Debunking Punditry


Unlike some folk, I seldom pay any attention to my Technorati Cosmos. I have the requisite watchlist, but newspipe polls it only every few days or so, and I tend to gloss over it. Nevertheless, this weekend it caught my eye, and I found this post in there.

I am at a loss to explain why a site called "North American Bandwidth News" feels the need to quote me (I am, after all, a minor underling in the European mobile industry), but I laughed at the presumption of both quoting the less important section of my last post and assuming they know anything about me.

Roland Tanglao writes in a couple of other places as well, and seems to be an informed guy. I can't understand why I was singled out for this, but I have to assume that he simply failed to do his homework when quoting me.

The title alone is priceless: Rui contines to rail at those who dare to believe in VoWiFi, WiMax, etc.

Is it a belief? Well, I guess it is, in a way. For one, WiMax is still years away from deployment, whatever way you look at it. And if it is anything like the Wi-Fi saga, we will have to deal with dozens of subtly incompatible variants off the bat. As to VoIP over Wi-Fi, I'm not even going to go there. VoIP will be everywhere this year, but I have serious doubts it will ever play a role as a Wi-Fi service.

You see, I was the architect of our own national Wi-Fi offering, and where it relates to Wi-Fi and its utter inability to satisfy basic telco requirements for guaranteed QoS, mobility or even real authentication in a standardized fashion, I think I know what I'm talking about.

All of those issues have been addressed time and again over the last couple of years, but (and this is the main point) none of the approaches are widely accepted or even properly implemented - leaving carriers with a patchwork of standards that doesn't even work together on paper.

But let's have a look at the post itself, piece by piece -

Having worked at N*rtel for 13 years, I can emphasize with Rui's continuing apologia for the mobile industry as it stands today and his fervent belief that it won't change.

Like, you've got to be kidding me. Empathy between vendors and telcos shouldn't be taken for granted, especially when the only thing anyone knows for sure about the mobile industry today is that it is in a constant state of turmoil. Everything is changing, at all levels from the radio network to the way services are delivered (or even defined, since "service" stands for a lot of different things and protocols these days).

And as to defending the mobile industry... Roland surely has no idea that I am actually an ISP survivor, having moved to the mobile data world from an industry that nearly destroyed itself by cutting operating costs and margins to provide "free" dial-up.

Although I was never your average TCP/IP-centric guy (I did some ISDN stuff and have a couple of years of dealing with ATM switching back in the day people first thought of running 25Mbps ATM over Cat 5 cable), I still feel more at home dealing with Cisco stuff than, say, Nortel or Ericsson.

Maybe he's right. Somehow I doubt he's 100% correct.

I never claimed I was. In fact, technically speaking, I will never be correct, by any stretch of the imagination - not even where it relates to my work, because planning for mobile networks (which was the topic of the post he quoted) is not about carving network diagrams in stone - it is about playing an endless game of Go with your competitors, constantly re-evaluating your moves and figuring out where to lay your next stone. Except that stones can be anything from base stations to whole layers of technology, and some of them can be sacrificed.

I bet 5 years today some kind of WiFi or WiMax mesh in big cities will make the big city mobile internet practical without his beloved behemoth centrally planned mobile telcos! Check back and feel free to mock me if I am wrong.

I seriously doubt that Wi-Fi meshes will ever take off. And by "taking off" I mean becoming widespread and using common, standardized equipment, not one or two local deployments being used as case studies or marketing references.

The technology is simply not good enough in any regard (from simple range and power issues to authentication and mobility), and the concept has been around for so long (remember Ricochet?) that all of the problems are not only well-known, but also mostly fixed.

Yet there is only so much that you can fix, and the thing that no-one hasn't fixed yet is the business case, which is pretty bad whether you allow for meshes or not. Wi-Fi services, by and large, are a commodity service with a slim revenue margin, just like any other broadband service these days.

Plus, metro Wi-Fi requires a lot of infrastructure buildout (for backhaul) and has per-site maintenance and support costs that rival the ones involved in "regular" mobile networks - at least in my neck of the woods, and I should know. I ran the numbers as much as anyone, and the only viable Wi-Fi deployments at this point are those that focus on business travelers (hotels, conference centers, etc.). Guess where our hotspots are.

(And please don't disappoint me by pointing out that it's simply a matter of sticking enough antennae up and letting a mesh form - I used to think that way too, and then learned about the hard realities of signal propagation and radio planning.)

I think that WiMax has a shot at relevancy, though, because there is a place for medium-haul wireless technologies in nearly every sort of telco infrastructure (from mobile to cable), but I have serious doubts that European mobile operators will invest in deploying it when they can upgrade their current 3G base stations to HSDPA - preserving their current investment in both infrastructure and basic services (authentication, billing, etc.)

It just makes sense. Of course, if you're coming from the fixed side of things, you need to build a radio access layer, or you might look to Wi-Fi as a way to gain market share and boost your revenue - which is, incidentally, what cable and ADSL operators are doing over here, providing both home equipment (cards and Wi-Fi routers) and access codes for their own (or partner) networks.

Anyway, the post was obviously written with more feeling than sense, and it shows, especially about the bit of my "beloving" a telco. Designing data services in a mobile company is probably one of the most challenging and enthralling experiences that has ever happened to me yet, but the word was so obviously chosen for effect that it bears zero relation to what I feel about it.

Thank you, Roland Tanglao, for supplying me with such a nice example of why blogging (with its bias and lack of focus) is not really journalism.

And yes, I fully admit that I blog - all that I write about here is essentially my own take on things, but I try to do it objectively and with a certain degree of background information (or at least as much as I can reveal within the scope of my Disclaimer).