The Black Swan


For Christmas I received a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game”. Before I start it, though, I am reading through his previous works, collectively known as the “Incerto”. I had read “Anti-fragile” and “Fooled by Randomness” in the past and have just completed “The Black Swan”. In another upcoming post I will provide my reviews on them.

Today is a meditation on Black Swans and my life in telecom. People beleived that all swans were white; until they saw a rare black one. For Taleb, the Black Swans are the events that happen in areas where our thinking and mental models fail to realize that they follow fractal probability distributions and not those bell curves that they taught us in high school. His favourite example is the turkey, who is fed for 1000 days straight, and so continues to forecast that this pattern will continue…up until the day before Thanksgiving. His lesson ? Don’t be the turkey !

Fractal distributions are also known as power-law distributions and a popular version is the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your revenue will come from twenty percent of your customers and similar effects. We can see such models at work in lots of places; the distribution of incomes (no matter how much the left rails against “inequality”) the box office of movies, best seller books, the rise of the giants of Silicon Valley (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix etc) where network effects and first mover advantage have the giants dominating their respective markets.

So how does one thrive in areas where the “winner take all” phenomena means that the lion’s share goes to a small number of players ? That is what got me thinking about my experience in telecom.

The first lesson, in working in such environments, is that first and foremost you must survive. As we saw in the financial crisis of 2008, companies like Long Term Capital Management thought they were risk averse by using sophisticated algorithms and models designed by academics. In reality they were very exposed to Black Swans that ended up taking them down and almost the entire financial system. Never risk everything, as survival is paramount.

I am proud that AurorA has been in operation for over 24 years. There have been four or five major pivots along the way, but the company has survived and thrived. This is also Nature’s model. Mother Nature has many strategies that have evolved to ensure survival, such as redundancy among our body parts which is not “optimal”. It is why we value the experience and wisdom of our elders; they have seen previous Black Swans and survived and can pass on that knowledge (if we are willing to listen).

The second lesson I took from this is that even though fractal distributions predominately reward a few, they also leave a long fat tail. In a multi-billion dollar industry like telecom, that means that there are plenty of niche opportunities in that fat tail that can be mined. That is precisely how I have operated AurorA , whether entirely consciously or not. AurorA specializes in international applications and specifically in the wholesale market; niches where I can exploit my competitive differentiators like quality and fraud mitigation to swim in a “blue ocean”. Those niches may be small, compared to the overall market, but they are plenty for AurorA to serve.

I am looking forward to reading “Skin in the Game” next and will report back to you with more detailed reviews of it and Taleb’s other books. Until then, keep reading !

World Cup of Telecom


Last Thursday, the FIFA World Cup of football began in Russia with a 5-0 win for the host nation over Saudi Arabia. The tournament has seen lots of thrills already with powerhouse nations like Germany, Brazil and Spain having some disappointing performances and tiny nations like Iceland punching well above their weight with a 1-1 draw against Argentina with the great Messi.

This week, since AurorA and Amitel specialize in international telecommunications, we are going to look at competition in that sector among nations, World Cup style.

Our next door neighbour, the U.S.A. is undergoing some rapid changes in their telecom playbook. They have always had a fast, attacking style and recent moves in the commercial and regulatory scene indicate that that is not about to change anytime soon. The FCC has repealed Net Neutrality laws, and the Supreme Court has allowed AT&T to purchase Time-Warner despite objections from the Department of Justice. Now Comcast is looking to swoop in and buy Fox. The biggest service providers in the U.S.A. are bulking up with content to compete against Silicon Valley players like Amazon, Netflix, Apple and Google. They can now provide super bundles of connectivity (Internet and Phone) and their own content can be prioritized (zero rated so it doesn’t count against data caps). They are trying to keep all consumers tied to their offerings to avoid being just ‘dumb pipes” .Will we see that battle move into Canada where cord cutters are continuing to drop their telecom bundles ? Is that is what is truly behind Bell/Telus/Rogers “anti-piracy” crusade ?

It also never pays to under-estimate the giants of Silicon Valley. They all have deep, deep pockets and a desire to dominate all the markets they enter. To them telecom is existential, it is what lies between them and their customers which is why they fought strongly for Net Neutrality and continue to do so in Congress and at the State level. Their calling apps like Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Hangouts etc have taken the voice and messaging market from telcos worldwide. And each of them is quietly exploring Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and other unique systems to bring Internet access to anywhere on the globe; and conveniently bypass AT&T, Verizon, Bell etc totally from the equation.

