Friday, October 28, 2011

Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters but FTTP

That's an appalling musical reference, but sadly it's the only tie-in I can think of to announce that I will be presenting at the FTTH Forum in Budapest on 9th November. (Edit: Okay, it's Friday at the end of a long week, and I conflated "Hungarian Rhapsody" with "Bohemian Rhapsody." My bad. In retrospect, perhaps I should have tried to invoke Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna.") My talk will broadly cover some of the points I raised here, but I'll mainly focus on CityFibre's strategy around a holistic view of fibre across an entire community, with buy-in from local government as the key bedrock upon which other developments rest. Our recent project in York is a compelling example of how this can work to create tremendous optionality for all stakeholders.

I'll also be speaking at the NextGen conference in Bristol on 15th November, covering broadly the same ground, but also revisiting some of the themes I covered in my previous NextGen appearance in Manchester two years ago (slides). As I tried to stress then, I expect there may be a large gap between the perceived value of fibre today (i.e., the tiresome "it's a better triple play") versus the "option value" of fibre as an enabler of applications and services we haven't even dreamt of yet.

As I've stated numerous times over the years, the flaw in the current structure of the "telecom industry" is that conventional telcos, as constituted today, will find it impossible to capture the benefits of those developments in a way which translates directly into "shareholder value." As such, they have limited incentive to invest in enabling the benefits of such innovation across an entire community. Ergo, I would argue that a strategy focused on "stakeholder value" is the appropriate framework for moving forward. Call it "A Unified Theory of Fibre."

If you're planning on being at either event, by all means stop by and say hello.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Joining the Rainbow Revolution

In a recent post, I alluded vaguely to my involvement in activities which aim to speed the delivery of fiber access in a couple of countries. One of those is the UK, where I am happy to say that over the past two months I have become a foot soldier in what I am tempted to call the UK's Rainbow Revolution.

Beyond the most obvious evocation of the visible light spectrum as conveyed by optical fiber, the name also highlights the sad truth that many in the country have long been dreaming, mostly in vain, of a place, somewhere over the rainbow, where we someday find ourselves with broadband infrastructure which is something more than "just good enough."

Most pertinently, I like the name because, just as the rainbow is a spectrum of different colors, each with its own character and place in the broader palette, what I see taking shape in the UK fiber market (at long last) is a range of players, all broadly in pursuit of the same goals, but operating in very different parts of the spectrum.

For my own part, I am now devoting pretty much all my time to corporate development work with CityFibre Holdings. The term "corporate development" is probably overly vague to most people, but my role involves a number of aspects, including business and commercial strategy, service provider relations, vendor relations, financial market relations, as well as collaboration with pretty much every part of the business. It is fascinating and enjoyable, and Greg and Mark have assembled a team and investor group which is a genuine pleasure to work with. We are currently in the middle of a re-branding process, but suffice it to say that we will be much more visible in the coming months as we unveil our plans.

In the course of analyzing the market and how it is (finally) changing, I have been fortunate to come into contact with some of the other emerging players in the space. I have met Boris and Dana from Hyperoptic, who are hugely impressive and have a really interesting business model for deploying fiber in high-density MDUs, which I guess I would describe as "hyper-local." At the other end of the rural-urban spectrum is Matthew Hare and his equally impressive, equally hyper-local Gigaclear. I think both of these companies are very well-placed to succeed in their respective market segments. What has surprised me in studying their approaches, and it speaks volumes about the early state of development of the UK market, is that there are no visible competitors to them in their chosen niches.

And just this morning, we see the arrival of a new entity to the market, BroadwayPartners. Led by the tireless and talented Adrian Wooster and supported by an equally-talented team (each of whom I have met in various contexts), it looks to me, as a total outsider, as though they are harnessing the network of interest built around INCA's important demand aggregation efforts to a corporate structure which can plan, finance and implement projects in conjunction with local (presumably rural) communities. Based on my observations, this is a critical element which has been missing at the local level, and I think the market can only benefit from the arrival of such an entity.

I am also keen to learn more about their plans for a national investment fund. This is the sort of development I have discussed with people in a number of countries, but so far this concept has remained just that, with one notable exception. I'm more than pleased to see someone rising to the challenge in the UK, and this alone is a pretty good measure of how things are changing. The gauntlet is now being laid at the feet of the investment community, and I think the opportunity is huge.

