Infrastructure

Solving Infrastructure Problems From the Bottom Up

By Kish Rajan

Walking down the streets of San Diego, it’s not immediately apparent that the city is at the center of a technological revolution in infrastructure. That’s because the technology, 3,200 sensors, is hidden inside the city’s new street lights. The sensors collect data that will help the city save $2.5 million on electricity each year, track air quality, and improve traffic flow and parking. They can even be of use to public-safety first responders.

San Diego’s smart lights are just part of the city’s push to rebuild its infrastructure. Last June, voters approved the Rebuild San Diego ballot initiative, which will provide up to $4 billion for infrastructure projects over the next 25 years.

Expect to see more local and state governments taking infrastructure problems into their own hands. Given the realities of politics in Washington, they know the folly of waiting for the federal government to step in and save the day. And it’s highly unlikely that any new infrastructure plan that did emerge from Washington would cover more than a fraction of the $4.6 trillion that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates it would cost to fix everything — more than the federal government spends in a year.

ASCE’s latest report card gives America’s infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus. And no one knows better than those at the local level how our deteriorating infrastructure makes us less competitive globally, not to mention the safety concerns it raises for the people who use crumbling bridges, overpasses and tunnels every day or who drink water that might be contaminated by sewage overflows, just to name a few issues. They need to take a page from San Diego’s playbook and find creative ways to start solving infrastructure problems from the bottom up.

It’s already beginning to happen. South Bend, Ind., for example, is a sewer overflow city. Hundreds of billions of gallons of raw sewage overflow into local rivers and lakes every year. Aiming to improve the situation, the city, under Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has begun using a system called CSOnet, developed by a local company, that collects data from sensors inside the sewers so the city can redirect water to empty pipes and reduce the overflows.

In Multnomah County, Ore., more than a third of the commercial buildings use more energy than they should. But the Building Ready Multnomah initiative, started by former County Commissioner Jules Bailey, helps finance capital improvements that reduce energy consumption or generate energy. The organization leverages public and private resources for the loans and encourages participants to use the savings generated from becoming more energy efficient toward seismic upgrades to prepare for natural disasters.

And as some Western states struggle to build up their renewable-energy infrastructure, other states, including California, have excess renewable energy capacity. California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg has proposed the creation of a regional grid operator and energy exchange to make it easier for states to buy and sell energy to each other, which could reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions.

These efforts might seem small, but they can add up to a serious impact. With the continuing dysfunction in Washington, it may be years before we see a comprehensive federal infrastructure effort. But as these local leaders have shown, that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to improve our grade.

SCOTUS Smacks Down Patent Trolls

By Mike Montgomery

In all the political hoopla dominating the news lately, many people probably missed a U.S. Supreme Court decision that will actually have a huge impact on technological innovation. On May 22, the court ruled to restrict where patent lawsuits can be filed. The decision is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of cases filed by so-called patent trolls. It’s about time.

Trolls don’t build anything, employ anyone or add any value whatsoever to the economy. They simply buy up overly broad, somewhat vague intellectual property (IP) patents and use them as cudgels to bully plaintiffs into paying them to go away. Trolls count on a trial being more expensive than an out-of-court settlement.

Until this recent decision, the trolls’ favorite place to bring suits was the Eastern District of Texas, which has rules — and juries — that favor IP plaintiffs. It’s not a huge surprise that more than 40% of all patent lawsuits are filed there. One East Texas judge oversaw more patent cases than the federal judges in California, Florida and New York combined. The region became a troll haven partially by accident, but mostly by design. All those lawsuits — more than 2,500 last year in the region— bring in legal teams that spend money at area hotels and restaurants and usually even throw a few crumbs to the local legal talent.

But the SCOTUS decision sounded a death knell for their cottage industry. In the two weeks preceding the ruling, 74 patent cases were filed in the Eastern District. The week after — just four cases. The well dried up fast. That’s because the ruling in Heartland v Kraft means patent cases must be filed where the infringement took place, or where the defendant has an established business. That’s usually not East Texas.

This decision is going to make a huge difference for startups and small businesses that can’t afford to fight expensive legal cases in far-flung towns, especially when the deck already is stacked against defendants. It’s easier to settle immediately, or to just not go down that innovation path.

Patent trolls waste billions of dollars each year and ultimately hurt consumers. Studies have shown that trolls syphon off money from research and development, venture capital investments and tech startups in particular. Patents are designed to protect investment and innovation, and they work in some industries like big pharma. But the tech industry has been crying out for reform.

