Monday, July 31, 2006

Dullsville, mainly...

Not much happening, just a couple of things. Look for Bite Latvija to announce some kind of financial figures toward the end of the week (together with user numbers, that should be interesting). Also, in the medium term, look for Baltcom, the cable TV, internet and voice telephony operator to ramp up its internet speeds, at least for those customers on or near its optical network. Good international speeds should be available via Baltcom Fiber, the owner of a trans-Baltic optical cable with humungous capacity (most of it dark).
Also, a major US company has set up a global software development center here for its specific products. Now they are hiring for a major expansion. You use one of these products very often (outside Latvia) when paying for something. It makes sure the payment clears securely plus some important data is captured for other interested parties (such as the retailer). I am not naming name because I learned that one of my rival reporters (on a paper that sorta competes with my day job newspaper) actually reads the blog :). Good for you, Elizabete :).
I will publish details a) once my paper does the story or b) if they spike it for whenever, as is often the case...

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Broadband for everyone else :)

There is an intended double meaning in the title of this post, because I want to summarize what I said in the video about the rural broadband project (for everyone out in the bogs and forests) as well as for everyone else (my readers in Latvia, who don't follow my mumblings in what could be perceived as a terrible American accent :)).
What the Communications Department of the Ministry of Transport says in going to happen is that there will be a series of tenders (or "lots" as part of one big tender) for broadband access points (that is, terminations of broadband carrier network branches) where local (i.e. operators seeking end-user customers in the swamps and forests) can then hook up their last-mile distribution systems. These will most likely be wireless solutions of some kind (point to point radiolinks, whatever calls itself WIMAX these days, maybe CDMA 450 EV DO).
All of this will happen in the fall and will start from the poorest regions of Latvia (Rezekne) and move up the socioeeconomic ladder until the LVL 4 million in European Union support funds is spend (this is a public/private partnership model, the actually spending is assumed to be more). The process will continue with the next round of EU funding.
The MoT model does forsee building some parallel infrastructure to the Lattelecom network, perhaps using Latvenergo, Latvian Railways or Latvian State Radio and Television (LVRTC) infrastructure as a base for extending nodes out to the remote and poor areas. Lattelecom says it has most region (rajon) cities and towns covered by its DSL network, although there may be some gaps and cases where a single customer in a multi-dwelling building can't be served at a reasonable cost ( LVL 1000 to run a cable to the whole building, would cost less if 10 --15 customers signed up, maybe Lattelecom would even absorb the cost).
All of this, of course, is a bit of a zoo, since Lattelecom and Triatel are already cooperating to hook up rural customers, running wireless last-mile for voice, Triatel is operating on its own for wireless internet, there are other local solutions here and there. So customers are not completely and hopelessly left unconnected, except for some exceptions that prove the rule.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Broadband issues come up again

The Latvian telecoms and IT community seems to be taking two sides on how best to spread broadband to rural and remote areas. The Communications Department of the Ministry of Transport, headed by Raimonds Bergmanis, stands by its idea of using European Union (EU) funds in a public-private partnership to built out alternative infrastructure to Lattelecom's backbone network and ADSL nodes (in most Latvian cities and towns).
The Latvian Internet Association (LIA), however, has written a letter to the European Commission (EC) urging that this approach not be supported. Its managing director Viesturs Pless says funding should go to supporting "last mile" connections to end users. In the letter, he writes that there is no need to distort the market The Latvian Information and Telecommunications Technology Association also leans toward a solution that would favor end-users, but has taken no hard position.
Bergmanis counters by saying the EC had approved of the infrastructure-oriented project (this blogger has seen the letter). He believes that competition would be advanced by building out some measure of alternative infrastructure. In the transit market, Bergmanis notes, foreign operators have a real choice of transiting voice or data through Lattelecom, Latvenergo, or Baltcom Fiber. This will lead to lower tariffs for the end user.
Pless of LIA argues that support for end users will stimulate demand, which in turn will stimulate the operators to upgrade their infrastructure to meet it. In other words, if some degree of subsidy encourages 10 rural households and businesses to request broadband connections from the nearest node, the operator (most likely Lattelecom ?) will find a solution, such as a wireless link.

