“Liftoff” ; True Life Astounding Stories

"Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX" by Eric Berger
“Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX” by Eric Berger

Elon Musk can be a very polarizing figure. There are legions of fanboys online on various platforms who obsessively follow him and his companies ; Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, Boring Company, OpenAI, Neuralink. Then there are the haters, of which there are also legions, who find his brash style arrogant and some claim he is a snake oil salesman. His tweets can, and have, moved markets (stock, crypto etc), more than once.

It is hard to argue with success though, and by all measures, SpaceX is successful. In April of this year SpaceX raise $1.16B of equity funding at a valuation of $74 Billion ! Since its founding in 2002, it has had a series of astonishing accomplishments; the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, several rocket engines, Dragon cargo, crew spacecraft and the Starlink LEO satellite constellation. Along the way it has “democratized space” by dramatically lowering space transportation costs not just for governments and militaries but for a burgeoning commercial sector. We would not have a NewSpace renaissance without SpaceX.

That is why this book by Eric Berger is so important. It chronicles the early days and history of the company and the people who built it. It goes through the trials and tribulations and the many, many obstacles that were overcome and how perilously close they came to going bankrupt and failing. It is also an incredible story, reading more like a novel at times, a page turner, than a non-fiction business book.

Many aspects attracted me to this book and it making my birthday wish list last month. As a kid growing up I was a science fiction and space nerd too, just like the billionaires Musk and Bezos who are now racing to space. I was 9 years old when I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on our old black and white TV. Through my early teens I used to tinker considerably, taking apart old TV’s and radios and building my own electronics. Becoming an engineer and then eventually starting my own companies was my path and is a huge part of my identity. This story resonated deeply.

It covers Elon’s recruitment of key talent like Hans Koeniggsmann, Tom Mueller, Gwynne Shotwell and many more. The company’s growth and evolution from Hawthorne CA to McGregor, TX and from Vandenburg AFB to Omelek, an island in the Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Elon had funded SpaceX with half the proceeds from the sale of PayPal (the other half funded Tesla). No half measures, no retirement plan, no safety cushion.

Some key things stood out for me. No one thought SpaceX would succeed in the beginning other than the team themselves. The competition was huge heritage aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing that were defence contractors with tens of thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue and inside political contacts in the US government, NASA and the Pentagon. Every other challenger that had tried to build a low cost rocket prior to SpaceX had gone bankrupt. It reminded me of trying to compete against Big Telco with their huge resources and lobbying capability.

SpaceX brought a new process to the game from Silicon Valley. Agile methodology calls for an iterative approach to design; constant prototyping, testing, analyzing and refining the product or process. It takes a willingness to embrace failure, and especially hard is to be able to embrace failure in public, something that was anathema to the space industry. Living in Waterloo, a high tech town, this approach is quite familiar to me. It is frustrating to watch Big Telco still struggling with digital transformation, the legacy companies fighting against modern methods.

The drama escalated in 2008, when after three unsuccessful attempts to to launch the Falcon 1 rocket to reach orbit, came the “fly or die” moment. It was middle of the global financial crisis, there was no VC or PE money to be had and Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX were all burning cash and out of funds. Elon Musk was in the middle of his divorce and personally out of funds, he had sunk everything into his ventures. He had budgeted for only three rocket launches and had seen them all fail. “I thought that if we couldn’t get this thing to orbit in three failures, we deserved to die,” Musk said.

Man, can I relate to that.

That is what the haters will never understand. The true skin-in-the-game moments of an entrepreneur like Musk where he risks it all, trusting his own judgement and self-belief.

The scramble to prepare a fourth flight in six weeks, including an incredible C-17 Globemaster ride to get the rocket to Kwaj was pivotal. The pulling together in the face of impossible odds to success was a key takeaway for me. This is what defined SpaceX and continues to define them. It is the root of their company culture, their DNA, and why I would never bet against them. Those early years and how they overcame so many obstacles to successfully launch a private rocket and also a whole new industry is key to understanding SpaceX , its mission and its belief.

At a recent LEO satellite digital forum in April of this year, Gwynne Shotwell was quoted as saying “I just always smile when people make projections about what can and can’t be done with technology,” she said. “I don’t think we have any idea how technology can evolve.”

I highly recommend this book. And I look forward to watching Elon Musk and SpaceX making humanity an interplanetary species and reaching Mars with Starship. I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.

Space; the final telco frontier

Reach out, reach out and touch someone

Everyday there is a news story about SpaceX, Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic. We are fascinated by the hubris of billionaires Bezos, Musk and Branson to expand humanity off of Earth and out into space. The more I delve into the NewSpace industry , the more I am astounded by how much it reminds me of my industry, telecom. Let me explain.

