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US Weather Briefing For Pilots

The average Englishman’s preoccupation with weather is surpassed, it would seem, only by the weather-obsessed American aviation community. In fact, a pilot wishing to take to the US skies has such a bewildering number of weather information options at his disposal that it’s almost self-caricature – and all, of course, with dandy American acronyms: ASOS, AWOS, ATIS, WXBRIEF, FSS, HIWAS – The list goes on and on. And it’s all as free as the air.

The pilot’s first line of defense in getting flight-related weather briefings is to dial, from any phone in the country, 1-800-992-7433. The handy mnemonic for this number is to spell out 800-WX-BRIEF on a Touch-Tone keypad. No matter where you are in the country, this number will connect you with your regional Flight Service Station (FSS) weather briefer, who is a trained professional weather observer and aviation weather reporter.

A FSS also provides many services such as opening and closing flight plans, giving out NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen), PIREPs (Pilot Reports), information on Special Use Airspaces (see accompanying story) and other details crucial to a flight. In the air, you can always contact a FSS Flight Watch (122.0) to get up to the second weather news and guidance should you run into unexpected weather. This is a potentially life-saving service.

Some may be gruff, and some are more helpful than others but as a rule, aviation weather briefers in the US are superbly competent. “The first thing we’re going to do after we get the background of what the pilot is contemplating,” said Ron Napurano, Manager of the New York Automated Flight Service Station, “is look at an overview of weather based on the qualifications of the pilot and the intended route of flight, and make a judgment as to whether we think you should fly or not.”

If adverse conditions are present then the briefer is legally bound to inform you that based on conditions, VFR is not recommended. The briefer will state that and then give supporting reasons. Sometimes they just state it bluntly. Other times they get a bit dramatic – I remember once being told by a briefer that a route I was contemplating was looking “Mighty ominous indeed.”

The most effective strategy, unless you’re really, really sure of yourself (ATP-rated pilots with 10,000 hours and a degree in meteorology may skip the next part), is to ask for a “Standard Briefing”.

What they need from you
The briefers are indeed professional, and even if not pilots themselves, well-trained in briefing pilots. But they’re not mind readers – you have to prepare for the call and give the briefer what they need, without them asking too many basic questions. “You can tell a person who’s been getting briefings from us for a while,” said Napurano, “if the pilot is prepared, and uses the background checklist (see box), it saves the tedious pulling of information back and forth and makes the briefing go much smoother.

WXBRIEF Checklist
Before you call WXBRIEF, have the following information at hand, and when you get the briefer on the phone, give it in this order:

  • Type of Flight Planned (VFR or IFR)
  • Aircraft ID or your name (if you don’t yet know the tail number of a rental)
  • Aircraft type
  • Departure Point
  • Route of Flight
  • Destination (and alternate)
  • Altitude(s) you intend to fly
  • Estimated Time of Departure (in Zulu) and Estimated Time of Arrival

Like so:

“Hello, I’m a pilot making a VFR flight in Cherokee 8252 Zulu, that’s a Piper PA-28 161, departing from Teterboro and flying northbound, along the Hudson River to Nyack to clear the Bravo airspace, then turning right, following the Madison VOR, Providence VOR and Boston VOR to destination Bravo Oscar Sierra, Boston Logan, with an alternate of Bravo Echo Delta, Bedford. Once I clear the Bravo airspace north of Teterboro I’ll climb to seven thousand five hundred feet. I’ll be leaving Teterboro at about twelve hundred hours Zulu or seven am local, and expect the flight to take about one hour and ten minutes.”

Now, of course, the above is the perfect, somewhat anal-retentive, by-the-book way to say it, and you might get a bit breezier over time. But you really should make an effort to be as close to this model as possible..

Effective communication with the briefer can’t be stressed enough. Every time they have to ask you a stupid question, such as “State type aircraft” or “This is a VFR flight or IFR flight?” you’ve just wasted the time of yourself, your briefer and the next pilot who will cal in.

What They Give You
In exchange for your expressiveness, you’ll get a pile of information worth its weight in gold.

This includes the following information, in the following order.

Adverse Conditions This is the first order of business: the briefer will take the information he has on you and determine whether the trip is recommendable at all. Any adverse conditions will necessarily be mentioned first and foremost. If the weather is doubtful you will, by law, get a verdict of “VNR” – VFR Not Recommended, and the supporting arguments.

Adverse conditions can be anything – from plain old IMC to mountain obscuration to icing to turbulence, especially low level wind shear and other weather that could affect takeoffs and landings. “We give them the whole nine yards on adverse conditions and the potential effects,” said Napurano.

Synopsis If weather is VFR or marginal VFR, the next step in the Standard Briefing is the Synopsis, which gives a general overview of the weather as it is at the moment: this is not specific to your trip, but rather a general overview of storms, fronts, circulation, pressure systems gathered over an 18-hour period. The briefer might give you information on specific storms, strong winds or other weather phenomena as required.

Remember, this is to give you an overall feeling for the weather in general, not specifically the weather that will affect your flight. For example, the current conditions at or near your destination airport might not be valuable if you intend to leave in three hours for a two hour flight – conditions could be significantly different five hours from the time you call!

Current Conditions The current conditions at the departure airport.

Enroute Forecast This is weather that the Center is forecasting to expect along your route, culled from National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts as well as actual Pilot Reports (PIREPs) made by pilots actually flying along the route. “They’re very specific, and that’s why we ask all pilots to give us PIREPs,” said Napurano, “We get a PIREP from a pilot in a 152 saying he’s got a light chop we probably won’t tell that to a 747 pilot, but if a 747 pilot reports a light chop, we’re certainly going to let everything smaller out there know about it.”

The Enroute forecast may or may not be consistent with current conditions – remember, it’s a forecast – but what it will give you is conditions that are expected along your entire route. So if you’re flying from Islip, Long Island to Raleigh, North Carolina, you’ll get forecasts for New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, etc, all the way down to North Carolina.

Destination Forecast The forecast at your destination is based on the Terminal Area Forecasts for larger airports; if you’re flying into Charlotte, then the forecast is specifically made to cover that. But if you’re flying into Podunk, North Carolina, you’ll get the TAF for the nearest large airport. TAFs are good for five miles around the airport they’re forecasting. It’s not legally binding or anything, but it’s an idea of what’s happening now and what NWS and thinks will happen.

Winds Aloft This section is extremely important because it also covers temperatures aloft and specifically icing – whether actual or forecast – and the temperature and winds by altitude strata. “Typically a pilot saying that he’s going to be flying at 6,000 feet will be given the winds and temperatures aloft for 3,000, 6,000 and 9,000” said Napurano, “because you’re going to pass through 3,000 to get to 6,000, and who knows, you may request a different altitude once you’re up there for any number of reasons. So we try to give you the broadest range of possibilities we can.”