A link to an important off-topic

It is back to business here, sticking to matters of telecoms and IT, but to continue the issues I raised in an earlier post, I may, from time to time, update my formerly moribund (that's nearly dead if you are wondering) blog about Latvia in general. I will be posting some more stuff on the political culture and mentality behind the decision to ban the Riga Pride 2006 as a very serious blow to freedom of speech and assembly in Latvia. The link is here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An important aside on free speech in Latvia

I rarely depart from the subject at hand, but now I fear that Latvia will make the world news not because, say, Tele2 is about to claim it has 1 million users (nearly half the population, infants, infirm, geezers and such included), but because of yet another free speech scandal brewing because of a planned Gay Pride march for July 22. There is considerable pressure to forbid this march (as the Moscow police, a great example, recently did when gays tried to march there). For me, this is fundamentally an issue of free speech, even to those whose views may be offensive or strange to the majority. Indeed, free speech rights are precisely about the rights of minorities to express their views in public, to declare dissenting, radical and even repulsive ideas. We all lose our freedom if we leave it to governments, pressure groups, so-called religious groups and authorities to influence or dictate what we may or may not say in public.
As for my personal views, I am philosophically a libertarian, I support gay rights and have, just for fun, started blogging on this from time to time in Latvian, even making up what appears to be a new Latvian word for libertarianism - libertisms. And strangely enough, I am doing in on a blogging platform maintained by a Latvian IT and political blogger, Kristaps Kaupe, who is one of the anti-gay actvists with his hardline nationalist organization. I hope Kristaps appreciates that his own platform, which has a number of what I would call weird (and not only politically, just plain strange) blogs, is actually a model of a consensual libertarian community where all views are welcome.
To likely 10 % of my readers who may happen to be gay or lesbian, please don't assume that any craziness (banned marches, dumb-ass statements by the government or city council, anti-gay mobs and riots) coming out of Latvia represents what all Latvians think. I certainly don't. Everyone is welcome on this blog as long as we mainly talk about telecoms and IT. Alas, I don't have the time to keep my long dead Thoughts From Latvia blog updated, we could go on about politics there and while my Latvian-language libertarian blog is unique (I think, and Kristaps says Google confirms it), I am not about to start another Teenage Mutant Libertarian Reptiles blog to try to stick out among the hundreds of confessionals of my first time with Ayn Rand and the like.

E-minister, Communications Department head trade barbs

Alleged foot-dragging and delays in moving ahead with an European Union (EU) mandated program to bring broadband internet to rural and underdeveloped areas in Latvia, the possible loss of LVL 4 million in EU funding for this purpose and charges of "populism"were traded between Latvia's "E-minister" Ina Gudele and Raimonds Bergmanis, the head of the Ministry of Transport's Communications Department.
Gudele says that LVL 1.7 million have already had to be reallocated to related projects, since broadband development has failed to move ahead. She doesn't believe there is time to take action before the end of 2007, when the EU funding could be forfeited. Bergmanis says that tenders for rural and remote area broadband can be prepared by the end of the year and said that Gudele, a non-partisan minister appointed with the support of the Green/Farmers' Alliance (ZZS), was engaging in pre-election populism. He said that his plans for broadband involve spending LVL 11 million and raising funds in a public-private partnership with the hope of engaging other participants besides Lattelecom.
This blogger has learned that Gudele will be asking Minister of Transport Krisjanis Peters to explain whether these remarks by Bergmanis, who is a high ranking civil servant, reflect the views of the Ministry. Behind the scenes, both the minister and Bergmanis have had harsher words for each other. Although the election is less than three months away, Gudele's complaint to Peters could make more trouble for Bergmanis, who, it is understood, has been criticized by other members of the Cabinet for the slow/non-implementation of the broadband concept written up by Bergmanis' department as early as 2004. The E-minister has suggested that oversight and policy making in IT and telecommunications (Bergmanis' field) be put under one authority. This could be seen as a strong suggestion that the new government that will be formed after the election should put this all under the E-Ministry and have Gudele's successor take over Bergmanis department. Another issue is whether Bergmanis have the confidence of the new minister if his department is reshuffled.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Some Nokia N80 impressions

But for one bizarre restart and one incident where an attempt to transfer music with the Nokia Music Manager for Mac locked up the Powerbook (had to force a shut-down), the little gadget (my Nokia N80) is working rather nicely. Haven't tried to use it with the Powerbook for internet access as my Triatel connection has reappeared from the dead.
What I am really waiting for is a Skype for Symbian app that I can download for the N80, then use it in WiFi mode to make Skype and Skype-out calls. As I understand it, there is one hack for Skype on Symbian that supposedly works in a bizarre push-to-talk mode. I would prefer to log into a nice app with all my Skype and Skype out contacts and just call them as I do from my other computers (the N80 is, after all, a computer disguised as a phone and hiding a 3 megapixel camera). Speaking of the camera, I have included a shot from it (angle toward the shed of my summer place, reclining in a swing sofa).

Triatel back from the dead?

