by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume VI, No. VII
For the Week of February 18, 2001

This Week's Clue: Marconi's Revenge

Guglielmo Marconi's first trans-Atlantic radio message was sent from Cornwall to Newfoundland about 100 years ago . It was a data signal.

It took 20 years of work (and Lee DeForest's Audion ) to start the "radio business," as returns from the 1920 election were broadcast from Pittsburgh. . Radio became a successful invention, although not as Marconi envisioned it. 

Yet data radios didn't disappear, and they're about to change the world again.

Marconi's era was one of amateurs sticking up antennas willy-nilly, bound only by concerns for ship safety . We're suddenly in another such era. 

Dave Hughes , who has been working in "wireless broadband" for over 15 years now, says there are over 7,000 wireless ISPs (WISPs) today, and more all the time, most of them using 802.11b (a standard designed for Local Area Networks) to share bandwidth in small territories using frequencies at around 2.4 Ghz. Every year their equipment gets better and cheaper, because wireless radios, based on microprocessors, are subject to Moore's Law. 

WISPs (neat acronym) are also taking advantage of spread spectrum technology created by (believe it or not) Hollywood screen siren Hedy Lamarr . The technology was released for civilian use in the mid-80s (long after Lamarr's patent expired) and is best-known as being the heart of Qualcomm's CDMA digital cellular system. 

Most WISPs are tiny, amateur operations, but some (like InterLink in Keokuk, Iowa ) are already successful businesses, delivering broadband to markets DSL and cable can't (or won't) go. They all operate in small, "unlicensed" frequency bands

Imagine what WISPs could do, Hughes says, if Washington weren't fighting so hard to limit their reach.

Start with the radios. FCC regulations won't let you build a data radio stronger than 1 watt, and most deliver a fraction of the power. (This limits how far their signals can travel.) The law also requires proprietary connectors, which increase costs, and even "compatible" radios from different manufacturers really aren't, creating engineering headaches. A "pig-tail" connector on the back of many data radios lets you technically connect an antenna to them that greatly increases their range (especially when the antenna has its own amplifier, which is usually the case) but technically that's illegal.

The FCC regulations keep rural areas from getting broadband, Hughes says, and his own experiments for the National Science Foundation are demonstrating just how powerful a force wireless data might be. 

Hughes is especially upset about the power limits, which greatly hamper efforts to bring broadband to rural areas. But the incompatibilities and the limited frequency ranges seem designed mainly to maintain ILEC and cable monopolies, and the WISPs have no effective voice in Washington. (Hughes goes there himself, but admits he's a bit, shall we say, impolitic.) 

When Dave Hughes isn't angry with Washington, he's furious with the ILECs. Despite the huge capacity of fiber they still sell bandwidth with an eye-dropper, in the form of T-1 lines designed to power-up copper wires at 1.544 Mbps. 

Qwest, a fiber backbone provider which bought ILEC US West in 1999 , is a great example of the dilemma. The company's stock price is tanking because there's a huge (growing) glut of fiber capacity. Yet the ILEC still prices retail bandwidth based on the costs of maintaining copper, guaranteeing that capacity won't be filled. 

This has forced Hughes into some strange dances in order to maintain his own service in Old Colorado City, Colorado (http://www.oldcolo.com). He ran a radio signal into one backbone ISP, then saw Qwest buy that ISP, move the office and force him into a one-year contract for T-1 bandwidth (at around $2,000 per month). So he ran some new radios to another backbone provider and, when the contract ended, went back to getting "free" uplinks. 

If Hughes' story proves anything it is that in the market battle to fill fiber, copper is the weakest link. A small army of hobbyists and entrepreneurs are now working to reach fiber directly from limited (and sometimes kludged) wireless networks. Expect the ILECs to demand protection from regulators, claiming their survival (and thus universal service) is at stake. But their victory would be pyrrhic. Their technology is the past, their economic models don't work. 

Marconi's Revenge is that his technology, used for its original purpose, can tie directly to Moore's Law and deliver the universal access to broadband that Bell's creation can't. Somewhere up in heaven, I suspect, Guglielmo is buying Hedy a drink. 

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You may have noticed that I've increased my coverage of 802.11 and wireless broadband technology lately. It's the coming thing. The markets for e-commerce, e-advertising and e-content won't boom again until we get massive acceptance of broadband. Wireless technologies offer the promise of cheap, universal (indoors and outdoor) broadband, with huge implications for every technology market. So you'll see more of this from me in the future - a lot more.

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This month I opened a new market for my articles with Ray Fix of Wildwood Marketing. The first one appeared here . More exciting deals are on the way. You can join the A-Clue.Com discussion at I-Strategy , our shared e-mail digest produced with Adventive.Com. You can also read me at ClickZ , BtoB , and Boardwatch . I'm also on the mast-head at Bottom Line Personal , a great print newsletter.

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Takes on the News

The Frequency Scam

There's a bigger scandal than Enron out there. Like Enron it's bi-partisan. Unlike Enron, the beneficiaries were the taxpayers.

I'm talking here of the last decade's frequency auctions . They were meant to help make-up for the huge deficits of Bush I. They did bring in billions of dollars. They were held because the "alternative," a public interest test for granting frequencies (used for the original TV and radio channels) was prone to corruption. (Public interest is in the eye of the beholder.)

Yet the auctions were scandals nonetheless. (Mistakes were made.) First, they were a false choice. It wasn't either auction or giveaway. A third alternative, non-exclusivity, policed for non-interference, was already available, and was granted in the 1990s for things like garage door openers. Second, the allocations defined services, most of which turned out to be non-economic to launch. Third (and perhaps most important) those fees turned into a tax that had to be imposed, by large companies, on individual users.