NOTAMs Covers any NOTAMs of any interest whatsoever.

ATC Delays Unlikely to happen to you if you’re flying between Podunk and Kischnev, more likely the larger your destination or departure airport is. At Teterboro, ATC delays are quite common, and this would be passed on to you by the briefer.

Military Training Areas These are different from MOAs, and are areas in which military aircraft may be training. MTAs are given only on the pilot’s request – request it.

What They Want From You
At the end of a standard briefing, the briefer will request of the pilot that the pilot file a PIREP – even if the conditions are exactly as forecast, but especially if they are not, you can help other pilots by making a PIREP.

You will also be requested to contact Flight Watch (122.0) for enroute weather information.

Type This…I Said, THIS!!

The idea of speaking into my computer and having it correctly type what I say has intrigued me since I saw the Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth, in which Gary Seven dictates to his IBM Selectric typewriter while plotting to sabotage a NASA launch.

The thought that I can now actually say – and have my computer type – the phrase,”the museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 6 pm, Saturday from 9 am to 3 pm, Sunday from noon to 4 pm, closed major holidays,” makes me positively giddy – covering Disney World doesn’t look so daunting anymore.

It was with this light thought that I cheerfully set about installing IBM’s new SimplySpeaking Gold (remember: IBM made the Selectric! No one gets fired for buying IBM!), touted by Big Blue as the software that would change the world. My father was with me, and as I was describing what the software would do (‘yeah, that’s it… I can just talk into it and it will type what I say,’) he was shooting me looks of open dubiousness, if not mild derision.

“YouE’re skeptical,” I said.

“I’m not skeptical,” he said, “I know it won’t work.”

“Why,” I asked, knowingly,”would IBM offer a 30 day money back guarantee on it if it didn’t work?”

“I don’t know” said my father,”But it won’t work.”

Chuckling to myself (what does he know?) I set to installing SimplySpeaking Gold. Following the directions to the letter, I donned the little headset that came with the software. The training session lasted about half an hour, after which I started talking and it started typing.

Unfortunately, those two actions were entirely independent. It was as if had installed Tourette’sSyndrome for Windows95. I said,”Hey, look Dad, I’m talking and this thing is typing,” and it typed, “pay stark land vice talking in myths saying it is typing.” (“typing”, I noticed later, was one word it consistently spelled correctly, along with`SimplySpeaking Gold”) I said,”this system sucks.” It typed,”cheese feet and ducks.” Okay, it wasn’t really that bad – I am exaggerating a little (just a little) – but it was, in fact, terrible.

I returned it the following day. Later I spoke with a software salesman, who told me that almost everyone who bought the IBM software at his shop (one of New York’s largest) brought it back.

“That’s not to say it’s bad,” he was careful to say, “it’s just that a lot of people bring it back.”


This salesman went on to tell me that a lot of the people who were disappointed with IBM really liked Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but that that software was much more difficult to learn then IBM’s. Since I thought that learning IBM’s was simply a matter of training myself to speak in the manner of one of those VCR manuals that has been translated from the original Korean via Swahili, I was game for anything.

To be fair, IBM’s ViaVoice is said (well, said by IBM) to be better than SimplySpeaking. But in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Einstein reported something hauntingly similar to my experience:

“…when I said, “This is my first dictation” ViaVoice wrote “This is mild irritation.” I repeated the sentence and it came out, “This is missus sophistication’.

Why, that is much better!

My next test was with Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking. With doubt in my heart, I installed the software and went through its training session. One thing that struck me immediately was that while I was reading through the training session’s text (it gives you a choice of three, I chose Dave Barry’s Adventures in Cyberspace) it was recognizing my voice right out of the box.

But I was truly astounded when, after finishing the session, I was able to write a long letter with very few mistakes: this thing actually works! Don’t believe it? Come over to my house and I’ll show you (two of my neighbours are going out to buy it after one demo).

For example, I’m writing the following five paragraphs by speaking into my computer. It’s an absolutely joyous thing: I’m sitting here with my feet on my desk speaking absolutely normally and watching it type everything I say.

And okay, there are some drawbacks (like the fact that it just wrote “arson” instead of “all are some’, and I had to go back and correct): I sit at my desk wearing this funky headset and looking for all the world like a Time-Life operator ready to take your phone call (E’Good morning, my name is Nick, are you calling about our Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?’).

But the fact is, I can dictate into this thing at about 100 words per minute after three days of use – and the folks at Dragon say that this will only improve over time.

I have noticed that in the last few days of using this software intensely it has made the same mistakes on a couple of occasions. But it also learns incredibly quickly. I only had to train “Minas Gerais” and “Sao Paulo” once, and never even had to tell it to recognize Rio de Janeiro. Handy, when IE’m working on Brazil (it also recognized, after training, “rodoviãria” and “real’, which are pronounced decidedly not as theyE’re written).

But you’ve got to have patience (it just wrote “patients’), and realize that it will take about a solid week before you begin to get close to 96% recognition.

The mistakes NaturallySpeaking made while I recited the last five paragraphs were “good morning, my name is neck”; “with my field on my desk”; and the aforementioned “arson” and “patientsE’. Still, that’s not so bad. Earlier OCR scanning devices made far more mistakes, and for most of the friends of mine who can’t type to save their lives, a couple of mistakes in each paragraph is a far happier situation than a blank page.

But Naturally Speaking – or its presence – did cause some problems on my machine. After running it and other programs simultaneously, my computer crashed – but it turned out to be a Microsoft problem, and I had to download a small patch to fix it. You’ll also need a relatively good machine: while Dragon says you need at least a Pentium 133 Mhz, 32MB of RAM and 65MB of hard drive space, I’d say that’s conservative.

Another good question is whether you can dictate into a tape recorder on the road – some smarter authors (and now I) use a tape recorder for mapping (“J&R Music World on the south side of Park row 200 metres south of John St”) and it would be a hoot to have the machine transcribe it. Well, short of spending upwards of $250 on a mini disk recorder, you’re out of luck: traditional minicassette and other analog recorders just don’t have the quality to work with NaturallySpeaking.

NaturallySpeaking has several models to choose from, but the recognition engine is the same on all – bells and whistles change as you spend more money. But their basic Point & Speak (US$59 RRP in the US) model allows you to do everything I did here. The Personal edition and Preferred Editions (US$99 and US$149 to US$159) have greater customization abilities, and very expensive Deluxe editions are available as well. SimplySpeaking Gold sells for US$139 in the US.

