get me to one event or another, and on this one the stars aligned beautifully, before dispersing catastrophically.

I will of course enjoy following the event via webcast, but for me the real promise was to meet (in some cases for the first time) others with whom I have been in virtual contact for many years, and of course, to share ideas and experiences. I'm sure there are a lot of other frustrated attendees (also of eComm) who share my sense of disappointment.

I guess if there's any positive spin to this, it's that you probably couldn't find a better illustration of the potential value of fiber than the unprecedented travel chaos we're experiencing in Europe. A single-angle webcast video feed is one way to experience an event which you are unable to attend, but it's a pretty anaemic representation - passive, one-dimensional and unidirectional. With telepresence, virtual collaboration spaces, augmented reality tools, and the ability to toggle between multiple conference tracks and/or points of view, we would be talking about quite a different prospect altogether. As Blondie sang, "Dreaming is free."

Anyway, to all my erstwhile Fiberfete comrades, have a great conference, and have some gumbo for me. Also, if you're attending and have any insights, anecdotes, or other color from the event, please get in touch.

(P.S., I will be giving some coverage to the event via the webcast, both here and on Twitter, where you can follow the backchannel with the hashtag #fiberfete. eComm is also well worth following, if you are capable of multitasking.)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Washed away

While much of the rest of the world has been preoccupied with the sickening spectacle of tech bloggers publicly making love to their iPads, or alternatively dissecting them in search of a bone of St. Peter or some other indication of divine significance, here in the UK we have been witnessing the humiliating travesty of the Digital Economy Bill being pushed through the soon-to-be-dissolved Parliament in a process called "wash-up," which conceptually is perhaps most similar to a drug dealer hastily flushing his gear down a toilet when the jig is up. However, in this case the effluent is poorly drafted legislation, and it will probably have a much more toxic legacy than a bit of waterlogged skag flushed into the Thames.

The bill can be read here, and I'm not going to go through it (mainly because it makes my blood pressure rise to dangerous levels), but eminent cyber-lawyer Lilian Edwards has given a lot of very good coverage to the "process," all of it well-observed, and some of it very impassioned. Apart from the sheer embarrassment of the process itself, a largely anti-democratic shambles with just over 6% of MPs turning up for a crucial second-reading debate, we also had to endure a lot of poorly-informed rhetoric from those who did show. One commenter on Twitter referred to the debate as being like a group of nursery school children discussing quantum mechanics, though there were also some rare examples of well-informed and rational argument against excessive haste and unforeseen consequences.

Mike Butcher has posted a fairly scathing piece, and the Ars Technica coverage is also a good intro for readers outside the UK, where the issue seems to have attracted surprisingly little attention up to now. The TechCrunch piece raises an issue I have been writing about for a long time, namely the fact that a DPI-led arms race initiated by the content industry might have unintended consequences, which will further muddy the waters of legal due process. As one observer on the NANOG list noted succinctly in the wake of the announcement of the Comcast ruling (coming in the same week - can you hear the slapping of high-fives in content land?), "Looks like a good time to get into VPN services."

There is a lot to be disturbed about in this bill, but I am most unsettled about what is, to my mind, a fairly arbitrary and vague stance on what might constitute evidence to substantiate suspicion of involvement in copyright infringement. (If anyone has a clearer idea, please contact me and let me know what I am missing.) This can only be exacerbated by a widespread adoption of encryption, as I envisaged in my post linked above, and which Mike Butcher cites a real-world example of in Sweden. In such a scenario, will it be enough to observe volumes of encrypted traffic flows to infer potential infringement? From a technical standpoint, maybe, but from a legal standpoint this sounds a lot like the "if you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear" mantra so often employed by totalitarian regimes. My guess is that if we do see a spike in adoption of such services in the UK, it may be precisely because people have nothing to hide and thus resent being snooped on, something which has always gone on, but which they may now be more sensitized to as a result of this asinine legislation.

