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

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.

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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.

Apple unwires stereo

Apple once again proves it is far ahead of other computer manufacturers with its just announced Airport Express.

Apple, which really pioneered consumer and casual use of WiFi, contrary to the ads Intel runs, has created a new wireless gadget that is Swiss Army knife-like in the features it has in a little box barely the size of a pack of cards.

  • It's a wireless base station--plug it into your DSL or cable modem port and you've got instant WiFi in the house at 802.11g speeds (54 megabits/second).
  • It's a WiFi extender. If your current base station won't reach to the other end of the house, simply plug this in the wall somwhere and forget about it. Now you've got a stronger signal where you need it.
  • It's a printer sharing device. Plug a USB printer into it and every computer on your wireless home network can print on the shared printer.

But wait! There's more!!

This device also has audio jacks. Plug it in the wall and then plug an audio cable into it. Plug the other end of the audio cable into your stereo or a pair of powered speakers, and you can now listen to all the music stored on your computer--anywhere in the house where you have an Airport Express plugged in. Your computer can now wirelessly stream music anywhere in the house where you have this tiny device plugged in the wall.

Apple has leapfrogged all of the stereo manufacturers, who have been touting complicated and expensive new kinds of digital music storage devices, and made whole house stereo dead simple, inexpensive, and truly plug and play--fully integrated with Apple's existing iTunes software.

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Watch out for China

An AP article in the Sunday Roanoke Times discussed China's growing influence on the IT industry. What caught my eye was the fact that China is promoting an alternative to the DVD format called "EVD." China wants to avoid paying royalties to the Japanese developers of the DVD format.

But wait, there's more. China is also pushing a new and different cellphone protocol that they claim is better than the GSM and CDMA standards used in the rest of the world.

Here's the thing--there are 1.3 billion potential customers for IT products and services in China--the biggest market in the world. It's markets that determine protocols and standards most of the time, not standards-making bodies, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that we could, in twenty years, all be using IT products forced on the marketplace by China.

That could be good or bad. But I'm not very optimistic--China is still not an open marketplace and does not have a democratic government. Couple that with an IT industry anxious to increase profits, and we could have a Communist dictatorship telling the rest of the world what IT products to use.

Is it a problem? Not yet, but it could become one.

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Searching for the Space Economy

The Space Economy pops up in the most unlikely places. For years, I drove by an office building in Blacksburg with a sign out front for a company called Phoenix Integration. I knew that they were some kind of software company, but never gave it much thought.

A profile in the Sunday paper (the Roanoke Times) indicates that Phoenix is tightly hooked into the emerging Space Economy. The eight year old company with 18 employees provides software for the biggest aerospace companies around, including Boeing, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, GE, and NASA.

The software they write and sell allows spacecraft designers and engineers to collaborate, share data, and work on design drawings jointly even though they are thousands of miles apart.

Among other projects supported by Phoenix ModelCenter software is the GoFast spacecraft, which is in advanced testing at the Nevada SpacePort.

Add Phoenix Integration to the advanced composites manufacturing facility just down the road in Smyth county, and southwest Virginia may have a toehold in the emerging Space Economy, with an economic development cluster focused on aerospace technologies.

Could southwest Virginia become a major player? Only if economic developers do two things: Survey existing businesses to locate all businesses in the region that are providing goods and services to the space industry, and then make space a key part of economic development initiatives, like New Mexico is doing.

How about your area? In the last six months, I've stumbled, literally, across two very sophisticated Space Industry businesses in my own region. What about your area? Have you even asked?

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Microsoft's future, Open Source, and Apple

This is a long article, but if you, like the author, find yourself rebooting your Windows computer and suffering through hung programs, viruses, and worms more than you care to, you may want to read why this former Microsoft employee is bullish on Open Source products and why he made what turned out to be an easy switch to Apple.

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Comfort Suites--A Knowledge Economy hotel

I stayed in a Comfort Suites last night, and it wins hands down as a Knowledge Economy hotel.

Some of the amenities include wireless in meeting rooms and public areas, wired broadband in the rooms, a full service work area off the lobby that includes an Internet-connected pc, a fax machine, laser printer, and copy machine.

In the rooms, the Ethernet jack is above the level of the desk, as are four convenient AC outlets--no crawling on hands and knees under desks or behind beds to get a connection.

In the future, I'll be going out of my way to stay at Comfort Suites locations. How do the hotels in your community measure up? Can you offer business travelers to your community a place to stay with similar amenities?

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Smart Mobs--Book of the Month

Howard Rheingold is one of the best observers and commentators on how technology is affecting us. Not from a technical or "geek" perspective--Rheingold is interested in what is happening in our social, civic, and business relationships.

This book is easy to read; you can dive into in bits and pieces, and is meticulously researched and referenced. It's our pick for Book of the Month.

Ironing robot

A firm has developed a household appliance they are calling an "ironing robot." It follows on the heels of the wildly successful Roomba vacuum cleaner, which uses software that enables the "robot" to learn where things are in rooms and to successfully clean floors and carpets independently.

The device is pricey, as all new gadgets are, but sounds like it does a superior job of getting the wrinkles out of shirts. Apparently the device does not damage the fabric the way conventional irons do.

What's important about this? Like the Roomba vacuum, no one predicted this. It may or may not catch on--no one thought the Roomba would, but it did.

As communities seek guarantees that infrastructure investments pay off, we have to remember that the future cannot always be quantified by what worked in the past. New technologies like the Internet become engines of innovation, spawning new companies (the Roomba has created jobs manufacturing and selling robot vacuums) and spurring economic development in ways no one predicted. Flexibility in planning and execution gives communities the opportunity to capitalize on those new technologies and companies as they emerge.

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TV-style ads on the Web

If you are a business, you may love it. If you are a Web user, you may hate it.

Take a look at this page (only works well on a broadband connection) and see the new future of ads on the Web. It's a remarkably crisp, clear, video that begins playing on it's own, including the audio, so you are distracted by it even if it is in a hidden or tabbed window.

Like it or not, we'll see more and more of these on "free" sites like newspapers (this one is the Chicago Sun-Times). It's a way to pay for the cost of providing the site.

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