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

Where the jobs are

The Thursday New York Times had a fascinating article on the op-ed page (page A27) that is worth chasing down if you can snag a copy. It's a graphic and a couple of paragraphs on data from the Federal Reserve Bank about where the jobs are and are not. The bar graph really helps clarify and make understandable the changes we have been seeing in the job market over the past several years. It's no surprise that in the "Manual Dexterity," "Muscle Power," and "Formulaic Intelligence" categories, steep declines are being registered (Formulaic Intelligence includes jobs like bookkeepers, clerks, and typists--work that technology is shifting).

Steep increases have been registered in "People Skills and Emotional Intelligence" (financial services sales, nurses, recreation workers, lawyers), "Imagination and Creativity" (actors, architects, designers, photographers, cosmetologists), and "Analytic Reasoning" (legal assistants, scientists, engineers).

The authors, who include the chief economist at the Federal Reserve, note that Americans have, many times in the past, adjusted to changing economic conditions and have learned new skills. They also note that whenever these shifts take place, in the long run, people end up with better jobs that pay more. Finally, they note that "trying to preserve existing jobs will prove futile."

Communities need to learn what the jobs of the future are and make sure the training is available for them. The best thing about this--many of these jobs do NOT require four years of college. Two year colleges and trade institutes can provide the skills for many of these jobs.

India market crash not a surprise...

If you had read our recent book of the month Adventure Capitalist, you would not have been surprised by the market crash and unrest in India following elections. The author, Jim Rogers, predicted that India's rise in economic status would be bumpy because of the huge disparity between the rising middle class that has been fueling the economic development there and the desperately poor in rural areas, who represent a majority.

India potentially has a very bright future, but the country has to create economic conditions that most people can access, not just a few. America has, by and large, done a good job providing opportunities for people that are willing to work hard. That's why so many people want to migrate here.

Closer to home, our rural communities also face some challenges, but unfortunately, the population of U.S. rural areas is a minority, making it more difficult to influence politics and state and Federal spending. That's why I think rural communities need to look to the future, set a vision, and execute--with whatever resources can be mustered.

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A la carte cable television?

An article in the business section of the Sunday Roanoke Times talks about cable TV and the growing clamor for a la carte rates--in other words, instead of paying for 60,70, or 200 channels at a flat rate, you could pick and choose which channels you want to watch, and pay only for those.

I see two problems with that approach. The first is that it probably would not lower rates. It would increase the cost of billing, and since we are already paying fifty cents a month per channel (or less) now, just the cost of tracking which channels a household watches and billing for that would probably result in a net increase in the cost of programming. It would also probably reduce the number of channels available, but it's debatable whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

My real objection is this: Why bother trying to force more rules and regulation on a dying medium? Cable TV is based on forty year old copper technology, and the current rate structure is based on what was technically possible in 1960 or so.

We already have a new, completely unregulated medium that is technologically ready for pay by the drink, consumer-choice driven television programming. It's called the Internet. Affordable, high capacity broadband (which we will all have in the next decade) is technologically able to deliver HDTV quality TV programming right now.

Let the cable companies continue to tinker with a dying and obsolete model. We don't need to waste time and effort at the local, state, and national level fussing with something that will be gone in ten years.

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Metal rubber bounces out of Blacksburg

A small, privately held company in Blacksburg called NanoSonic has begun marketing what it calls "metal rubber." An article in the Roanoke Times indicated the nanomaterials company has been developing the product for several years. The material has the ability to conduct electricty while being stretched, and has been mentioned as a possible new material for use in "morphing" aircraft wings which could change shape during flight.

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AT&T saves $250 million by using VoIP

Om Malik reports that AT&T has saved more than $250 million dollars in the past four years by routing phone calls over the Internet instead of the switched telephone network. In a classic counter-attack, the phone companies that did not get to switch AT&T's calls are suing the company for lost revenue--apparently they think they have a "right" to make other companies use their antiquated systems.

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Motorola to offer WiFi phones

Following Nokia's initial foray into dual mode cellular/WiFi phones, phone giant Motorola is entering the marketplace. Motorola's phone automatically switches to WiFi mode if you enter a WiFi hotspot, meaning that you save your cellular minutes and your cost of calling will be lower overall.