The late 1980’s and the 1990’s were a time of disruption and change in telecommunications around the world . Deregulation and liberalization were in vogue as competition was introduced into previous monopoly markets. It started with upstart competitors like MCI and Sprint trying to break into AT&T’s long distance monopoly in the USA. Then the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in the US creating a whole new batch of mini-Bells.

The UK similarly saw the privatization of government owned British Telecom in 1984 and its monopoly was challenged by Mercury, a subsidiary of Cable and Wireless communications . Other countries , Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands followed suit. It spread globally.

Governments worldwide embraced privatization of their former telco monopolies (PTT’s or Postal Telegraph & Telephone) to become publicly listed commercial entities and introduced competition into these markets.

Simultaneously we saw the rise of the worldwide Web and consumers were introduced to the Internet. Dial-up modems provided access at first, but were quickly replaced by broadband connections. To feed the growing demand for bandwidth for competitive telecom and the Internet there was a flood of new fiber optic cables laid. According to KMR Research about 80 million miles of optical fiber was installed between 1996 and 2001 in the USA alone. New submarine fiber cable routes between continents were planned and laid. The forecasts were that Internet traffic would double, every year, so we needed MORE.

Telecom was the new Wild West, the new Klondike gold rush. Capital markets paid attention and newly minted companies that had telecom, broadband or Internet in the name got funded to operate in this new environment of explosive growth. The stock markets in Canada, the USA and Europe were filled with telecom and broadband backbone providers, submarine cable companies , hardware vendors. It was as big if not bigger than the dot com boom.

My own career has been imbued by this zeitgeist . After engineering school at Waterloo I started at CNCP, which was owned by CP and CN the two giant Canadian railways. It operated the Telex network across Canada and provided the main competition to the incumbent provincial telephone monopolies. When long distance was finally deregulated in Canada I was part of the management team of ACC TeleEnterprises which we grew and took public on the Toronto and Montreal exchanges. At ACC we also had the worlds first trans-Atlantic private line that hooked up to the public phone network connecting London, UK with switches in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. After ACC, I started AurorA, which provided international telecom services, both voice termination and bandwidth to the competitive industry in Canada, the USA and telcos around the world.

So why do I write today about this ancient history ? Because the nascent NewSpace industry reminds me very much of those days in telecom. The parallels are tremendous.

Access to space used to be limited to governments, specifically those of the United States, Russia and China. The “Space Race” in the 1960’s between the Soviet Union and the Americans during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs could only be funded by national governments . Government contractors built the rockets and other equipment and they were typically subsidiaries of the defence industry. Those contracts were for cost-plus and programs were large, expensive, bureaucratic and slow.

About the time of the go-go telecom years we saw the beginnings of a commercial space sector.. The race to the moon had given way to government cutbacks to NASA; the focus in the ’90s became the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station (ISS). Telecom dreamers wanted to put up broadband in space, a way to “connect the unconnected”. This led to ideas like Iridium, Teledesic and GlobalStar that were able to access the public markets during the telecom boom to fund their dreams. There were also startups backed by legacy aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed and Alcatel. They all sadly failed and went bankrupt. (I wrote a review on a great book on the history if Iridium here).

Then came SpaceX. Through the vision of Elon Musk, his newly minted fortune from PayPal and the incredible fortitude of a young team of talented engineers, SpaceX was able to challenge and disrupt the Space industry in the early 2000’s. They were able to provide a new way to build rockets, using the agile, iterative approach of Silicon Valley. Their unlikely success revitalized a commercial space sector by dramatically lowering the cost of launch.

Thus was born the NewSpace industry. There have probably been about 1000 start-up space companies in the last 6 to 8 years. It was hard for them to get funding initially as many are very capital intensive and there really were no space focussed Venture capital firms until the last few years. Running a space company meant always looking for funding to keep the company alive.

Then came SPACs. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic needed more funding and he was able to get it in 2019 by going public via a SPAC deal with Social Capital Hedosophia run by Chamath Palihapitiya (who among other things is a UWaterloo engineer also !) to become the world’s first publicly traded commercial human spaceflight company.

Other space companies have since taken the opportunity to go public also via the SPAC route such as AST Science, Momentus, RocketLab, Astra, Spire Global, BlackSky, Redwire and Arqit Ltd. SPAC funding typically provides a space company with enough capital to fully fund their business plan so they can focus on execution. Today the space sector is worth about $400B but Morgan Stanley predicts it will be trillion dollar industry by 2030. That is probably conservative given the pace of change.