Unfortunately, Congress has repeatedly refused to act, despite two bills that would reform the tech patent industry. The Patent Act would make it more difficult to file troll suits, while the Innovation Act would cut down on the broad, vague language used by trolls and, more importantly, force them to pay legal fees when they lose.

Of course, action may not be as necessary now. The new ruling most likely will make it harder for trolls to consolidate cases, thereby eliminating marginal cases and potentially leading to a reduction in the number of cases filed overall.

Mike Montgomery is the Executive Director at CALinnovates.

Turning to Tech to Help Solve California’s Water Problems

By Kish Rajan

The recent flooding around the Orville dam was dramatic — images of flooded fields, evacuated homes and water bursting out of spillways made the news as far away as England. This despite nearly a decade’s worth of warnings.

And it’s not the only place in California that’s been impacted by the recent deluge. One more big storm could cause flooding around the King’s River overflow system. Road closures and flash flood warnings have been rampant throughout the Coachella Valley and beyond in Southern California. Hundreds were forced to evacuate after a levee breach in Manteca.

It’s unsettling to see something like this happening in 2017. How is it that we have cars that can park themselves, cellphones that act like credit cards and watches that monitor our heartbeats, but we’re still struggling to manage our water — something that’s been an issue for as long as people have inhabited the earth?

We need to rethink California’s water infrastructure. Interests in our state have been engaging in the same fight over water ad nauseum. The battle lines are traditionally between the north and the south and between industry and agriculture. While those fights go on, vital infrastructure is allowed to crumble. Those fights have distracted us from looking to a new source to solve California’s water problems: the tech industry.

Our state is the hub of technological genius — we just need to encourage entrepreneurs to fix their sights on our water problems.

Look at what technology has done in the energy sector. Over the last 20 years we’ve led the nation in growing the market for solar energy and making appliances and electronics more efficient so they use less power. According to Greenbiz, California is on track to generate 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and the clean-tech industry has generated 430,000 jobs in the state.

It’s time to put that same kind of muscle behind water. Politicians and tech leaders need to come to the table and begin to figure out smart fixes for our aging water infrastructure. To start, California should make its water records public so that anyone can use that data to better understand how and where we use water and come up with ways to save it.

Then we need to make our waterways smarter. Using sensors placed throughout the water system, engineers could develop apps that track where the water is, where it’s needed and how best to get it from point A to point B.

Smart-home monitors could help encourage people to use less water by alerting them to their water use. Showers heads could be equipped with sensors that can tell if you’ve stepped out of the stream to shave and then lower the water flow. New technologies could reuse gray water and even harvest water from dew, fog and the ocean.

State officials have been working overtime to fix erosion problems around the Oroville Dam to keep it stable for the latest round of storms, and we should acknowledge their efforts. But the state now needs to think proactively about its water system. What can we do to prevent the next crisis? And while we have a little extra water for now, how can we better manage it to last us through future droughts? These are the kinds of problems that tech entrepreneurs love to solve, and in California, we have the talent to make good ideas reality. It’s time to invite the tech community to the table.

California’s Policy Makers Need to Keep the Broadband Boom Alive

By Kish Rajan

California’s communications industry has witnessed a period of astonishing growth over the last 10 years, with the promise of an even brighter future to come. You might even call it a broadband boom. So it’s crucial that state policy makers keep that growth a top priority as they begin their new legislative session. They should resist any calls to stifle competition or innovation. California desperately needs this focus for the state to continue to be the world’s technology leader.

California legislators are already signaling that they understand the importance of the networks that power modern communication devices and technologies. For example, lawmakers recently reshaped California’s Utilities and Commerce Committee, which oversees utilities in the state. Instead of lumping the Internet into the same committee that oversees utilities like the electric company, it moved it into the newly created Communications and Conveyance Committee. This change sent a clear message to Californians: policy makers understand the internet isn’t a staid, static utility, and it shouldn’t be regulated like one.

When California’s legislators work with the communications community, the state’s consumers win big. A recent study by CALinnovates bears this out. Economist David Sosa found that from 2008 to 2015, wireline broadband speeds have increased 700 percent, while broadband prices have declined as much as 76 percent. During the same time period, broadband VoIP connections increased by 220 percent, or 4.9 million users, while California’s total wireless subscriptions jumped by 9.5 million, or 29 percent. At the same time California has experienced tremendous growth in IP and Wireless technologies, legacy voice connections declined by 4.3 million, or 36 percent. These are just a few of the signs that Californians’ demand for broadband, mobile and voice over IP is growing rapidly.

