Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NATO Riga: More Macs, mutterings about the wireless

As yet another day starts at the NATO Summit in Riga, I have a couple of observations. First, there may be around 10 Macintosh laptops in the press center, including a MacBook Pro that I saw with no user nearby (I have not chatted up the other Mac folks as they were all busy typing away frantically). So there are a few others of the faith....:)

A major IT deal was signed to simulate a layered theater anti-ballistic missile system. Worth 95 million USD, it went to consortium led by a US company, Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and an bunch of other US and European companies. No Latvian or Baltic involvement.

Also talked to someone from the NATO Communication and Information Services Agency (NCSA). They manage and package NATO telecommunications and data transfer. It also seems they have no Baltic links as yet. A good partner for them in the NATO humanitarian effort (I cynically called this Earthquakes R Us) would be Mikrotik, who moved into Kosovo and Baghdad to set up wireless internet in 1999 and 2003, respectively.

I have yet to use the WiFi here, although there seem to be around seven networks available at the NATO press center, including on for the Latvian Police Academy (as well as the official open network for the Summit press). Some colleagues have grumbled that the WiFi isn't that great. It just goes to show that if there is a wire conveniently available, I will use it, but I'm glad there is a WiFi alternative, although I have not been writing from my laptop at press conferences and presentations. I did do that at the SAP event in Paris last summer.

The whole circus ends today, I'm finishing up at my paper and off to Stockholm for a few days and will start my new job sometime next week.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

NATO battles social networking website? :) :)

Three people at the NATO press center have tried to connect to the highly popular Latvian social networking website only to be bounced to the NATO summit home page. Blocking draugiem (for friends) is common at many workplaces, but since members of the Latvian press also use this for messaging, it is a rather bizarre thing to here under NATO auspices. Draugiem has more than 700 000 users in a country of 2.2 million. One wonders who had it cut off and what other websites have been blocked at the press center (most of the IT related international sites I have accessed yesterday from the press center were OK).

NATO in Riga: wired or wireless

The "big day" is about to start here at the NATO summit in Riga, with the city looking as it might look after a round of bird flu (the expected mutation that gets to humans). Latvian TV was shooting a bizarre spot nearby against the backdrop of a completely empty media center hall, asking the leader of the hundreds of NATO volunteers about how hard they were working (perhaps before the summit, packing thousands of mittens for media and delegates). But truth be told, there are many volunteers scurrying around one floor down, where most of the big press has yet to arrive (three or four Reuters staff of a mob of 30, no one from the AP yet). Ok, maybe these people are out at the airport covering the bigwig arrivals. Why I have never understood, these are mainly visual events of the same people climbing down airline steps in a place that could be anywhere (ok, Riga is a dull gray and unlikely to see any sun for the duration).
I am writing this on a wireline internet connection that seems to be working very fast and efficiently. There are three or four wireless networks running here, I will have to test them later. A colleague from the online portal of the newspaper (with a Windows laptop :) ) needed help in getting the wire connection to run, while my Powerbook G4 connected with no problems. So perhaps there will be a chance to compare service.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Mac-scanning" the press at the NATO summit

The press covering the NATO conference in Riga (at least on "day zero" or the day before) seem to be a very conformist PC Windows laptop bunch. One thing I always do at these massive press zoos is to scan the press facility for others with Apple Mac laptops. It is a good way to strike up a conversation with a fellow hack.
At the NATO summit press room, I found only three people beside myself with Macs -- I have a 12 inch Powerbook G4, there was a Latvian news photographer (apparently working for AFP) with a larger G4, a Canadian TV "one man band" with a MacBook Pro (17 " ?), and a journalist based in Frankfurt, Germany, but writing on a 12 " Powerbook G4 for his Turkish/German news agency.
Tommorrow may bring in a larger contingent of foreign press and jam the press center (1 700 journalists are said to be accredited). So maybe there will be more Macs around.

