Is Internet Access a Right?

I just saw the results of an interesting survey conducted by AnchorFree, a digital privacy company. They asked 2,000 people a number of questions about Internet privacy and related issues.

The most interesting finding to me was that 32% of Americans now believe that access to broadband is a fundamental right. I’m sure you wouldn’t have to go back as recently as five years ago to find a time when nobody held that belief. I think this speaks loudly to the importance of broadband in people’s lives.

I also know a lot of people at the other end of the spectrum for that belief. Many people think that the primary purpose of the Internet is now to watch video. It’s not hard to understand this viewpoint since video traffic, due to the size of video files, dwarfs other internet traffic. But the Internet has continued to increase in importance in the average person’s life in ways that might not be catching the big headlines. One example is the way that the Internet has changed how many of us work. Just in my family of siblings I and a sister along now work at home. On the block where I live there are half a dozen people that work from home. While that phenomenon has been around for a while, the number of people working at home some or all of the time continues to climb rapidly- something that would not be possible without reliable broadband.

The Internet also has changed our lives in smaller, but important ways. I recently moved to Asheville, NC and live close to downtown. It turns out here that most of the households in my new neighborhood subscribe to a platform called Nextdoor. This delivers hyper-local news, something that was talked about a lot in the early days of the Internet, but which never quite materialized. This is a platform where you report a lost cat, warn about a tree branch that has fallen in the road or look for somebody local to mow your lawn. The platform can be set to just cover your immediate neighbors or for a wider area. At least in my new neighborhood this Internet platform has created a sense of connectivity and community, something that has disappeared in a lot of the country.

Most of us also use the cloud today, and I think many people don’t even realize the extent of the cloud in their lives. I use a back-up service to automatically store copies of every file on my computer. We use several software packages such as Microsoft Office365, Adobe PDF services and QuickBooks that are in the cloud. And like almost everybody our email is all done in the cloud. It seems like my broadband connection is always updating some app on my cellphone or computer.

The Internet has also become the tool for training and education. This school year my daughter was unable to take the math class she wanted due to a scheduling conflict but was able to take it instead online – something that benefited her, but which I also suspect saved money for the school system since one online teacher could handle more students than in a classroom. I know a lot of people who have completed online masters degrees that have led to better-paying jobs. What is probably most extraordinary about this is how ordinary online training has become compared to just a few years ago. It’s hard to pictures students without Internet access, which is one of the biggest sore spots in rural America that doesn’t have good broadband.

But back to the rest of the survey. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents said that they are more concerned today about online privacy and security than they were a year ago. This high percentage is probably due to a few factors such as the recent news that the FCC ended privacy regulations for the big ISPs. There has also been a lot of headlines in the last year about security problems and I rarely go a day any more without hearing about some new virus, some new weakness in a software platform, or some new major hacking.

Just over 70% of respondents said that they are doing more today to protect themselves online. For most this meant changing their passwords more often and being more careful about opening emails. But there has also been an explosion in new subscribers to VPN services since the FCC ended ISP privacy protections. I also anecdotally have talked to quite a few people who have either pared back or stepped away from social media like Facebook.

Interestingly, 42% of all respondents thought that it is the responsibility of their ISP or somebody other than the government to make the web as safe as possible. That has me scratching my head, but that’s probably because I know a lot more about the big ISPs than most people. The good news is that subscribers to smaller ISPs operated by telcos, cooperatives and municipalities have an ISP who is looking out for them. But anybody trusting the big ISPs might be putting their faith in the very company that is the primary culprit in violating their privacy.

The State of Cloud Services

cloud computing

cloud computing (Photo credit: kei51)

My clients ask me all of the time how they can make money at cloud services. The fact is, for small carriers, there are a few opportunities, but the industry still has a way to go to be ready for prime time for small carriers as a revenue opportunity.

I say this because my average client only has a handful of business customers who can really benefit from using cloud services, and so the small volume they might be able to sell to them does not look like a profitable product line.

What is available today?

First, there is a very robust market in providing data storage and back-up of data. But there is only money to be made in this from business customers because residential customers can get mountains of free web storage if they look around. It’s possible for a residential customer to easily store a terabit or more of data for free.

But businesses don’t want to, and probably should not use cheap or free web storage. There are already horror stories of web storage services that have shut down and that have left people without access to the data they have stored in the cloud. So a business needs to store their data where they know they will always have access to it. This probably means storing it with a vendor that has multiple data centers so that there is a duplicate backup copy of everything to avoid the issue of natural disaster.

And it’s not hard for a small carrier to get into this business themselves and to store some data in their own central office. And if their customers want a second back-up copy there are a number of reputable data centers around the country that are owned by other small carriers and that seem pretty secure and safe. There is even a little money to be made to be the middle man and in sending all of the data to somebody else for your customers.

The other thing that is widely available today as a cloud service is IP Centrex. There are a number of national companies that will sell this service to anybody that has a fast enough data connection.

