WBA London 2015


Ahhh the Wireless Broadband Alliance. I remember very well my first WBA in San Francisco when I was so green I probably didn’t know what capacity and termination meant in a telco sense.

That event was a bit like drinking water from a firehose. I made some friends who remain friends, colleagues, confidants to this day, sharing insights, contacts, war stories along with the laughs and the sighs and the other things that go along with the shared context of what is actually a shockingly small community worldwide.

This was my fourth WBA conference I have attended, and the second in London. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The first two days are working groups for WBA members, and then the show opens up to the [paying] public.

Tower Bridge, from near the hotel that hosted the conference

Tower Bridge, from near the hotel that hosted the conference

This event was much larger than the first one; carrier Wi-Fi and interoperability seems a bit more advanced as a worldwide industry than it was a few years ago. Aside from that, not a tremendous amount has changed. I sure have changed, that’s true. I now know a lot better who is doing what and why, and I’m able to ask much more sophisticated questions now.

I must say I came away from this event with a whole new level of respect for BT. Of course I always knew some of the guys there were world class (Chris Bruce and Steve Dyett) but I didn’t have an appreciation for just how much innovation BT was able not just to think up but actually get to market. This is impressive. The bigger they are the harder they are to change.

Oh, and of course, many thanks to the hosts for our visit to the BT Tower, which is open only for private events such as this. They do make a nice production of the whole thing, and the views from the top are stunning. It just makes you realise how large London, as a metropolis, is.

Not a small city

Not a small city

When I used to work for Ask Jeeves and would visit London I used to take a few hours on a weekend and take the tube to a random stop, get out, and walk. When I got tired I would take the next stop I encountered back to the hotel. No map, no plan, no smartphone (they didn’t exist then!).

That was how I discovered that Kings Cross was not a desirable area (how times have changed!) and that Kensington is lovely but too fancy for me, etc. I really do love the UK; when I was 21 or 22 I considered moving there. Instead I moved to Boston. It’s unbelievable to think how different my life would be now if I’d made different choices.

On one of these walking trips I was in the part of London with the BT Tower, and that was my landmark. I remember it quite distinctly. Never could I imagine that I would ascend it, any more than I could imagine I’d be living in Johannesburg and at the tower as a result of my work in Wi-Fi of all things.

I’m not sure I even knew what Wi-Fi was the first time I saw the BT Tower.

From the ground

From the ground

The BT Tower is also another example of the London I find so appealing, which is to say the mix of the old and the new. Things like the Tower Bridge and St Pauls just don’t get built anymore. The old marble and stone and wrought iron buildings are a legacy of their time, a time when maybe craftsmanship mattered more. Or was valued more. Yet the glass and steel and architectural beauties of The Shard and The Gherkin are amazing in their own right.

I love the mix, I love the contrast. The same as I love the mix of people in this lively city, the food (not that I can afford any of it!), and really anything of beauty. It’s not old that I like, or new. But unique. Anything with personality. Sterile is just that. Although there is something to be said for the simplicity of clean lines and no clutter, but Spartan and sterile are also not the same thing.

The big theme of this summit was IoT (that’s the Internet of Things for those who don’t speak acronyms). I have no idea about this, I’m still busy trying to get Wi-Fi software and services to work in a way that’s actually going to add real value to someone other than the purveyor of hardware. The software companies are in long-term trouble even if they don’t realise it yet. But this is a good time to be a Ruckus or a Cisco.

My friends!! Two of my absolute favourites

My friends!! Two of my absolute favourites

Speaking of, I think the most interesting people I talked to at the event were from Ruckus (also a Steve!) and one of my Wi-Fi heroes, Dave Wright, who not only recognised me but remembered my name! I felt like a superstar. Small pond, international carrier Wi-Fi, though, I don’t flatter myself. Also a gentleman from Intel who was one of the main authors of the working paper on location based services. A document I will read and comment on one of these days. When I get some time. Maybe I’d have more time if I didn’t spend half my evenings on Facebook but hey, opportunity cost. I’m just going to leave that there.

As much as I love doing work, it’s the big picture and the ideas that fascinate me to no end!

Other things I did in London:

  • Dinner with the guys from BSG Wireless & drinks with Blake, who somehow happened to be in town at the same time
  • Catch up with my dear ex-roommate Katharine, covering everything from my living situation to work to our respective families and personal lives … all in a whirlwind 90 minutes!
  • Dinner with John & his partner Phil, who I actually know through Ballistix CrossFit of all places, at their lovely place by Kings Cross. John does design & renovations and was bemoaning (my phrasing) the uncouthness of new money. Really someone should create a worldwide aspirational brand where the only inventory is handcrafted artisan. Mark my words, someone will one day do this and become a billionaire.
  • Breakfast (I had the Scottish mainly so I could try haggis) with my colleagues from Nomosphere in France. Always an interesting exercise of catch up in our very different contexts, but no matter what, the future will be interesting I know this much!
  • Adventures with delivery of a package shipped from my mother. All I can say is that UPS slid several more notches down my list of companies of which I have very little opinion.
  • A fantastic last supper at an Indian restaurant with a hint of Asian fusion. Seriously, some of the best Indian food I’ve had ever, which is saying something since I love it. I was originally hoping for a kind of traditional London Indian place, but, wow. Just wow.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Well, creativity is the how of invention. And I tell you what, in between being frustrated at the often derivative or unoriginal work I see, I remain excited and enthusiastic about the opportunities for innovation in so many areas of our lives.

Old Routemaster, our ride to the BT Tower

Old Routemaster, our ride to the BT Tower

A lot worries me too, from privacy to monopolistic behaviour to the many barriers to innovation that I am becoming very familiar with. I know the challenges of little companies (finding a valuable niche, funding, credibility, finding routes to market), and I know the challenges of big ones (focus, politics, procurement, general slowness).

At least I have many thoughts about what to do. But as was wisely said to me once, this is not a one-day game.

So the WBA event was fun. I must say, I preferred the pre-conference days when the group was smaller and was full of operators and with fewer vendors, and the vendors who were there were more sophisticated.

On the down side, I wasn’t able to train once the entire time I was travelling. There was literally no time in the day, and while my training is important to me I hadn’t seen some of these people in several years and so I have absolutely no regrets about that particular decision.

Random from the musuem

Random from the musuem

The single biggest insight from the trip? Confirming what I already knew, I suppose. When it comes to my core focus area of Wi-Fi value-added services that actually make a difference, there is still very little industry consensus.

Confusing functionality with value – someone could do a whole MBA class or mini-MBA on this subject.

At the same time, all the ideas in the world are just that without investment of time and capital; blood, sweat, and tears.

Well maybe not tears. That’s not really my style.

  • “So you have problems with power. And backhaul. And you have the problem that no one has any money!” – Steve
  • “Which museum I’m not sure because Wilson wasn’t sure.” – Simon
  • “If you have infrastructure on the moon you can’t monetise that either!” – Ellie
  • “I need a coffee.” “There’s a Starbucks on the corner.” “I said a coffee.” – Cedric & Ellie

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