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April 24, 2009

America's Broadband Future -- Whose On First Base?

America loves professional sports. More precisely, Americans adore our sports superheros. The analogy of sports leadership, heroics, and sports muscle, agility, and skill pervades our popular culture, corporate board rooms, our civic and national leadership. Those of us committed to and passionate about national broadband now have no fewer than three major teams to cheer for who, if they win the title, will bring jubilation and lead a collective renaissance of the nation.

The odds on favorite team for this season is team NTIA. You remember them. Only a year and a half ago (FY08) captain/President Bush proposed cutting their entire payroll/budget by more than 50% from $40m to $19m. No hope that under the former administration that team NTIA was going to lead our nation to national broadband heaven. This rag tag team is back with new ownership and now has a budget ($4.7b) that would make George Steinbrenner jealous. More important, team NTIA has a mission to invest in an 'open' platform and support all the underserved and unserved communities in America. This is the All American dream team.

Just 10 days ago, one of the perennial favorites, the FCC stepped forward under interim management of veteran skipper Michael Copps and asked for public support and input on a plan to deliver a winning formula to lead team FCC to victory no later than a year from now. Americans, never a nation to support the plodders, might show up at FCC hearings with paper bags over their heads in protest. But this is a team of veterans with both legislative, regulatory, and technical expertise. Don't count them out. Once they get moving, they could put together a winning streak that could propel them forward into serious playoff contention.

Team Nerd, better known by its agency calling cards starting with NSF, DOE, and even NIH (not to mention NSA, CIA, NASA and other agencies)have long held that they are the crown jewels of the American broadband dream. After all, they were there at the beginning. They architected, built, and operated much of the infrastructure that grew up on steroids and has become the commodity internet as we know it. Quite proud of that pedigree, Team Nerd is back, with major sponsors in the backbone internet business, linking the build out of a national broadband infrastructure with national competitiveness, scientific discovery and the promise of even shinier jewels to take the spotlight.

It's hard not to invoke that famed 1888 baseball jingle better known as a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. All good sports fans read Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888" in school. It is, after all, the quintessential American story about hope, heroes, and hype. Of course, everyone knows how the poem ends. And so as we think about the dreams of the fans of the American Broadband league, it may be trivial and even trite to ask whose on first base. The challenge, from my vantage point, can be reduced to the basic insight that designing, building, operating, and evaluating a national broadband infrastructure is not about superstars or even a superstar team competing with other teams. It's time to re-imagine how we get there (national broadband) from here. The goal of developing a coherent and integrated national broadband policy, which in turn informs programmatic opportunities to innovate, communicate, and transform the lives of Americans from every walk of life, should begin with an acknowledgment that we're in this game together.

The fact that the FCC, NTIA, NSF, DOE and other agencies are not being locked in a room to work on a common game plan with roles and responsibilities gives me pause that perhaps too little has changed in Washington, D.C. Incoming FCC Chairperson, Julius Genachowski and recently appointed Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra should consider something radical like sketching the future of our nation's broadband efforts on the back of a napkin and then charge well intending acolytes to go forth and get the legislation, regulatory frameworks, and programs developed (in that order or at a minimum in parallel fashion).

I am a huge believer that Universities have a role to play in architecting a future national broadband policy. I also believe we (Universities) have enormously important work and a role to play in the communities within which we work, learn, and play. I tried to say as much in today's Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle, in its article on a submission to the NTIA by a coalition of higher education technology organizations and coalitions, decided to frame the article as a set of binary choices (was this a good or a bad idea/white paper?). I know, respect, and have been mentored by many of the principals of the white paper. They are among the handful of wizards the nation enjoys who helped to build our research and education networks for which we have much to be proud. AND, (not but) one of the challenges we face in higher education is our relevance, credibility, and effectiveness in demonstrating active listening to our community neighbors. If our community neighbors are being asked to identify their priorities and articulate them in the context of a strategic investment for the nation (under the terms of the American Recovery and Investment Act), then the Universities would do well to frame the challenge and offer designing multiple solutions that begins with those communities being highlighted and targeted in this (or any other) legislation. I would contend that if our reputations and credibility are built on our deeds we should be more generous and humble in realizing how, if, or to what extent we can contribute to the goals of the NTIA broadband initiative. As a design challenge, the NTIA program represents a series of really interesting and important constraints around which we should build authentic and genuine collaborations. I think we can improve our strategy for helping getting there.