INCA's Malcolm Corbett has a graphic he uses in presentations, which we have appropriated (with his blessing) for our own slide deck, which shows a "fund-raising thermometer" of the kind you might see on the wall of a church or in the hall of a school, to track progress towards a funding goal. Taking the "worst case" (which I think might still be on the optimistic side) from Analysys-Mason's work on behalf of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, and mapping this against the total of investment publicly "committed" by BT, Fujitsu and BDUK, we only have visibility on perhaps 1/6 of the capital required to take us "over the rainbow."

To quote the Chancellor of the Exchequer (as inspired by "High School Musical," apparently), "We're all in this together." BT's balance sheet can't carry the entire project. Virgin Media is 3.7x levered on an LQA basis, suggesting it will remain constrained, at least in terms of major infrastructure projects such as required here. There is a yawning funding gap to be bridged, and the only response I can see, apart from giving up and resigning ourselves and our descendants to inferior infrastructure, is for the investment community and the talented people capable of successfully deploying infrastructure to get busy and get on with realizing this opportunity.

Which is what I finally, after years of frustration, see happening around me and in my own working life.

None of this is to denigrate or ignore in any way the early efforts of local entrepreneurs, activists and visionaries across the country. To the contrary, in my view, it is only pressure from the edge which promotes awareness of the opportunity and catalyses broader action. So, thanks to all of you. I've seen many false dawns in my long involvement in telecom, but this feels like something new and positive. I'm tempted to say that the train is ready for departure.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bad telecom metaphors in religious propaganda, part 1


From what I remember of my early years Sunday School experience, I think they really mean "upload," surely. But my burning questions are: is there traffic shaping or throttling involved, what's my SLA in the event of a network outage, and does the Almighty's Skynet operate at the same frustratingly slow speeds and high levels of asymmetry that we suffer down here on Earth? If not, maybe He can help us sort out our broadband infrastructure problems.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


In the age of the ubiquitous cameraphone, there is a lot of nonsense and noise, but sometimes even fairly mundane situations provide us with priceless opportunities to document profound unintended irony. Close examination of the placard below the larger picture shows that the text states "Orange fire evacuation procedure for meeting rooms." This made my day.

Unfortunate coincidence - placard below reads "Orange fire evacuation procedure for meeting rooms"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fiber envy

Hats off to friend and colleague Herman Wagter (and Dirk van der Woude, who makes a cameo appearance via video conference link) for this recent appearance on PBS' "Need to Know" program. I couldn't agree more with the views he expresses here. It's a powerful measure of the sense of frustration experienced by broadband consumers in the US that PBS would see a case for viewing the UK as a success story based on more competition and lower prices, while, conversely, many I know in the UK would gladly pay more for a better product. You get what you invest in.

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Welcome to the gig time

Enfant terrible HKBN's press release today heralding 10,000 users of its 1Gbps service started me riffing on "catchy" marketing tag lines for a one gig service:

"Think gig"
"Gagging for a gig"
"Go to work on a gig"
"Gigs might fly"
"Welcome to the gig time"
"The gig chill"
"The gig bang"
"The Gig Society"

Feel free to join in...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What ever happened to...?

My friend and eComm founder, Lee Dryburgh, recently made a very brave post, in which he sought to explain the personal background to his recent relative inactivity. It makes for tough reading, and it's not the sort of thing many people would be comfortable publishing into the wide world, but Lee's no ordinary guy, and I admire him tremendously for writing it.

It made me think that perhaps I should also attempt to explain my neglect of this blog and its (probably) declining, but loyal, readership. It's not that I don't love you all - it's just that life has been challenging over the past three years.

In summer 2008, my seemingly promising career was disrupted by the unravelling of Merrill Lynch. My role in the PCG principal investing unit was all about developing new investment opportunities, but with c.$10bn in (mostly) illiquid assets across its various principal investing groups, the Thundering Herd was obviously going to be in run-off mode (things obviously got much worse from there), so onto the street I went. At the time, I put a brave face on it, saying that I needed "THE job," not "A job."

