WBA Beijing

5a

So this was the third Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) conference that I attended. First one, I didn’t know what on earth carrier offload was, or why it mattered to a mobile carrier. I also didn’t know a soul, or really the first thing about business models.

This time, I was a speaker on, of all things, Wi-Fi business models in multi-stakeholder engagements, and I was able to spend a few hours the last evening gossiping with a very major player from the UK about everything from how to approach government tenders to what exactly Cisco is planning with Meraki.

Some of my closer friends didn’t make it to this one, but there were plenty of familiar faces in addition to being able to catch up with Cedric who is one of my closest mentors and confidants, despite living thousands of miles away. But about the only thing in common was that I spent the entire cocktail hour of both talking with an employee from Ruckus, although not the actual same person.

Speaking of Ruckus, I had brought over my Ruckus fleece because it’s cold in Beijing in November. So the first morning I walk in, and one of the first people I see is this guy called Stuart Taylor, of whom I am a big fan. Stuart Taylor writes the BEST white papers. He also works for Cisco. So my mental conversation went something like: “Oh my God! It’s Stuart Taylor! I should go introduce myself! No. Wait. Not wearing this.”

No way I would ever have gone all the way there if I hadn’t had the speaking slot, which is important for a couple of reasons, the main one being marketing. I’ve now spoken at the biggest carrier-grade Wi-Fi conference in the world, on the subject of business models and location-based services. That pretty well makes me an expert. Also, you talk to your overseas peers and you learn a few things you didn’t know, save yourself a ton of time and heartache in asking about their experience with hardware& software vendors, and either validate or correct your approach. Rudolph & I were chatting later about investing in training for staff member to build skills and certification. Well, in a very real way, this is my training and certification.

Finbar & Steve

Finbar & Steve

This time around the major difference is that I spent a lot more time with the WBA employees themselves, for a couple of reasons. But just as when I first showed up at iWeek, I remember meeting Sam for the first time and she suggested I get involved with WAPA as a volunteer and I remember thinking ‘yeah right, how am I going to have time for THAT, what is the benefit for me?’ Same thing now with the WBA. There’s only so many hours in the day and of course you must balance everything carefully …. But there is something to be said for knowing the people at the worldwide standards-setting body.

Oh, and learning how a mobile carrier thinks, and what is involved technically to become a trusted part of a mobile core network. It’s a snobby industry, no doubt, and this is why, looking back, I really did struggle a year or so ago to understand what was and was not important, or what sort of businesses would make good potential partners, which would not, and why.

So that was that. Unlike the last two, I managed to keep the drinking to a minimum thank heavens. The exhaustion and jetlag was enough as it was! But it’s quite a thing to be able to sit and drink with a guy who did Wi-Fi for the London Olympics, the guy who commercialised SMS, and the father of Hotspot 2.0, one of whom finally managed to get us more alcohol after 2am (the secret is room service, delivered to the lobby). They say you don’t know what you don’t know. Well, it’s interesting what you do learn when you talk to people who have high level positions for big service providers or software firms with a huge customer base. Knowing how to think about things and approach the problem is important.

Good times. It had been years since I had been to Asia. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, because Beijing is very smoggy and I find countries where I don’t know what the heck is going on to be very daunting. One thing about me is that I really dislike being completely pathetic at something, whether that’s a gymnastic move or an interpersonal issue or being in a country where I can’t read the signs and have no idea what is a fair price to pay for things.

And you think Joburg traffic is bad...

And you think Joburg traffic is bad…

Fascinating experience! The first night we had the WBA awards dinner which was dreadfully boring as always (this time no Ruckus dogs got stolen), after which we went out to a bar in Houhai, and played dice. Yes, dice at a random bar in Beijing with the core WBA team & a few others. The guys from KT went out to Korea Town after but I didn’t have the stomach for that, so I just went to drink with Cedric.

This resulted in one of the most hilarious stories of the entire trip, as we had brought each other wine from our country to share. The first night we wanted to drink a South African wine but could not locate a corkscrew. So we called room service, who at first thought he was asking for a wakeup call (how ‘I would like a corkscrew’ sounds anything like ‘I would like a wakeup call for 7am’ is beyond me!). Then, they dispatched someone with a corkscrew to open the wine. The guy had clearly never done such a thing before, so Cedric and I were both watching with a mixture of fear and fascination as to whether or not he was going to break the flat screen TV. All was well, in the end.

Happily for me I was speaking at the end of day one so I didn’t need to worry about needing to be speaking while exhausted and potentially hung over. The speech went well, by the way. When people take photos of your slides you know you’ve hit on something that resonates, and I had about three slides where a lot of photos were taken.

So as with most things, I learned a couple of things in the conference, the main one being that the general trend among the dumb pipes is going to be value-added services in the form of streaming content. Makes sense; and the same thing we are starting to see in this market. Most of the real learning takes place after hours or in the hallways.