Trainride Of A Lifetime Aboard Copper Canyon Railway

Whenever you buy an economy class ticket, you’re gambling that what you give up in luxury will be compensated for by the people you meet on your journey. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, a segundo class ticket is a hands-down winner.

The segundo train offers the same breathtaking views of the Copper Canyon as the South Orient Express because it runs on the same tracks. But the best part is that a ticket costs about $10.

The train itself reminds me of something out of an old western: a creaky, painted wood-and-sheet metal carriage, wooden seats, open doors at either end and a tiny concession to luxury in the form of some tattered curtains.

Although a Texan named Tim and I were the only foreigners aboard at the onset at Los Mochis, by the time we got to Divisadero there were four Australians, two Canadians, two Germans and a bewildered-looking group of Americans who had clearly taken the wrong train.

But gradually, as we stopped in tiny towns along the way, the car filled with the stuff that a Mexican train ride is all about: a shabbily dressed, silken-voiced guitar player pleasantly serenaded the passengers with the sounds of Indian folk music. Poker games were running at both ends of the carriage, but when one of the dealers smiled (revealing a gold front tooth with a club design carved into it), I decided to sit this one out.

The station platforms swarm with crowds of locals, to whom the train is an economic lifeline, hawking home-made burritos, tacos and other less identifiable offerings, while livestock being loaded and unloaded contribute to the general confusion.

Spectacular Scenery
Many of the passengers are Mexicans, just getting from point A to point B. But when the train rolls around that first mountain curve just north of El Fuerte and the scenery starts revealing itself, everyone on board rushes over to the right side of the train and watches in fascination.

Train buffs, always looking for an opportunity to see other sections of the train while it twists around hairpin turns, are a tad miffed at being so close, yet so far, from their view. As the train rockets around the bends, it enters and leaves tunnels so frequently it seems as if a rambunctious child is standing at the carriage’s light switch and turning it on and off. Sticking your head out of the window is a daunting task.

At Divisadero, where the primera train makes a 15-minute stop, the segundo takes advantage of its more proletarian scheduling to sit at the highest point of the canyon along the route for up to an hour. At 8,669 feet above sea level, Divisadero is the main overlook into the canyon, and the Copper Canyon Natural Park. The view is, in a word, spectacular.

Skip the Souvenirs
I had been warned by every guidebook not to buy the chatchkas that are being peddled by the Tarahumara Indians who mill about the station, and judging by the sales I saw, everyone else had read the same books.

It’s hard to take an interest in crafts while looking out over the ruggedly beautiful canyon. To the left, it seems as if some cataclysmic cruise ship had plowed its way through solid mountain walls, beyond which lies rocky terrain that dips and rolls as far as the eye can see.

Mellow Evening
On the move again, as the early evening set in, this rattle-filled train seemed to take us back in time; the evening light and the sounds of the tracks entering the car through the open windows made me think of riding the Orient Express. A beautiful family of Mennonites boarded, and sat as inconspicuously as one can dressed in traditional 19th-century attire.

The poker games had consolidated; there was some drinking but the group was maintaining its friendliness to the point that I sat down with them to watch a couple of hands. As if to demonstrate how badly I can judge a poker game, I noticed that the man with the gold tooth was hemorrhaging money.

Throughout the carriage, people were interacting with the familiarity of a group that has just gone through something together. The passengers on the segundo were talking among themselves, sharing a bottle of Presidente brandy or some chips, or starting a game of dominoes on the seats. And to tourist and local alike, it was obvious that what we had just seen was close to magical.

There’s Nothing On My Network Worth Stealing

Many computer users feel that, because they don’t engage in high-fallutin’ top secret information, they don’t have much to offer an intruder.

Targets of intruders, though, are as difficult to predict as the closing price of next Tuesday’s light sweet crude trading. In fact, the possibilities are endless. And here’s just one way leaving your WAP unprotected – essentially running a Hotspot – could cause you pain.

Lawyer? Or Terrorist?
Parked outside your office within connection range sits Mr. Soren Marrwaakle, a Danish terrorist associated with the dreaded Copenhagen Resistance, which has sworn to destroy the American way of life. Soren drives around large cities seeking unprotected wireless connections just like yours.

Soren connects, through your unprotected WAP, to the Internet and thence his public, anonymous email account. After receiving from his cell the floor plans to a target building, he transmits back an email message to his handler, acknowledging receipt of the plans and passing on a recipe for low-fat brownies he got from

Has your firm just violated the Patriot Act? You know, the part which says you’re not allowed “…to commit an act that the actor knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support, including a safe house, transportation, communications, funds, transfer of funds or other material financial benefit, false documentation or identification, weapons (including chemical, biological, or radiological weapons), explosives, or training…” [emphasis added]

Perhaps more to the point, do you wish to explain your views to the 33 FBI Agents in blue windbreakers who are at this moment milling about your conference room?

Sure, after only three days, by which time they’ve become mostly convinced of your innocence, 18 of the agents leave. But how much do you think it will eventually cost you in time, effort, resources and bad coffee to get the rest of them to go? How many of your clients will express delight upon learning that their lawyers are under Federal investigation for aiding a terrorist group?

And how will those pictures of guys in blue windbreakers carrying boxes out of your office look in the Times Union?

Also in this series…
A proposal for Reasonable Wireless Security for law firms

A sample network access policy

Wifi encryption standards

“There’s nothing on my desk worth stealing”

…and free hotspots for all

There’s Money In Them Thar Parts

When you find your 14 year-old son in the middle of the living room with a guilty look on his face, a screwdriver in his hand and your nifty new UMTS cell phone in a million pieces on the floor, hold off on blowing up for a second – the pieces you see represent the achievements of some of today’s greatest European start-ups. And there’s opportunity in them thar parts.

“We make the software that runs OC layers one through three of the handset,” said Clifford Dong, CTO at Zesium, a Munich start-up that last year received a seed investment of €2 million from 3i. He’s referring to the “seven layer” stack concept which includes level 1, the ‘physical layer’ which actually sucks and blows bits into the airwaves; layer 2, responsible for guaranteeing the safe delivery and receipt of data, and layer 3, which deals with what data will be transferred along with mobility management, radio resources and call control.

3i says that because Zesium’s business is personnel, not finance, intensive, they don’t expect to have to sink any further money into Zesium any time soon – even though the company is making extraordinary headway and faces little competition to date. “They have very specialized know-how,” said Peter Boehringer, investment manager at 3i, “and there are several large manufacturers who would rather buy the software than build it, and Zesium is very good at building this software.”

Some larger handset manufacturers, Boehringer said, are committed to building it themselves, but Boehringer thinks that those companies might not have the manpower they would like, and therefore even they might end up at Zesium’s door. “We’ll just build it and see what happens,” Boehringer said.