One huge problem in all of this, and one which the blinkered supporters of this bill seem to be blissfully ignorant of, is that many of the same tools which they associate with "piracy" (if, indeed their understanding even extends to the word "tools") are also in "legitimate" use by those in the creative industries, whom the proponents of this bill expressly claim to protect. Twitter prankster @record_industry perhaps nailed the real intent of the phrase "creative industries" with this tweet: "To clarify: when the bill says 'protect artists,' we mean REAL artists. Not you shitty amateur ones." I suspect there is more truth in this than politicians would like to admit. Nevertheless, I fear that there is a huge number of "creatives" who rely on the internet for their livelihood who might find themselves on the wrong end of the enforcement regime suggested by this bill.

Here's a personal case in point. My friend and sometimes band mate, Linda Heck, is working on a recording project in Memphis and Nashville. She very kindly asked me to contribute guitar and vocals to four tracks on the project. My friend and neighbor, Paul, has a studio in his home in South London, which he has previously used only to record his own band, and I decided to record my parts there. As it happens, I am going to the States in two weeks' time, so I will hand-deliver the discs containing my contributions. However, Paul and I could just as easily have ended up uploading the files to a secure FTP site, from which Linda and her producer could have then downloaded across the Atlantic.

Now, these files are WAV audio files, uncompressed, so a single guitar part for a single song can be 15 - 50MB, and there are a lot of them. Just for my contribution to four songs, the total payload came in at over 600MB, so roughly equivalent to 10 albums in mp3 format, or perhaps a feature-length film in standard or sub-standard resolution. Hypothetically, let's say that Paul becomes popular as a producer, and ends up getting involved in several other similar projects, wherein several times a week he is uploading and downloading several gigabytes of media files to a secure FTP site. Well, to those connected with the project, it's just an ordinary part of the production process, but to a telco acting under duress as secret policeman of "content kleptomaniacs," it will probably be flagged as suspicious activity. And to the paranoid, intellectually bereft elements of the content industry which endorse these Orwellian tactics as a diversion from their glaring lack of imagination, it will almost certainly be enough for poor Paul to end up on a blacklist of some sort. After all, what possible reason could someone have for uploading big content files to a secure FTP site besides infringement? It couldn't be independent music, it must be episodes of "Glee."

This is only one example, but one I fear may end up being a textbook case in future if this idiocy is allowed to continue. I also know a lot of other "Pauls" in video production, photography, software and other industries where shipping and receiving large amounts of sensitive, proprietary data, often in encrypted form, from a home broadband connection to secure online storage is a normal and essential part of business. Without highly invasive inspection of the actual files (think strip-search) to show that they are not infringing, the industry may simply assume that volume of this sort, either encrypted or to/from secure sites, or both, is suspicious at least, and deserving of escalation through the "process." (Not to mention users, including me, of services like Jungle Disk.)

Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the Crusaders Against Content Kleptomania (CACK) will develop a rational, scientific and defensible approach which won't throw up false positives on spurious evidence, and impose costs and economic damage on innocent individuals - "creatives" even. I hope so, but I don't find history to be encouraging, and I think it's embarrassingly clear that most of the politicians involved with this shit-show don't have a clue of what they might be unleashing. Anytime you wield a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you risk smashing someone's fingers in the process, possibly your own.

Not your average Guy

I was saddened to hear today of the passing of Guy Kewney. I didn't really know him - we ran into each other at conferences over the years and had brief chats, and he called me occasionally with bits of gossip or to ask for a quote or input on a story. He was, however, a big influence, in the sense that he was one of the first European tech journalists I read online whom I actually found informative and entertaining. I have always had a lot of affection for him because he was among the first to link to this humble bloglet in its early days and raise the possibility that some of what I had to say might have been worthwhile. And, though he was most unhappy with the event, he also inadvertently provided one of the most ludicrously embarrassing moments in the history of the BBC, just by being who he was (or wasn't). Those who knew his work will remember him for so much more. Thanks, Guy, and rest in peace.