Progress is slow

The past week here in the Raleigh/Durham area has been full Hurricane Florence prep. While hurricane preparedness is pretty much an annual rite in this region (there are minor hurricanes almost every year), the strength and size of Florence sent this year’s cycle into overdrive. The last storm to cause really massive damage here was Hurricane Fran back in 1996, and memories of that one have lingered, informing everyone’s preparedness this time around.

Something that struck me was how little storm preparedness has changed in the 22 years since Fran, despite how much technology has changed so much else.

This far inland (Raleigh/Durham is about 200 miles from the coast), the main dangers during a hurricane are flooding and high winds. High winds are primarily an issue because fallen trees wreck power lines (Raleigh’s nickname is the “City of Oaks”). While many newer suburban developments (including ours) have buried their power lines, most people still get their power from easily-disrupted above-ground lines. Even with armies of chainsaw-wielding maintenance and electrical workers fanning out around the state, a giant storm like this one will knock out power for hundreds of thousands for days at a time. This situation has not appreciably changed in several decades.

What has most obviously changed is internet connectivity. Smartphones and wireless connectivity is inarguably one of the great technological advances of the last 25 years, and its resilience in the face of natural disasters is generally pretty high. (Trees can’t knock down spectrum bandwidth.) Nevertheless, it’s worth noticing that most of us still get our internet from the same people we got cable TV from 25 years ago: the AT&T, Time Warner and Comcasts of the world. While they’re referred to derisively as providers of “dumb pipe,” the value of their end of the distribution chain becomes extremely acute when they fail.

For the most part, the “tech industry,” for all its innovative energy, hasn’t really touched this aspect of our lives as much. Even mighty Google found that creating its own distribution network proved too difficult, expensive and inevitably political, and put its Google Fiber experiment on indefinite hold. It seems that it’s easier for telcos to move into ad tech than the other way around.

In many ways, it reminds me of the bloom of exuberance we saw several years ago when both Facebook and Google announced ambitious plans for airborne internet connectivity platforms aimed at the developing world. These projects were met with great fanfare and then amounted to very little. Facebook found that its Project Aquila was more technologically challenging (and expensive) than it had expected, and finally shuttered it. Google’s Project Loon has kept sputtering on, and was recently even deployed briefly during recovery for Hurricane Maria, but it’s very difficult to see it ever becoming a long-term connectivity solution.

(Side note – back in 2013 my first blog post to really go big was about why both of these projects were doomed to fail. In short: boring old terrestrial, off-the-shelf wireless tech is far cheaper, efficient and easier than relying on airborne platforms. The vast majority of the global “unconnected” live within existing wireless networks – they just lack the means, or desire, to “get online,” whatever that may mean.)

For the foreseeable future, we’re all going to connect to the internet substantially as we always have.

You occasionally see variations on this tweet by SV booster types marveling at how many new “tech” products have broken into the mainstream in the last 10 or 15 years. Frankly, I’m (still) pretty unimpressed. Besides smartphones, the panoply of stuff available for very quick delivery by Amazon is probably the second most transformative thing that the tech industry has delivered in the last ten years since the Great Recession. But Tesla? Oculus? Nest? Snapchat? These are mostly baubles and distractions.

I still think we’re entering the “Deployment Age” of tech, where the boom in innovative technology development will gradually find new applications into our existing systems. But the current direction of thinking in a lot of the tech world doesn’t seem very focused that way right now. Instead, the GAFA oligopoly is consolidating itself around upmarket consumers who can afford $1,000 smartphones with really good cameras but crappy batteries, and creating the extensive Javascript payloads of fancy websites to better target ads on them.

The venture capital industry proved an effective mechanism to develop many of the pure software products that have driven a lot of tech’s rise. But as modern tech expands into more practical applications – energy, health, transportation, connectivity and more – I suspect that a different model of capitalization will be needed. There aren’t many VCs who will be able or willing to underwrite something like a whole new energy or broadband company, with giant up-front investments and long timelines. At the same time, it’s very difficult for big, older companies to make big, aggressive investments in newer tech (particularly in this age of shareholder activism).

So it’s possible deployment is gonna take some time. I wonder if storm prep in 2040 will look much different.


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