Can fibre-based smart grids provide a solution to our superfast broadband problems?

fibre opticDo you have superfast fibre optic broadband? The answer is probably not, because in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere projects are riven by funding issues, political in-fighting and delays, delays, delays. The answer just might be right in front of our eyes.

Take this new report from Ovum on smart grids. Before you fall asleep, the smart grid pilot project it refers to in China is being undertaken by the SGCC, the largest utility in the world, so plenty of food for thought for utilities globally depending on what happens with it.

The crux of the Ovum piece is that the pilot – if it goes nationwide – is likely to offer a potential windfall of up to $2bn for international fibre infrastructure vendors. Yup, the project is basically running power alongside fibre to kill three birds with one stone – deliver power, run a smart grid (ie collect and monitor smart meters in customer homes) and potentially offer triple play services.

This hasn’t really been done with any great degree of success outside of Japan, where investments were made over a long period of time, report author Julie Kunstler told me. But if it works out in China, the big question is whether it could show US utilities a way forward – yes fibre is pretty costly but apply for a telco license or lease the lines to comms providers and they could fund such an investment.

It’s sorely needed, in the US and elsewhere, to manage that difficult last mile problem. As Kunstler told me, it solves this issue because power companies already shoot their cables right into the customers’ home, and are pretty much ubiquitous to boot.

In the end it’s still very early days, and although a technology supplier in China I spoke to said they were confident of this 80,000 home pilot going nationwide, even then, the unique political and economic conditions in the People’s Republic may make it the only country where such a huge project can work.

As Clive Longbottom of analyst Quocirca told me, “getting Verizon and AT&T to work together is like getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on a new fiscal package”.

This is where China has the edge – a basically homogenous, state-run set up where what the government says goes…a government, by the way, which has seemingly bottomless pockets and huge aspirations  to lead the world in technology deployments, the bigger the better.

In the meantime, the citizens of the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere will continue to suffer from the kind of political indecision and selfish stakeholders which have thus far hampered any kind of coherent national superfast broadband strategy.

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China 2013: What to expect from its tech giants in the Year of the Snake

chinese flagJust finished an interesting piece on what to expect from Chinese tech firms in 2013 so thought I’d précis the key points below.

To be honest as with any year end predictions to an extent there’s always more-of-the-same than anything else, and to that point there’ll be greater international expansion on the mobile handset front by ZTE, Huawei, Lenovo, and potentially TCL-Alcatel.

Aside from the big names, Canalys analyst Nicole Peng told me there could also be attempts by feature phone vendors like Gionee and K-Touch to make it overseas, claiming that the technical and business support offered by chipset companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek is making it easier than ever to break into new smartphone markets.

But away from hardware, what about China’s growing raft of web companies?

It would be easy to write a story saying “the Chinese are coming, look out Facebook, Twitter et al!”, but the honest truth is that the likes of Tencent, Sina, Alibaba and others have become successful in China in part by copying their US rivals and in part thanks to local restrictions banning their rivals.

Where they have done well is in localising their platforms for the domestic user – something Alibaba and Baidu are doing now even for their mobile OS platforms – and innovating on top of what has gone before.

Aside from the odd service like Tencent’s WeChat which has managed to cross the Great Firewall to acceptance elsewhere, I’m sceptical that these firms will expand successfully in 2013, and to an extent, with less than half of the vast Chinese population online, there’s probably enough untapped growth left domestically to keep them busy for now.

Peng is slightly more optimistic, however.

“Many of the local mobile services/applications we have seen in China, such as Tencent Weixin, Sina Weibo provide great user experience and innovative features that we could not find from the international big name,” she told me.

“As long as they continue to innovate and own their IPs, I do not see Chinese internet companies having any major disadvantages in competing, as mobile services become device/OS agnostic in the future.”

Perhaps. But with local incumbents like Twitter, Facebook, Google et al, mature Western markets will certainly be too tough a nut to crack.

On top of this, Chinese tech firms will have to put up with increasingly hostile attitudes from various national governments.

National security concerns will continue to dog Huawei and ZTE on the telecoms infrastructure front, and there are signs that US regulators may soon begin the process of de-registering Chinese firms from US stock markets for failing to comply with domestic securities laws.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of a potential conflict over that bunch of barren rocks known as Diaoyu/Senkaku.

Plenty to look forward to, then, in 2013!