Government Technology
By Ulf Wolf: Citizen engagement and responsibility in the digital age.

The Writing is on the Digital Wall

February 27, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

I think it was in December of 1996 when I discovered, much to my amazement actually, that I could read the Los Angeles Times online. Not the slick, graphically authentic version we have today, a dozen or so years later, but even so, the news were there, the Dodgers results, the weather, everything (except the comics, which still haven't made it into the online edition) I looked for in the LA Times.

Question: Did I renew my print subscription next year?

Answer: No.

And I wondered, I really did, how on earth can they afford to do this? Do they not realize that they will lose print subscriptions if they do?

Today, the LA Times, along with it's owner Tribune Co., are in Chapter 11. I guess that answered my question. But I also recently read an article by David Westphal where he reports LA Times' editor Russ Stanton as saying that "The Times' Web site revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs."

Isn't that saying that they could stop their presses right now and (not considering the Tribune's $8 Billion debt) run as a profitable business? Is that, then, the future model for newspapers?

I can hear a lot of trees in a lot of forests nod their sagely heads: "Yes, yes. And so it should be. Sticks and stones are for the birds, words are what really hurt us."

And right on cue, the bbc runs an interesting article this morning about The Crisis in the US newspaper industry where it reports that several big-city newspapers are running out of steam, and time; among them the San Francisco Chronicle, whose owners, according to the bbc, "on Wednesday announced they were planning to cut a 'significant' number of jobs to meet cost-cutting targets, and that if the targets are not met, then the paper would be sold or closed down."
 
According to the same article, The San Francisco Chronicle--which was founded in 1865, soon after the gold-rush hit California-- lost more than $50m in 2008, and so far 2009 is looking even worse for the title.

Circulation fell by 7% in the six-month period running up to 30 September 2008, and advertising revenues are plummeting.

Other big-city papers sailing precariously close to the fiscal wind include the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Denver's Rocky Mountain News, and the Tucson Citizen.

James Surowiecki of the New Yorker hits it on the head, "You take readers and advertisers who were already migrating away from print, and add a steep recession, and you've got serious trouble."

That is what struck a chord. We are moving away from print.

Each morning, to see if all is well (or not) with the world, I do a quick tour starting with http://news.bbc.co.uk/, after which I normally head over to http://www.guardian.co.uk/, then for a quick sanity check at http://www.latimes.com/ and, for good measure, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/.

Then, to check some other views on some topics I visit http://www.npr.org/ and perhaps even http://www.rollingstone.com/ and http://www.salon.com/, and http://www.wired.com/.

Please note, I never step out to pick up the print edition of anything from the front lawn (or the newspaper box). Haven't for well over a decade, and never plan to ever again.

So the writing is on the digital wall.

According to the bbc, the New York Times is struggling to service debts of some $400m, with dwindling cash reserves and plunging revenue.

And the Tribune Company is not the only publisher to file for Chapter 11; three other newspaper companies have also filed for bankruptcy in recent months: the Star Tribune Holding Corporation (which owns the Minneapolis Star-Tribune), the Journal Register Company (which owns the New Haven Register and a number of other titles in the North-East), and Philadelphia Newspapers LLC (which owns Philadelphia's two top newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News).
 
Traditionally, newspapers made money from two sources: readers (who either paid by subscription or at the newsstand) and advertisers. Of course, as more and more newspapers began making their content available on the internet free of charge, the first source of income dried up--pretty much a no-brainer, that one.

For a while papers managed to make up for that loss of revenue stream by increased advertising; but soon ran into online competition from websites like craigslist.com, which began to seriously cut into the advertising revenues as well.

Add to that the current recession, where the advertising dollar may be one of the first ones to go when budgets are slashed, and we have newspapers operating on seriously reduced revenue streams.

I believe that the printed paper is a dying business model. News, of course, is not, and never has been. Human beings are a curious breed (in both meanings of that word) and they want to know. But they want to know digitally--that's what I have to conclude.