VCs say that this kind of guts-building is exactly where small start-ups can benefit best from the spending frenzy as European telcos prepare to invest what Commerzbank estimates will be &euro87.5 billion over the next four years and a total of €175 billion over ten years.

“We see a trend,” said Max Oppersdorff, Vice President of EM Warburg Pincus in Munich, “that hardware vendors are acting more like general contractors. The major part of what they supply they make in house, but they’re trying to buy from third parties that are out on the edges of advanced technilogy where perhaps the vendors are not as advanced – and sometimes the customers themselves are even demanding this.”

Much of the spending flurry will be focused on issues of infrastructure, and while much of the backbone and base station action is likely to be taken up by the Nokias, Lucents and Ericssons of the world, there are literally dozens of niche areas in which small, independent and fast moving technology companies can move in and own the space.

Take, for example, base station amplifiers. The frequency and bandwidth used by the next generation of mobile phones pushes the envelope of the specs of existing base station transmitter equipment, and there is an enormous and immeiate need for more efficient linear amplifiers. Amps, in the boxes at the bottom of base stations, currently require fans and other cooling technology, and must be constantly monitored. The infrastructure cost associated with all this coddling can add up.

“Telecoms spend tens of millions of pounds in any year on electricity,” said Dave Cheesman at Advent Venture Partners, “and a lot of that goes to wasted power in amplifiers .”

Advent is backing, along with Deutsche Bank and 3i, a company called Wireless Systems, which makes range of patented, next generation, wide-band linear, high efficiency amplifiers. Wireless just closed its third funding round for $23 million.

Opportunities Everywhere
New hardware and software technologies – or even new applications of existing technologies – are also absolutely essential. Squeeze any portion of the mobile world and an opportunity just might pop out: the next generation of mobile phones, and their increased bandwidth, means that handset range given the available power will decrease. To combat this, handsets require far more efficient antennas in order to provide services without sucking dry batteries in the dialing process.

Consider, too, the humble handset. The amount of technology crammed into those tiny little buggers is astounding: aside from the chips, switches and other hardware, today’s typical handset already contains around 2MB of code. That is expected to quadruple in size as mobile devices become more complex.

Or ponder the very deployment of base stations. New generation mobile cells will be smaller, and therefore more will be required. Companies that make a new generation of network planning software will be of intense interest to telecoms looking to maximize the efficiency of physical placement of base stations, and even the angle at which to point the antennas to squeeze every gram of coverage possible out of the new systems.

Even backlighting technology is being reconsidered: Advent’s Cheesman says that current systems, which use light emitting diodes (LEDs) and molded acrylic light guides to sorta – shove the light where it’s needed are less than perfect. “They use lots of power and don’t supply even lighting,” said A. Kianin, Technical Director for Elumin in Wales. Elumin uses electro-luminescent material for a range of applications, from private jet refurbishments to escape lighting on aircraft, to night vision devices and, of course, mobile telephone handsets.

EL’s nothing new in the world, but it is relatively new to handsets. It uses a light-emitting phosphor sandwiched between layers of insulation and conducting electrodes which are then laminated together. The result is a light that can produce various brightness with negligible heat. Advent has recently invested more than €2.5 million into Elumin, which Kianin says, expects to begin production for “a big company” of their backlighting products as early as November.

There’s Money In The Middle

In 1997, when WAP was unveiled to the world, the proposed information flow chain neatly stated that content would be provided in wireless markup language (WML), converted to binary WML, sloshed through a WAP Gateway, blown out on cellular networks like GSM, and finally sucked into and displayed on mobile telephone handsets.

Customers who were even able to get the first WAP phones (many models were late in rollout) complained bitterly of slow speeds, caused not just by the service but also by the devices themselves. The over-hyping of WAP, especially in Q1 2000 and Q2 2000, and subsequent disappointing offerings nearly put the nail in WAP’s coffin, from a marketing standpoint.

More significant than the slowness, however, is the fact that with the wireless Internet there are heaps of different devices to format for, and WAP-oriented content providers have the not insignificant task of managing two content formats, one in HTML and one in WML.

Problems aside, WAP probably isn’t going anywhere, at least for the next few years, simply because of device penetration: millions of WAP handsets are already in the hands of users, and new GPRS (general packet radio system) or 3G-enabled terminals will need time to run their product lifecycle from early adopter high-fallutin’ business people, through to the kids in the discos to, well, my mother.

New solutions So as mobile data delivery moves from phone handsets to “terminals”, competing browser protocols and devices will come and go in the coming years. Getting content to all the different devices is still the challenge and there are lots of ways to do it.

Take a straight “delivery system” such as AvantGo, which is purely infrastructure: companies use it to extend their content or applications to a mobile device, by compressing image size and format and optimizing layout for the device requesting the information. It also manages offline versus online content, letting devices with always-on connections browse at will but caching entire sites locally for people with dial-up connections.

That’s a straight compression solution and many in the industry say that “trans-coding” (conversion) of one form or another will be the way to go in the future. Because legacy content isn’t just HTML (it’s often in the form of Word, Quark XPress, flatfiles and PDFs) software that trancodes or converts from old formats to new ones is hot these days, with dozens of startups saying they can do it better than anyone else. Those companies will undoubtedly get shaken out, and some clear winners will emerge in the next year or so. More interesting than them, however, is the coding method and the process used.

As we have seen, the darling of the “do-it-all-code” pack has been XML (extensible markup language). While HTML, the markup language of the Internet, allows control over the appearance of content, such as for bold (the command for a bold typeface), XML allows markup that describes the content itself, such as Le Grove.

The beauty of XML, and XLST, the stylesheets that control how XML can be presented on a page, is that they create a single source of uniformly-formatted data from existing content, which can in turn be squeezed out into whatever flavor you want – HTML, WML, nML and so on.

A new data chain So the new chain of data goes from legacy content to content conversion; to the generic, XML-ized content; to a content gateway, which takes the XML and converts it to both device and code-specific content based on the type of device requesting the data; to the protocol gateway, which negotiates multitudinous device protocols such as WAP, and iMode; to the network and finally to the wireless devices.

You could see how this type of thing would be of compelling interest to Roger Barnes, a consultant for the Rough Guides series of travel guidebooks, which sits on a heap of content in QuarkXPress.

Barnes was approached by AuthorOnce, a company that claimed that they could “actually do it now: take our content, put it through a GUI, and put it out to any platform we wanted,” says Barnes. As we went to press, Barnes had seen and been impressed with a small demo, the success of which had led him to schedule a meeting in New York with the AuthorOnce team and Rough Guides’ senior management.

