I just returned from an epic week in China meeting companies in Shanghai and then Beijing, where I stayed in a hotel that occupies the top floors of the tallest building in the city. One morning as I went to swim laps in the pool, I left my iPhone in the window to capture this.
When I set up my first Wi-Fi network in my home in 2000, it was still just called “802.11b”, and it was expensive and super difficult to use. A Wi-Fi card for your laptop cost $700, and an access point was $2,000. Even so, I realized quickly that Wi-Fi hardware would come down in price and networks would appear everywhere.
I also realized that a company was needed to make it easier to find and connect to Wi-Fi networks outside the home and office, so in 2001, I founded Boingo Wireless. In a TED Talk that year I gave a presentation describing “Packetspace” — a world where the Internet is in the air we breathe. It was a novel concept at a time when getting online meant being chained to a desk.
It’s been a crazy ride ever since. In 2015, a projected 2.14 billion Wi-Fi devices will ship, including about 1.4 billion Wi-Fi enabled phones, and 725 million homes will have Wi-Fi networks. From 2012 to 2017, the number of Wi-Fi gadgets will quadruple to 20 billion — almost three for every person on Earth.
Yet, it’s still too hard to get connected
There are two types of Wi-Fi locations: private and public. Private networks are in homes, offices and schools and usually password protected and closed. Public networks are found in cafes, airports, stadiums, hotels and other public spaces and are typically either paid or ad supported. Most high quality public Wi-Fi networks require an account to access, and the user needs to enter a username and password or sign up with a credit card.
Wi-Fi is rolling out across cities as well. If you’re in the U.S., you’ve probably seen a “CableWiFi” signal in your town. All the major cable operators are deploying city-wide outdoor Wi-Fi networks. Unfortunately, in order to connect, you need to enter your cable account login information — and there are probably twelve people on the planet who have memorized their cable username and password. Imagine if every time you wanted to use your cell phone, you had to key in your login information. You wouldn't!
Everything is about to change
Enter Hotspot 2.0, which you'll hear about under the brand “Passpoint,” a set of new industry standards being rolled out to millions of hotspots and hundreds of millions of devices. With Passpoint, you’ll still need an account with a hotspot operator like Boingo, Time Warner Cable or another operator, but once you set up access the first time, your phone and all your devices will simply connect whenever they're in range of any signal your operator has access to, including networks they don’t own but can roam onto. And the link will be secure.
I predict major wireless carriers will eventually bundle Wi-Fi for free to their customers to offload congested cellular networks. In fact, Passpoint will finally make Wi-Fi roaming more like cellular roaming. And it will work across all your devices — phone, tablet, laptop, car, etc. They’ll just connect.
When that happens, you’ll start moving between Wi-Fi and cellular seamlessly, and usage on Wi-Fi networks will skyrocket, leading to an accelerating wave of Wi-Fi infrastructure build outs. Cable companies are now installing hundreds of thousands of Passpoint-ready access points across cities, Boingo is lighting up airports and soon stadiums, military bases and college campuses. Passpoint-ready hotspots will soon be everywhere.
Your devices will just auto-connect, and that will lead to a staggering increase in usage on Wi-Fi networks.
Shortly after the iPhone came out, AT&T’s then 3G network came under intense pressure. To reduce congestion, AT&T and Apple worked together to make iPhones auto-connect to AT&T Wi-Fi locations whenever it saw a signal — mainly in Starbucks. They basically hacked the iPhone so it had Passpoint-type capability years before Passpoint was developed.
What happened next? AT&T's Wi-Fi network had 20 million connects in 2008, and 2.7 billion connects in 2012, a 1350X increase:
That's 2.7 billion connects per year, on just one phone model, on just one carrier, in only 32k AT&T Wi-Fi locations, mostly Starbucks. What will happen to Wi-Fi use when Passpoint allows auto-connect in millions of hotspots and billions of devices in the next 5 to 10 years?
