How We Can Win

As usual a good part of my summer relaxation was reading. While on vacation in the Spectacular Northwest Territories I indulged in fiction (Neil Gaiman who is a favourite of mine, Jo Nesbo for spare Nordic crime stories and a Young Adult book “Gregor, the Overlander” from my stepson) as during the year I read mainly non-fiction. My family knows that I love books, so I try to make gift giving easy by having “Wanted Reading” lists prominently posted. One book that I got for Christmas and have been itching to read was Anthony Lacavera’s “How We Can Win – And what happens to us and our country if we don’t” which I finally got to read !

This book is a call for action for all Canadians to Dare to Succeed, to apply the same lessons that we learned in Olympic medal success with our Own the Podium program to our business and economic life. He argues that our future prosperity, and being able to afford all the things we value as Canadians, our social safety net, universal health care, our high quality education system are all dependent on us changing our beliefs and then acting on improving our productivity, innovation and competitiveness. Especially our international competitiveness.

I was lucky enough to have met Anthony Lacavera once in the past, back when Globealive had bought Yak, around 2008. He was very smart, friendly and engaging. Plus I have heard him speak at the Canadian Telecom Summit many times when he was running WIND, the scrappy cellphone company that was challenging the Bell/Telus/Rogers mobile oligopoly . As my entire career in telecom has been on the competitive side, cutting my teeth during the Long Distance wars back in the early 1990’s I was really anticipating reading the WIND story and learning more details about what actually happened.

The entire first chapter is devoted to WIND and its various trials and tribulations. Some of the anti-competitive roadblocks that WIND ran into challenging the incumbents sounded very familiar. The oligopoly does not play fair when their protected position is threatened. The Federal government and the regulator allow this. Lacavera presents it all as Exhibit A of why our business culture here in Canada has to change if we are to succeed as a nation. Our telecom sector is coddled, not required to compete against the best in the world, and hence our other businesses, enterprises and citizens overpay for substandard services. And since telecom services are THE key input in an information economy it hampers all other sectors ability to innovate, compete and be productive.

Lacavera then proceeds to highlight in subsequent chapters other factors that are holding back Canadians in winning in the global marketplace. He highlights our attitudes and belief systems , the Canadian mentality to “Go for Bronze” or a participation award rather then aiming to win big, as if wanting to come first was “Un Canadian”. The lack of funding available to high growth startups, from angel investors and from venture capital which is much harder to get in Canada. Highly touted Government R&D and innovation programs are designed to maximize political gains and spread large amounts of money around the country, often ineffectively. There is no true policy for identifying sectors or companies that show true promise of being disrupters that can be scaled to tackle global markets.

We have seen some of these arguments before in various studies and expert panels that the Federal government commissions and then ignores or only partially implements. The book does a good job of integrating many of them such as the Jenkins panel in 2011, Naylor in 2015, Wilson in 2008. The book brings all of these and more into one cohernet call for action, not just for government but for all of us.

One of the most positive and optimistic chapters highlights some of the work being done at the Creative Disruption Lab at the University of Toronto. Here start-up founders could get a “dose of judgement” from seasoned entrepreneurs who had “been there, and done that”. They can share their experience, network connections, and judgement with young founders. Start-ups have to compete hard to get into (and stay in the program), as do MBA students, industry types and anyone else who wants to observe. The chapter has some great examples of start-ups that have benefitted and were able to accelerate their growth providing concrete proof that we can do this here.

My only quibble with the book would be a personal one as I live and work in Kitchener/Waterloo. There are many references made to people and companies from Waterloo. Tom Jenkins(Open Text), Jim Balsillie (RIM, Blackberry), Ted Livingston (Kik), Stephen Lake (Thalmic Labs), Mallory Brodie (Bridgit) were some that come to mind. I understand that Anthony Lacavera has ties to Toronto, but I would have expected to read more about the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that is happening here in Waterloo where world leading companies have already emerged and where we are home to the second highest density of tech start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. A lot of what he is prescribing is actually happening here.

I quite enjoyed this book and whole heartedly recommend it; both for general business audiences but especially to anyone who is an executive in Canadian telecom.

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.

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.

Pakistan shuts down illegal routes

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Often here in Canada, when searching for options to call overseas we can be tempted by cheap calling rates that appear too good to be true. At Amitel, we use premium international termination services, high quality terminating with calling line ID at the far end.

The attached link, from the Express Tribune, is to a recent story on how the Pakistan authorities have shut down 26 illegal gateway exchanges that were bypassing the system. Some of our “cheap price” competitors will now find they cant reach Pakistan.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/675710/cyber-crime-fia-bust-26-illegal-gateway-exchanges-six-arrested/

Bundling – Who Benefits ?

We hear a lot of ads on the radio and TV about the benefits to you of bundling your phone, TV and Internet service (and sometimes even your cell phone) with one company. Of course Rogers and Bell tout all the advantages to you of their generous offers; the savings, the convenience, only one invoice a month. But is bundling really such a good deal ?

For the carrier it certainly is. They get to lock you in via a contract for years of steady revenue. They get to sell you more services than if you were to pick and choose the best services for you from whoever provided them. Also, bundling locks up the marketplace and deters entry by new competitors, keeping the established companies safe from competition.

From a customer’s standpoint, bundling your service needs means you may not be able to get the best service for what your individual needs are. A better fit for your Internet access may be from an independent ISP, especially when you find that your bundle provider has hard data caps that discourage you from watching Netflix. Or their throttling practices make gaming over the net frustrating for your teenagers.

You may find that the quality of one of the services in the bundle is not to your satisfaction. Or there isn’t the selection of channels that you prefer. Some services that are important to you, maybe international calling aren’t even included in the bundle and you are forced to pay higher additional rates above your bundle.

So buyer beware. Be an informed consumer and do your research. Sometimes the hidden costs of convenient discounts are more than we expect.