Exploring the impact of broadband and technology on our lives, our businesses, and our communities.

Area codes and VoIP

An article in today's Wall Street Journal (B1) discusses the growing trend, mostly among businesses, to take advantage of ability of VoIP to offer a choice of area codes. Area codes like 212 and 415 (New York and San Francisco) are very popular.

Some businesses are doing it to take advantage of the having a prestige area code. That's of limited value over the long term; as more businesses do it, your area code will have less and less meaning. But another reason some businesses are doing it is to give their customers a local phone number. If you had significant business in the San Francisco area, it is just good business to give customers a local phone number to call for service and sales.

Over the long term, area codes will become less and less meaningful as VoIP spreads and phone numbers become truly portable. What's even more likely is that phone numbers will disappear completely; VoIP actually maps phone numbers to an IP address, meaning that the phone number is just an extra and unnecessary step. Over time, IP addresses will be used instead of phone numbers.

Technology News:

The dangers of monoculture software

The U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) issued an advisory last week warning about a major bug in Internet Explorer that allows remote Web sites to get access to your computer under certain circumstances. CERT has recommended switching to another browser, like the excellent Open Source (free) FireFox.

Apparently, many organizations and companies are not able to do so because they have built their Web sites to work only with Internet Explorer. Microsoft has encouraged this by building non-standard features into IE that offer some advantages to lazy developers who don't want to bother testing their Web applications with multiple browsers. Microsoft gambled that using their monopoly power to drive other browsers out of existence would give them even more control. It would have worked if they had been diligent about testing their own products for bugs and loopholes.

Unfortunately, it is almost a full time job to keep up with Microsoft-related security advisories on their various Web products; the MS web server, IIS, has been the subject of numerous security alerts.

Any time an organization creates a software dependency based on a monoculture environment (using a single piece of software or only the products of a single vendor), risks are incurred. And it really has nothing to do with Microsoft. It's only a small amount of additional work to make Web apps work with virtually all Web browsers, and for a business, it could mean picking up 4-5% more customers for little or no additional cost.

For internal business operations (e.g. a company intranet), it's just good planning to be able to switch easily between browsers, between database products, or between development tools. Your IT department may choose to focus most development on a single product line or platform, but should always have a a few projects or staff working on other platforms or in alternate development environments. In part, doing so is just research and development--sometime less expensive alternatives emerge, or better ways of doing things.

Beware of any IT manager or developer who claims that there is no need to look beyond your current software or IT vendor. It's lazy thinking that may be putting your organization or business at risk.

Technology News:

A good use for RFID tags

Delta Airlines has announced plans to use RFIDs (Radio Frequency ID) to track and manage luggage. Finally--a great use for RFIDs that has no privacy problems (unlike proposals to embed them in clothing so that we can be tracked 24 hours a day by the Gap). An RFID on a luggage tag will allow the airline to be able to tell where a piece of luggage is virtually in real time. If Delta does its homework on the staffing and management side, the airline should be able to dramatically cut the cost of dealing with lost luggage and make customers much happier at the same time--a win-win for new technology.

Most spam sites are in China

The Register reports that China continues to be the world's primary source of spam Web sites--hosting the Web sites that show up in all that email spam. The U.S. continues to be the source of most email spam.

Why China if most spammers are in the United States? It's getting harder and harder to find a U.S. based Web hosting firm that wants the headaches associated with the complaints and problems associated with spam Web sites. China, half a world a way and run by a communist government that tends to turn a blind eye towards things like respecting copyrights and other niceties of the free world, is happy to take spammers' money for hosting the sites.

Court says it's okay to snoop email

In a troubling ruling, the 1st U.S. Court of Circuit Appeals has said it is okay to read other people's email while it is "stored" on a server. Yahoo! News reports on the legal case of Interloc, a company that read the email of its subscribers to find out what Amazon.com was sending to them, and why.

The ruling seems to rely on hairsplitting, rather than commonsense. Wiretapping of "live" communications has always been subject to rigorous oversight, but email is not "live" in the same sense that a phone conversation is. An email messages transits through several servers, and is stored, sometimes for long periods of time, on the email server used by a particular user. The courts are taking the view that it is okay to read the email while it is stored on a third party machine.

It is as if the court said it was okay to open and read a piece of mail while it is in the mailbox down the street from your house.

It is hard to understand how the judges could so easily trample what seems obvious--email is and should be considered private, and both commercial companies and law enforcement officers should be constrained from reading email without strict oversight.

Fortunately, there is a perfectly good solution to the conundrum--encryption. We have the tools today to encrypt email using public key encryption, and this ruling will hasten more widespread use of encryption for routine communications. Done properly, encryption of email can be nearly transparent, but will be very effective as a deterrent to casual snooping of the kind done by Interloc. Encryption is the equivalent of putting our email in a tamper-resistant envelope; it keeps most people out. Is it perfect? No--but then neither are envelopes, but we've used them for centuries without much fuss or worry.

Unfortunately, part of the problem here is the lack of interest in improving email clients. Most email clients are given away free, so there is little incentive to improve them or to make features like encryption easy to use. But it's a business issue for the private sector, and as the bigger companies demand it, easy to use encryption will spread.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea to check your email settings to make sure you don't leave mail on your server, where it can now, apparently, be read by anyone with server access. Google's Gmail has been attracting a lot of attention because it offers a gigabyte of server-based mail storage for free. But I've already written about my concerns there--Google admits they insert ads into your email by reading the contents. And now, Google has free reign to read all your mail stored on its servers, any time it likes. Analyzing that information and selling it is, in all probablility, not far behind.