The mobile revolution’s insatiable thirst for bandwidth
The average mobile user now consumes 6.6 gigabytes of data per month and growing, fueled by cloud, music and video streaming services. Under such pressures, LTE network speeds already slowed 32% in 2013. Wi-Fi is extremely fast and low cost, and it can do more of the heavy lifting, but until now it’s been too difficult for users to connect to public hotspots.
You may not have heard of Passpoint, but it’s the next big thing in Wi-Fi, and soon you’re going to see it everywhere. It means you’ll be able to move from place to place and always be connected on the fastest available network, Wi-Fi or cellular, often on more than one network simultaneously. And that's very good news, because it means the incredible explosion of innovation in the mobile Internet will continue unabated.
Less than four years ago, the only interest I had in aviation was as a passenger. Then a friend who owned and piloted several airplanes told me over dinner about how he'd just flown himself back to Florida from a weekend in Cabo San Lucas, and he invited me to come out and fly one of his planes, a small jet. We drove to the airport, he popped me in the front left seat and took me for a spin. As we climbed out in the clear night over the Gulf of Mexico, it occurred to me, "I really should learn how to do this."
Over the next few years, I trained intensively, tentatively at first, still wondering why I was going to the trouble, and then bit by bit challenging myself to master the airplane.
I earned my Private Pilot and Instrument Flight Rules licenses (so I could fly in clouds and weather), I bought a small, single engine airplane and soon found I was flying myself all over the place, to meetings, to poker games, to dinner in Santa Barbara or Vegas. I was hooked.
I decided recently to take the next step, to learn to fly a jet. I read at least a thousand pages of textbooks and technical manuals and flew over 150 hours with an instructor. This last week I spent 7 days doing intense training in a small twin engine jet, flying over the high desert in Southern California, culminating in an oral test and 2 hour check ride with an FAA examiner.
The test was incredible: Simulated engine fire followed by engine failure on takeoff at the most critical moment as the wheels leave the ground (these jets fly just fine on one engine!), single engine approaches and missed approaches, simulated explosive decompression at altitude followed by a (very real) dive at 6500 feet per minute, stall recoveries, hand-flown approaches on one engine -- all the hardest things you can do in a jet crammed into a single intense test with an FAA examiner sitting in the right seat making notes of everything you do. At one point, he had me look down at a piece of paper on the floor of the plane for 20 seconds and then said, "look up, and recover", and as I raised my head, I found only blue sky out the window and all my screens blanked out -- he'd put us in an "unusual attitude" pitched way up and approaching a stall, and I had to recover control of the plane using only a backup instrument.
The passing standard is 100% or fail. You have to do every maneuver by the book at the same level as an airline pilot, or you don't make it.
I realized near the end of the test as I was flying in on my final approach and staring intently at my instruments, that I'd done almost everything you can do in an airplane all while rarely looking out the window. All the training and the test flight itself is administered as though you're in a cloud the whole time. Except for takeoff and the last 200 feet of your approach to landing, you're in simulated weather the entire time, so you only look at your instruments. The screens become your complete reality, and you rely on them completely. It felt a little like Ender's Game.
This training and test was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. At times over the past week, after blowing a procedure or just forgetting some important step and sitting there tired and drenched in sweat, I thought about giving up. My instructor kept pushing me, and by the final day before my check ride, I had it down. The test -- even with those crazy maneuvers -- went smoothly.
And I passed! I received my Airplane Multi Engine Land and Jet rating along with High Altitude, Complex and High Performance ratings. I passed the same check ride every airline pilot has to take -- as one aviator friend put it, the "PhD of flying."
I'm proud of the accomplishment but also humbled by the level of knowledge, skill and presence required of jet pilots -- something I will never take for granted when I step into an airplane as a passenger, or as the guy behind the wheel.
Masayoshi Son of Softbank gave an impassioned speech this week at the US Chamber of Commerce for why he should be allowed to consolidate the US Wireless industry by combining #3 Sprint and #4 T-Mobile, and committing to ignite a massive price war and capex arms race, which is what he did successfully in Japan. His presentation is worth reading.