AuthorOnce is one of several companies offering what may be looked upon as complete middleware solutions – from one end of the chain to the other, and then back again. The company, which has received friends and family backing to the tune of $750,000 and is currently fishing for a first round of funding, claims that what sets it apart from companies like AvantGo and Everypath, is its method of getting data from the legacy system into XML in the first place.

“We’ve got travel books, but we’ve also got guides to music,” says Barnes, “Converting text to XML is one thing, but we’ve got pictures, maps, headlines. The company’s “rule engine” system learns about the way we publish our books every time we work on one. So preparing the new Rough Guide to New York, it knows what we did last time.”

That’s a different added value from offerings from other companies, like AvantGo and Everypath, that simply take content, pull it up into XML, and send it out to a Web or WAP interface. Those companies say that their products are perhaps the most effective way of getting legacy information out to a world of different device formats.

AuthorOnce might disagree, saying that the hardest part of the chain isn’t delivery to the devices, it’s XML-ing it in the first place, and doing it in a way that allows you to control the flow of data and create rules for future conversions of like-formatted but different texts.

Taking one end of the chain
“Well, if you’re in the business of from n to XML, of course you want to view this as the problem,” said Rikard Kjellberg, CEO of Ellipsus Systems, a company in Stockholm that provides the Protocol and Content Gateways. “There are lots of excellent tools that offer the mechanics of going from the database to XML – I’d bet even Oracle would have tools for that.”

Kjellberg’s Ellipsus concentrates on what happens after the content is in XML, and how to best transmit the data to the jungle of devices out there. Its Sargasso Mobile Internet Server gives an open software platform that lets legacy content connect, through any IP bearer (CSD, GPRS, etc) to client devices. It consists of a pull and a push proxy gateway, a directory interface, a manager interface, a security pack and a “gatekeeper” firewall, allowing access control for the Web as well as RMI, CORBA, SOAP and other objects.

That is the unique selling point; Ellipsus allows developers to introduce CORBA (and, for example, Enterprise Java Beans) all the way to the device, letting them make a more dynamic interface to legacy systems than would be available with traditional HTTP.

What it’s doing is creating a virtual thin client within the Ellipsus system, which end users access via nML from their phones. The phone doesn’t need to support CORBA, it just needs to communicate with Ellipsus, from where the object communicates with the legacy content or application. The menu the user sees on the phone doesn’t change, it’s just got a different back end: where a menu would have behind it a URL, like , the object-access menu has an address like .

Ignoring the problem
And then there are those who would ignore the problem completely, saying that they’re focusing on the problems created by having multiple systems in the first place. Companies such as mi4e, a Stockholm-based company that makes a plug-in for web servers that acts as a WAP protocol gateway on existing Microsoft IIS or Apache webservers.

There are also service developers, like France-based Selfswitch or Stockholm-based Expedio, which is producing unified messaging systems that let operators offer customers one central repository from which they can stay connected to voicemail, email, faxes, and a synchronized schedule; or Port42, which makes application portfolio packages that operators can buy in bulk, branding entire suites of applications to offer their customers instant application packages.

Similarly, there is Stockholm-based ZoomOn, which designs and implements vector-based graphics (VBG), and operates on the assumption that WAP – which does not support VBG – isn’t here to stay.

These companies are in effect saying that it’s too early to dedicate a company to bringing content to users via existing platforms or procedures, but that when the platform is agreed upon, they’ll be there selling the stuff that will make people want to burn up those airtime minutes.

In fact, unified messager Xpedio is going one step further, developing a platform for that time, about three years from now, when Britney Spears or whoever is then Britney Spears decides to become a “Virtual Operator.” Britney’s going to give away a SIM card with every CD that lets her teeny-bopping buyers get 10 minutes of phone time, 300 SMS messages and a Kiss Britney game.

“The platform they’re working on lets you, say, if you’re a U2 fan get a U2 subscription whether you’re in Ireland or Sweden,” said Port42’s CEO, Johan Rosenlind. “That’s a great idea but it’s still a couple of years away.”

Not so fast; they, and all other platform vendors will confront significant resistance in the form of iPlanet (the Sun/Netscape alliance), Oracle (Portal-to-go, ASWE9i), the Icelandic entry WAPalizer and Microsoft MIS. Basically, all these tools do much the same thing. How Xpedio will stand up in a fight against the portal-mongers is left to be seen.

The SoBe Boom

It used to be called “God’s Waiting Room.” And even today, if you mention Miami Beach to people who haven’t been here or read about it lately, they might conjure up an image of octogenarians mingling poolside while Aunt Sadie implores them to wait half an hour before going into the water.

But to the arbiters of Fabulousness, SoBe (the inevitable contraction of “South Beach,” as southern Miami Beach is called) is The Fabulous Spot in the United States.

How long the SoBe Boom will last is debatable. Designer Gianni Versace is so confident the scene is here that he recently announced his spring fashion shows will be split: one show in Milan and a second in South Beach. Then again, there are distinct murmurs among the European and Supermodel crowd that SoBe is in danger of imploding and getting – gasp – passe.

Locals are not worried. After the film, television and European fashion shoots, the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, Sharon Stones and Madonnas, Versaces, and the thousands of oh-so-trendy people who swarm the chic neon- emblazoned cafes and boutiques of SoBe leave, South Beach will still be here and better than ever.

The current boom, which showed signs of stirring to life in the mid-’80s, brought renovation and the restoration of the city’s Deco District. But overzealous developers were given a very short leash by local preservation groups, which made certain the deco look wouldn’t be demolished in favor of the high-rise monstrosities that line the beaches to the near north.

The gamble paid off. The Miami Design Preservation League, founded by Barbara Baer Capitman, succeeded in having the entire Deco District placed on the National Register of Historic Places, cementing federal protection of the buildings.

Today, many of the Beach’s locals are imports from New York, people who, tired of sitting five hours in snarled traffic on their way to the Hamptons, decided that SoBe made a lot more sense. They brought younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by recession, looking for cheaper digs and a new audience.

This conglomeration of affluent and educated domestic transplants, mixed with the city’s established immigrant communities from Cuba, Haiti and South America, resulted in as solid a neighborhood community as one could ever hope for.

Something for Everyone
Like a large, accommodating restaurant, the Beach has been cunningly and wordlessly zoned to please everyone without offending anyone. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, fabulous to pedestrian, the answer is “Why not"” And best of all, it is still relatively inexpensive.

Miami Beach is laid out in a sensible grid, where uptown is north. The Deco District, from Fifth to Sixth streets between Ocean Drive and Alton Road, is either a walk into the ’20s or an unguided tour of the very best in American kitsch, depending on your views.