Even better, broadband speeds are getting faster while costing consumers less. Sosa found that broadband speeds have increased by nearly 700 percent since 2008. Even so, from 2008 through 2015 residential, wireline broadband prices fell by as much as 70 percent. Clearly California is on the right track when it comes to bringing broadband and mobile technology to its citizens at a reasonable price.

Is there still work to be done? Of course. As I’ve noted before, California needs to continue working to ensure technology benefits all Californians. Over the last decade, private investment has advanced broadband and wireless coverage across the state, including in many rural communities. Government programs, such as the Connect America Fund, can also help make considerable progress in increasing broadband access. The California Advanced Services Fund can play an important role as well, in helping to fund broadband deployment to unserved and underserved areas of the state. Looking forward, developing smart policies to promote the deployment of advanced wireless technologies such as 5G and small cell, will also help accelerate the delivery of next-generation technologies that consumers demand.

These solutions will come, but only if California lawmakers stay the course. The state’s forward-thinking policies have created broadband and mobile markets that are functioning extremely well, and will continue to deliver innovative new products and services going forward, as well as faster connectivity. Let’s keep California moving forward and encourage our state’s legislators to keep this broadband boom going.

Let’s Stop Treating The Internet Like A Utility

By Kish Rajan

What do the iPhone, the “Internet of Things” and solar panels all have in common? They’re all fantastic technologies that make our lives better, and none of them were invented by utility companies.

They could have been. People consider phone companies to be utilities. Same with electric companies. But thanks to decades of heavy regulations, these sectors have had little to no incentive to innovate due to outdated laws and regulations that stifle rather than encourage investment and competition.

Those disrupters have been able to move quickly and build innovative new companies, thanks to the internet, which has arguably been the single largest engine for growth in this country since the auto industry.

It’s safe to say that the internet does not behave like a utility, but too often, it is treated as one. Until a few weeks ago, the same committee in the California Assembly that dealt with utilities also handled internet issues. The Utilities and Commerce Committee handled everything from ride-sharing issues to the transition to renewable energy. Last session it was overwhelmed by 140 bills.

Kudos to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon for spearheading a new alignment for that committee. It is now two different groups: the Communications and Conveyance Committee and the Utility and Energy Committee.

This new division more closely reflects the reality of the internet. It’s not a utility – it’s a technology.

It’s an important distinction.

The internet is often lumped in with utilities when it really shouldn’t be. Take the California Public Utilities Commission, for example. The PUC has oversight of California’s utilities – including the internet. Four years ago the Legislature concluded that the PUC was holding back the development of internet phone service. It moved oversight of that industry to the Legislature, and since then it has flourished.

Last year we were supportive of Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s efforts to disband the PUC (though his bill might have been a step too far). That bill ultimately failed, but it had the right idea. There are utilities and then there is technology, and the two shouldn’t be regulated in the same way.

That’s not to say that the Legislature should take a completely hands-off approach to the internet. We need regulations, but they need to be smart regulations that promote innovation, investment and competition.

Regulations should suit the demands of our technology-reliant world. They should promote broader access to fast internet, help close the shrinking digital divide and make sure our emergency systems are operating at the highest level of security and reliability.

The more we think about the internet as a utility, the more we’ll slow progress. And that’s not what anyone wants.

Kish Rajan is chief evangelist at CALinnovates and former director of Gov. Jerry Brown’s GOBiz initiative. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee 

 

New Report Shows Californians Are More Connected Than Ever

California’s communications industry is currently in a period of astonishing growth, with the promise of an even brighter future to come. You might even call it a broadband boom. A recent study by Dr. David W. Sosa bears this out. Sosa is a principal at the Analysis Group, an economics consulting firm. His research shows that Californians are embracing the wireless lifestyle.

From 2008 through 2015, California’s total wireless subscriptions jumped by 9.5 million, or 29 percent. At the same time, broadband voice residential connections increased by 220 percent, or 4.9 million users. Meanwhile, legacy wireline users dropped by 36 percent. California’s embrace of broadband and wireless is helping keep the state at the center of the growing technology industry.

To read more about this topic, click here to read a recent op-ed by CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan.

Goodbye Payphones, Hello Progress

by Kish Rajan

If Clark Kent wanted to turn into Superman in California today, he’d struggle to find a phone booth. Across the entire state there are only 27,000 payphones left, down 70% from 2007.

