Author Archives: Ari Rabban

Stevens Institute of Technology, A Hidden Tech Gem

by Ari Rabban

Logo for Stevens Institute of TechnologyLast Friday, I was privileged to spend the morning on a private tour of the Stevens Institute of Technology, hosted by the institute’s President Nariman Farvardin. With me were three CEOs of other New Jersey-based tech companies, all of us board members of the New Jersey Technology Council. Our goal? Learning how to increase cooperation between the corporate world and academia.

As a sponsor and supporter of the NJ Tech Meetup, which is hosted at Stevens, I am a frequent visitor to the institute. I know how beautiful the campus is and the amazing view it has of the New York City skyline. What I wasn’t aware of, is the institution’s rich history. Alumnae include Samuel Bush, patriarch of the Bush family, and Henry Gantt, inventor of the Gantt Chart, along with Eugene McDermott and Charles Stewart Mott, founders of Texas Instruments and General Motors respectively. I was also unaware of the pioneering research done at Stevens, its innovative approach to tech education, and how it prepares students for the emerging tech-oriented job market.

Visiting Stevens Institute of Technology

Stevens has a student body of 2,900 undergrads, 3,200 in graduate programs, and a real-world focused curriculum that boasts partnerships with leading corporations from finance giants to Broadway entertainment.

As President Farvardin explained, after the 2008 financial crisis, higher education, especially at the undergrad level, began adjusting to meet market demands. I am no expert but can’t imagine many traditional universities teaching music the way they do it at Stevens — with a focus on technology that leads to many graduates landing jobs on Broadway and the like.

During our tour, we visited the Hanlon Financial Systems Labs for computational finance. The freshman class we observed were all computer-science, mechanical-engineering and chemical-engineering students, all gaining solid, real-world training. We also visited the amazing Cybersecurity Lab, a program that works closely with corporations and government to address the growing risks of cybercrime. Students work with companies to solve existing problems, and many students go on to intern and eventually land full-time jobs with the university’s corporate partners and supporters.

Now before I upset friends at CMU, my alma mater, I’m not saying Stevens is the only leading tech-focused university. But institutions like Stevens and Newark-based New Jersey Institute of Technology, where Phone.com is based, are prime examples of a shift to technology-oriented education. And if high-school graduates have the opportunity to get a tech-based college education in any of the engineering disciplines, and certainly in computer programing, I would highly recommend it!

Another lab we toured during our visit, was the Immersion Lab, another amazing example of how academic research can partner in a very practical way with the corporate world and government. The lab’s main conference room is more like a command center, with wall-sized interactive monitors. Yet their research is what’s key. The Immersion Lab partners with the State of New Jersey to evaluate the risk of another catastrophe like super storm Sandy, using visualization techniques and simulations.

Finally, since I am sharing lab stories, in my opinion the crown jewel of what we saw at Stevens was the Davidson Lab. Located in a World War II-era building, you will find a 350-foot-long concrete pool that is used to model and assess marine craft designs. From navy torpedoes to America’s Cup racing vessels, the Davidson Lab at Stevens is one of only a couple such labs in the United States. The pool allows scientists to simulate high-wave conditions, and it was certainly the highlight of my visit to see a simulation in action!

Davidson Lab at Stevens Institute of Technology

net-neutrality

The Net Neutrality Debate, or Is It a Net Neutrality Debacle?

by Ari Rabban

I wrote about the FCC’s Net Neutrality proposal a few months ago and the debate is heating up again.

Perhaps comedian John Oliver explained it best back in June: At issue is the creation of a two-tier system, or rather an HOV lane for those services that can pay more — players like Netflix, who recently signed service agreements with the largest cable provider Comcast.

Some time back, the FCC asked the public to comment on Net Neutrality and now those comments are being published. A report summarizes more than a million of the comments received, the gist of the feedback indicating that less than one percent of those commenting oppose Net Neutrality.

Is this surprising? No—of course the average person favors Net Neutrality because it means equality, paying less and getting better service. The bottom line, though, is that we are still in a messy situation and, sadly, I can only anticipate that further lobbying will win the day for the big players. The term Net Neutrality can be confusing, even though there is nothing unclear or neutral about implementing a fast lane.