India is a fascinating market, ever since the huge disruption brought about by Reliance Jio. In the space of one year, Jio has captured over 100 million customers in India. They brought in a modern network, leveraged new tech like 4G, VoLTE and fiber and brought in disruptive market offers that were consumer friendly like free voice calling and cheap data plans. India ranked 155th in the world for data consumption before the entry of Jio into the market; now it is the biggest consumer of data by volume in the world.

These tactics are being copied in other markets. TPG in Australia recently launched with a new state-of-art network and an offer of 1 Gb a day for free for the first 6 months. It is data only, no voice as they tell you to use WhatsApp or Skype etc if you want to make calls. Will we see the launch of such a consumer friendly competitor here in Canada to shake up the complacency of the incumbents ? Someone who’ll play a quick-strike counter attack ?

It promises to be an exciting month-long World Cup tournament featuring the best from around the globe. International Telecommunications also is in a very exciting phase and will continue to be long after this World Cup ends. So stay tuned, keep coming back to this blog (and my social media sites where I post other tidbits ) as we navigate this journey together.

Canadian Telecom Summit – Day 3


Wednesday wrapped up the 2018 version of the Canadian Telecom Summit. Day 3 featured panels on Artificial Intelligence and Innovation (both great topics when you hail from Canada’s tech capital, Waterloo), keynotes from Allison Lenehan of Xplornet, Patricia Meredith of Catalytic Governance and Stephen Howe the CTO of Bell. Then the finale, a keynote from Navdeep Bains the Federal Minister for ISED.

Most of the above content is covered on twitter and in news reports on CARTT, the Wire Report and in the daily newspapers so I won’t rehash those details. One thing I did find very cool, was Stephen Howe showing us in his luncheon keynote how they are installing 4G LTE advanced service to 25 sites WAY up North, north of the Northwest Passage. The logistics make it a 2 year build, with all the required gear being shipped up in shipping containers through a narrow window of June to September in a race against the ice. You have to send up everything as you cant run out to Rona for tie wraps or tools up in Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island. That was very interesting to see the challenges of installing cell service in a harsh remote location and it made my inner engineer geek out.

I also wondered if it might have been more cost effective to just get every resident an Iridium phone and a subsidized plan ?

So what did I get from my 17th edition of the Canadian Telecom Summit ? A reminder, again, that it is all about the people. The CTS brings a lot of our industry together in one place for three days, to learn, to argue, to laugh and eat and talk, face-to-face. Given that we make our livings in telecommunications it is still vitally important to connect in person. It is a reminder that I need to have such interactions more often.

Yes, I did business while at the event. How could I not ? But it is more than just doing deals and making sales. I got to meet-up and catch up with many old friends who have been through the ‘telecom wars” with me. At the lunches and coffee breaks and networking reception I got to meet new people, from all over the industry and all over the country. I even got a recommendation for a great Ethiopian restaurant in Yellowknife for when we visit this August (thanks Curtis !).

So a big thank you to my friends Michael and Mark for another great edition of the Canadian Telecom Summit. This event is important, thanks for gathering us all together for three days and I am grateful that you do it.

Canadian Telecom Summit – Day 2

The second day of the Canadian Telecom Summit was action packed again. The highlight was the annual regulatory blockbuster in the afternoon with the addition of Samer Bishay from Iristel and Andy Kaplan-Myrth from TekSavvy to the panel to face off against the incumbents; Bell, Telus and Rogers.

Aside from the fireworks on the stage, and the buzz from the keynotes and the panels the world kept turning. My attention was pulled away by a customer issue that needed to be dealt with. I was able to field the query and initiate resolution with a quick email to India. Twitter then informed me that Kate Spade had passed away in New York. I glanced up to see that Novak Djokovic had just lost in the quarter finals of the French Open to an unseeded Italian player, Cecchinato. And it occurred to me that I now take this all for granted.