This was a nice sentiment, but hugely overly optimistic, as I soon discovered through spending nearly two years engaged in an effort to launch a new fund. When we began, it seemed unthinkable that investors would not be falling over one another to back such a high-quality team, but for whatever reason, we struggled terribly. In retrospect, I should have left at the end of 2009, when the cash burn was still just about bearable, but I believed in the people and the proposition. Most of all, I believed I was doing the best thing to secure my family's financial situation in the long run - after all, I was a founding partner in a fund which was bound for greatness, right? Ultimately, as the launch date approached, it became clear that the economics were not going to be anything like what I had assumed. After two years of cash burn, rather than committing to something punitive which would have made me unhappy from day one, I decided to walk away. This was an extremely difficult choice to take, and it was an embittering experience, but I determined that I would be better off taking my chances alone.

During all this process, my marriage collapsed in August 2009, with all the pain, regret, disruption and stress unavoidable in such a situation, especially where young children are involved. I moved out, we sold our home, all very devastating stuff. As these things go, I think it has worked out about as well as one could hope, but it's been extremely tough for everyone, and one can never be absolutely sure whether the course taken was really the best one. I guess our kids will give us some idea when they're much older.

Beyond the emotional trials of all the above, it has genuinely been financially devastating. I had to laugh a couple of years back, when Andy Abramson referred to me in a post as "Mr. Money," or something along those lines. "If they only knew." Without the support of family and friends along the way, I'm not at all sure where I would be today. This kind of crisis also allows one to separate true friends from those who fall into other categories. Unsurprisingly, I now consider myself to have far fewer friends.

So, leaving the fund in December last year, I had to confront the lack of a Plan A, and began having interviews with various parts of the financial world. Unfortunately, these have largely consisted of time-wasters and boneheads: a team looking to recruit a TMT specialist with a lot of experience, who ultimately determined that my focus would be "too narrow," an accusation I have never encountered before (typically, it's just the opposite); an aggressive Etonian hedge fund analyst who laughingly dismissed credit analysis as an irrelevant exercise for equities analysts; the inevitable stupid questions about whether or not I still have a "franchise" as an equities analyst. Maybe my CV is just too odd, or maybe I'm too experienced, but so far there have been no obvious routes back into the finance arena.

Hard as these years have been, I wouldn't want to give the impression that I view them as a lost cause. Many valuable lessons have been learned. I've rediscovered some interests I had neglected previously. I have played a significant part in the recording of what I think is a truly great album. I have reunited with old friends to play music live. I have realized a long-held plan to create a purely personal blog with a focus on music and associated recollections. I have learned a lot about myself and human nature. My children have grown beautifully. The sun is shining today, and I am still alive.

Fortunately, my advisory/consulting activities have also heated up since the start of the year, and I'm involved in some really interesting projects, all around bringing fiber to market faster in countries where it has been woefully underdeveloped to date. Hopefully, I will be able to write about some of these explicitly in the future, but for now I can't really share any details. As we approach the third anniversary of life derailment, things feel as though they're finally starting to turn around.

So that's it in a nutshell. I often haven't felt like updating this blog, have been otherwise distracted, or have had something interesting to write about which I couldn't write for commercial reasons. I will work to rectify this situation, but probably only when I feel there is something genuinely interesting to say. There is far too much noise in the world, and not enough meaning.

Finally, so this doesn't end up as a purely self-indulgent exercise, have a look (if you haven't already seen it) at the announcement by KPN of its acquisition of cable company Caiway earlier this week. This is another typically market-leading step by the Dutch in the development of alternative approaches for funding fiber infrastructure: KPN commits to open-access as a network opco, but the passive network assets remain in the hands of the Common Infrastructure Fund. Thus, the long-term money aligns itself with assets whose return horizons match its own obligations, and strips out the service provision layer and customer relationships. KPN immediately gets access to incremental infrastructure without having to build or own it. Mark my words, in the long march to a fiber future, we are going to see much more of this. I just wish there were more infrastructure investors with the vision which CIF seems to possess.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who said there ain't no free?

