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

Internet fatigue?

I am beginning to wonder if many of us are beginning to suffer from Internet fatigue. Over the past few months, I have observed the activity and discussion on most of the mailing lists I am on dwindle to near zero. Some of the Web sites and blogs I visit seem to have fewer and fewer comments and discussion.

This is in contrast to the late nineties and even a couple of years ago, when most of the mailing lists I was on were active, and I felt like it was difficult to keep up with the often rich and interesting discussions.

I think there are several things going on.

  • First, the novelty of the Internet has worn off. The Internet as a community, work, and civic phenomenon is now a decade old, and if you measure the real start of online community with the BBSes and FreeNets of the eighties, it is twenty years old. For most of us, it's now just a part of life. We don't feel the need to discuss it, anymore than we discuss other routine technologies that we use (e.g. the telephone, the microwave). We have successfully integrated the Internet and its communications services into what we do.
  • Second, we're busier than ever, and we have less time for activities that are not directly related to whatever it is we have to do today, tomorrow, or by the end of the week. The Internet has contributed, for better or for worse, to this common feeling of life being uncomfortably speeded up. By dropping out of peripheral activities like online discussions and mailing lists, we are taking back some control over a bit of our time.
  • Finally, we are worn out from spam, viruses, upgrades, bugs, glitches, printer jams, blue screens of death, reboots, and all the other timestealers that technology has brought to us over the past two decades. We want our lives back.

In a way, I see this as a good thing. We are putting technology into proper perspective. We are making more time for face to face relationships and spending a little less time chatting with, well, strangers.

What I do worry about is that we are finally just getting to the point where a lot of this technology is becoming truly useful, and we don't want to stop making the effort to learn and use this stuff just as opportunities and tools begin to emerge that actually help us work better and less.

Technology News:

Mountain bikes and the Knowledge Economy

As far back as 1998, I was telling folks to pay attention to business park amenities like bike/hiking trails. I usually got blank stares. More recently, I've had a slide in most of my presentations about the importance of marketing to businesspeople who have mountain bikes strapped to the top of their cars on the weekend. I still get a lot of blank stares--not as many, but a lot of economic developers seem to have trouble relating.

This morning, the Roanoke Times has a major feature on the glacial pace of trying to develop a more coherent and connected set of hiking/biking trails around the city. The article relates that recently, a Colorado high tech company was considering relocating to Roanoke.

Did they ask about business parks and incubator buildings? No. Were they interested in water and sewer capacity? No. What they wanted to know about was the biking trails, and here are some of their questions.

  • Was there a fully interconnected trail between two major biking spots--Carvins Cove and Explore Park? (no)
  • Was there a connection from downtown to Mill Mountain biking trails? (no)

The paper notes that the company was willing to give up skiing to move to southwest Virginia, but ultimately decided to stay in Colorado.

That particular company was making a relocation decision, at least in part, based on quality of life, lifestyle options (like good biking trails), and a regional approach to recreation. Don't be tempted to think that bikers, hikers, and other small businesspeople with interests in recreation are all in their twenties. One of the leading bike trail advocates in Roanoke cheerfully admits to grey hair. In Blacksburg, the local cycling groups have large numbers of members over 40.

I find that many rural areas take their recreational amenities for granted--not only do they not market them as part of a comprehensive approach to economic development, many communities fail to fund and develop them at levels high enough to make them effective drivers of economic development.

And of course, don't forget--these small companies want one other thing--affordable broadband everywhere. Welcome to the Knowledge Economy.

Technology News:

South Koreans abandon dial-up

According to a report on the [telecom-cities] mailing list, fewer than 1% of South Koreans are still using dial-up to access the Internet; DSL, cable modem, and fiber have captured the market.

In the United States, despite a 42% increase in broadband users from 2002 to 2003, nearly half of Internet users, according to a recent Pew study, are still on dial-up. Once again, here is my favorite (tongue in cheek) marketing slogan for economic development: "Our region--almost as good as South Korea!"