But one of the catches to this service is that these nationwide sellers do not offer phone numbers everywhere. This means that when they go to sell in rural areas they probably do not have the ability to do number porting to let the customers keep their local numbers. This is a big deal for businesses. We have always assumed that the nationwide sellers work through some other nationwide CLEC to terminate traffic, and those CLECS, like a Level3 have gained the ability to do number portability in RBOC areas, but for the most part they do not have those agreements in place for the rural areas.

But number portability aside, it is possible for anybody to resell the IP Centrex services. If you are competing in a neighboring larger town you could offer these services in the cloud as a reseller of one of the nationwide carriers. The margins are not nearly as good as if you offered this on your own switch, but they are okay.

Finally, the real promise of cloud services is that it could offer the software a business uses everywhere on any device. These are huge advantages to large companies having this ability and many of them have migrated their software to the cloud. But they have done so with a lot of effort. Most companies operate a unique set of programs. While a business may use the standard nationwide software like Microsoft Office or Quickbooks, most companies also run a number of unique and homegrown programs. The real challenge for a company that wants to take its software to the cloud is not getting the big name software to the cloud – because most of that software now has the option of cloud licenses. The issue is in moving all of the home-grown and one-off software that a company uses. As I mentioned yesterday, many companies still operate some PCs with Windows XP. It’s not as automatic to move older legacy systems to the cloud as you would hope and it takes some effort and trial and error to get some things to work in a cloud environment.

And there is no profitable product out there yet for the small carrier who wants to offer cloud software to customers. There are bits and pieces, but no easy platform that just lets you sweep your business customers into the cloud. This is probably coming, but it is not here yet.

So in summary, other than data storage and IP Centrex, there are not a lot of viable, money-making ways for a small provider to make money yet on cloud services. But I think the day when you can is fast approaching. There are bits and pieces already available for offering cloud-based software and the options are growing all of the time.

Are You Collaborating?

I am not talking about World War II movies and I hope none of you have decided to side with the enemy (whoever that is). Collaboration software is a tool that every business with employees who work at different locations ought to consider.

Collaborative software began several decades ago with Lotus Notes. That software allowed multiple users on the same WAN to work on the same spreadsheet or word document at the same time. And Lotus Notes had the added feature of letting you link spreadsheets and word documents at the same time so that any change made to a spreadsheet would automatically populate your word document. But Lotus Notes required people to be on the same WAN and in most companies that meant being in the same building, and so the concept became very popular, plus Microsoft came and kicked Lotus’s butt in the marketplace.

And so collaborative software mostly died off for a while, although there were few open source programs that were widely used by universities and others who love open source software.

But collaborative software is back in a number of different variations and if your company has employees at more than one location, then one of these new software products is going to be right for you. Here are some of the features you can find in various collaborative software today:

  • Number one is the ability to simultaneously let multiple people work on the same document. And instead of just spreadsheets and word documents, this has been extended to any software that users all have rights to use. Most software also creates a log showing who made changes to a document and when.
  • Supports multiple devices. Collaborative software is no longer just for the PCs and employees using tablets and smartphones can share in many of the features. As an example, collaborative software is a great way to keep the sales staff in the field fully engaged with everybody else in the company.
  • Communicate internally. Many collaborative software programs come with chat rooms, instant messaging and text massaging tools that make it fast and easy to communicate with other employees. Why send somebody an email or call them if you only have a quick question that they can answer on an IM?
  • Some systems let you know where people are and if they are available to communicate now. This stops you from calling people who are not in their office and instead communicating with them in a faster way.
  • Create better communications history. In some software each user gets a home page that operates much like Facebook that shows everything they have done, meaning that other employees can often go find information they need without bothering that person.
  • This can become the new way to structure corporate data. With a program like SharePoint you can quickly create folders specific to a topic or a project and then give access only to those you want to have access to that date. This used to require the intervention of somebody in the IT department but now can be done by almost anybody.
  • Gives you a great tool to work with your largest customers. You can give your contacts at your largest customers limited access to your systems so that they can quickly ask questions or talk to the right person by chat or IM. This is a great new way to extend your customer service platform and make it real time. You can easily isolate outsiders from corporate information while giving them access to the social networking aspects of the software.

So what are some of the Collaborative software tools to consider? Here are a few (and there are many others).

  • Podio. This is software that is free for up to five users. It might be a good way to see if you like the concept. After five users it’s $9 per employee per month.
  • IBM (Lotus). The Lotus name is not dead and is now the brand name of the IBM collaborative suite of products. Check them out here.
  • Intuit has a product called QuickBase that is a collaborative suite of software. One good thing about this is that it will integrate with QuickBooks and other Intuit products that you might already be using. Check it out here.
  • SharePoint is Microsoft’s collaborative suite of products and has done very well in the large business sector. See it here.