Electronic Arts seeks Baltic programming talent

Video and computer games maker Electronic Arts will be recruiting programmers from Latvia and the other Baltic countries to work at its Swedish "studio" Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment (DICE) (the link is half-assed and under construction). DICE has around 220 staff at present, but is planning to expand and perhaps double that number in the medium term.
DICE is best known for having designed and built the Battlefield series of war simulation games.
The Baltic C++ programmers and 3D graphics specialists will work in Sweden at Swedish salaries. As DICE spokesman Peter Hendriksson explained, the reason for recruiting across the Baltic Sea is not to outsource, but to get any talent at all. Apparently, programmers from the UK and the US aren't interested in moving to Sweden. Baltic programmers have a chance to get paid more than in Latvia (where they are relatively well paid anyway) and to work for a world-class company group in a situation where many, if they wanted to, could be weekend commuters to their homelands.
Recruiting Baltic talent for gaming is a departure from the pattern hitherto, where most IT work has been outsourced or nearshored to Latvia and its neighbors, and where most of the work has been on enterprise solutions (such as with Exigen and TietoEnator). However, Hendriksson believes that talented programmers can easily adapt to the gaming environment, where they still have to design and write code to specifications, regardless of whether it is to display CRM statistics or control the behavior of three-headed snake monsters.

Bite to provide mobile telecoms for NATO summit

I now see in an older press release (November 13), that Bite Latvija will be providing wireless telecommunications services for the NATO Summit here in Riga (it starts Tuesday, November 28, but the whole f**king town has already been shut down). I'm interested in who will be providing the broadband links for the press center, as this is of vital necessity to me and other journalists covering the whole balagāns (find a Latvian dictionary on this one :) ).
Good luck to Bite, let's hope there are no screwups.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A welcome latecomer (after the fact)

I just finished testing a Bite HSDPA connection using a Windows notebook, which was the primary problem with the test. I mean, the HSDPA worked fine, even saved an evening of regular surfing when Lattelecom took all night to do some work on my DSL landline. I just didn't use the HSDPA connection (which was fast, displayed video streams, etc) as often and regularly as if it had been attached to my Powerbook G4. I just don't like the whole Windows scene, since I have been using a Mac of one kind or another since 1984.
Now it seems that Bite's partner, Vodafone, has found a USB HSDPA modem for Mac laptops. It is described by TheRegister website. Since Bite is already a Vodafone partner and provides Vodafone Connect cards for PC notebooks, I certainly hope it gets a batch of these Mac friendly gadgets soon (they also work with PCs). I would repeated the HSDPA test enthusiatically and might even use the gadget next summer to see if I can get 3.6 Mbps in Carnikava, some 30 km from Riga,
By the way, the test was with a HuaWei PC card, it worked fine.
My parting shot with my newspaper, interviewing former government advisor Jurģis Liepnieks, who spilled his version of the beans about the digital television scandal in Latvia, has caused a great uproar, it is all over television and the other media. Makes journalism fun. You read it on this blog first, although in somewhat murky terms -- before it hit the newspaper and other media.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Who da man? Digital TV Scandal Explained?

Jurģis Liepnieks, a PR specialist and former advisor to ex-prime minister Andris Škēle and recently resigned advisor to the current PM, Aigars Kalvitis (both of the People's Party founded by Sķēle), claims that Kempmayer Media Limited (KML), a mysterious company that was awarded a USD 53 million contract to implement digital terrestrial TV in Latvia, was actually started by Latvian TV mogul Andrejs Ēķis and Šķēle as an indirect stakeholder.
This is the story my newspaper is coming out with tommorrow. Both Ēķis, the head of Latvian Independent Television (LNT) and Škēle have denied Liepnieks allegations, with Škēlē saying they were a mixture of fact and fantasy.
Since November 2002, when the contract, said to have, in fact, been between KML (owned by Ēķis and an offshore company connected to Škēle, with a stake held by Liepnieks at one time) and Ēķis former employees and pals (at the Digital Latvian Radio and Television Center/DLRTC), much has happened. All work on digital TV was stopped in 2003, when prime minister Einārs Repše called the deal with KML a shady and fraudulent arrangement and initiated arbitration proceedings to have the contract declared invalid. The Stockholm arbitration tribunal so declared in June 2006, though saying that the DLRTC had been misled into signing the agreement ( a milder ruling than saying it was deceived by deliberate fraudulent intent).
The boards of the DLRTC and its parent company, the state-owned Latvian State Radio and Television Center (LVRTC), which runs broadcasting infrastructure in Latvia, were quickly dismissed and 11 persons, representing a range of individuals (company and state officials, businesmen, lawyers and financial advisors) connected in some way to the digital TV deal, have been charged with criminal offenses, mainly fraud and money laundering, or actions to aid and abet such crimes. Since KML did actually deliver digital TV equipment and partially installed it, the fraud charge may be hard to prove.
What is striking about Liepnieks version of events (and it has been guessed at in the Latvian media) is the arrogant stupidity of those involved, who actually believed that in 2000-2002, one could carry on as if it was the "anything goes" early 90s, and that it was necessary to go to Byzantine lengths to cover one's tracks and then sit across from the DLRTC and say -- wink, wink-- we're this totally unknown British company, so trust us. And since everyone knew what the game was about-- so says Liepnieks-- there was no reason not to trust. Indeed, had the plan been executed, Latvia would have gotten a reasonable start on digital terrestrial instead of going nowhere fast. Alas, the homeboys (a paralell concept to the Latvian bālēliņi, hard to translate) didn't realize that there would be «a verry great messh» (viene liele šmuce) to mimic the Yiddish influenced accent of Ābrams, a Latvian Jewish country peddlar character who is seen in several classics of the late 19th century Latvian stage. Ābrams, a slightly comic but lovable curmudgeon, warns some Latvian farm women that their schemes will come to a bad end. Still applicable in the 2000s (rest your fictional soul, Ābram..).
Anyway, whatever Liepnieks motives for, to put it mildly, dragging his old boss over the coals and causing no small amount of possible trouble for Ēķis, it is a great parting shot now that I am moving on from the paper in the next ten days or so.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