Finally, I think America's Broadband future is too important to leave to competing federal bureaucracies, vying private sector interests, competing public interest groups, and, yes, to well meaning but tunnel vision higher education technologists. It's time to stop placing bets on which 'Casey' is coming up to the bat to help 'save' the nation with a 9th inning grand slam home run. There's a lot of hard work ahead. The stakes are mightily high. Today we need masterful orchestration and choreography work. The best and the brightest are those committed, dedicated, and proven leaders whose primary commitment, dedication, and proof is in their ability to work together to achieve an imperative every bit as important as, and intimately connected to, our national security, financial recovery program, or strategy for global competitiveness in the rest of the 21st century.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
April 24, 2009

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April 23, 2009

Oracle and Sun - Redux

A senior manager from Sun is a facebook friend. When the Oracle acquisition of Sun was announced, she quickly updated her facebook page to say ""Oracle of the East" Very excited for customers and partners". I started reading my tweet grid search tool for insights with an eye to gleaning insights from Sun and Oracle employees (or alumni) that I know and who are tweeting. The pundits, with typical 'certainty' framed the acquisition in 'objective' financial value terms. Some enlightened technologists whose opinions I respect offered versions of:

Here is this full set of integrated toolsets and solution stacks that we invest in with R&D and support. From a basic free LAMP stack, through Identity Management and Directory Services, Datawarehousing and EPM. We can put together a solution that fits your organization's needs with the right mix of support,development tools, training, professional services, we can even install the whole thing in a shipping container data center and drop it at your door.

It's in our best interest to contribute back a lot of the these tools and solutions as OSS to broaden the overall ecosystem because that expands our potential service base

When I got a call from the Wall Street Journal to share my view, I outlined that I was neither expert in nor particularly interested in the so-called financial analysis. I also shared that Oracle's track record on advanced technology services was less than stellar from my experiences. While the WSJ article and subsequent reporting and ">here focused on MySQL and the risk of open source, my two cents were framed in much more, I would say, 'stark' insights.

I started by sharing with the WSJ that the acquisition was the 'mother of all organizational cultural mismatches'. I know dozens of Sun and Oracle employees(both current and alumni) who are scratching their heads trying to figure out what the blending of cultures will look like. From my nearly 20 years of experience with Oracles M&A activities and organizational culture I think we can kiss the innovation, autonomous technical genius, project driven methodology, and core commitment to Open Source (admittedly a more recent development) all part of what Sun is/was (good and bad)-- good bye.

Oracle will selectively integrate Java, some terrific middleware code, and perhaps continuing interest with thin-client. While there is likely to be some placation of the installed base of MySQL, OpenSolaris, and many of Sun's open development tools, the probability of further R&D investment in these business units is nearly zero over a 3-4 yearhorizon. As others have pointed out, Oracles likely business behavior will afford new opportunities for innovation and open source activity. The loss, I referenced, is less product specific (MySQL or OpenSolaris) and first and foremost that building an organizational culture, a paradigm of computing and technology does not re-emerge at the scale that Sun represented to the eco-system in an overnight fashion. This is what led me to conclude that the net result was/is a major step backwards. One guy's view....

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH
April 23, 2009

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April 04, 2009

Freedom to Connect: The Technorati Tackle Broadband Stimulus

This week, the annual Freedom to Connect conclave (or should I say cabal) took place in suburban Washington organized by the erudite and remarkably wired and connected David Isenberg.

I was priviledged to be part of the kickoff panel anchored by Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Columbia Telcommunications Corporation and lead researcher on fiber to the premise projects in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and a half a dozen important initiatives (including hopefully one here in NEOhio really soon). The panel featured, Dirk van der Woude from Amsterdam, Bill Schrier CTO, Seattle, Tim Nulty of East Central Vermont, and me representing Case Western Reserve University as a model of Digital Campus to Connected OneCommunity.

