If by open you meant closed..

Recently two Canadian communication companies, MTS/Allstream and Quebecor, have requested special rules in the upcoming spectrum auctions to give them a chance at entry into the exclusive club of being a national cellular service provider. The request is being met with substantial resistance from our existing mobile operators (Rogers, Bell, and Telus) but globally the request is not without precedent. One example has been in the United Kingdom, where Hutchison 3g (Three UK) was able to win a large portion of spectrum that had been allocated specifically for a new entrant to the market – the British incumbents such as Vodafone, Orange, etc were excluded from the bidding.

In an effort to stop these potential new competitors, Rogers has called for what they term an ‘Open’ auction of airwaves. It is somewhat amusing to get a glimpse of what the the three amigos (Rogers, Bell and Telus) consider to be an ‘open’ auction. Ted Rogers tries to attach Rogers onto the high-road of being ‘open’ but somewhere along the way I think he may have forgot the meaning of open. So just as a reminder – being ‘open’ means that everyone has equal and shared opportunity. It is Mr. Rogers’ view that the only fair way to auction the spectrum is under our existing highest bidder rules approach. Of course what is neglected to be said is that under these rules the only possible companies that could absorb, and justify spending, the immense amount of money required to win any spectrum is our existing carriers – Rogers, Bell and Telus. It is a clever tact on their part to make the claim that the existing rules are the open approach and the requests from potential new operators will result in a ‘closed’ auction. Unfortunately, while we continue to use the auction approach neither solution is perfect, but as far as the consumer is concerned we are definitely better served by rules which allow for new competitors to enter the market as opposed to the ‘open but no one new’ approach being lauded by our existing carriers.

It seems to me that with the existing rules these spectrum auctions are not much more then a semi-regular fee payable to the government to ensure that there is no additional competition in the wireless space. Wouldn’t it be more efficient for the government to say “Rogers, Bell, Telus you pay us some amount of money and we’ll extend out your monopoly for a few more years”. I guess that would be too obvious of a state sanctioned monopoly – but ultimately much simpler than carrying on this ruse of an auction.

Will the Canadian Government have the intelligence to ignore this ridiculous anti-competitive propaganda, and move ahead with a more market and competition friendly means by which to license the spectrum? If not, I suppose we’ll continue to have to deal with some of the highest mobile service rates in the world.

The Bazaar of Spectrum

In Eric S. Raymond’s fantastic book The Cathedral and The Bazaar he compared the way open source software is developed to a Bazaar and the way corporations developed their software to the regimented and controlled nature of a Cathedral. It is this uncontrolled, bazaar type mentality that has led to extraordinary advancement in everything from software to hardware to web applications and services in the open source world. The wide array of off-the-shelf tools that people around the world can freely use, tweak, and mold into whatever they are trying to build has lowered the barrier to innovation, and we see the results everyday in new products and services like Google, Slim Devices‘ line up of Linux powered audio equipment, Linksys networking devices, and new telephony services like Truphone.

The efficiencies and advantages of this open bazaar model of development can be seen even outside the world of software. Transposing the model onto the field of wireless communications reveals an extraordinary recurring pattern in the way that technology, not just software, can advance provided it is given the right catalyst.

When a small amount of spectrum was de-regulated in the 2.4 GHz band we suddenly saw groups of people around the world pooling their knowledge to create a number of new standard wireless protocols. Varied in their purposes, these included Bluetooth for short range device-to-device communications, WIFI technology built around interconnecting all of our portable computing devices to the internet, as well as other things like newer cordless phones and lesser known technologies like ZigBee. This development occurred quickly and involved an extremely diverse set of companies whom we would not normally associate with wireless communications. But given the open access to this spectrum the barrier was sufficiently lowered in order for them to get involved and bring their unique set of knowledge to an area which previously would have excluded them.

Shortly after the development of these technologies we saw a similar effect again – a mass influx of entrepreneurs, large businesses, and individuals all equally working to develop new ways of leveraging these new technologies for unique purposes of either personal interest or new business opportunities. We’ve seen a massive growth of devices such as Music players, Cameras, laptops, and phones which include Bluetooth, WIFI and sometimes both at the same time. With these new devices came new services – the growth of internet service in planes, trains and your local pub or coffee shop is a market previously non-existent prior to the introduction of WIFI. Expanding beyond basic internet service we are just seeing the beginning of new value added services that leverage the ubiquity of this access to provide such things as telephony services in a convenient and low-cost manner.

Open Source software development teaches us a great deal but probably the most fundamental thing of all is that when we, as a communal group of individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses are given open access to innovate the results can be enormous.

In order to culture more of the great innovation we’ve seen here it is fundamental that, at least in the wireless communications space, the commons is provided with more open access to spectrum and this is why Larry Lessig’s message in the following video is so important. As he normally does, Larry sums up the message very clearly and I encourage everyone to take the 27 minutes it takes to hear it.

Who, or where, are you calling?

It used to be that when we picked up the phone we were always calling the place where we expected the person we were trying to reach to be. This has been changing rapidly towards the concept of calling a person as a result of the worldwide adoption of mobile phones which are not tied to a specific location. The growth in the internet has resulted in many more forms of communications all quite disconnected from our previous modes, with currently no ability to converge all these together. There is a growing desire to continue to gain the benefits of existing location based (fixed) phones and mobile phones but additionally leverage and benefit from the flexibility offered by new IP (VoIP) based technologies. Successfully merging all of these technologies together will largely depend on whether or not a unified experienced can be achieved across these different devices and networks.

Until large scale adoption of mobile phones occurred, our calling paradigm resembled the following. For illustration purposes I have gone all the way back to the old-days of ‘car phones’.