Welcome to the Knowledge Democracy, whether you like it or not.

Technology News:

New MeshCube the shape of things to come

The recently announced MeshCube is an immature product--the Web site needs more and better information--but it is the shape of things to come in the WiFi world. The MeshCube is three inches square. It can have two radios installed (one for local point to multipoint access--the typical hotspot use, and one for point to point longer distance access to an Internet feed). It can be powered by POE (Power Over Ethernet), meaning you don't have to run 120 VAC to it, just a simple low voltage Ethernet cable, making it easy to install outside.

The power requirements are so low it could also be powered by batteries and a solar panel, making it ideal for remote locations. The "mesh" part of MeshCube means that you can easily create a wiFi Zone (multiple access points) with just one or two Internet feeds; the MeshCubes talk to each other and can share Internet acess. This dramatically lowers the cost of a wide area WiFi zone. The software is based on Open Source, which keeps the price low.

The small size means these can be inobtrusively mounted throughout a downtown area; antenna design will vary according to needs, but even the larger WiFi antennas needed for point to point communications are small and barely noticeable on a rooftop. Communities, with a little help planning and laying out the network, could easily install their own WiFi zone covering a downtown area or a neighborhood. At a cost of about $300 per access point, self-help projects are easily fundable by passing the hat.

Technology News:

FCC: Any means any for wireless

A ruling by the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology is an echo of the Bristol, Virginia decision that "any" means "any."

Airports, malls, and condo associations, among others, have been trying to limit the use of WiFi, primarily for financial reasons. The mall owner or airport authority wanted the revenue sharing from providing exclusive access to the facility from a single vendor. It's a form of bandwidth aggregation that does not always benefit consumers because not everyone benefits equally--the WiFi vendor and the property owner have a controlling interest in setting fees and keep all the profits. Bandwidth aggregation as a thinly veiled monopoly rarely benefits consumers.

Airports, as frequent travelers know well, are notorius for high access fees, averaging $10/day for a typical fifteen or twenty minute use as you pass through. The FCC ruling says the FCC alone can determine who may or may not deploy unlicensed WiFi services. It's a victory for consumers, and the FCC deserves a tip of the hat for doing so.

Muncipal WiFi a worldwide trend

An article in The Register provides a nice synopsis of the worldwide trend for municipalities to offer public WiFi. It's happening most often in the big cities first, where businesspeople congregate in public spaces more and expect Internet access.

The new mesh network WiFi equipment is making it much easier to create WiFi zones at less cost (there are some very good Open Source mesh network WiFi solutions). Mesh networks provide some redundancy and eliminate the need to have wired connectivity at each access point.

If rural and smaller communities want to attract microenterprise businesses and entrepreneurs who are making relocation decisions based in part on lifestyle choices, WiFi zones throughout the downtown area in these smaller communities is one inexpensive way to help get on the short list of relocation sites. If two communities both have good schools, a slower pace of life, and good recreation options, the community that is planning for technology and offers WiFi zones is much more likely to appear attractive to a relocating business. Public WiFi is an indicator of a progressive community that understands the needs of business. How does your community rate?

Spokane wireless to drive economic development

The City of Spokane has rolled out a new wireless zone that covers most of the major downtown area (more than 100 square blocks). Rather than leaving the growth of WiFi entirely to the private sector, which typically leaves lots of dead zones in an urban downtown, the city mapped its own antenna sites and was able to cover the entire area with just ten antennas--a much more efficient design that provides virtually 100% coverage.

The city estimated the cost as a very affordable "$50,000 to $75,000." Meter maids and police in the zone will use WiFi-enabled devices and laptops to improve their efficiency, which over the long term should pay back the entire investment. The city also made the investment to attract more businesses to the downtown area.

AT&T gets out of local dial tone--sort of

In a widely carried AP report, AT&T has announced it is getting out of local dial tone and long distance in several states, and may abandon most other states shortly. There are two things going on here, and only one of them was discussed in the article.

The article correctly notes that the proximate cause for the AT&T pullback is the FCC ruling that allows the local phone companies to charge higher wholesale rates for their antique copper telephone lines. AT&T has been leasing these in bulk to provide local dialtone. The higher rates make it unprofitable for AT&T to do so.

On the face of it, this looks bad for local communities, as there seems to be less competition, and puts the local phone companies back near their previous monopoly status for dialtone.

What was not covered well in the AP article is the fact that AT&T is making a major push for Voice over IP local and long distance services. The company has wisely decided to abandon the antique phone service market and concentrate on selling what is going to count in the future. It's a smart move.

Some of the phone companies are not standing still, however. SBC has announced it will spend billions on fiber to the neighborhood and fiber to the premises, although the latter will be done only in new neighborhoods for now. The new system will have the capacity for a single channel of HD TV--much higher capacity than existing DSL lines, but still not what will be needed in the future. But the fiber has the carrying capacity--SBC is reluctant to put in the electronics, probably because of cost and because they are trying to control access.

Communities getting these new systems may breathe a sigh of relief that they don't need to do that telecom planning after all, but their headaches are simply being deferred to the future. A monopoly is a monopoly, and it does not matter much if it is a legal monopoly (the old, pre-1996 approach) or a de facto marketplace monopoly. Either way, the community, and especially businesses, may not have the range of prices and services they need.

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