The conversation was wide ranging but focused on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus) and its relevance to broadband and in particular to NTIA and the USDA RUS program for rural connectivity. There has been a lively set of exchanges following the conference suggesting once again that the best events are often times those that are generative and catalyze ongoing conversations. Outlined below is an edited contribution that I made to the conference listserv of some 250 persons.

There are too few enlightened ISPs in the US context, a context which is sans a national broadband policy framework. Indeed, not only do we not have a national policy we also do not enjoy state-wide or even regional policies for deploying broadband in the public interest where we have seen market failures. We are, as the technorati and cognoscendi in the F2C community know, among the very few advanced economies with a broadband-free policy framework. The result is that we have relatively arcane business plans for provisioning data services (which today and moving forward is the delivery platform for a convergence of data bits, telephony, and video services). It's a bit of a red-herring to suggest that the opposite of free is individual subscriber bills in this country that are as much as 100 times the $/Mbit as other international service providers who are not only providing 'consumer' experiences at $125-$140/Gigabit, but institutional and commercial services that are being sized at $/10 Gig and now $/40 Gig drains to intranets and to the broader internet cloud. As long as the public and 'in the family' debate is delimited to hand ringing around symmetrical 100 megabit/sec services without a broader framework for a national or at least regional ultrabroadband, I'm afraid we will fail to be answering the real challenge because we are posing the wrong question.

In the research and education community across this country we enjoy, through significant public investment, a national backbone infrastructure that is now measured in 10Gig and by the end of the year in 40Gig pipes connecting everything from some of the most advanced research labs in the world to the pillow tops in the dorm rooms across the land. The networks are well architected, built, and operated by some of the best and the brightest. The price per megabit/sec is well below $10 when aggregated which is a true fraction of the leased line costs being offered in the so-called competitive T1/DS3 or E3 space. If we're interested in leveraging this massive public investment of the NSF, DOE, NIH, and the Departments of Education, Economic Development, and Research and Development of well over 25 States (and their respective Governor's Offices), we have the basis for an American National Backbone for Public Access. Not withstanding the bias of many of my colleagues and peers, these research and education networks should not be (can not be) set aside for formal education and research activity only. The eco-system of education extends to public broadcasting, museums, libraries, health care organizations and of course the entire spectrum of pre-K-20.

Moving from digital campuses to connected communities is, in the first instance, re-framing the most basic questions around how the public should gain access to the network. Until and unless we do so, we're going to have ill informed policies informing the consumer choices we face leading to bizarre and retrogressive practices of 'capping'.

This is not to suggest that there are no rational pure market businesses. Another, and potentially complimentary approach is to call on savvy and forward thinking Governors to work with the Presidents and CIOs of our 3500 Universities and College across the land (along with our national research and education network carriers) to establish a robust fabric for a national public ultrabroadband backbone. The POPs and inter-connect points on that fabric can connect a wide range of public institutions that touch the daily lives of American citizens and in turn serve as the backhaul for new public investment in Fiber to the Premise (including households) to service and enable to models of home health care delivery, schooling, retraining, child care support, home and local community economic programs. As we are actively exploring here, the excess capacity of that public network for public good can be provided/leased/condominiumized to private service providers who will deliver layered consumer goods (in contrast to public goods) based on subscriber interests and new service offerings. Layered over all the fiber can and should be multiple wireless services which can, if appropriate, follow the same business logic of supporting public access as well private services.

In cities like Cleveland and many many other cities across this country, the very last things we need (want) is restrictions on bandwidth informed by narrow and 'national' business models. If our community is to re-imagine itself as being more than a ghost of our rust-belt self, we must, indeed we have no choice, but to grow the availability and consumption of bandwidth throughout the region, and indeed, across the entire Great Lakes economy between Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh (and beyond). As I have been sharing (with those interested in listening) I am pretty sure we can't get there from here through the private market solutions alone. The time and place for public investment is where we see demonstrable and structural market failures. Those public investments should not be made to lock out the private sector but rather, as we have seen time and again through out our economic history (and the broadband economies of Europe and Asia today), public investment should be made in the public interest AND as enabler of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
April 4, 2009

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