Number portability reaches rural areas

CNN reports that cellphone number portability is about to reach rural and less populous areas of the country. The introduction of the service has been phased in, with the 100 most populous parts of the country getting it first. Customers will be able to move their cellphone number from one company to another, and will also be able to move a landline number to a cellphone, with certain restrictions on area codes.

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WiFi startup stops

Cometa, a startup national WiFi hotspot firm, has shut down. Cometa was bankrolled by Intel, AT&T, and IBM, and planned to create 20,000 hotspots nationwide and wholesale them to other companies who would actually provide the end user service.

It was a good plan, but apparently poorly executed. No doubt the company was stuffed with execs from Intel, AT&T, and IBM, who apparently acted arrogantly and spent too much money too soon.

The problem with all of the firms planning national networks is twofold. First, WiFi will not take off, really take off, until there are widespread roaming agreements in place. Right now, if I'm at O'Hare in Chicago and want to check my mail via WiFi, I probably have to spend $10 for 15 minutes of access. Two hours later, in Omaha, some other company will want $10 for another 15 minutes. Even dumber, T-Mobile thinks I'll happily pay yet another $10 two days later as I pass back through o'Hare.

That's the state of WiFi right now. National roaming agreements, just the way cellphones can roam, where you pay a fixed monthly subscription, is the only thing that makes sense. Why are so many firms in the market despite the lack of roaming? Because WiFi is in a growth phase; for every customer who stops paying T-Mobile $10/day, two new ones pop up. It's exactly like the early days of dial-up modem access. But it won't last. Cometa is the first of many firms that will go out of business after wasting a lot of investor funds.

But I said there were two problems. The second is local, rather than national. Communities need ubiquitous WiFi to make it really useful, and just putting hotspots in hotels and McDonald's is not enough. Rural communities are especially unlikely to get much attention from the big national firms. The sensible approach is for communities to get involved in identifying appropriate antenna locations, mapping out a hotspot grid so that everyone in the community can get service, and in that fashion creating the incentives that will attract local and regional wireless providers to come into the market and sell services.

VoIP gets cheaper

Forbes reports that Vonage, the start-up Voice over IP company, has dropped prices while adding new customers at a furious rate.

Forbes speculates that pressure from AT&T's VoIP offering (six months of unlimited local and long distance service for $20) has forced Vonage to adjust their prices. Competition is a wonderful thing. Vonage now has 155,000 customers and is adding new ones at a rate of 666 per day.

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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 pro

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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U.S. is falling behind in science education

A widely covered story in the New York Times (registration required) talks about how the U.S. has already lost its dominance in science and engineering research, publishing, and patents.

Like it or not, K12 education is becoming an economic development issue. What keeps coming up over and over again in business attraction and retention (especially in rural areas) is workforce development and the need for workers with appropriate Knowledge Economy skills.

California is starting to "get it" on voting machines

California is a state slowly coming to its senses on the issue of electronic voting machines. An article in the SF Chronicle describes the recommendations of a statewide panel looking at potential problems with the popular touchscreen voting machines. Nationwide, local officials have spent millions on the equipment based entirely on the promises of the vendors, which clearly have a conflict of interest. It would be rare indeed for a vendor to tell a potential customer that their equipment has multiple security and validation issues.

In California, the state panel has recommended a ban on purchasing more machines until the security issues are resolved on the machines already in use. They have also recommended having paper ballots available at all polling places in case the machines fail. And some machines did fail in the March primary, leaving an unknown number of votes uncounted--imagine if that happened during a Presidential election. Finally, the panel has also recommended that the machines provide an auditable paper trail for all votes.

The problem inherent in electronic voting systems is that if the machines have been compromised or have software bugs, there is literally no way to know unless there is some physical redundancy (i.e.

Is Google going to pop?

The San Francisco Chronicle is one of many papers covering the impending Google IPO. I've written extensively on Google, and I still expect the stock to be grossly overpriced, because Google is overrated. Not as a search service, but as a company. Google's two recent forays into other services, the controversial Gmail and the quickly aborted Friendster-style social software indicates that the company has much work to do. It is almost beyond belief that the company thought Gmail's instrusive scanning of private email would not cause protest, but apparently they did. Google's Friendster imitation lasted all of two weeks and disappeared quickly because of massive security holes, which indicates Google is not immune to a common disease in the IT industry--the "we don't need to test our software because we got it right the first time" syndrome.

Finally, Google does not have a monopoly on good results from a search engine. Try Gigablast. The Google IPO could encourage investors to free up cash to fuel innovation in the IT industry, which has been starved for cash since the dot-com bubble burst. That would be a good thing. But it could also set off a new round of fanciful businesses based on the same arrogance and hubris that created the last bubble.

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New Palm PDAs continue convergence trend

PalmOne, the company formed from the merger of the old Palm company and Handspring, has announced new PDAs. The high end model is notable because the built in camera is a 1.2 megapixel, meaning it is actually useful as a camera, rather than as a novelty. In addition to all the usual organizer features, it has a voice recorder feature, can create Word and Excel-compatible files, and plays MP3 music files. It costs $299, and you'll need to invest at least $50 in a memory card to make it useful, so it's pretty pricey, but you do get a camera with it.

We're not really there yet, though, with respect to a truly useful device. Even with more memory, you can't store much music on it, and the 1.2 megapixel camera is where digital cameras were about 1995--low quality. Here is the dilemma: if you need a higher resolution camera, you still have to lug a camera around with you. If you want more than one or two albums to take on a trip (and you usually do), you need a much bigger MP3 player, like an iPod. And you still need a cellphone. So you have at least three devices strapped to your waist or stuck in your suit pocket or purse, along with all the usual charges, cables, and spare batteries. How do you avoid looking like a dork?

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