When I started in telecom, I learned to type on a 50 baud, Model 32 teletype that served as my order wire and trouble ticket system. There was still open wire carriers (ie wires suspended from poles running beside the railway tracks) and mechanical switches that made a racket when the customers dialled and they completed the calls step-by-step. There were no mobile phones, a pager on my hip served to keep me connected in case of customer emergencies. News was delivered the next day in the newspaper. And the only way to watch a tennis match from Paris was to actually go there.

In the short span of three decades, telecommunications has made miracles seem ordinary. It has enabled me to be able to run a global business from anywhere. I can reach out and instantly connect with my customers and suppliers. The computer in my hand gives me news and alerts, the moment things happen. I can choose whatever entertainment I wish, whether it is watching a tennis match from the other side of the world or reading the ramblings of an obscure middle aged blogger from Northern Ontario.

Don’t take it for granted. Telecommunications really is a miracle. I was reminded why I love what I do so much.The Canadian Telecom Summit is an annual celebration of that.

And don’t forget to call your Mother.

Canadian Telecom Summit – Day 1


What a Day !
A big thank you to Jaime Leverton and Cogeco Peer One for feeding me dinner and a lovely networking event at the end of the first day of the Canadian Telecom Summit.

Viewing the day from an international telecom lens there were no specific panels or keynotes that were directly relevant but there were many highlights;

– Chris Wright, the CTO of RedHat making the case for the importance of Open Source software versus proprietary vendor software

– the always entertaining Ibrahim Gedeon , the CTO fo Telus

– Michael Weening from Calix outlining the ways that smaller service providers can use Amazon and Google to seize control of the “Smart Home” opportunity to better monetize the Network

– Panels on Customer Experience Management, Cyber Security and Network Innovation that all liberally borrowed from the language of agile tech start-ups . Coming from Waterloo, and understanding a little bit of this environment, it was interesting to hear how each of these panels were referencing the Steve Blank lean start-up methodology towards stodgy old telecom. Having a wife that is an executive in UI/UX made it even more entertaining.

– Finally a keynote from Jaime Leverton of Cogeco Peer One on blockchain. Not a sales pitch, just an overview on the technology and how it can change a lot things, for the better. A true example of #TechforGood

So in my discussions with people at the Canadian Telecom Summit I did find one overarching theme and that was that the traditional telcos and service providers are yet again settling for just being a commodity, a dumb pipe.

With all the talk around 5G and the Internet of Things, including a keynote from Rogers at lunch, the prevailing attitude was one of being happy or content with simply providing connectivity. Even though telcos bemoan the cost of the investment to provide the network for 5G and IoT , they cant seem to think beyond providing the commodity service.

Other players will provide the platforms and services that will take the bulk of the revenues that the new 5G networks will birth. Just as Skype, Netflix and WhatsApp and other OTT applications have taken the bulk of the revenues from Web 2.0

It seems that the traditional telcos are content with that model.

I may be wrong, perhaps in their executive suites they would contest that. But that was may takeaway from what I heard yesterday. Looking forward to Day 2

Timo

PS A final takeaway . If you find yourself at a Canadian event, hang out with the folks from Saskatchewan, they are the best !

Canadian Telecom Summit 2018


Monday, June 4 is the start of this year’s Canadian Telecom Summit to be held at the Toronto Congress Centre. This is the 17th Canadian Telecom Summit (CTS). I have been blessed to have attended each of these events, put on by two friends of mine Michael Sone and Mark Goldberg.

CTS was originally formed to replace the CBTA (Canadian Business Telecom Alliance) show that used to be held annually in Toronto. The first CTS coincided with the 10th anniversary of CRTC decision 92-12, which opened up Competition in the Canadian Long Distance industry. My own career in telecom was forged at competitive telecom providers like CNCP Telecommunications and ACC TeleEnterprises and Decision 92-12 was a milestone. Liberalization and deregulation of telecommunications around the world made the telecommunications sector an exciting place to work back in the ‘90s and 2000’s. (PS see my book reviews here for some books that chronicle those adventurous times)

CTS is a chance for the Canadian telecommunications industry to come together; for networking for sure, but also for thought provoking interaction. Over the years we have seen many announcements, both government policy and from industry, some discussions and heated arguments and some entertaining regulatory panel discussions (for us policy wonks).