This is why I get excited about the NewSpace industry. What started off as a government monopoly became a competitive commercial industry fueled by the public stock market. Disrupted by new ideas, new processes and new technology. The new mantra is “You can’t spell space without SPAC” !

My final observation, is that even though launching satellites, hardware and humans into space does take a rocket scientist, in the end much of the applications really boil down to this being a telco in space. Whether it is providing broadband internet like Starlink or OneWeb (there is that same “connect the unconnected” dream), or Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities like Swarm or Kepler, Cellular or 5G from space like AST, Lynk or OmniSpace or any of the Earth Observation platforms (visual, SAR, RF or thermal) that connect their data stream to hyper provider clouds like AWS, Azure or GCP it all comes down to moving bits around, just like a telco. We’re just extending the tower up a little higher.

Ad Astra (Latin for “To the Stars”)

MVNO – Provide Exceptional Customer Experience

cheerful multiethnic women browsing smartphone in park
Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

In early January this year, Toronto-based Data On Tap received CRTC approval for its carrier brand “dotmobile” to become Canada’s first full Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO).

From their press release on Jan 8 dotmobile notes the following

Generally speaking, a Full MVNO operates essentially the same technology as a mobile network operator, but without owning the radio access network (ie. cell towers). Instead, the Full MVNO’s core network connects to one or more existing radio access networks owned by other network operators, similar to how that same mobile network operator roams on other networks.

To better understand how similar they are, let’s look at the big three in Canada. They all provide nationwide coverage with their networks. The big guys do this by sharing their networks. For example, Bell and Telus each have cell towers that cover only half of the country, but they share them with each other so that their customers get national coverage. Each of them also operates multiple brands on their networks, which means Bell, Virgin, Lucky, Telus, Koodo, and Public Mobile all connect to the same network.

So since Full MVNOs operate a core network just like everyone else, and everyone else is already sharing networks, the difference really just boils down to whether you own any of your own towers or not.

A wireless provider’s core network is responsible for almost everything other than how many bars of signal your phone gets. It takes care of the basics like routing calls, text messages, voicemail, and connecting you to the internet. They can also do a lot more. Modern core networks that are built primarily as software can better prevent spam calls, seamlessly switch calls from a phone to a laptop and back again, support worldwide High Definition calling over Wi-Fi and LTE, or even integrate your AI assistant into a call. That’s just scratching the surface.

One of the key things that any new MVNO will need is the ability to terminate their customer’s international voice calls. Since all the calls originated on a cellphone are compressed by its codec, it is imperative that only premium quality voice routing be used to terminate the calls, especially when they are calling overseas. An MVNO wants the best-in-class solution to transport their calls over high quality routes with minimal trans-coding so that their customers receive the highest quality of experience.

We expect a decision from the CRTC in early 2021 to grant MVNOs in Canada mandated access to the networks of the big guys. When this access is granted we will see dotmobile and other carriers approved to become full MVNOs enter the Canadian mobile services marketplace. AurorA will be there to cheer them on and also to provide them with their premium quality international termination, as well as any other international telecom services that they may need.

Competition is good for consumers and Canadian businesses, especially when they can be provided with premium quality services. I look forward to the future that mandated MVNO access will bring to Canada.

Greenlights

Matthew McConaughey

Each Christmas my ask of family is simple; books. This year was no exception and I was gifted some extraordinary volumes that I am looking forward to devouring. The first one I read over the holidays and just finished was not a telecom book, but I am still going to post a review of it. It was Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights”.

This first came to my attention when Matthew appeared on Tim Ferriss’s podcast back in October. I was not really a fan of his, but I really enjoyed the first season of ‘True Detective” when he played Rust Cohle and I realized that I had severely underestimated him. This podcast re-inforced that as it was spell binding to listen to; McConaughey is a natural story-teller so I really wanted to read his book.

The book is more than a biography or memoir . McConaughey has been keeping diaries for the last thirty five of his fifty years. The book has visual elements of notes, sayings, photos and lists from those diaries. As well it is “Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel. and things that made me laugh out loud. How to have fun. How to hurt people less. How to be a good man. How to have meaning in life. How to be more me.”

Two things stick immediately in my mind from reading the book. First, was his experiences in Australia as an exchange student after graduating high school. The stories were hilarious . Second, was the story of how just before the birth of his first kid he shut down his production company and his music label, j.k levin records. His rationale was that he had five things to tend to daily: family, foundation acting, a production company and a munis label. By shutting down two of them he could focus on the other 3. Better to make A’s in 3 things than B’s in 5. The power of via negativa.

