Election Day

Today is finally the day of the 43rd Canadian Federal General Election. I am sure we are all exhausted from the campaign to date. This post is not about “who to vote for” nor an exhortation to go out and do your civic duty. Rather it is a short summary of some topics specifically related to telecom and technology in general in Canada that are really important to our future prosperity that I don’t think were discussed much in the platforms and debates.

Innovation
Canada’s future prosperity depends on innovation. The Council of Canadian Innovators say Canada’s “productivity is lagging and our future economic prosperity is at risk”. Entrepreneurs that create start-ups and grow scale-ups need an environment that encourages them to grow and scale here in Canada and allow them to compete globally. They need skilled talent (engineers, and also designers, marketers, sales professionals and executives), growth capital and access to markets and customers.

Canada produces a lot of world class talent in our universities and colleges and we need better incentives to keep them here as opposed to going to the USA for higher wages and more attractive opportunities. We need a mindset shift towards the entrepreneurs that are shouldering great risk to build innovative companies in Canada with tax measures supporting innovation, venture funding, employee stock options etc. Plus we need a Federal government that can attract attention to our innovative companies here, even to the extent of procuring products and services from them .

5G and Huawei
The next generation network is being built right now, globally and here in Canada. 5G is transformative, not just a faster network, but also providing lower latency and opening up a host of new use cases especially to power the Internet of Things (IoT). Autonomous connected cars are just one example. We are going to see all sorts of devices connected to our networks, direct machine to machine communications, that will demand security levels beyond what we currently have.

There is an ongoing debate worldwide, prompted by our Five Eyes national security partners Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand over whether equipment from Huawei, a technology vendor from Communist China, should be allowed access to our networks. The Huawei debate is also part of a larger debate about Canada’s relationship with China, a country that does not have the same norms and values as Canada. This was not addressed at all during the election campaign, yet it is vital to our future.

Connectivity (Rural , Remote and Financial)
Access to the Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity in the modern economy. We need to ensure that all citizens have reliable access to high speed broadband Internet. There is an urban/rural divide for sure, but this issue extends well beyond that. We need connectivity for rural areas; as an example, much of modern agriculture relies on internet technology now. We need connectivity in our remote areas such as the Arctic as well as Northern Ontario , Northern Quebec, Labrador. Of course so that people living there can participate in the modern economy but also as an extension of our sovereignty. With the changes in sea ice happening in the Northwest Passage we should also be looking into laying undersea fiber cables through the passage to provide another route connecting Europe to Asia. Finally, connectivity also means affordability . There are people in urban areas who are not online because they cant afford it. This digital gap also needs to be further addressed, especially for school age children who need the Internet for their school work.

I will be staying up late tonight watching the election returns as I am a political junky. Even though these issues were not front and centre in the run-up to todays election, I hope they will be addressed in our next Parliament as our future really does depend upon it.

Eat your own Dogfood

What is the best way to know your customer’s needs ?

Over the years I have developed very close ties with my customers. I like to say that at AurorA and Amitel I do business with “Friends and Family”. The best way I have found to really know my customers needs is to actually become a customer of theirs.

It is a variation on the concept of “Eating your own Dogfood” where employees are expected to use their own products and services as a way to understand its real world experience. By using my customers services, I have some skin-in-the game and really get to know my customers intimately.

Over the years I have bought SIP Trunks, DID’s, Internet Services, Voice Termination, PRI’s, T-1’s, and more from a wide variety of my customers. I have also been happy to refer prospects to them, looking for the same types of services that I’ve been buying myself. I feel confident in recommending a service if I actually use it myself and can honestly vouch for it.

The best part is that all of these companies are part of the competitive telecom and internet landscape, competing against the oligopoly. We are all in the fight against Big Telecom together.

So the next time you need a telecom service, look to your customers first. If it is something that they don’t provide, contact me ! If it is not something that AurorA and Amitel provide directly, I would be happy to recommend one of MY customers to you as I am probably using their service already myself.

Why do you hate your service provider ?

Unhappy woman with Thumbs down

Here is a fun experiment; Google industries or companies with the worst customer service. Any guesses at what industry comes out on top ?

Outside of government, telecommunications leads by an overwhelming margin with an Ipsos survey in 2018 having 38% of the US population saying this sector has the worst customer service in the country. (Healthcare was next with 18%… quite the drop)

Leading the top 5 industries most hated by customers according the the American Customer Satisfaction Index ? Cable Providers, Internet Providers and Wireless Phone Service Providers.

“Hated industries. You know the ones—the industries that customers avoid dealing with as much as possible. The places customers go out of their way to avoid talking to or interacting with. These are the companies that have bad reputations of dishonesty and not treating their customers fairly. The sad part is that most of these industries are nearly unavoidable, which means at some point, customers have to take the plunge and interact with them.”

Do you think this only applies to the USA ? Nope, it seems to be just as prevalent in Canada according to the Huffington Post, where telecom had the worst reputation among all industries in Canada. Even worse than oil companies !

So why do people love to hate their telecom service providers ? Could it be a combination of
– High Prices
– Unreliable Service
– Poor Customer Service
– Slow or unreliable products/services
– Time and effort to resolve issues via contact centres
– Unhelpful agents
– Surprise Extra fees, charges, overages
– (add your 2 cents here)

This is not new. I have spent my entire adult life in this industry , I’ve been in telecom for over 36 years since graduating from Engineering at UWaterloo with almost all of it spent on the competitive side. The side challenging the oligopoly , the handful of companies that control over 90% of almost every telecom service market in Canada; TV, Internet, Phone etc In those 36 years it has been a constant refrain I heard from consumers, friends and family.

Since Canadians love to hate their service providers, why don’t they demand better ? Why not support the competitive players that are challenging the oligopoly that are providing better service, at better prices with innovative products ? Why not demand more ?

Or is it just more fun to complain ? What do you think ?

ISP Summit – Day 2


The Canadian telecom and Internet regulatory model is broken. The basic premise is that the regulator, the CRTC, puts rules in place to support market and consumer choice. This can be traced back to the original resale and sharing rules from the 1980’s and then Decision 92-12 that opened up the long distance market to competition. But currently independent Internet service providers cant get reasonable access to the oligopoly fibre access to the home.

I personally ran into this situation when I sold my long time home back in 2014 and moved into a new apartment building that was wired with fibre from Bell and Rogers. I wanted to get internet service from my long time provider, Packetworks. But I could not as the telcos were not required to provide access to their fibre networks. Even after a decision in 2015 that was ostensibly to open up the market to choice by forcing the oligopoly to resell their fiber access networks, the rules are so arcane that it is not cost effective for a competitive provider to gain access.

In our new home, I was able to get Internet service from TekSavvy using the existing cable TV network for access. I am partial to the 150 MB download speed and the unlimited usage that TekSavvy offers. There will come a time though, and probably soon because I work from home, that I will want to upgrade the download speed and that will require fibre optic access. If the rules don’t change I will be limited to having to get service from Bell or Rogers and won’t be able to support independent Internet service providers. I won’t have a choice. That has to change.

That is why I have decided to join CNOC, the Canadian Network Operators Consortium. CNOC is the organization that puts on the Canadian Internet Summit each year. It represents over 35 independent internet service providers like TekSavvy, Distributel and Primus. CNOC fights for fair rules from the CRTC, not just for its members, but for all Canadians. My entire 35 year career in telecom has always been on the competitive side so this seemed like a natural move. I can’t just sit on the sidelines and let others just fight on my behalf, it is time to take a stand.

Will you join me ?

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 !