On a Friday six weeks ago I was sitting in what has become an almost comical caricature of LA traffic snarls -- Sunset Blvd and the 405 -- and I came up with a simple idea to help the situation: remove a single “no turn on red” sign. This one limitation was preventing the smooth flow of traffic coming off the 405 south, causing dangerous backups onto the freeway itself and forcing a light to stop traffic on Sunset more regularly than necessary.
I wrote up a simple proposal with a diagram and sent it off to our newly elected mayor, Eric Garcetti. The next morning, on a Saturday, he responded with, "I'm on it." Then Sunday morning, I got an email from our local city councilman, Mike Bonin, saying he'd heard from Eric, and he was digging in.
Today, just six weeks later, I heard back from Mike. He and Eric worked with three city and state agencies, LADOT, LA Metro and CalTrans, and over the next two weeks, they are implementing my suggestion and taking it further: they're restriping lanes and changing the timing of lights.
I don't know for sure if it will work, but it’s a start!
I just read a thoughtful article by Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer forwarded to me by my friend Rich Barton that makes the case for a new way to look at economic progress. Instead of single-dimension measurements like income and GDP, we need to look at prosperity.
My parents are both artists, and I grew up poor. In the 1970's I lived for a time on beans and rice, and I saw a doctor every few years. Today, a family on the same income has access to far better food, more effective healthcare, and the kids have supercomputers in their pockets. Now that I’m on the other side of the divide, I often find myself in discussions with people who are so totally focused on an absolute income number in the rich-poor debate, they miss the explosion in prosperity in plain view.
I’m not saying everything is perfect, and we have real issues, but until we’re weaned off over-simple metrics like GDP, we won’t be prioritizing the right things.
Looking at progress through the lens of prosperity, it becomes clear that our #1 world priority must be education. Only education can lead to good choices in what to do with all those new inexpensive calories (the solution for healthcare), awareness of the environmental impact of new technologies and what Rich calls the right “conditions of invention” to continue the march forward. The stakes are higher than ever — I heard recently that the state of Arizona now plans its prison buildout based on the literacy level exiting 2nd grade.
If you can measure it, you can fix it. Let's start by measuring the right thing.
Learning to recover from situations you do NOT want to be in while flying an airplane.
I ran across this inspiring letter, which was written over 50 years ago to astronaut Malcolm Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the earth, from his father the day before he left and printed in his biography.
I think a lot about what I tell my kids -- like a rocket, a few degrees of adjustment here or there at launch makes a huge difference later.
Neil Gaiman gave a brilliant speech with ten pieces of advice for young artists. I found it applicable to business or just about anything in life.
Some of my biggest successes in business were where I had no clue that what I was trying to do was probably impossible. I just went ahead and did it. Sure it was hard, but it often worked because I was the only one who tried. Gaiman captures this perfectly:
When you start out...you have no idea what you're doing. This is great. People who know what they're doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible...were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do. And because nobody has done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again.
In our materialist world, money is seen as the key motivation for people. Steve Jobs dispelled this famously with, "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me... Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me." Gaiman agrees:
Nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was for the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't end up getting the money, either.
But how do you start out? Before I knew anyone or had any experience, I used to have a 10:1 ratio -- for every ten calls I made, I wouldn't be discouraged if I could just get one person to call me back. Gaiman uses a metaphor of being stranded on a desert island, and every career attempt is like putting a message in a bottle and dropping it in the ocean. You may have to put out hundreds before the bottles start coming back. Eventually, they do.
Soon enough, however, you face the problems of success. When you do finally make it, the world starts coming to you -- the bottles start washing in -- and ironically that can prevent you from doing the things that made you successful in the first place.
The world conspires to stop you from doing the thing that you do because you're successful. There was a day when I realized I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails and found I was writing much more.
And why you should continue to take big risks:
The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work or more likely be the kind of embarrassing failures that people would gather together and discuss until the end of time…. Looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes, and when I was doing them I had no idea. I still don't. And where would be the fun in doing something you knew was going to work?
Exceptional advice for anyone who's ever had success or sought it.
In the fall of 1993, I was sitting in my apartment in Southern California trying to come up with a name for the Internet company I was about to start. I was 22 years old.