In all three of the above scenarios the person making the call is trying to reach Bob but the fixed nature of the phones involved require that they first call a location and then query as to Bob’s presence.

Since the wide-spread adoption of mobile phones, the picture has changed to look more like the following:

The person calling still wants to reach Bob but since the phone can move locations with him the need to track Bob down through calling multiple locations is removed.

The issue with this is the assumption that Bob has only one method of communication at his disposal – his mobile phone. However this is not the case as the growth of IP telephony has created a number of additional considerations:

  1. Technology has advanced and now Bob can be reached through more means of communications.
  2. These new additional modes of communication are also untethered to a particular location
  3. Bob’s ‘old’ fixed phones which are tied to a physical location have not gone away (short of the car phone of course) thus we now have a mix of location and non-location based means of communication.

The available means and complexity of communication has expanded creating more of a hybrid calling model:

So while the mobile phone has encouraged the view of calling a person, the expanding modes of communication have imposed a problem for Bob. He doesn’t just have a mobile, and moreover he would often like to use other means of communication depending on where or what he is doing at a given time. For example, while sitting at his desk in the office he may prefer the convenience and comfort of his desk phone or while at home he may prefer a mix of WIFI calls on his mobile for short calls and his home phone for longer conversations. Regardless of Bob’s preference however, people want to keep calling “Bob”, but currently it is only his mobile phone that is connected with this idea of calling “Bob” directly.

Now the big question is – how can we make calling “Bob” more universal? Can we satisfy the needs of the people calling, who want to just call Bob, as well as the needs of Bob himself, who wants to use the device that is most convenient for him regardless of where and what he is doing. In most cases today all of the devices above are completely disconnected in that one cannot simply or easily move calls between them or be confident that whoever is trying to reach them will actually call the right device at the right time. What we want is to achieve the vision of what is depicted below:

There are some new technologies on the horizon that promise such simplification of our communication systems. I’ll look at these over the next little while to see what is possible today, what can’t be done currently and where the limitations are in building such a universal system.

Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded Initiative

Interesting announcement coming from Ubuntu/Canonical last week, one that probably came not a moment too soon! There are so many open source projects with mobile activity right now that it is timely to have someone with a proven track record like Ubuntu to help bring everything together into a complete package.

Looking through the announcement, the wiki, and launchpad site, my impression is that it will be oriented towards the Nokia N800 class or Ultra Mobile PC markets (UMPC). Intel seems to be involved, and with their general push into development of chipsets for ultra portable devices this could be a really promising joint effort.

On the flipside to all of this I have had some rather negative experiences recently with these UMPC’s – I had the chance to play around with the Sony VAIO VGN-UX1XN, as well as another no-name machine the other day and in my brief use of the devices I was surely struggling to find a valid use-case for the two. Both devices seemed like a compromise in all respects and offered nothing truly beneficial other then a ‘cool’ factor which wore off in about 5 minutes of squinting trying to maneuver the mouse over a Windows Start menu – bleh.

The great thing about the Ubuntu Mobile effort is that they are going to leverage technologies (such as Maemo) which were originally designed for this form factor as opposed to attempting to shoehorn a desktop OS onto a 6″ screen. I have not had the opportunity to get my hands on a Nokia N800 or N770 so can’t speak to whether or not you get the same feeling of trying to find a use-case or not but at the very least I would expect the device-oriented operating system to make it easier to use — for something. I’m curious as to what people out there with these devices find themselves using them for right now? If there was existing tighter integration between IM, VoIP, and your home and/or mobile phone would this be a great all-in-one communications device or would it be a jack-of-all trades master of none?

It wasn’t completely clear from what I have read so far whether the objectives of Ubuntu Mobile and Embedded include scaling down to OpenMoko size devices. With both platforms building off of a similar set of components (Gnome Mobile and Embedded) they are at least complimentary in their efforts to shrink down the size of many existing Linux/Gnome components. Perhaps Ubuntu for Mobile phones is a phase 2 development for now.

All of the work happening in the open source community towards mobile and embedded devices is critically important. Many of the proprietary operating systems on mobile devices are more closed to end users than even their counterparts on the PC, limiting even further what you are and are not allowed to build. The network operators are leveraging this level of control as a further way to inhibit innovation and competition by users and businesses around the world. With mobile networks becoming so pervasive the opportunity is there to connect more people together in a single network than ever before. The potential for new ideas or methods of communication to bring the world closer together with such an immense group of users is infinite – so long as those connected are given the permission to do so.

Open Source Communications

The idea behind this site will be to explore the changing face of telecommunications. To look at up and coming technologies and discuss how these may contribute to a brand new ‘open source’ era of technological innovation based around previously closed communications networks.

Historically, consumers and businesses alike have primarily depended on the network owners to conceive of and develop new communication services. If anyone has sat at home and thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this…” the reality was if the network providers were not interested or just didn’t have exposure to the ideas they simply would and could not be built. The growth of the internet and IP based networks has opened up a world where the network is truly public, where the intelligence and ability to create new services lies at the edge of the network, offering anyone connected the ability to create new applications, services or products for everyone else to use or build on top of. No longer is your use of the public network limited to what you can or cannot do with the digits on your phone.

With this single point of control slowly fading into history, it is with great promise that we can look forward to what is possible now that we have more open access to these networks. As we have seen with the explosion of internet technologies, open source software, and devices in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band, open access to communications networks which have allowed only limited access in the past should provide a similar catalyst to new developments, offering millions of people around the world the opportunity to experiment, tinker, learn, and build that next great thing.