Now I also want to watch some of his movies that I have not seen, especially “Dallas Buyers Club” and his first “Dazed and Confused” (some great stories about how he got cast into this and how the role expanded) which gave birth to the phrase “Alright, alright, alright “

I recommend this book, it is funny, insightful and entertaining. Here is to us all catching more greenlights on our journeys through life.

just keep livin

Global Telecom Fraud $92B

At AurorA, we pride ourselves on serving our customers premium quality voice termination services. One of the differentiators of the service offering is also fraud protection-as-a-service bundled into the product. Is telecom fraud a big enough issue to make this a compelling reason to trust AurorA with your voice traffic over the competition that offers cheaper rates for an LCR approach ?

How big of a problem is telecom fraud anyway ?

Well, we now have some very reliable numbers to be able to estimate the scale and scope of the telecom fraud problem.

The Risk & Assurance Group (RAG) Survey of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management (RAFM) received 175 responses from professionals who work in the RAFM functions of communications providers. Extrapolating from the answers they gave showed that during this year:


• telecom service providers collectively lost $44 billion US$ to fraud
• telecom service providers also collectively lost $50 billion US$ to non-fraudulent revenue and cost leakages
• criminals tricked the customers of communications services into losing a further $48 billion US$

The total estimate for global telecom annual risk assurance and fraud losses is $142 billion US$

Telecom Fraud is a HUGE problem. This is why we bundle fraud protection-as-a-service with our premium quality. Cheap rates do not save you any money over premium quality rates, especially if you get hit with even one fraud attack. This is why we consistently advocate choosing quality over Least Cost Routing. Read more here.

You can download the survey report here. Everyone is licensed to share and reproduce the report on condition that they give credit to RAG.

Stay safe my friends !

Hackoween !

Trick or Treat !

Halloween is a time for dress-up, spooky decorations and children going door-to-door trick-or-treating. We want something normal in this pandemic-crazed world, hence we decorate the house, buy the candy and try to have a normal a Halloween as possible.

But while your attention is drawn away to making sure your kids, family and your neighbourhood have as safe a Halloween as possible, there are malicious actors out there looking to take advantage of your desire for a bit of respite, a bit of normalcy.

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. Halloween may not be a pubic holiday, but it might as well be given that everyone will be out celebrating; kids, parents and adults going to costume parties. On top of that we are still in the fight against COVID-19, and the criminals have escalated their attacks.


Please remember to be vigilant this Halloween and guard access to your switches. We don’t want to find out that instead of the expected treats that the criminals have tricked us !


You are responsible for any unauthorized access to your network, but we can help you mitigate your exposure to fraud. AurorA will immediately pass on alerts that it gets of suspicious traffic patterns. AurorA has also implemented automatic blocking of A numbers, and B numbers once we detect a suspicious fraudulent traffic pattern to minimize losses. Also we have also implemented blocking of entire routing destinations after a threshold is breached to further protect you, our customers, from these threats and mitigate the damage.


Make no mistake, these frauds are perpetrated by criminals; sometimes organized crime, sometimes terrorist groups looking to raise funds for their causes.


Have a safe and happy Halloween. Thank you for choosing AurorA and trusting us with your international traffic.

Least Corrupt Routing

“Awake” by Vickie Vainionpaa, https://vickievainionpaa.com/

LCR is no longer about Least Cost. Least Corrupt Routing provides better long term value.

That was the theme of the presentaion that I made on Sept 16, 2020 at the Risk and Assurance Group (RAG) Americas Online Conference.

The video is available for your viewing pleasure at https://vimeo.com/462621895

RAG Americas Online – Day 2

Art by Vickie Vainionpää, “The Third Insight” – https://vickievainionpaa.com/

This spring I was invited to be a speaker at the next Risk and Assurance Group (RAG) Conference. It was to be held in Denver, CO at Century Link (now Lumen). Alas , the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans so until we can meet-up again live, it was decided to move the conference online and RAG Americas Online virtual conference was launched. September 16, 2020 was Day 2.

The highlight of Day 2 was the panel discussion on “Moving Telcos to the Public Cloud”. The panelists were Clodagh Durkan an expert in the fields of security governance, data protection, cryptography and perimeter threat detection ; Patrick Donegan the founder and principal analyst of Hardenstance, a research business focused on telecom and IT security ; and Danielle Royston former CEO of Optiva and Evangelist for the Cloud.

Most industries have already made the move to the cloud, after dipping their toes in it they have gone all in with their whole businesses. Even former skeptics and holdouts such as JP Morgan Chase have become cloud advocates .