I agree that broadband providers building out multi-billion-dollar networks only to see large customers like Netflix or Google or Facebook reap the rewards at no cost is a problem. Just as big of an issue, though, would be those same providers—ATT, Verizon, Comcast and the other big cable companies who connect most US homes to the Internet—selling their own content to consumers in competition with smaller services that have to use their networks to reach our homes.

Treating Broadband as a Utility … Read On!

It is my opinion that broadband should be viewed as a utility and delivered as a utility. Consumers should be able to select and pay for the level of broadband they want, choosing the content and add-on services they want too, even if that content is provided by a smaller competitor of, say, Netflix that can’t afford the fast-lane rate. Content from a smaller provider should be available to consumers at the same speed as Netflix content, and not at a higher price either.

Furthermore, broadband providers should not have the ability to slow the delivery of another service, be it movie streaming or telephony, just because it competes with their own service. In our case, Phone.com may use broadband to deliver phone service, and having Comcast or AT&T block or slow our delivery because they too offer phone service should not be allowed.

Keeping It Commercial!

Google is trying to roll out its own broadband network so that it won’t need to rely on Verizon or AT&T. The Internet giant has started offering broadband in Austin, Texas, for example. Perhaps Microsoft has the power to do this too, but no one else comes close. Even Apple relies on either residential broadband or 3G/4G networks to support their devices.

Small service providers have no choice but to rely on large broadband providers, which is why I believe broadband should be delivered as a commercial utility, as opposed to a public one. I live in New Jersey, and after Hurricane Sandy I can tell you that no one here needs a reminder of the quality of public utilities. The Internet must evolve to meet the challenges of scale technology and scale that lie before us, so we need whoever provides broadband to be continually upgrading their networks.

To be fair, if a particular service (and again, Netflix is often the example given) appropriates much of the bandwidth and slows the delivery speed of other services on the network, is that a desired result of Net Neutrality? Is it fair to Verizon? Verizon’s Fiber Optic Service (FiOS) customers will complain that service is slow and Verizon’s billions will be going to benefit Netflix while others (including Verizon) will suffer.

Bringing It All Together

If providers were to offer broadband as a commercial utility in a just and equitable way, they would charge consumers the appropriate price for the level of broadband service they choose. They could also put measures in place to regulate general Internet traffic speed, based on need, without allowing larger players to sideline competitors. As regulated commercial broadband utility suppliers, they would also not favor their own content in the market at the expense of other content and service providers.

I don’t see Verizon (and AT&T and Comcast) offering services like phone service, TV and their own Internet services, while at the same time controlling the broadband that other competitive content providers need in order to reach the consumer. That for me is the Bell System breakup of the 21st Century. Before the Bell breakup, we had one big AT&T controlling all phone services nationwide and also, through Bell Labs and its product arm, controlling all the switches and other phone network infrastructure that was needed to provide service. This monopoly broke up in several phases over 20 years and it began when competitive phone companies started popping up.

So to summarize, the US needs a different kind of broadband-provider model—one that offers multiple, competing sources (fiber optic, coax and wireless broadband, for example), provided by companies prepared to focus on developing infrastructure NOT on providing content over those networks. And the markets are sure to figure out the right pricing model that, with the help of positive regulation, will prevent incumbents’ advantage and foster innovation.

Port Your Google Voice Number to Phone.com Today!

by Ari Rabban

google_voice_to_phonecomThe free Google Voice service has been around for several years now, but its days may be numbered. Google is opting to discontinue support for third party services, migrating it into their Google Hangouts platform.

For those of you currently using Google Voice who are concerned about losing your number and phone service, Phone.com has a fantastic offer for you!

Any Google Voice customer can easily port their number to Phone.com free of charge and then continue to use their Google Voice number with Phone.com. This includes free use of the Phone.com Mobile App, along with a wide range of phone features for you to enjoy. We also offer a variety of desktop phones, giving you the convenience of VoIP calling.

Now for the icing on the cake: We offer 24×7 phone support! Phone.com service starts at $9.99 per month but I am happy to extend a special offer of 90 days free to any Google Voice customer. Click here to get started!