This year the theme is “Innovation and Disruption in ICT: reinventing and securing our business and personal lives”. There has been much innovation and disruption in telecom throughout my career and the span of AurorA’s 24 years in business. Competition from Silicon Valley players like Google, Apple, Netflix and Microsoft have radically changed the industry. New technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the introduction of 5G networks and the continued rollout of the Internet of Things (IOT) promise even more innovation and disruption.

This year I will be trying something new by blogging from the conference. My goal is to post a summary each night of some of the more significant talks, discussions and events from the Summit that I feel would be relevant to you, my readers, specifically from an international telecom perspective .

Hopefully, I will see you live at the Summit. If not, then check in here next week for my updates from #CTS18 . If there is something specific you would like me to cover then leave a comment below of reach out to me on Twitter at @TimoVainionpaa.

Victoria Day, Royal Weddings and Fraud

This weekend is the unofficial start of summer here in Canada, with the first long weekend of the season. It is the Victoria Day weekend, more commonly known as May Two-Four. On top of that there will be a Royal Wedding on Saturday as Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle tie the knot at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. And that will be followed by the FA Cup being contested at Wembley Stadium (Go Chelsea !).

ALERT ! It is an unfortunate fact that the hackers of the world like to plan their attacks on public holidays when network supervision may not be at its highest. There is so much going on that the criminals will be out in force relying on our attention being diverted elsewhere.

Please remember to be vigilant this Victoria Day long weekend and guard access to your switches.

AurorA has to deliver any traffic that is sent to it , so you are responsible for any unauthorized access to your network. AurorA will pass on any alerts that it gets of suspicious traffic patterns. AurorA has also implemented automatic blocking of B numbers once we detect a suspicious fraudulent traffic pattern in an attempt to minimize losses.

As highlighted on this blog AurorA has taken other steps such as the weekly reports of suspicous blocked call attempts, robust and accurate dial plan and intensified focus on high quality terminating routes.

Have a safe and happy Victoria Day weekend and enjoy the fireworks. Blessings to the Royal couple, Harry and Meghan.

Timo Vainionpaa

Mother’s Day

There is a great anecdote in the book “Eccentric Orbits – The Iridium Story” that I reviewed in a previous post.

It was May 9, 2004. The technicians at the Network Operating Centres for the Iridium satellite system in Hawaii and Arizona noticed a high level of dropped calls (more precisely failure to connect) and a very high level of traffic in general. They were confused because everything seemed to be working normal, and the system could hand almost 100,000 calls at a time and there were barely 140,000 handsets in service at the time.

Then they noticed that all the calls were coming from one particular place, massive numbers of people were all trying to call over the same satellite. That is what was taxing the system, a specific geographic overload. You see, there were 146,000 American troops stationed in Iraq at the time. And that year, May 9 was Mother’s Day.

The only situation that could max out the Iridium system was Mother’s Day in a war zone.

Anyone who has spent time in network or traffic engineering for a telco knows that the busiest day on the network is Mother’s Day. Even more than Christmas, or any other holiday. That is why I laughed when I read that story as it immediately resonated with me. All these soldiers and Marines HAD to call home on Mother’s Day.

So make sure that your network is ready for this Sunday, because the traffic is going to ramp up bigly.

And don’t forget to call your Mother !

Tales from the Telecom Trenchs

I am a long time voracious reader. It is a habit developed as a kid and I’ve kept it up throughout my life. Usually, in the hour before going to bed I try to turn off all electronics and spend some time reading. Often, I will also cart my latest book(s) with me to lunches, meetings and appointments so that I can dip into it if I have some time available.

My interests are wide, and includes non-fiction as well as fiction. Philosophy, histories, biographies, business books and self-help tomes are all of interest to me. Over the last year, there have been a few outstanding books on telecom that I wanted to share here with you.

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story by John Bloom

I read this book over the Christmas holidays as mentioned in my Jan 7, 2018 blog post on quality six-sigma. I learned from it that the Six Sigma management philosophy on eliminating defects was pioneered by Motorola (and then exported to General Electric and to Japan). This book covers the history and the fascinating story of the Iridium LEO satellite system built by Motorola and the huge commercial and political battle to save it from being destroyed due to bankruptcy.

The story itself is fascinating, both from a revolutionary technology perspective and from a business, military and government perspective. It gives some great insight into the thinking that goes on behind the scenes and behind the headlines and how one determined man can make a difference.