WiFi "communicators" are entering the marketplace, and are being used in large institutions like hospitals and city libraries, where staff have to be in constant communications. Traditional walkie-talkies and radios don't work well in those situations, but WiFi provides crisp, clear voice messaging. One hospital has saved time and money by giving staff WiFi communicators they wear around their neck.

Does it sound like something out of Star Trek? Well, it is. But this is not science fiction, it's a reliable commercial product that is saving time and money. Does your community have a WiFi hotspot plan? Without ubiquitous WiFi, these new devices won't work reliably.

Southwest Regional Spaceport to host X Prize Cup

The Southwest Regional Spaceport in New Mexico has been chosen to host the two week long X Cup competition. The X Cup is a $10 million prize that will given to the team that successfully launches a suborbital spacecraft twice in two weeks.

Regular readers know that I am very bullish on the emerging Space Economy, which will hit full stride in about twenty years. New Mexico, which by many measures, is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged states in the U.S., has its eyes firmly on the future. Does your state have an Office of Space Commercialization? New Mexico does, and won in the bidding against Florida, which would appear to have all the advantages.

Is the Space Economy going to be the salvation of rural communities everywhere? Of course not. But New Mexico has created a vision of what it wants to be in the future and the kinds of opportunities it wants to create for its citizens, and is acting on it. I think it will succeed.

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Offshoring jobs and local effects

A short guest op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal (David Sikora, B2) provides another data point in the largely politics-driven debate about offshoring. Sikora is CEO of Pervasive Software, a medium-sized software company that began doing some development work in India last year. He makes two points worth considering.

First, he indicates that India is turning out world class programmers and software developers who are willing to work hard. Second, he says that by saving money on some company work in India, he has been able to create additional jobs in other parts of the company in the United States, expand the customer base, increase shareholder value (who are mostly Americans), and remain competitive in a global economy.

I am most concerned about Sikora's first point--that India is turning out high quality engineers and programmers. U.S. output of engineers and programmers has been falling for years. Somehow, our kids are not getting the message that working hard, getting good grades in math and science, and going to college for the "hard" degrees is worth it.

The collapse of the dot-com bubble did not help. For a couple of years, the newspapers were full of articles about technology workers losing their jobs. But the stories were often lopsidedly negative, and did not provide a balanced look at all the tech workers who did not lose their jobs. Most tech workers, outside of hyperinflated tech cities like Austin and Silicon Valley, did NOT lose their jobs.

This is not a problem that Federal or state governments are going to solve. Communities need to start working locally, revamping high school curriculums as much as possible to make sure kids leave with positive attitudes about math and science and with the skills they need to qualify for college engineering and science degree programs. Community colleges are going to be particularly important, as they can train students in tech specialties more quickly and more effectively than their more slow-changing four year college cousins.

Why bother with all this? A steady stream of locally-trained, competent tech workers coming out of high schools and community colleges, over time, will attract companies that need those workers. Remember--the jobs moving offshore are a tiny fraction of the tech jobs in the country. Don't get distracted by often-misleading news. Get the facts, make a plan, and execute the plan.

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IBM to offer Web-based office applications

Cnet reports that IBM is going to announce a new suite of Web-based applications that will directly challenge Microsoft Office. Based on the very mature Lotus Notes system, it will run on Web servers, provide functionality similar to Microsoft Office applications like Word and Excel, and be priced at a very reasonable $2/month per user.

Of course, there is always a catch. This will only work well if you have good broadband networks in your work space (in the building) and excellent, affordable broadband access.

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FCC Chairman says VoIP "biggest breakthrough...ever"

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has it exactly right in an article in the Business section of the Rocky Mountain News. At a speech in New Orleans to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Powell said, "I think it's going to be the very, very best and biggest breakthrough in our ambitions and dreams about competition ever."

Exaggeration? I don't think so.

VoIP is the killer app for broadband. It's what all those enormous dot-com investments in infrastructure were hoping for back in 1999 and 2000. It is the trifecta--it will lower prices for current voice services, it will introduce valuable new voice services at little or no additional cost, and the use of VoIP will spur competition and attract new and other kinds of services.

What's the catch? You have to have reliable, high capacity, affordable broadband. DSL and cable modems will only carry us part of the way. This is a core economic development issue, and rural communities, suburbs, and any part of the country that does not have a community-based telecommunications master plan is going to be in trouble from a jobs perspective in the next decade.

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