On the off chance that you haven't seen this mentioned elsewhere, drop whatever it is you're doing and head over to the Diffraction Analysis site to claim your free copy of "A World of Fiber," penned by my friend and associate Benoit Felten, a.k.a. "The Godfiber." Hurry while supplies last!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Wednesday wondering

I know there are a lot of sell-side analysts, buy-side analysts, fund managers, industry analysts, consultants, IR and PR people who read this humble bloglet, and I would like to ask for your valued feedback on a question. Across the broad TMT supersector in Europe, which companies do you think have the best IR/PR/analyst relations functions, and why? Conversely, which have the worst, and why? I value your views and guarantee complete confidentiality. So, hollah at me!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Monday ramblings

I've got plans for a couple of more substantive posts, but until those materialize, I may content myself with sporadic and short, quasi-Tweet output.

If you're a European interested in broadband, and you want to depress yourself beyond what you might normally expect from a Monday in January, then check out the latest update to the reliably humbling Akamai State of the Internet Report, just out today (registration required). If you consult the ranking of the world's 100 fastest cities by average connection speed on page 12, you'll see that you have to read down to number 48 before finding a non-Asian name, and even then it's a Romanian city. (I'm curious to see Hong Kong listed as number 46, with an average speed of 8.9Mbps. Given that fiber purist City Telecom has c.25% of the broadband market, and fiber offerings from competitors in the market are of similar scale (combined), this seems to imply that the DSL and cable customers in the market are getting pretty dismal throughput.) Also of interest will be the mobile statistics on pages 28 - 29, particularly the observation that just over one-third of mobile networks monitored saw content consumption double YoY in Q3 2010.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The United Colors of Diffraction Analysis

If there's one thing of significance that I can point to about this humble bloglet, it's that, once upon a time, it was a relatively ground-breaking thing, and as such, it apparently inspired others to launch their own. Or, at least, so I am told by some of those who did.

I remember an email exchange, I think on a Friday, with Benoit Felten, in which I urged him to start his own blog, and sure enough, the following Monday, Fiberevolution was born. Prior to this, he and I had been in touch for a number of years, kicking all-things-fiber back and forth via email, and he provided me with a number of insights which ended up in the pages of this blog. So, for me Fiberevolution was, in fact, a very natural evolution whereby Benoit emerged to meet the gaze of the public eye. His success in building the site into a trusted and credible brand within the industry has been little short of stunning.

One inherent trait of evolution is that it is perpetual, never-ending. As you may have heard already, Benoit has now taken his evolutionary journey to the next stage, establishing his own business dedicated to NGA research and consulting, Diffraction Analysis. I'm excited for him, as a friend and a respected colleague, and I have no doubt that it is destined for great things.

I'm also hugely gratified that he has chosen me to be an associate in this effort, alongside two other people I hold in very high regard, Herman Wagter and Costas Troulos. Thus, we start life as an Anglo-American/Dutch/French/Greek mash-up, with equally disparate backgrounds and areas of interest, but all unified under our shared interest in the fiber access (r)evolution and all the change that it may engender.

We'll all be at the FTTH Council event in Milan, and I'll hope to see you there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday morning levity

I've posted both of these to Facebook previously, and no doubt some of you will have seen them before, but it's approaching 11:00 AM on Monday morning, so I reckon you could probably use a harmless laugh or two by now.

First, Steve Mobs of Mapple, addressing the faithful:

Secondly, Ronnie Corbett, from his Christmas special, with Harry Enfield standing in for the late Ronnie Barker:

Sunday, January 09, 2011

7:35 of sanity on "Mad Money"

I have followed the City Telecom story with a great deal of interest for many years, and have been fortunate to get to know NiQ Lai and to visit the company to see how it works. So I was pleased to stumble across this interview with Jim Cramer from late last year, following the release of the company's 2010 results - in which it blew the lights out. Cramer is a bit confused at a couple of points, but NiQ handles him graciously and is given the space to make his case very well. No sci-fi bullshit, no delusions of content-aggregation grandeur. Rather, an overtly stated love of over-the-top services, and an admission that offering the "fattest, dumbest pipe in town" is "kinda boring, but profitable." By the end of this year the company will end a decade-long build-out in Hong Kong, which appears ingenious in retrospect, but at the time it commenced, was well wide of industry consensus, and considered a suicidal act by some. The stock is nearly a "ten-bagger" over five years. Yet more proof, if it were needed, that consensus is often wrong.