It's drawing-board time for the press.

 


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An Agile Leap across the Digital Divide

February 23, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

Beginning as early as March 2009, Nokia--working with Mobile-XL to embed their XL Browser in Nokia handsets--will ship "browser" enabled cell phones to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

While not a fully-fledged browser, the XL Browser nonetheless goes a long way to bridge the digital gap in areas where only SMS (Short Message Service) is available, and will serve up such features as searches for useful information--such as news, currency conversion, and finance information--and it will even play games.

According to their site, (http://www.mobile-xl.com/about.php) Mobile-XL(TM), the creator of the XL Browser, is a California-based technology company "focused on building value added services to mobile users worldwide. Mobile-XL(TM) provides emerging markets of Africa, Latin America and the Middle-East with affordable access to communication and relevant information with the ultimate goal of putting these areas on par with parts of the world that have readily available access to PCs, the internet and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)."

Their mission: "To bridge the digital divide by connecting families, friends, communities, and businesses by harnessing SMS and advanced data technologies in order to provide instant and reliable access to internet-based information on any mobile phone, anywhere around the world," is not only very timely, but nothing short of admirable.

While WAP is only available in areas where the mobile service provider is in fact offering full Internet access, SMS is seen as a basic GSM mobile service, and is generally available wherever you have mobile voice service.

Short Message Service (SMS) is the standard communication service in the GSM mobile communication system, using standardized communications protocols allowing the interchange of short text messages between mobile telephone devices.

SMS text messaging is the most widely used data application on the planet, with 2.4 billion active users, or 74% of all mobile phone subscribers sending and receiving text messages on their phones.

We have SMS technology to blame for the proliferation of text messaging. The connection between the phenomenon of text messaging and the underlying technology is so great that in parts of the world the term "SMS" is used as a synonym for a text message or the act of sending a text message, even when a different protocol is being used.

Again, according to Mobile-XL's site, based on SMS, the XL Browser offers any of the following:

o News
o Sports Scores
o Weather
o Flight information
o Package tracking
o Dictionary
o Thesaurus
o Translations
o World time
o Prayer time
o Fasting time
o Religious quotes
o Currency conversion
o Stock quotes
o Commodity prices
o Horoscopes
o Jokes
o Lucky lottery numbers
o TV guide
o Sudoku
o Checkers
o Music charts
o Ringtones

Also, Mobile-XL recently announced their SMS2NET platform, which further enhances the "browser" experience and extends it to email:

This feature allows you to send and receive email from your mobile phone. No need to be tied to a PC. And no need to upgrade to an expensive phone or service. You can communicate with contacts around the world instantly from your own phone using SMS technology. In fact, you can access hotmail and Yahoo! email directly from your handset.

Previously available only with your operator's or Mobile-XL's email servers, our sms2email platform has been extended to include 3rd party email providers. With this service, you will be able to:
 
o Check your emails anytime and anywhere without internet access
o Reply to important ones in real time with the XL Browser's Email Editor
o Save time and money by making sure that important emails have arrived before going online
o Save energy: no need to head out to a distant, crowded internet cafe
o Stay on top of business and personal email correspondence

For environments that lack Internet service, Mobile-XL is going a good job bridging the divide.

 


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Is Broadband a God-given Right?

February 16, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

Although we have not seen the final stimulus package signed by President Obama yet, rumor (and by rumor I mean National Public Radio) now has it that "The stimulus package includes $7.2 billion to expand broadband Internet access into 'underserved' and rural areas." (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100739283)

This article argues both for and against pulling fiber into "underserved" (as very different from "undeserved," mind you) and rural areas, citing, for one, the economics of the proposition.

Whenever I hear of fiber being planned some hundred and forty miles into nowhere in order to light up a town of four hundred odd souls to connect them to the internet the fast way, I am always reminded of the Same (which is what we called the Laps in Northern Sweden, where I grew up) who had now stayed in the same Lapp-teepee for twenty-four months, and as such, by Swedish government definition, had a permanent residence.