One thing that really did hit home is that the Graham Coves of the world are the exception, not the rule. Cedric and I were having dinner on Friday night with a friend of his from China Mobile. She no longer works in Wi-Fi but is a project manager, which means she gets to understand how the beast works. Between what I learned from her and what I learned from one of the Wi-Fi guys who was hosting us, I now have a whole other appreciation for why it’s hard to turn a ship. Between processes designed to ensure quality of delivery and KPIs aligned to existing business models it’s hard to try new stuff. Not just we small companies that are resource- and cash-constrained that have a hard time innovating as quickly as we’d like!

Cab drivers didn't know English

Cab drivers didn’t know English

But also … once a pole planter, always a pole planter. The ecosystem is actually not quite ready for what’s going to hit it, and by not quite ready I mean it has no idea. Hearing about the history of introducing SMS was interesting. Such a simple thing compared to the value-added or OTT services of today. The carriers are scared, don’t know what to do, the hardware vendors are busy competing with the software ecosystem, and the software companies are fragmented as anything and many of them trying to be acquired by the hardware guys. It’s innovation in all its beautiful complexity; sort of like a 2000-era dotcom tempest in a teacup as mobile and software changes telecoms. And it’s happening so fast, it’s cool. This is one of the reasons why in the coming years, should I stay in this industry, I may want to start to get involved in the working groups and standards boards. Someone’s gotta do it, and to go in just over a year from being a newbie to being able to more than hold my own with people who’ve been in it 15-20 years is nice, but if you want to have an impact it’s tough to do that from a small company in a small city in South Africa.

I don’t predict the future any more though. Just the next six months or so.

Speaking of not predicting the future, to come across that Asian work ethic again is always a bit of a culture shock. Sure I work … ok I’m not going to guess how many hours a week I work. Or how many Rudolph works. But we’ve got workaholic personalities. Not everyone does, and you can’t change someone’s personality. I’m also a believer that you can’t over-work people … if they don’t want to be there or are mentally exhausted, then productivity decreases. We know this.

China Mobile … sometimes they are on deadline. If the boss shows up with takeaway dinner you know you must work until 8pm. If he shows up with dinner and cookies, 11pm. If he says you can come in late the next day, you’re there until 1am. Such a fascinating culture of codes and unwritten but culturally-enforced expectations. We all have them. Ours are different of course.

Oh and the best story? Think about this the next time you complain about your government. Apparently there is a law in China that it’s unsafe for humans to work if it’s over 37 degrees Centigrade. Therefore, the maximum temperature ever reported by the news is 37 degrees in the summer. Imagine!

Anyway, on to the tourism! There was more to see than the inside of hotels, hotel rooms, and bars. Thursday night was WBA dinner at a Peking duck place, and then most everyone dispersed from there. Cedric and I did some sightseeing around the city – Tiananmen Square, part of the Forbidden Palace, lunch, and then to the Summer Palace. That place in particular was stunning. Huge. Magnificent. Absolutely breath-taking and I wish we’d had more time to explore before the sun went down.

Cedric :)

Cedric 🙂

One of the stranger things about being there, and this had not happened to me before, was that people would sneak photos of you. On a couple of occasions people even asked to be photographed with us, or specifically with me (guess I’m more unusual looking to the Chinese!). I would say we’re probably on Facebook now but not so much since Facebook and Twitter are banned in China and I had to connect via VPN. How crazy.

And the smog! Oh my word, my eyes hurt so much by the end of that day. At night, it looked like it was foggy or slightly snowing from the particles hanging in the air. No no no. The city was fascinating; not what I expected. I am not sure what I did expect; maybe something like Tokyo (LOVE that city!), but certainly not boulevards 7 lanes in each direction, like a bigger, smoggier version of Los Angeles.

Coming from South Africa I also noticed the slums. They are literally mixed right in with the city – there was a big one about 800m from the Westin where the conference was. But you don’t know they are there if you aren’t looking for them, or noticing things like that, because they have walls built around them. Gini Coefficient with Chinese characteristics. Still, the walls have entrances and they do not have doors, and even in a taxi or especially on foot you can see what goes on. Unlike the RSA shacks, these were obviously constructed differently and one of the main signs is whether or not grass is growing in the roof; whatever material they use I guess lends itself to this with age or disuse. Nature always wins, given time and half a chance. Of course, nature can be thrown off too … now would not be a great time to talk about jellyfish!

On the way back from the Summer Palace, we discovered the Beijing subway, which is absolutely awesome. Clean, fast, and easy to understand. Interestingly enough, there is no #3 line. Rumour has it there is a secret line connecting all the major government buildings, and it’s used only by the Party. Sounds plausible.