So while the MMDS frequencies originally sold for wireless cable lie unused by their new owners (who claimed they were going into fixed wireless), and most 3G networks will never be built, entrepreneurs are turning the "amateur" bands used for 802.11 service into valuable, worthwhile industries. Wireless broadband is a reality in most of the U.S., today, created not from the top-down but from the bottom-up.

Yet this new market, the most exciting thing to hit the Internet since the Web, is threatened by the unfairness of it all. Why did we have to pay, the big telcos will now argue, while these small fish bring in big bucks and pay nothing?

Why, indeed? As one Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) wrote to the ISP Wireless list recently, when the subject of "being a carrier" came up, fighting regulation is a two-front war. "One with the customer, and one with those that WILL try to step in and control our enterprise, and therefore our destiny. Both wars can be won if we are aware they're being waged and are fully prepared as individuals, and as an industry, to wage them from every side."

Fine words, but the use of frequencies is regulated. WISPs are under the control of the government, which can put them all out of business at a stroke. A more imaginative stance is called for.

That stance is simply to have the government give back its ill-gotten booty. Buy back the MMDS (wireless cable) frequencies, at cost. Buy back the 3G licenses, at cost. The telcos need the money desperately to avoid bankruptcies caused by their mergers and fiber cable borrowing anyway.

Then place these newly-acquired frequencies in the same category as those used by WISPs. They're freely-available, so long as signals don't interfere, and the government will step in only when the parties to interference won't come to an agreement. Instead of being a cop, in other words, the FCC will become a court.

All this will cost the taxpayers billions of dollars. But if the Administration was willing to spent billions on economic stimulus a few months ago, it should be just as willing now. Consider how much of a boost a move to free new 802.11 frequencies will give to the economy. Broadband for everyone, right now, no waiting. Do it yourself, or have someone else do it for you. Run at multi-megabit speeds, directly from Ethernet to Internet standards - from your desk, your lap, or your palm. Then imagine the taxes from all the profits to be generated from letting a million telcos bloom.

If WISPs don't push for such a program, be assured the telcos will push back. They'll crowd into the frequencies now used for 802.11 - all of them. They'll demand licenses from all WISPs, with usurious fees. They'll get them, too, because they have the power in Washington.

But a buy-out would mean true deregulation. It would get the telcos off the entrepreneurs' backs, it would provide enormous stimulus, and if the Administration wants to blame the Clinton Administration for a "scandal" in arranging the original sales, well that's politics and let 'em have fun. The rest of us have businesses to run.

Efforts to Solomonize the Web

Courts have a tough time with the Web. Take two recent decisions as examples.

First is Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp. (now called Ditto.Com), case number 00-5521 . It was decided last week by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California. While photographer Leslie Kelly spun this as a win , in fact the court allowed search engines to keep showing thumbnails of images in their databases, without payment. The only limitation is on full-size images, whose links can't be framed.

"While it was necessary to provide whole images to suit Arriba's purpose of giving users access to the full-sized images without having to go to another site, such a purpose is not legitimate," Judge Thomas Nelson wrote. The 9th Circuit sent the case back to the district court to determine damages and decide if an injunction is necessary.

While on its face, the decision seems fair, it could have the unintended side effect of making the caching of Web pages illegal. By their nature must be stored away from the site being cached. The work of archive.org and Google's cache would be ended, with huge losses to history, if Kelly decided to sue because old copies of his pages were cached. Forcing the issue, however, would be foolish. Kelly is now known online only through this suit, not the fine pictures of California's gold rush country he made his living creating. The guides hardly sell at all and Kelly's images have been eliminated from Google's searches, even in thumbnail form. The suit, in other words, has been professional suicide.

That's not the case with Playboy Enterprises vs. Terri Welles , another 9th Circuit decision won by the former Playmate of the Year. Since she'd made a career on the honor, the court held, she could use the word in advertising her (ahem) "wares" through metatags, in competition with the magazine. The impact is minimal because I'm certain newer contracts between models and the magazine include language granting Playboy back its "playmate" title. And the decision doesn't let Welles pass on the title to other women who work for her. She's also, like Hugh Hefner, not getting any younger.

Half the Story

A recent "Business Week" feature on the Global Crossing bankruptcy got about half the story right.

It's true that "upstarts" (a favorite "Business Week" expression) who built fiber runs will be hammered by the "lack" of demand for back-haul services. ("Business Week" doesn't explain this is based in large measure on the impact of "Moore's Law" on fiber capacity but we'll let that slide.) But the magazine goes on to predict this will benefit AT&T, Worldcom and Sprint, since they're so big and thus "It's not like these companies will disappear."

Enron was pretty big, too. The long distance business Bells are grabbing as a lifeline is declining in value, in the face of wireless competition. The Bell networks themselves can be bypassed by 802.11. Global Crossing's new owners, the Chinese and Singaporeans, will be able to engage in a new price war since they didn't pay cost (they didn't pay doodly-squat, frankly) for the lines.

What's really happening is that the U.S. is in the process of losing its biggest asset, its dominance of the telecom sector. No balance sheet can stand the pain that's coming, and unless there are new American investors to take the place of Worldcom and Qwest, those assets too will go overseas. If the "axis of evil" is really clever, it will seek to buy fiber in bankruptcy.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is the prediction from Analysis, a British market researcher, that half of us will have 802.11 by 2007 and become a $3 billion market. If anything, the analysis here is pessimistic.

Clueless is anyone who thinks British Telecom , the world's stupidest telecom, has a chance in hell of winning its suit claiming patent rights to linking .

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