Suddenly on a cool Saturday night, my Triatel wireless internet in Carnikava came back to normal life (doing as high as 450 kbps, depending on what speedtest tool one used). It had been running sporadically at less that GPRS speed, when it was running at all, for almost a week. This failure of Triatel (the company says the net was overloaded, so much demand for the service) also led to an impulse purchase of a Nokia N80, so that I would have something to use for EDGE access with the Triatel down. I think I would have bought the N80 anyway, since I was offered an excellent deal, significantly below retail.
The N80 is a bit of a hassle to use with my Apple Powerbook G4, it managed to crash Mac OSX (using Nokia Music Manager for Mac, designed for the N91 but supposed to work with the N80).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Triatel trips over its own success

Believe it or not, I am writing this offline. My Triatel connection out at the summer house in Carnikava has suddenly shifted from satisfactory state-of-the art (300 to 600 kbps) to 1980s nostalgia, when I used to access The Source or Compuserve at 300 baud.
The reason for this is that lots of people got the same idea as I – why not grab a Triatel wireless modem and stay online at the summer place for around LVL 20 a month? So now the base station is overloaded and I get faster connections on GPRS (wish I had an EDGE phone now ☹ or maybe even 3G, but I’m waiting for HDSPA). Triatel promises that it will fix things in around a week, by July 21. This is actually kinda good news for Triatel, since it is good proof of their concept.
The reason I have this connection is that I am testing it for my paper (and sorta this blog, I guess). So as far as contacting customer service, I had to explain that this was a borrowed test unit and I was not your Joe-Blow (or average Janis-the-user) in Latvia, which somewhat tainted my customer relations experiment, calling the Triatel service number. The head of services, also a reader of this blog, got back to me and explained the problem. I assume that the average customer is also treated well. So we shall have to wait for the return of the happy days of near-wireline DSL performance.
Another curious thing I learned was that IZZI, a reseller of Triatel’s EV DO internet services, has pre-empted an idea I was going to put in my Latvian-language review – that of selling a “Summer Internet” package for a reasonable flat rate and a deposit to make sure you don’t let the dog or the crows get the wireless modem. IZZI doesn’t advertise it, preferring to sign on customers for two-year contracts, but if you ask them pretty please, please, please, they will apparently give you a gadget for the summer. Good for them.
However, the whole experience is a reminder that if you want the always-on lifestyle (or rather, the on-whenever and wherever I want it lifestyle), keep some kind of backup, such as GPRS or EDGE. At least you will be able to check your e-mail if there is some kind of megaf**kup of your main system, such as there was with DSL, and as there now is with the overburdening of the Triatel node here in Carnikava.
I am now trying to post this using a deathly slow 16 kbps GPRS connection…EVERYTHING IS FUCKED. If this doesn’t work, I will crawl to the Lattelecom landline and dial up ☹ ☹

Monday, July 10, 2006

Beserker gadget slays 17 500 DSL connections

A beserk network gadget, perhaps driven mad by the unusual heat, was responsible for the failure of some 17 500 Lattelecom DSL connections (25 % of all subscribers), disruption of some automated teller machines and the 1188 information service at the weekend.
According to the heat-insanity theory, the air conditioning in the network equipment facility was insufficient, but there could have been other, undetermined causes. According to Lattelecom network director Valdis Voncovics, hacker or denial of service attacks were not a cause of the outage.
Lattelecom may have to pay compensation to some customer with service level agreements, but was lucky that the breakdown took place the night between Friday and Saturday instead of a workday, when more business customers would have been seriously affected.
Lattelecom now plans to realign its network architecture to make it easier to isolate malfunctioning network equipment. Had the gadget – some kind of network card with routing functions – simply failed, its load would have been shifted to other equipment more or less automatically, but since the gadget was still technically alive, but pumping deranged and disruptive data into the network, this did not occur. Indeed, Lattelecom had to call in extra specialists (in addition to the duty staff late at night) to determine just WTF was going on.
Something similar occured last year, when one of ISP Latnet's Cisco boxes went totally batshit during a workweek and knocked some heavy customers – Latvian TV, Latvian radio, the Customs service, etc., off the net.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Major ICT systems failure at Lattelecom?

Much of Lattelecom's high speed DSL internet service and some other functions failed on Friday, July 7 with the service breakdown lasting into Saturday. According to Latvian television, "tens of thousands" of DSL customers were affected and there was disruption of the 1188 information services. Valdis Voncovics, head of network services at Lattelecom, spoke of a "complex failure" but denied that it was related to a hacker attack or the like.
The incident, which I will probably have to do a post-mortem about for my paper, is yet again a signal that any serious internet user has to have a back-up connection. On Friday evening, I was using the Triatel link at my summer house and the only problem I had was getting to the 1188 page. The next day, at a sauna-like meeting in Riga (the Occupation Museum Society), I checked my e-mail with my GPRS phone. For business purposes, an EDGE or 3G device would be better. I didn't know of the DSL breakdown until the news on Saturday evening. More on this, perhaps, later,.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Weirdness that should be true, maybe...?