«Da man» sings on the Latvian digital TV scandal

This is a paranoid post because I am worried that with the NATO summit here in Riga and its set of bizarre publishing schedule changes and days off, a potentially explosive story may get buried at my paper. It also is beginning to look like the paper will want everyone mentioned in a more than 30 000 character long interview transcript called up, read or summarized the entire transcript and then asked to comment on potentially embarrassing events that took place some four to six years ago. So with me transiting to my new job next week, I'm worried this could get mishandled. At the same time, I am saving exclusivity for the newspaper for now.
But to make a long story short (as told by one of the key «fixers», not the principal people):

The failed effort to build digital broadcast TV in Latvia was initiated in the early 2000s by a Latvian TV mogul who then went looking for another Mr. Big in Latvian business (not a media person). Together, through a muddle of offshore companies, they set up a seemingly foreign company that got the digital TV contract from the Latvian government. All sides involved (including key government decision-makers) knew or at least had a very good suspicion of what was what and who was who. Theories along these lines have already been raised on Latvian TV and in the press, but now a person claiming to have been instrumental in the arrangements has named names and given an account of his version of events.
In 2003, the whole thing fell apart with the government claiming fraud in the sense that the digital TV project was just a way to steal money (actually, the test of fraud may be hard to prove, since the foreign company with its local beneficial owners did actual deliver most of what it promised to deliver before the project was killed and also there was no provable intent to promise one thing and then take the money and run). The initial contract has been declared invalid by a Stockholm arbitration court on grounds that the Latvian side was misled and the local branch of the allegedly foreign company was preparing to repay all funds it received from the Latvian government. The Latvian prosecutor's office, however, has suspended the only remaining official of the company from office, hence no repayment can be arranged.
The lesson of this is that a Byzantine scheme which, at the end of the day if unhindered, would probably have resulted in building a digital broadcast TV network in Latvia (cost is debatable), has resulted in a situation where no digital TV will be built for years, and the parties involved will have lost more than they ever could have earned had everything gone smoothly.
In other words, a total clusterfuck Latvian style. What were these people smoking in 2001 or whenever, thinking this was cheaper than trying to do the project openly ( a prime consideration according to the version I've been told was an expected public uproar/envy/distrust if Latvians had openly done the deal from the start).
I hope this strange tale gets published. If not, maybe I will just put that interview transcript out on the blog.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Good news for Latvenergo's FTTH