By Swedish law--this is the early 60s, mind you--no one with a permanent residence could be denied telephone service.

Now, this Same's teepee had stood its ground (the same ground, apparently) about two hundred kilometers from the nearest CO (telephone central office/switch), that's roughly one hundred twenty-five miles!

But, the law was the law.

And although an unusually fierce storm might raze this permanent residence if the gods were no longer smiling upon him, the Swedish government still went ahead and poled and strung telephone wire over tundra and mountain over a hundred miles into the Lapp wilderness to deliver dial tone to this Same who insisted it was his right to have it.

At what expense, you ask? Way too large, I answer. And, I believe Sweden redefined permanent residence after this incident.

The point, though, is that when the time comes to decide who gets high-speed internet this time around, and who doesn't, please let reason have a clear and heeded voice.

 


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Holding your Digital Breath

February 9, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

As I write this, President Obama's stimulus package is up for a final vote in the Senate tomorrow. As originally written, State and Local Government are set to receive aid in the neighborhood of $160 billion, some of which states are already planning to spend on expanding internet broadband to all of their citizens.

Case in point: Vermont. According to a February 3, 2009 NPR broadcast, the State of Vermont is expecting to see at least $10 Million earmarked specifically to expand broadband coverage (http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/83876/);

Senator Patrick Leahy, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations committee, compares the need to have high speed access to the Internet to the expansion of electricity in Vermont 75 years ago.

The same, I gather, would hold true for many, if not all of the states in the nation.

However, yesterday, on Sunday February 8, 2009, CNN reported that changes in the offing to the bill threatened to cut $2 billion allocated specifically for broadband development; along with--to me--important items like $16 billion for school construction, and $40 billion for state fiscal stabilization.

This however, was when the total bill was set at $780 billion; today, Monday February 9, according to msnbc.com, the Senate bill up for a possible vote tomorrow is now for $827 billion, so some items have been put back in--let's hope the $2 billion for broadband is one of them.

And so, as this bill is still in flux, many are holding their breath to see (a) whether the bill will in fact pass at all; and (b) what will be cut from it when or if it does.

Think good broadband thoughts.

 


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Bridging the Digital Divide -- Wirelessly

February 2, 2009 By Ulf Wolf

I think we can take it as a given that no one in their right mind is going to light up the Kalahari desert with broadband fiber, or the northern Yukon--where they say it's so cold, even light freezes. So, there, for one, are a couple of places on this Earth the Internet will never reach, forever digitally dark and divided. Right?

Not so fast. According to the world's leading telecommunication firms, more than half of their first quarter of 2008 $8 billion in monthly data revenues came from wireless Internet access, which is an increase of more than 40% over just a year ago. Impressive numbers in anybody's book.

Today, nearly 1.5 billion people--that's roughly 23 percent of the world's population--have Internet access, and that is a 100% increase from only five years ago. And what's behind this increase? More fiber? DSL? No, the majority is due to the exponential growth of cell phone networks in developing countries, where land-lines are rare and fiber more or less unheard of.

Cell phones and networks, on the other hand, proliferate. And as these cell phone graduate from voice only instruments to voice and data wonders, along with better and better applications--and a healthy helping of Moore's Law which makes sure these application fit on these new, and sometimes scary, inventions (like the iPhone, the Nokia Internet Tablet, and others)--they bring more and more of the Internet into the palm of your hand.

It strikes me that in the end, what will bridge the divide is not going to be strands of fiber, but another advance of cell towers into the Kalahari or the Yukon.

 


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Digital Citizen Engagement - or how Government-IT empowers Citizen Participation and Input - is an important aspect of 21st century life given all the challenges communities face. This is a subject very dear to my heart and one I like to keep a constant finger on. This blog shares my findings and impressions with those interested.