There is an odd rumor flying about, nothing more, that Bite Latvija, ahead of its planned fall launch of HSDPA, approached Mikrotīkls (known internationally as Mikrotik), the Latvian maker of wireless internet routers, access points and other equipment, to enquire about the possibility of building HSDPA capable wireless routers.
This would mean that Bite, in addition to planning on selling HSDPA PC cards, and hoping that HSDPA phones and other handsets will come along, is also positioning itself to compete against wireline DSL.
The gadget Bite had in mind would be an access point incorporating a HSDPA chipset (probably from Qualcomm) and a router/hotspot transciever. This would be the sort of thing one could take home or to an office, take out of the box and plug and play. At 2 Mbps to start with, and possibly higher speeds later on (say in the 8 Mbps range), the «nomadic» HSDPA connection would be competitive speed-wise with Lattelecom DSL where it hasn't been speeded up to 10 Mbps yet, as well as in country towns, rural areas, etc. when and if HSDPA coverage is available, but wireline still inadequate.
Building this access device in Latvia would also be a kind of patriotic gesture by Bite (although the price and quality of Mikrotīkls stuff would be decisive).

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Bizarro signs of the times

Now that the turbulence around Lattelecom Technology (ex-MicroLink) may be coming to an end, I must mention something bizarre I saw while being driven through downtown Riga (returning from something I covered for my newspaper). There was a Schinder (German for gatherer of excrement, suctions outhouses and septic tanks, Latvian šinderis) vehicle, an old Soviet-era tanker with a big hose for sticking down the shithouse (that is what they do). It had a Lattelecom Technology emblem on its door. At first, I thought WTF!!, but then I heard that some ex-MicroLink vehicles had their new emblems removed (some problem with colors or something). Apparently, someone had pasted a (discarded?) sticker on the door of this, let us say, less than high tech vehicle. Of course, if you suck lots of bad data into a storage facility, is there any difference (except for the smell, drove behind a leaking šinderis once, yuck)??

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Lattelecom headhunts TietoEnator honcho

Māris Ozoliņš, CEO of Swedish-Finnish TietoEnator's Latvian subsidiary, is moving to become head honcho of Lattelecom Technology, formerly known as MicroLink.
The IT unit of what is becoming the Lattelecom group will play a critical role in the group's future strategy and Ozoliņš was probably the best choice (though at a bad time). He brings very useful skills and experience from serving the IT needs of banking and finance, including designing entire card and payment systems (which is what the Latvian unit of TietoEnator does, among other things). But why a bad time? As this blog has noted (I also telegraphed the CEO change a few posts ago :) ), the integration of MicroLink, its sudden name change, has been less than smooth. Jānis Bergs, the head of MicroLink in Latvia and a member of what was once the pan-Baltic MicroLink's upper management team, left to go into business for himself (buying out a small unit of MicroLink in Latvia). He had been expected to stay on with Lattelecom Technology. It appears he and other long-time MicroLink staffers were disappointed that the pan-Baltic company was divided up among the three Baltic telcos in which TeliaSonera owns controlling or substantial interests (though not for very much longer in Lattelecom).
Ozoliņš, however, is seen as a strong team builder and will probably save what can be saved at Lattelecom Technology and get the company back on track.
In fact, even as the ex-TietoEnator honcho was cleaning out his desk, Lattelecom Technology signed a contract to set up and run an information system for the national statistics agency in the Ukraine, based on the system it designed and operates for the Latvian Central Statistics Bureau.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Some Latvian/international IT rumors

The little birds tell me:

Exigen is looking to land a deal with the New Zealand Inland Revenue to improve document handling and communication (internal and external) by reducing paper-based correspondence. This is in line with Exigen's business of designing and "building" (in Latvia) international corporate and organizational IT solutions that streamline business and administrative processes.
Latvian-based Mikrotikls, known as Mikrotiks internationally, is doing a WiFi on commuter railways pilot project with Concourse, the US installer of WiFi at several US airports. Concourse was recently acquired by the aspiring global WiFi network of networks Boingo.
Mikrotiks has provided wireless routers and other equipment for some of Concourse's airport projects and in the pilot project in Chicago, it will be providing similar equipment (on trains and along the rails). The pilot project will cover a 9 mile stretch of track near the Windy City.