Thursday, March 15, 2007

Telcos get a bad rap unnecessarily

Criticising and mocking telcos is the favorite pastime of technology types. Telcos don't have a whole lot going for themselves. They don't develop their own technology. They sell sexy hardware, but it's not their own. They lobby DC relentlessly. And their ads are awful... And they have boring CEOs.

I would have agreed pretty much with all of this until a few months ago. But ever since I worked with the City of Palo Alto to set up a WiFi mesh network on California Avenue, my views have changed. Setting up networks is hard. Digging up the ground (for cable), installing towers (for cell phones) or climbing light poles (for mesh networks) is not easy.

I must confess that for one reason or the other, we were never able to get the network to work very well. Moreover, there were all sorts of challenges - having the right equipment to install the equipment, making sure the equipment is tuned/configured, making sure the equipment wasn't taken away (one day, we found the equipment lying on the ground since they had removed it from the light poles for maintenace reasons). Even Google Almighty's network in Mtn View barely works, when we compare it to a Verizon or Cingular cell phone network.

I've read these stories about how Google, Microsoft and others want to compete with the telcos, but they'll somehow be nicer than the telcos. I don't buy it. Being a telco and a good one at that is hard. You have to deal with the physical world, and with all sorts of pressures from a million bureaucracies. Taking a page from the Situationists' book, I'd that if you try to do a carrier's job, you will become a carrier too - warts and all.

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