Telecommunications Magazine reports that Fiber to the Home (FTTH) costs are expected to drop, which could be good news for Latvenergo Telecommunications, the telco unit of the Latvian state-owned monopoly power utility. A Latvenergo Telecommunications executive recently told me that the top priority for the unit was developing FTTH for new housing projects and major renovations (where powerlines are re-laid). So far, only around 300 housing units have had FTTH installed in the Riga area (this figure could be imprecise).
Latvenergo Telecoms approach is in contrast to what Peteris Šmidre, the CEO of the cable TV, telephony and ISP group Baltcom recently said at a press breakfast. Baltcom, too, is interested in getting its triple-play offering into new housing areas, but rather than laying its optical fiber when the first bulldozers arrive, it prefers to wait until there are actually housing units finished and occupied before moving in. That means Baltcom will initially use a wireless solution with a fast point-to-point link to the new project and local distributing by cable or other means.
A year ago Baltcom was telling how it had implemented a complete telecoms, TV and building-security/smart building platform at a prestige new apartment project, Duntes ozoli, in a Riga suburb. However, a year later, the luxury high rise looks 95 % finished, but also unoccupied (this blogger used to drive past the place until October as it was on one of the routes to my summer house). The situation is no fault of Baltkom's, their solution seems quite fine. And I could be wrong -- the place may be full of folks who don't have curtains, plants and other signs of life and whose lights are turned off during the day thanks to a smart building system.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Rural broadband flop (?) and CDMA 450 rumors

Update--CDMA rumor
The rumor may be just that. Triatel says it has had some talks on practical cooperation (purchase of handsets, etc) with Nordisk Mobiltelefon, (Swedish language only) the Swedish CDMA 450 operator that is building out at present (Latvia, again, is ahead here, as it was on HSDPA deployment). No merger talks, says Triatel CEO Martins Klevers.

There doesn't seem to be a stampede to submit bids in the Ministry of Transport's tender for rural broadband solutions which closes December 18. When I checked, the following companies had not yet decided whether to apply--Unistars, Latvenergo Telecommunications, Triatel, Latvian Railways, the State Information Network Agency and, of course, Lattelecom. Everybody seemed to be trying to make sense of the 70 page tender regulations and various forms and tables and guarantee papers and certificates and other shit to be filled out (there's European Union money involved, that's why), plus some pretty strict rules to be followed on quality of service, etc. At the end of the day, you can get 35 % government and EU funding for a rural infrastructure project, that is, a fat wire or wireless pipe from which local ISPs will draw internet bitstreams and sell them to the poor peasantry, rural households and small businesses. The total jackpot is almost LVL 4 million, which means the private sector has to come up with another LVL 7 million.
As one executive experienced in wireless broadband in Latvia put it, there seems to be no business case for this. It would be a different story if there was some form of support for the end user, perhaps a program of subsidized PC purchases and a premises-equipment subsidy (for a WiMax or other wireless internet gadget) Perhaps it is too early to say that the tender will be a flop and no one shows up, but the possibility cannot be dismissed.

CDMA rumors

Someone may be sniffing around to acquire Triatel, the Latvian CDMA 450 telephony and wireless broadband operator. Rumor has it that a Scandinavian company seeking to revive a 450 Mhz network in its home country with CDMA 450 could be involved. I am checking this out for the paper. Or the rumors could have arisen from the Scandinavians talking to Triatel about a roaming agreement, pretty ordinary stuff in the business.

New Latvian blogsite opens for use

A Latvian blogging site,, has opened for registration and use by the general public. Until now, it has been a work in progress and limited to invitation-only (to keep the number of users under control while the system was being stabilized). The site is a labor of love by Kristaps Kaupe, a programmer at a small Latvian IT company and one of the bloggers featured in the cover story on bloggers in the annual IT magazine published by Dienas bizness, the newspaper where I work (until December, when I take a new job).
Kristaps has been writing his own blog on IT issues, music, and nationalist politics. He manages to keep these balanced in such a way that I keep reading him even though I disagree with his politics (I started a Latvian-language blog on libertarianism on just for fun and to present an alternative to the --to my mind-- somewhat loonie-tunes politics of the other bloggers on, Kristaps' friends and political sympathizers) and his musical taste is that of another generation. As a matter of fact, his IT posts are also too geeky for me to fully understand, but I like reading stuff that is written by someone who seems to be smarter than I on some issues. That's how you learn.
As opens up, I think we will see a greater diversity of views and subjects, although I suspect most of the blogs will be people writing about what they fed their hamster etc. But even these have a certain charm. There is one blog, for example (part of the pre-open site) written by an average, I would guess, 15 or 16 year old girl who is simply happy to have taken an exam, or that there is a school vacation, or that friend called her. I glance at it to be reminded that there are nice, normal kids growing up here in Latvia.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blogger, move your ass!