Ocean Drive
A walk along Ocean Drive from north to south is a safari through the trendy. To your left is the kind of beach where low-flying planes trail advertisements for nightclubs, restaurants, performances and, in one instance, an enormous full-color poster of Marky Mark in his underwear. To the right are the hotels and sidewalk cafes that seem to want to spill into the street itself. And vehicular traffic would appear to be limited to vintage roadsters, ‘63 Mustangs and grandiose Harley Davidsons.

The fashionably impaired need not worry; despite the Drive’s undeniable chic, it’s definitely a come-as-you-are affair. In fact, the minimum requirement is a pair of cut-off blue jeans, a T-shirt and an optional pair of in-line skates. Everyone who walks the Drive eventually has an espresso and a people- watching session at the News Cafe, SoBe’s de-facto meeting point. This is the place to spend an afternoon watching or gawking at Miami Beach’s Beautiful People. As they strut, sashay, blade and groove their way past your sidewalk table, order a cafe con leche and one of their baguette-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, keep an eye peeled for famous models and try to look pretentious and self-congratulatory to fit in. It’s great fun.

Get your bearings while checking out the interior of one of the Beach’s finest deco treasures by heading to the roof of the Park Central Hotel. The seven-story beachfront property has a sun deck, and no one seems to mind that visitors just walk past reception, take the elevator to the top floor and gaze out over the city. Go around 4 p.m., when the huge luxury cruise ships chug through Government Cut channel on their way to the Caribbean. The roof offers a stunning view of the ships against the Miami skyline and the beach.

Lincoln Road Mall
Ocean Drive may have a firm choke-hold on Things Fabulous, but most of the real South Beach begins at the Lincoln Road Mall. Renovated by the city in 1960 and just beginning a new $12 million face-lift, this wide, pedestrian- only stretch of sidewalk is the cultural epicenter of SoBe, with galleries every 100 feet or so, sidewalk cafes with only a moderate sprinkling of models, and the Lincoln Theater – a deco delight that is home to the New World Symphony.

Books & Books, a well-stocked book shop, is another gathering spot, often host to visiting writers, while restaurants along the mall offer the finest in cuisine from Pacific Time (an award-winning Pacific Rim restaurant) to World Resources (brilliant Thai, the restaurant/outdoor cafe is also a crafts shop), to Cuban and everything in between.

Biweekly “Gallery Walks,” promoted by the Lincoln Road Preservation Committee, take place on alternating Saturday nights. These walks are not an organized affair, they’re just something that everyone here knows about.

“I’ll see you on the Road” is the gathering protocol, as thousands stroll the mall, dashing into gallery openings and art-school presentations.

Even during the week, Lincoln Road is abuzz with gallery- and restaurant- goers, as well as the ubiquitous skaters. Running the length of the mall is a center divider of concrete planters filled with lush greenery and awkwardly shaped palms that make a picnic-style, late-afternoon snack almost irresistible.

A stop at Epicure Market on Alton Road at 17th Street reveals aisle after aisle of spectacular fresh produce, imported delicacies and prepared picnic boxes. Just up the block, the Biga bakery sells some of the most sumptuous bread in the world, and with that, a picnic on the mall is an absolute delight.

Washington Avenue
If Ocean Drive is the height of chic and Lincoln Road is the local hangout, Washington Avenue is the Beach’s engine room. Here’s where the seedy runs headlong into the trendy, and old meets new. Do what you will in the rest of the city, but when you need a pair of pliers, a bicycle inner tube or a quart of milk, you’ll end up here.

While many of the tiny, family-owned Cuban bodegas and sidewalk espresso windows have long since moved on, there is still a major Cuban presence on Washington Avenue. Most of the grocery stores and shops post signs in Spanish, with a usually poorly spelled concession to English-speakers scribbled at the bottom.

Washington Avenue is where all pretensions are cast away. And while a few trendy shops (including one devoted to selling condoms) are insinuating themselves into the fold, the area is more practical than anywhere else on the Beach.

There are notable exceptions, and a big one is the Wolfsonian Foundation at 1001 Washington. The foundation, a study center, runs a small gallery featuring an exquisite collection of decorative arts, and also houses one of the most extensive collections of local television and film archives in the world.

Somewhat lower on the cultural food-chain, the 11th Street Diner is an original art deco diner from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., built (their menu tells me) in 1948 by the Paramount Diner Corp. in New Jersey. The diner was transported to the beach in 1992, restored to its original glory and currently is a 24-hour gathering place that serves up a mean three-egg omelet.

Just up the road is Lulu’s, serving up very dependable Southern cooking, and for a late-night cappuccino and some live Cuban bands, Cafe Manana is the ticket.

Whenever the current Fabulousness ends, South Beach, like St. Tropez, will remain one of the world’s truly great beach towns. Tanned, rested from its decade of neglect, and ready for more, the community is now wealthier in all respects and determined to learn from its mistakes. Its new convention center has been a great success, and it will continue to bring in money and visitors for years to come. And if the atmosphere of cautiously relaxed prosperity is any indication, South Beach is not about to let success go to its head

The Island That Time Forgot

At least once a month, a few dozen Amelia Island residents don Civil War uniforms, move into Fort Clinch and live like 19th-century soldiers and citizens. No one around here bats an eye, but then again this is an island of eccentrics. Lots of them.

“We didn’t have no mosquitoes down here,” explains merchant Bob Lannon, in a rich southern drawl, “before you Yankees started comin’.”

“That’s an interesting theory,” says Roger Esckelson, who runs the Book Loft, right next door, “seeing as how Bob’s from New Hampshire.” Then without missing a beat, Esckelson asks, “Want to see some of the mastodon bones I found this morning?”

Since 1562, northeastern Florida’s Amelia Island has been ruled by French and Spanish, English and Patriots, Confederates and Yankees.

At the turn of the century, Fernandina Beach was one of the most luxurious resort areas in the south. And the island’s American Beach was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks (see accompanying story).

But when Henry Flagler’s famous railroad brought wealthy Northerners farther and farther south, Amelia Island was left to rot in peace.

“Everybody just left,” said James Perry, curator of the Amelia Island Museum of History, the state’s only oral history museum. “It was a Pompeii-like flash – the boom was over and the town was frozen in time.”

Loving Restoration
The town was laid out in just the sort of Victorian style that makes entrepreneurs’ hearts sing, “What a place for a B&B!” Over the last 20 years, the town has been lovingly restored and a turn-of-the-century time-traveler would feel at home walking through the Historic Downtown District with its railway terminal, Palace Saloon and cobblestone streets.