Should Your Gas Company Sell You a BBQ Grill? Talking About Net Neutrality

by Ari Rabban

net_neutralityNet neutrality. If you work for a company that does business online, you’ve likely heard this term. The concept and goals of net neutrality seem simple and fair: Don’t let the big kids bully the little kids or stop them from playing on the playground. The concern is that when net neutrality is jeopardized, everyone using the Internet can be affected, either by reduced services, higher prices or both.

It seems every few months there is some new ruling regarding net neutrality, and it can all become a little ho-hum. But the FCC’s recent announcement on net neutrality astounded many.

In a nutshell, the debate is whether the large commercial broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others have to allow free and equal rights to any content provider (think Netflix or YouTube) to deliver their media to the consumer. The big players contend that popular web-based services are clogging the network that they paid billions to develop. This also applies to web-based businesses and most regular content providers, not just those streaming video content.  Netflix and YouTube don’t feel they can offer the service level they need because the network is clogged and if, as the new ruling suggests, content providers will be allowed to pay broadband providers to get faster access, then small content and service providers will suffer.

From all the pundits who voiced opinions, and all the protests and write-ups on the topic, one caught my attention—a New York Times op-ed piece called The Wire Next Time by technology law expert Susan Crawford. Crawford’s article suggests broadband should be delivered to homes and businesses using municipal-level fiber networks. She states that MUNI networks can be a long-term solution to dealing with the costs and political wrangling that make net neutrality difficult. Crawford also offers real-life examples of towns where municipal fiber networks operate successfully. Sadly, her solution seems impossible in most places because of the stronghold and lobbying power of the big broadband players.

Frankly, I believe that we need to go one step further and see broadband simply as a utility. Like electricity, gas and water, broadband should be delivered to consumers by providers who are responsible solely for delivering broadband.

If you think about it, we don’t see electricity companies trying to sell us washing machines, and if they did, I doubt you’d see them blocking the sale of other brands. Likewise, if gas companies started selling BBQ grills, I can’t imagine them lobbying to prevent the sale of Broil King or Weber grills.

So whether fiber or wireless (the latter may prove to be the way of the future), Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and the other big kids on the playground should not be allowed to control the network and sell the content. I believe that we have today is bad—an infrastructure and climate that benefits the big kids and hurt startups, innovation and the consumer.

Reflections From PTC’14

by Ari Rabban

ptc_reflectionsI recently had the privilege of attending and speaking at the Pacific Telecommunications Council 2014 (PTC’14) in Honolulu, Hawaii.  I know– it’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it.  While I can’t begin to summarize everything that was said by some true visionaries and renowned experts, I want to share some of the highlights that really stood out to me.

First of all, with net neutrality recently coming back into the limelight, there was much discussion about companies like Netflix who are challenging service providers to not discriminate against their traffic.  Dr. Hussein Eslambolchi, former President and CEO of AT&T Labs and Network Services, wonders “if incumbents can ever really reinvent themselves and get rid of that ‘not invented here’ mentality, and whether they can truly add value-added services.  Or will they just continue to focus on ‘dumb pipes’ and trying to prevent others from competing with them rather than helping to push the industry forward?”  This certainly poses a risk and challenge to 3rd parties across a number of industries—not just telecommunications.

A second insight I gained was that there is a significant amount of bandwidth, equipment, and cost that is wasted by inefficient routing methodologies. Although a large amount of voice traffic is transmitted over IP, calls that are transmitted from one VoIP provider to another still need to make their way to the public network (PSTN) first. As VoIP becomes more and more prevalent, both with end-users and as a core telephony technology, the industry will need to “learn” how to keep voice traffic in the IP domain, and bypass the public network when possible.

On an interesting note, we discussed the fact that laser technology is currently being overlooked.  When we consider the need for faster broadband, laser and photonics are still realistically a decade away, but could ultimately replace the means by which many applications are delivered.  This article discusses the possibility of using laser beam projectors to serve video to multiple rooms in a house.

Finally, I gained a couple new insights that apply to both business and networking practice.  First, much discussion circled around the importance in the “make vs. buy” to shift our mindset to buy first.  We should focus on what we do best and acquire supporting solutions available in the marketplace and optimize or replace down the road as needed.  Second, companies need to design their networks with failure in mind from the very beginning.  Assume failure will happen and have a plan to address it.

Truly some sage advice from this group of experts, making my attendance at PTC’14 well worth the trip!