I recently came across my original notes from back then, and here's how it happened. I had first scribbled a few suffixes ("link", "soft", "works") and prefixes ("net", "super", etc.), then narrowed it down to some favorites, put them into a grid and called six friends, including my future wife, Arwen. The winner by a slim majority: "EarthLink". That was it.
I'm not sure if I conducted a trademark search, but I went with it.
Then, in late 1994 after we had launched and we were growing like a rocket, I was notified that the word "EarthLink" was already trademarked and owned by a major US cable TV company. We were facing a disaster. Our lawyers wanted to start writing letters. Instead, I just cold called the cable company's headquarters back East, talked my way to their general counsel and explained our predicament. He thought about it for a few minutes, and in a stroke of enormous generosity, released the name to us, completely and at no charge.
Looking at this nearly two decades later, my conclusions:
- The name EarthLink worked well because it was descriptive, but also whimsical and memorable. It made a technological mystery sound approachable. It sounded disarming and helpful, and that perfectly summed up what later made the company successful.
- A name doesn't make or break a company. It's an empty vessel you fill with the right strategy and execution. But the vessel can be too small or it could have leaks. EarthLink was a perfect name for a very big, embracing idea: make it easy to connect to the Internet and bring it to the masses.
- Years later, I would be involved with start-ups that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire specialized agencies to come up with names. Back then, my net worth was less than a hundred thousand dollars. I just had a pure idea of what I was trying to build, sat down and came up with a name. My biggest successes to date have all gone that route, and I still think it's the best way.
- Sometimes big companies seem unfriendly and impenetrable, but they are staffed by people just like you and me. When I called the general counsel of a big cable company, he listened to my honest plea, and he decided to help me. I'm sure saving my life made him feel really good. Sometimes it's better to just take a chance and reach out to the person who can make a difference.
- I'm glad I didn't choose "WanSoft"!
EarthLink went on to help millions of people onto the Internet for the first time, and in the process became a Fortune 1000 company.
From a great interview in Wired by Steven Levy:
Our first shareholder letter, in 1997, was entitled, “It’s all about the long term.” If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details.
In some cases, things are inevitable. The hard part is that you don’t know how long it might take, but you know it will happen if you’re patient enough. Ebooks had to happen. Infrastructure web services had to happen. So you can do these things with conviction if you are long-term-oriented and patient.
And now, a better thermostat: Nest.
Here's a few off the top of my head:
- Traffic lights that stay red when there's no crossing cars
- Logging into social networks and seeing stuff from people we don't care about
- Alarm clocks that suck; it's the first thing we look when we wake up and last thing we look at before we go to bed, and it's ugly and still thinks it should be programmed like a 1980's VCR
- No way to tell which water bottle belongs to whom at home, with guests, when playing basketball, etc. (yep, I said mundane), resulting in massive waste globally
- The hundreds of billions of spent each year to pay people to prepare tax returns, a total waste
- The 99% of boats that sit in harbors unused 99% of the time
- The billions spent by advertisers reaching people who are totally outside their target audience
- Paper money, a model left over from centuries ago
And countless other troubles and inefficiencies small and large that vex and hassle us on a daily basis, and which we assume are just a given. In solving these problems, entrepreneurs will build hugely valuable businesses. For example, Square looks like a simple device to scan a credit card, but it opens the door for small merchants to manage their customer relationships like never before, and Nest seems like a better looking thermostat but could allow consumers and producers of energy unprecedented control over their costs.
The trouble we take for granted today could turn out to be a billion dollar opportunity for the entrepreneur who sees things differently.
I put the word out to everyone I knew for a data recovery expert. An EarthLink customer referred me to a firm in San Diego, and within minutes, the damaged tape was speeding south in a car. We fielded calls from angry customers while waiting anxiously for news. Many hours later, we received word that although some of the data was was lost, most of the information on the tape had been taken off bit-by-bit and reconstructed. We were saved! The recovered file was loaded onto a hard drive and driven (there was no Gobbler back then) back to EarthLink's offices in LA. Our engineers stayed up all night and got us back online.
Jason Calacanis twisted my arm.