The premise was that telcos need to move their software and datasets from their own data centres to the public cloud; specifically the hyperscalers ; Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure and Google’s Google Cloud. The immediate benefits are dramatically reduced costs, increased flexibility and security and then abundant opportunities for growth and improvement by using the tools and software that the clouds provide. The clouds are not commodities nor necessarily competitors , they offer the opportunity for telcos to evolve and become better.

There were many questions from the audience and objections were raised on multiple fronts. The hyperscalers are all American companies (and we didnt include Alibaba from China and others on the list). It was noted that the public cloud companies have locations in almost every country and can contractually tailor the solutions to satisfy stringent government data localization requirements.

What about security ? The point was made that the hyperscalers are orders of magnitude more vigilant about security than even the largest telco would be. They have the staff, budget and experience to do it better. The telco can hand off that headache and hold the cloud companies feet to the fire via the contractual obligations.

Some large telcos have started to move towards the cloud. Examples such as Vodafone , Deutsche Telekom and Verizon were touted with specific projects. It may take time for telcos to fully relinquish their perceived investments in control, the desire to “hug their own servers”.

This is an area I will be watching with eager anticipation. I know if I was younger and just starting out again I would defiantly build AurorA 2.0 as a native cloud company and take advantage of the software tools such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning that a company AurorA’s size wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. The cloud really tips the scales to level the playing field for smaller entrepreneurial companies to be able to compete with even global giants.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch the live stream, the videos of the presentations will be available to view at the RAG website;
https://riskandassurancegroup.org/

I highly recommend searching out this panel discussion to view and digest for anyone in telecom, anywhere in the world.

RAG Americas Online – Day 1

Matt hard at work getting RAG Americas Online ready to rock !

This spring I was invited to be a speaker at the next Risk and Assurance Group (RAG) Conference. It was to be held in Denver, CO at Century Link. Alas , the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans so until we can meet-up again live, it was decided to move the conference online and RAG Americas Online virtual conference was launched. Today, September 15, 2020 was Day 1.

There was a mix of about a dozen presentations and panel discussions interspersed with commentary from the Wise Heads comperes; Eric Priezkalns, Rachel Goodin, Nixon Wampamba and Tony Sani . Canadians were well represented with 3 speakers today and 3 tomorrow (including me) from companies like Telus, Rogers and Xplorenet.

From my vantage the most relevant panel was the discussion on Trends in Fraud Management, especially during this pandemic. Which frauds are up, which are down and what is new ? The consensus was a large increase in social engineering and identity fraud (all manner of phishing schemes), as well as increases in CLID spoofing. Reinforcing that was an expert panel just on stopping the spoofing of calls !

A recurring theme through many of todays presentations was Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) and their application in Revenue Assurance and Business Assurance. It appeared as more than just a way to automate fraud management, more as a set of tools to be able to transform the entire discipline and provide better business results.

If the telcos manage to move their massive data sets (the industry with the biggest data sets apparently) into the public cloud and could use AI/ML tools along with the other benefits that cloud brings, we could really see a profound transformation of the telecom industry ! That will be the panel discussion on Day 2 that I am most looking forward to; Moving Telcos to the Public Cloud.

If you didn’t get a chance to watch the live stream today, the videos of the presentations will be available to view at the RAG website;
https://riskandassurancegroup.org/

I will post a summary of Day 2 later followed by a separate post of my own presentation on Least Corrupt Routing.

RAG Americas Online: Sep 15-16

Coronavirus may have prevented RAG’s North American conference from being held at the offices of CenturyLink in Denver CO, but it will not stop us from running the biggest conference for telecoms risk professionals. Over 2,000 people from 93 countries watched RAG London Online in May (see my posts here and here) and we intend to do even better with our online North American conference, which will stream live on September 15-16, 2020.

RAG was kind enough to ask me to be a speaker this go around. I will be exploring how telecom carriers can meet multiple goals such as increase revenues, reduce costs and improve their customer’s satisfaction via one action; their LCR. The new LCR is Least Corrupt Routing and it provides better long term value and business outcomes than traditional Least Cost Routing by prioritizing Quality over simple cost per minute.

Most of the RAG members come from large global carriers like Vodafone, MTN, Deutsche Telekom, etc so AurorA will provide a different perspective; one from a smaller, niche, nimble pure international carrier that has been serving its wholesale customers in Canada, the United States and overseas since 1994

Come watch and ask questions live from 8am to 5pm Eastern time each day; click here to save the event to your calendar. You can watch the entire conference at the RAG webpage, without needing to register in advance.