Many area homes (including the one used in the 1988 Disney classic “Pippi Longstocking”) have been renovated and refurbished.

Today, those who make their home on Amelia are a tightly knit community. Non-residents are referred to as “off-islanders,” and residents are free to be as quirky and eccentric as they wish.

But what’s so arresting about the island is the open hospitality in every shop, restaurant, B&B and motel.

Islanders Bob and Karen Warner are used to people walking through their home, which happens to be the oldest hotel in the state of Florida. At various times and in various incarnations, their Florida House Inn (1857) has been host to Cuban freedom-fighter Jose Marti and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as to Rockefellers and Carnegies.

Today it’s a decadently comfortable B&B, whose restaurant is one of the best values – price, food and service – in the state (see “If You Go”).

They Visit, They Stay
Every year just before Christmas, the Florida House and eight other historic inns take part in the Amelia Island Christmas Tour. It attracts more than 1,300 visitors who listen to the histories, admire the restoration work, check under the beds and look into the closets for skeletons of a long ago past.

“I can name a dozen people who have stayed with us and then moved here,” says John Kovacevich, who, along with his wife, Rita, runs the Hoyt House, one of the B&Bs included on the tour. “And that’s not because of Rita and me or the resorts or the beaches, but because of the island – it’s so welcoming that it just grabs you.”

The Downtown Historic District is the main draw of Fernandina Beach, though other attractions are to be found on the island. The beaches are about two miles east of the city.

The Amelia Island Museum of History is in the former city jail (1879-1975). Volunteer-led tours are conducted Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The exhibits, while fascinating in and of themselves, are secondary to the oral history from the volunteers. Highlights are the Galleon Room, dedicated to Spanish explorers and gold ships, with not much treasure but heaps of artifacts, and the old drugstore soda fountain upstairs.

The museum conducts two-hour walking tours in the Downtown Historic District by appointment and strolls of Centre Street on Thursdays and Fridays at 3 p.m.

The neo-Gothic Episcopal St. Peter’s Parish (1881-1884) features impressive stained-glass windows and a magnificent Harrison organ. It’s at the corner of 8th Street and Atlantic Avenue. Great sign outside in a no parking zone: Thou Shalt Not Park.

Civil War Re-enactments
The U.S. government began construction of Fort Clinch, to the east of the town, in 1847. Today the fort is open as a state park, and re-enactors (whom most call authentic and whom others call nuts) hold open house garrison weekends, candlelight viewings and candlelight tours at least once a month, featuring demonstrations of the weaponry (the cannon are loud!), fireplace cooking, the fully equipped Civil War infirmary and the jail. The fort by candlelight is beautiful, and the re-enactors – who sleep in the fort during the garrison weekends to help them stay in character – are a treat, whether they’re playing Yankee or Confederate troops (they do both).

At the island’s southern end is American Beach, part of Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, a summer resort primarily for blacks but open to everyone.

At its heyday, American Beach catered to throngs of Northern blacks, who boarded buses that would arrive 40 and 50 at a time. Blacks owned the motel, the restaurants, the nightclubs.

Black entertainers performing at clubs in Jacksonville would head up to American Beach after their sets and play the rest of the night at the Ocean Rendezvous, then the resort’s largest nightclub. That club also hosted concerts by Ray Charles, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other stars of the day.

Ghost of a Resort
After desegregation the beach became less attractive than beaches closer to home, and business dried out. Though the resort remains open, it is a ghost of its former self. And surrounded by big business in the form of a multimillion-dollar resort complex, local residents worry that some of the 35 families who call the beach home will sell out to golf-course building developers.

You can visit for a tour any time. Resident and unofficial mayor MaVynee Betsch is always happy to guide tours personally, and she operates the American Beach Museum out of a small mobile home parked at the corner of Gregg and Lewis streets.

The most notable feature of the American Beach coastline today is the absence of the high-rise condominium and hotel towers that line the sand immediately to the north and south. Horseback tours, available at the southern end of Amelia Island, sometimes clop by; fishermen flock to this relatively deserted stretch, and camping is permitted in summer.

The stretch of coastline controlled by the town is, like the beaches on the rest of Amelia Island, made up of fine white sand that gets sprinkled with sharks’ teeth and fossils for about two hours before and after a tide change. You can almost always see locals out hunting and gathering these in the morning and afternoon.

The Future Of 3G

The future is wireless, or at least that is what Nokia, Ericsson and a host of startups and network operators are earnestly hoping. But the quick success of 3G – The Third Generation of mobile telephony – is more than profitable icing for these companies; it has now become a matter of survival….

This article, which ran in the February, 2001 issue of Tornado Insider magazine, looks at the overall climate in European development of 3G, and then explores how each of Europe’s largest telecom networking manufacturers, Ericsson and Nokia, is coping with the challenge.


Driving through the freezing streets of Kista, Sweden, I’m trying to look nonchalant while conducting a third-generation (3G) mobile-video teleconference. We’re bouncing over the cobblestones and chatting with a spokeswoman back at the Ericsson 3G center. Simultaneously, I’m downloading CD-quality streaming audio from the Web.

This would be a typical PR exercise if not for the fact that our “handset” – a modified three-ton Volkswagen passenger bus – is somewhat bulky.

“There are no actual handsets yet,” apologizes Viktoria Eklund, a marketing manager for Ericsson who is acting as our tour guide on Ericsson’s 3G Magic Bus, “so we have to use regular networked PCs. But the connection is totally 3G wireless.”

Eklund’s point is compelling. I’m interacting across a wireless connection of 472 kilobits per second packet-switched and 328 kilobits per second circuit-switched. That’s faster than Deutsche Telekom can pump anything into a Munich home phone line no matter how much is offered in payment.

The importance of all this goes well beyond high technology for its own sake. The commercial success of large-scale 3G mobile systems is literally the key to survival for many of Europe’s mobile operators in the coming five years. It’s estimated that the more than $100 billion they spent on licenses alone must be followed by $120 billion to $200 billion in infrastructure spending.

“…By the time operators roll out the monumentally over-hyped 3G, their financial world will be different: Their credit ratings will have been battered, cruise ships-full of cash will have been spent, and the economic outlook will have changed….”
This makes 3G the juiciest opportunity to develop and exploit a diverse basket of new technologies since the heady days of the United States’ battle to conquer the moon ahead of the Soviets. It is also perhaps as risky. Much of the initial burden for hot-housing the companies that will deliver the applications and services destined to roll out with 3G, has been placed squarely on the shoulders of the two industry leaders, Ericsson and Nokia, as well as on their venture capitalists, strategic partners, and entrepreneurs they back. It may prove make or break for all of them as well.