I'm still not sure what the first one means

I’m still not sure what the first one means

That Friday night dinner was one of the highlights of my trip. We went to a hotpot place that was well off the tourist track, and had black chicken hotpot with about seven different kinds of mushrooms, and then meat, and veggies, and some fascinating dipping sauces: ground sesame seeds, garlic, chillies, etc. I was having the time of my life. I’d never had mushrooms like that before – some of them were like a delicate web that kind of exploded in your mouth along with the mushroom broth it was cooked in. HOW much fun was that?

Cedric left Saturday morning but my flight didn’t leave until around midnight. I’d chosen the cheapest possible flights, which left me alone on the last day and also left me arriving a few hours too late to go to the Ruckus dinner on Tuesday which, from the photos, it was quite disappointing to miss. Oh well; on the plus side since I didn’t go to the dinner to get a little stuffed dog they gave me a big one which I had the extreme fun of carrying with me on the trip home through the Beijing subway and three different airports. I think the strangest looks I got were in Cape Town, actually. Figures.

Poor boy

Poor boy

So Saturday, left to my own devices, I had meant to go check some older area of town and maybe spend more time at the Summer Palace (we only saw about 15% of it). But then I realised that I was in China, hadn’t seen the Great Wall, and might never be back, or not for a long time. So I decided to go to the Great Wall.

This was quite an adventure because instead of doing the boring thing and paying for a bus tour I decided to go there via public transit, being as that it was close and the subway hadn’t been that hard to figure out. Yeah, the trains were a bit different. No English anywhere, or people who spoke English. I definitely was having one of those moments when I was walking to the train with a ticket I couldn’t read thinking ‘hmm, my plane leaves in 9 hours, I’m about to get on a train leaving the city, I can’t understand a thing, and no one speaks any English. What could go wrong?’

Tokyo North train station

Tokyo North train station

Nothing, of course. Train ride through the city and countryside to the Great Wall; walked about for a bit, actually saw some blue sky (!), and had a giggle that one of the best things about CrossFit is that you can charge up a hill that was leaving everyone else panting in your wake, and barely break a sweat. I was out of breath though; not sure why, could have been any number of reasons.

I actually had a hard time leaving there. Something in that place really connected with me. The thing itself is incredible. I have no idea what they were thinking with some of the choices they made in terms of how it was constructed. Surely there was a more efficient path; but I guess the point wasn’t to build the smallest wall it was to build something that could be used for defence. I noticed the differences between one side and the other – so you knew which side they were defending from.

What a place!

What a place!

What a fascinating culture! So much respect; although modern China is both commendable and terrifying in the same breath. I also noticed one other thing, which is that there is a huge variety in how the Chinese people look. Huge. I guess I wasn’t expecting that, either, given that my experiences in Asia have been in places that are more ethnically homogenous than the capital city of China; places like Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia … all very insular in comparison, and far smaller.

They say you should do something every day that scares you a bit. Well, that’s a bit of an ask I think. But I found my way into and out of the city, then, instead of having dinner in a ‘safe’ environment like a hotel or an airport where I could speak English, I braved a shopping mall. Mainly I’d been in the mall to take photos of the mall and research it, but then I realised I should just suck it up, get over my fears, and have a decent meal.

I survived. By the end, actually, I was decently comfortable and even a little sad to leave. But hey; you never know.

Still, I’d prefer Japan in the spring time.

  • “Monetisation as a pipe is difficult.” – Selina
  • “You don’t have a South African accent.” “I’m American.” – Bryan & Ellie (I sometimes forget to explain myself!)
  • “Have you been to the insect bar?” – David
  • “Everything’s fake. Even the prices.” – Cedric
  • “It helps if you can read the signs.” “They’re in English! Ok, that one isn’t.” – Marcio & Ellie
  • “The moon is not orange.” – Marcio
  • “I’ve done business with all of them.” “Do you like any of them?” “No.” – Steve & Ellie
  • “I didn’t say they were stupid. I said they were crazy.” – Ellie
  • “He wasn’t an admirer. He just wanted to sign a roaming agreement.” “Same thing!” – Ellie & Steve [not really…]
  • “Hello. I would like please a corkscrew, to open a bottle of wine. … No. I am not asking for a wakeup call for 7am.” – Cedric
  • “No. That’s not very polite. I need a different strategy.” – Ellie
  • “We need a nap.” “I thought you said app!” – Cedric & Ellie
  • “If you don’t eat your own lunch, somebody else is going to do it.” – a speaker at WBA GC
  • “Wi-Fi is definitely not a mobile technology.” – employee at a mobile carrier
  • “If you quote me on that I will never be more credible.” – Cedric
  • “Well, if the worst thing you have to say about them is that they’re a bit arrogant …” – Ellie (can’t remember exactly what I said next but I can guess!)
  • “At the end of the day, you’re a fixed-line operator.” – Steve
  • “No, again, that’s just you, sweetheart.” – Steve

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