Technology News:

WiFi and warchalking as marketing

Schlotzky's, the popular deli chain with hundreds of stores across the country, has been rolling out their free WiFi offering with great success, apparently. The original plan had been to provide it only to the company-owned stores (95% of the stores are owned by franchisees), but the popularity of the WiFi offering has attracted the attention of the franchise owners, who want it for their stores as well.

Part of Schlotzky's marketing campaign has included "warchalking," which the WiFi user community has adapted from the old markings hobos used during the Depression to indicate where a good place to get food was, or places to avoid. There is a simple set of symbols that are literally drawn in chalk on the sidewalks in front of locations where there is free WiFi.

Texas WiFi at rest stops

A press release from the Texas Dept. of Transportation announces that they are going to put WiFi in all state-managed rest stops in Texas.

They have an interesting rationale. DOT believes it will help get people off the roads more frequently to take a break and rest. It makes sense to me. I drive a lot, and the ability to stop and check my business mail conveniently has a lot of appeal. WiFi marches on.

Technology News:

Community news and projects:

Korea's Simple Vision

South Korea has announced a new initiative called Ubiquitous Korea that has a very simple vision for the country:

To transform the country into a more modern and technology-oriented society, which has been nicknamed U-Korea for Ubiquitous Korea, the government is envisioning a future that allows people to have uninterrupted access to the Internet, via fixed lines or mobile networks, any time, anywhere.

Korea has already committed $80 billion over the next five to seven years to run fiber by every home and business in the country. This vision for the citizens and businesses of South Korea is crystal clear, specifies no particular kind of transport system, protocols, or technology, and and provides a measureable benchmark for knowing when they are done.

Is it ambitious? You bet? Can it be done in a year or two? No, and they know that. But is the right stake to plant in the ground? Absolutely. How about your region? What's the vision for technology and telecommunications?

Make your own diesel fuel

I've talked in the past about the importance of the Hydrogen Economy and the potential it has to create new economic development opportunities, but I think a better term is the Energy Economy. As the price of gasoline, diesel fuel, and home heating oil rises, I don't think we're all going to end up shivering in the dark.

Instead, we're going to see alternative energy sources become not affordable, but cheaper. The U.S. has already made one successful energy transition. By the end of the 19th century, virtually every tree in the Appalachian forests up and down the East Coast had been cut down, mostly to heat homes. Most old growth trees, regrettably, were burned in fireplaces.

As the price of wood skyrocketed, coal became a cheap and useful alternative, and the country gracefully made the switch without a collapse of the economy. Today, it's going to be alternative sources like hydrogen, wind, solar, and biomass that will take the place of natural gas and oil.

Wired News has an article on the growing popularity of biodiesel fuel, and chronicles the efforts of one dedicated individual who makes biodiesel fuel for his car from used cooking oil; it costs him forty-one cents a gallon.

Is the Energy Economy on the economic development radar of your region? Do you have technology companies and other kinds of energy firms that could give your region a competitive advantage?

Technology News:

TV: Coming to a Web near you

A New York Times article (registration required) details a new service from Tivo, the makers of the wildly popular DVR (digital video recorder) that records programming on a hard drive so you can watch it later.

Tivo will add a new feature to its products that will allow the recorders to download and store TV programs that come straight off the Internet--completely bypassing traditional broadcast, cable TV, and satellite providers. Because the Tivo recorder can store programs for later viewing, the company anticipates that users with DSL or cable modem broadband services will download programs overnight and watch them later.

In the future, when we all have very fast fiber connections, we won't do that very much, because it will be easier and more convenient just to watch a program in real time. But DSL and cable modems don't have the bandwidth to do that.

Tivo has identified a sweet spot that is likely to be very lucrative for the company for a number of years but also marks the beginning of the end of traditional television. The Tivo recorder is matched perfectly with the limitations of current broadband offerings, and gives consumers more choice--which is what we all want.