There is much more riding on 3G than simply giving users more bandwidth and fancy applications. “When the operators are buying all this 3G infrastructure,” says Marie Bern, investment manager at Speed Ventures in Stockholm, “they are asking the vendors to prove the business case. If there are no compelling services and no convincing revenue models, there’s no case.”

It is always a risk for application developers to create for future technology platforms. One never really knows how long it will take before there is a critical mass of customers. Usually it takes far longer than the network vendors claim, which makes the business case for huge investment very vulnerable. To survive and be successful, developers need the support of venture capital firms and their networks, as well as the network vendors.

“When this collaboration works it’s really a win-win situation for all parties,” Bern says. The hot-housing is so crucial that it can be the difference between invest and don’t invest decisions. “When you look at an investment, you look at the team, the business idea, the partners, and the customers. In this case, the network vendors are the business partners,” Bern adds.

Anders Bons, Swedish bank SEB’s senior advisor for mobile business strategies and project leader for SEB mobile services, agrees. “The [networking hardware] vendors have finally started to realize that what they need is proof-of-concept by supporting real and valuable applications like mobile banking,” he says. “It’s not enough to have just artificial applications – like letting you buy a coke from a vending machine – to prove the value.”

The Climate
By the time operators roll out the monumentally over-hyped 3G, their financial world will be different: Their credit ratings will have been battered, cruise ships worth of cash will have been spent, and the economic outlook will have changed. In addition, the mainstream press will have incited the public to demand everything from postage-stamp-sized, user-friendly multimedia terminals with high-resolution streaming video-teleconferencing and video postcards, to robust new applications that will change lives, all for the cost of a 3G terminal and some airtime, of course.

Operators, in turn, will demand of the manufacturers not just networks, but rather complete end-to-end systems with turnkey, bundled applications. As was proven by the runaway success of what until recently seemed trivial applications like SMS and downloadable ring-tones, neither the vendors nor the operators have the foggiest idea which applications will be popular and which will simply be a waste of bits.

Will mobile-video postcards, as Nokia expects, eat into the lucrative “analog” postcard industry? Will location-based services compel games and useful business information, or merely irritate by beeping mobile phones every time someone passes within 300 meters of a McDonald’s?

Vendors believe that the only way to meet the needs of the 3G user base, which isn’t demanding anything specific yet, is to try to get as many applications as possible up and running as fast as possible. For their part, the operators are busy building locally-driven services and forging regional business alliances. But the cost and difficulty for operators to develop custom-built portfolios of applications and services specific to their network make the “walled garden” approach neither sensible nor desirable.

3G requires diverse technologies to converge, and quickly. In the US space program, parallel and massive technology initiatives were undertaken in everything from food processing to rockets, satellites, miniaturization, and computer and communication systems. The contractors couldn’t foresee the ways in which their technologies would interact. But they changed the world by developing technologies that would become miniaturized computers, the GPS satellite navigation system, and even Tang, the orange-drink powder.

The companies involved with the drive toward 3G systems are in a similar position. In order to succeed, 3G needs seismic advances in network, display, power, and size-factor technology plus other aspects such as personalization elements. NASA had 12 years to get it all done, 3G has perhaps two years.

The Consolidating Fiber Industry

The proposed $100 billion merger between Corning and Canadian network provider Nortel Networks would create a fiber optics company with a market cap of $170 billion. Analysts say that this is just one of a series of upcoming mergers and acquisitions that will transform and consolidate the lucrative fiber optics industry. [1999]

The European high-tech investor must be aware of two recurring scenarios in consolidating industries. On the one hand, small- to mid-size companies developing fiber optic technology are certain to be takeover targets and will therefore skyrocket in value while the acquiring companies’ share prices will suffer for perceived overpayment. On the other hand, regulators are watching the sector’s mergers like hawks, to ensure that buyouts don’t create an anti-competitive climate.

However, though regulators sometimes slow things down, they won’t stop the consolidation.

The Consolidating Fiber Optics Industry
“It has to consolidate,” said John Nicholls, CEO of Scotland’s Photonic Materials to “Most of these companies are seen as a base to grow the business into some sort of merger with a larger strategic partner which manufactures crystals and other components used in the construction of fiber- optic networks.”

European fiber companies like Photonic, as well as publicly traded firms such as Bookham Technologies, France’s HighWave Optical Technologies, and even to a certain extent Marconi Communications are well positioned to take advantage of the attention. Each makes parts of the fiber optics food chain that is highly valuable to larger international network companies, and each knows it. “There’s such a demand for capacity, and in terms of our company, we’re strategically important,” said Photonic’s Nicholls.

Telecommunications consulting firm RHK has reported more than 20 fiber-related mergers this year, compared to three last year, and that even before the JDS Uniphase takeover of SDL for $41 billion, the average price per acquisition as of June was already seven times that of 1999. Venture capital investment in the sector is five times 1999 levels.

The Initial Stage
The initial stage of the consolidation sees relatively smaller players forging value-adding strategic relationships to carry out specific aspects of the manufacturing process. This week, British Telecommunications announced that it had cut a $3.04 billion deal with Marconi to provide optical network gear. Earlier this month, Marconi announced a deal with Bookham to supply multi-channel DWDM optical components for Marconi’s networking products.

Where are the Best Investments?
Does this mean that fiber optic companies in Europe are particularly positioned technologically or strategically to make them more attractive those in the US? Yes and no.

“If you look at the technology from a market adoption perspective, or in terms of technological development, with the number of wireless equipment and major handset manufacturers, then Europe is ahead of the US,” said Krishna Visvanathan, communications team investment manager for 3I, which has had investments in many European fiber optics companies, including Bookham and Photonic Materials. “But in terms of sheer numbers of optical networking companies, the US is significantly ahead.

“It’s interesting that some specific geography does have more photonics technology than others” Visvanathan said. “The US is hot, and there’s lots of start ups, but there are a fair few in the UK as well. But overall, the geography doesn’t have a major impact. The entire optics network market space is so hot that any company, European, Israeli or American, has fantastic exit prospects, assuming the technology is sound.”

Indeed, the major headlines aside, important deals continue to take place outside Europe: Altitun, a tunable laser company with good technology, but scant revenues, was bought in May by ADC Telecommunications, Inc (ADCT) for $872 million, and Israeli-founded US company Chromatis Networks was bought in June by Lucent Technologies for $4.5 billion in Lucent shares.

But, the European consolidation is keeping apace. “Given today’s climate, we’ll definitely be a takeover target,” said Photonic’s Nicholls. “I’m not building a business to sell it,” he said, but then readily agreed that with so much money being offered by companies increasingly desperate for his products, his position could be far worse.