It’s no big surprise that the payphone is going the way of the dodo bird. According to the Pew Research Center 92% of American adults own cellphones. If you’re desperate to make a call and find yourself with a dead battery, chances are good you’re going to ask a friendly stranger to borrow their cell phone before you’re going to search out a payphone.

Late last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that acknowledges the demise of the payphone. SB 1055 puts an end to the Payphone Services Committee and the Payphone Service Providers Committee Fund which was being used to, among other things, “fund programs to … educate consumers on matters related to payphones.”

Let that sink in for a second. As a state, until a few weeks ago, we were still spending money to educate people about payphones — something the vast majority of citizens don’t want or need.

That’s pretty emblematic of how the legislature works when it comes to telecom. There are lots of outdated laws and committees and funds on the books but change comes incredibly slowly.

That’s why the death of the payphone committee is a small but symbolic step.

California should turn its attention to fixing other policies that keep outdated technology tethered to our streets and our homes even when we as a population have moved on.

Read the full post on Fox and Hounds here.

The Demise of Google Fiber Shows There Are No Easy Answers in Telecom

By Mike Montgomery

When Google rolled out its fiber business in 2012, it was an appealingly easy solution for a difficult situation. Like a fairy godmother solving all of our problems with a sweep of her wand, Google was going to bring blazing fast 1 gigabit speed to homes across the country and, for as little as $70 per month, people were going to get access to Autobahn speeds previously only dreamed of on our American Superhighway.

With its fat wallet of cash, Google seemed well-positioned to do the expensive work of buying failed municipal broadband networks as well as building some of their own new networks, tearing up roads and sidewalks and laying its fiber in select neighborhoods. Kansas City, where Google piloted the fiber program, suddenly seemed poised to become the next internet startup hotspot.

But now it turns out the task was too much even for Google. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is “rethinking” its fiber rollout plans in the face of mounting costs.  Confronted with the reality of today’s regulatory environment, the company appears to now be leapfrogging the morass entirely, jumping ahead to advanced wireless technologies – which could deliver speeds up to 10 gigabits per second – viewed by many as the broadband “game changer” for connectivity and speed.

Google Fiber is a well-intentioned idea. We need more people to have better internet access so they can get the most out of the growing digital economy. Work is increasingly being done over the internet as companies move to cloud technology. Even applying for a job now usually requires internet access. Watching TV, shopping, and connecting with loved ones are all things increasingly being done online. Those who don’t have access or are operating from networks in need of modernization are at a severe disadvantage in today’s digital world.

But as Google is discovering, laying new miles of fiber is far from easy.

Read the full article here.

In Tech-Driven Economy, FCC Needs to Step Up

By: Mike Montgomery

It’s clear that technology is a key driver of prosperity in today’s modernizing economy. Trillions of dollars in economic activity flow through the networks which make up the internet, making America’s digital economy the envy of the world. Networks are redefining the services people consume and the income people derive. For example, according to a Pew survey, 72 percent of Americans have used a sharing or on-demand service.

That’s why the Federal Communications Commission has never been more important. From last year’s Net Neutrality rules to current proceedings about set-top boxes, internet privacy and business services, FCC rules are shaping the future of the internet – and the broader economy that it fuels. Whether you agree or disagree with these regulations, everyone agrees they will have a profound impact.

That is why it’s so disconcerting to see the FCC disconnected from the economic impact of its decisions. In a report he published in July, the FCC’s very own former chief economist, Gerald Faulhaber, Ph.D., raised alarms about the agency’s dangerous turn away from economic analysis in its decision making.

In the report, Dr. Faulhaber asks: Why do the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau all conduct stringent cost-benefit analyses on their decisions while the FCC does not?

The FCC has simply become too important to the economy for it to fail to explore the economic impact of its decisions. For example, numerous economists warned the FCC that its decision to impose so-called Title II regulations on internet service providers, which treats today’s advanced broadband access in the same way as telephone services from generations ago, will have a negative impact on investment and innovation while not solving the issue we all want addressed: how to ensure that internet traffic is treated fairly across networks, regardless of where it comes from. Yet, when issuing its Open Internet Order, the FCC conducted no economic analysis of the impact its proposed rules would have on consumers, innovation or investment.

How is that possible?

The problems continue. The FCC is currently facing a major backlash from Congress, Hollywood and many innovators for its proposed new technology standards for set-top boxes.

Read the full article here.

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