As Tivo builds a marketplace, content producers (of TV-based programming) will fill it, and as the product offerings develop, consumers will be able to think about just dropping cable TV or satellite services.

How will it work? Here's a business: license the reruns of "I Love Lucy" for Internet distribution, buy a fat Internet pipe, format them for Tivo, and then sit back and collect, oh, say, fifteen cents every time someone wants to watch an episode.

This is going to be fun, and some non-traditional "media" companies that aren't located in Hollywood are likely to make a lot of money. As factory jobs move offshore, whole new industries are being created.

What about the global economy, you say? Suppose you took those "I Love Lucy" reruns and dubbed them into Chinese, Spanish, and French? Buy server space in those countries and start selling. Payments will all be automated, via Paypal or some sort of Tivo mechanism, so the biggest chore of the day would be log on to your bank account every morning and see that another half million people worldwide watched your programming last night. At fifteen cents a pop, that's $150,000/day to run a server and an Internet feed.

Technology News:

SBC to sell wireless at McDonald's

SBC has inked a deal to sell WiFi at 6000 McDonald's fast food restaurants. Daily access will cost $7.95, and monthly access will cost $19.95.

The daily access cost is a bit silly. Who is going to buy a $5 meal and pay $8 to surf the Web while you drip special sauce on your keyboard?

The $19.95 monthly rate is more interesting. As a frequent traveler, it might well be worth it if I know I can walk into any McDonald's and get broadband access (without buying any food).

It may or may not sell many burgers for McDonald's. I don't think it will. As the reporter notes at the end of the article, the big winner may be SBC, who just sold 6000 DSL lines at the higher business class rate. My guess is this worth at least $10 million/year or more to SBC, and SBC is probably getting a big upfront payment to be the systems integrator and equipment supplier. It will be interesting to see if McDonald's is still providing this service in two years. Remember that "free WiFi" is never free; someone is always paying. If the service does not increase food sales, McDonald's will pull it.

If communities believe that affordable WiFi access, widely available, is important to local economic development initiatives, this demonstrates the problem of leaving it entirely to the private sector--it may or may not be available over the long term, and/or there may be many areas of the community that need it and may not have it.

It's hardly good economic development marketing to tell businesspeople that they should meet in McDonald's.

Technology News:

Time for the FCC to go?

Declan McCullagh, the chief political correspondent for Cnet, has an excellent article that questions the need for the FCC.

The article is well worth a read just to review the long list of head-shaking mistakes and blunders that the FCC has made dating back more than fifty years. Among the FCC initiatives McCullagh lists as problematic is the 1956 decision by the FCC to keep Americans from owning their own telephones, apparently believing that it was better to have customers pay AT&T a monthly lease fee for years after the cost of the phone had been amortized.

Like so many government initiatives that were started with the best of intentions but never seem to "finish" the job, the FCC is now trying to regulate things that don't seem to need any regulation, like Voice over IP services. In general, the FCC has seemed to favor the large incumbent providers. If there is any sense in that approach, I think the FCC thinking seems to be to avoid turbulence in the market place and to avoid disruption of services to consumers.

But at some point, as technologies change, disruption is impossible to avoid without permanently vesting obsolete systems and technologies. Currently, the FCC seems to be trying very hard to prop up the incumbent telephone and cable providers. This keeps the marketplace stable, but at what cost? That kind of policy makes it more difficult for low cost competitive providers to enter the marketplace, and denies to consumers the choice to trade stable service for lower prices and/or access to more and different kinds of services.

At worst, the FCC is taking a dim view of consumers and businesses and their ability to sort out these issues. Why not assume that customers, over time, have the capacity to figure this out on their own, and give local communities and governments more flexibility to invest appropriately to ensure that their citizens and businesses have teh right kinds of services available at affordable prices.

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