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

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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Estonia going wireless in a big way

The former Soviet satellite Estonia has embraced WiFi, according to a BBC report. Admittedly, Estonia is small--smaller than some larger counties in this country, but that's a clue that this is can be done at the local level.

The country has more than 280 WiFi hotspots (how many does your county have?) covering more than two-thirds of the country, and every hotspot has an attractive and easily identifiable blue and orange sign. Here in the United States, you find hotspots in urban areas by looking for chalkmarks on the sides of buildings--not exactly a well-organized economic development strategy.

As entrepreneurs, business owners, tourists, and families drive through your community, can they easily find WiFi hotspots? Good signage is good marketing, as the signs effectively shout out, "We're connected here....we get it."

But the article gets better. Estonia's government has wholeheartedly embraced technology, with government meeting rooms fully wired and broadband enabled (again, can you say the same about your town or county supervisors?). And here is the money quote that should send chills down the spines of economic developers who still think their job is bricks and mortar:

...."You don't need to invest in an office anymore," Haamer says. "You have an idea, a computer with a wireless card, and a space to work (at a cafe with wireless). You can use your time more efficiently."

So if there is a trend (and there is clearly a trend in Estonia) to move away from bricks and mortar offices for business, how do you measure business activity in your community? It's a conversation you need to have.

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A Model Technology Council

The Redwood Technology Council may well be the best example of a successful Tech Council in the United States. The work that the RTC is doing gives me hope that it is possible to develop, run, and sustain a regional tech council. Located in the Eureka/Arcata area of northern California, the RTC is trying to overcome rural isolation, create jobs, and get more fiber and broadband options into the region.

I had the privilege of giving some workshops at their annual Tech Expo, and while I was visiting I learned a lot about their activities. The RTC's most significant achievement was to break a permitting logjam that had prevented the phone company from bringing fiber to the region. The Tech Expo, a two day technology fair that showcases the products and services of local firms, attracts thousands, and is especially notable because they offer workshops and seminars to the public throughout the event. And it's practical, useful stuff, like how to use Photoshop, which was jammed. The number and variety of booths was terrific, and I found two vendors that had products I had never seen and am likely to buy.

In fact, the RTC is doing many of the things that community networks do, and the group is well-positioned to do much more. Most interesting of all was their clear focus on appropriate leadership. They cheerfully admitted it took them a little time to develop a board and group of volunteers that were truly dedicated to making the community better. This sounds simple, but a lot of good efforts get derailed by people who have hidden or not so hidden agendas. Knowing that happens and working to prevent it from killing the organization is a stellar example of true leadership. The Eureka region is fortunate to have the Redwood Technology Council.

Technology and grape tomatoes

I may sometime seem a bit negative about the challenges we face in the United States and the urgency of learning to compete not with the next county or the next state, but the next country. This article on the difficulties Europe faces may provide a bit of balance.

Briefly, the author describes the potential difficulties a European businessperson would face (in this case, introducing a new kind of tomato) in getting a new product to market. We're still better than anyone else in the world in changing course, making corrections, identifying the right feedback, and zeroing in what needs to be done.

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