It is also very relevant to our current times as there are now multiple groups trying to launch new LEO satellite constellations to provide broadband Internet anywhere on Earth; Elon Musk’s Space-X (Starlink), Richard Branson’s (and Qualcomm and Softbank) OneWeb (to be launched using Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin), and Mark Zuckerburg’s PointView Tech (Athena). The race to provide space-based connectivity has drawn interest from all of the Silicon Valley heavyweights.

I highly recommend reading this book as it will provide some useful context to the upcoming space-based battles as well as being a great tale on its own.
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry
by Sean Silcoff, Jacquie McNish

This is the story of the Blackberry, from the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Told by two veteran Globe and Mail, Report on Business journalists it brings to life one the premier Canadian technology success stories.

This was very fascinating to me as I lived through this time and this story. Blackberry is headquartered here in Waterloo; this is a very local and vary familiar story. I recognized many of the people and events in the book and found it incredible to read it all again.

It highlights the founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie and how they revolutionized telecommunications by inventing a whole device, the smartphone. There was a time where the “Crackberry” ( a very addictive device) was THE phone to have; whether you were in business, finance or even the President of the USA.

Yet, from the heights of owning the market, Blackberry fell due to a combination of factors, all outlined in this riveting tale.

Again, highly recommended both as a celebration of a Canadian success story, but also as a cautionary tale.
Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of Blackberry

Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik

This book is now almost fifteen years old. Om Malik is someone I have immense respect for. He was an investigative reporter when he wrote this before he launched GigaOm, one of the top technology and business blogs in the world and turned it into a media company and research firm. He is now a respected venture partner at True Ventures.I follow Om on social media and always look forward to his curated reading list each week.

Broadbandits is another story that I personally lived through, and it also brought back many memories and many emotions, including a lot of swearing. It describes a lot of the financial fraud behind the telecom bubble of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Telecom giants such as WorldCom, Global Crossing, and the financiers and stock pundits who ended up causing huge financial losses.That telecom bubble affected me directly, as we were just in the process of trying to sell AMI when the market collapsed. Many friends lost a lot of money in the stock market collapse of these frauds.

Reading this book brought it all back to me. If you have been in telecom for a few years you will recognize some of these stories and may have the same reactions I did. If you have been in telecom for less than a decade, read this book to find out the real history and some of the deceit and lies and fraud that preceded you. Either way, it is important to remember the Wild West days of a stodgy industry like telecom here in North America (and Canada was NOT exempt).

Again, highly recommended.
Broadbandits: Inside the $750 Billion Telecom Heist by Om Malik (25-Oct-2004) Paperback

Bell Wholesale Road Show

I had the pleasure of attending a half day road show on Wednesday put on Bell Wholesale. They reached out to me and other carriers, telcos, ISP’s in the 519 area. It was the first time in my memory that Bell had held such an event in the area. I was curious to hear what they had to say. A long time ago I actually worked at Bell Canada, as a Customer Systems Engineer (CSE) and I provided CSE support to Bell Carrier Services which is now branded Bell Wholesale.

Most of my 35 year career in telecommunications has been in the competitive sector so Bell and other incumbent players were “the competition”. Bell can be a very formidable competitor. Due to the large network that they have in Canada, they are however, also a supplier to their competitors. That is what Bell Wholesale does. The road show was a great way to show their commitment to helping competitors like AurorA.

The sessions focussed on four main areas; IP broadband services, Data Centres and hosting, SIP solutions and Polycom voice solutions. The IP broadband covered a range of network products from 1 Gig Ethernet to entire wavelengths. The extensive portfolio of Data Centres across Canada and in the USA (and London, UK too ) are available to competitors to resell. A whole range of SIP trunking options were also presented along with the Polycom equipment to be able to go with it.

There was plenty of time to meet and chat with the Wholesale team at the networking times before and after the sessions. The sales team was there, but also Product subject matter experts and executive support right up to the VP of Sales and the head of Bell Wholesale. Many discussions were heard around the room about ways to work together.

After the event my mind was racing with ideas. It was refreshing to see and hear that Bell Wholesale “gets it” and wants to work with companies like mine, to help us succeed and provide better services to customers. Kudos to the Bell Wholesale team for doing this road show and I hope they make it an annual event.