Since I do not know how to make a wiki anymore than a wicker basket, I have started a closed blog on the new Blogger beta to write a set of random legacy instructions to my colleagues who will have to pick up the slack when I leave the newspaper to go to LETA. The options are great, almost like on Netvibes, I can design my own page, make a link list (to various IT and telecoms news sources) etc. etc.
I would love to do the same with this blog, to make a permanent link list and redesign things a bit outside the box of available blogger templates. However, blogger (now a part of the Googlemonster) is not making migration available yet, only to a select few. Since I want to move as fast as possible to a new look and wider possibilities for this blog (like making more than USD 30 from Adsense since 2004), would blogger PLEASE HURRY THE FUCK UP!!!

The Bite backup :) on HSDPA

I want to put in a good word for Bite Latvija's HSDPA service, which I have been testing for a couple of weeks (now and again, I have 5 Mbps DSL at home). Bite works just fine, one incident of strangeness (no service) but that was all.
Tonight, however, shows why, if you (as a business or mission-critical worker) in Latvia or elsewhere) should have Bite HSDPA (or anyone else's) if you can afford it. It seems that a Lattelecom upgrade that I was warned about--fair enough--lasted longer than anticipated, basically knocking out my DSL for the evening. This better be good, like they are upgrading to 10 or 24 Mbps (including TV) or something like that.
Anyway, having the HSDPA test kit as a back up with about the same effective speed and quality of service as DSL is a godsend for those who cannot live without broadband for an evening. It also means that the virtual wireless ISP service is viable.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Coming - A virtual wireless ISP

Look for a virtual wireless ISP to be launched in the near future, most likely using Bite's HSDPA network. The virtual operator, one of Latvia's "alternative" telecoms service providers, will offer its own wireless modem and WiFi unit (not the Vodafone solution offered as Bite's own Hotspot). The principle will be the same. Now that it has several MVNOs on its GSM/UMTS network, it apparently wants to do the same with its HSDPA capacity. Very impressive if it can keep uniform quality and if, next year, it upgrades the network to faster than its advertised 3.6 Mbps at present. The price also has to be reasonable, just under 17 LVL will get you 5 Mbps and free calls inside Latvia on Lattelecom's network, possibly jumping to 10 Mbps or 24 Mbps in the next six months or so (depending on location).
The virtual wireless ISP, unlike fixed solutions, will offer nomadic services in the area of coverage.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Moving and staying, a personal note

The word is already getting around in Latvia, so for the benefit of other readers: I am changing my "day job" in early December. It should not affect my blogging. I am going to work for what I hope will be the edgy-techie new media side of a major Latvian news agency/multimedia platform. LETA, if you must know.
Why? Call it an offer that was impossible to refuse and very difficult to accept. I have worked at my present newspaper for 11 years, longer than, say, any sane person stays at around seven different jobs in the US. Even the ones who work at the insane asylum probably don't stay that long :).
Difficult to accept because I really enjoy the people I have worked with, the generally loose workstyle keeping to tight deadlines and best-effort high standards. It was also fun to be considered among the best and only-est IT/telecoms journalists in Latvia(the guppy among the minnows in the fishpond). I hope not to lose that reputation.
It was impossible to refuse because I have a family to support and life is getting expensive even here in the partly-tamed East. I was given an excellent offer and I have to say, very simply, the cattle market for what people see as talent (flatters me :) ) has started. I am, at the same time, saddened to leave. Familiarity bred a lot more affection than contempt (none, actually) and it is painful to go.
Well, this is not a psychobabble blog for wringing one's hands about life choices, so that is all I have to say on this off-topic.

Mobile WIMAX in Latvia by 2008

A mobile WIMAX service provider will become the defacto fifth mobile services operator in Latvia by 2008, a well-informed industry source told this blogger.
By then, providers of WIMAX-like services will have developed the "smart antennas" needed to link to truly mobile devices (most likely hybrid GSM/UMTS/WIMAX handsets) and voice calls will be made worldwide using an all-IP network. The handsets will also offer presence detection as with Skype (many will actually run Skype), a timesaver when one has to call a list of people, like clients. No need to dial the ones who are "unavailable" (saving, say, a minute per wasted call).
Currently GSM/UMTS mobile services are provided by Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT), Tele2 and Bite Latvija, with Triatel providing CDMA-450 voice and data. Bite has several MVNOs operating on its network.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Video of Bite's new mobile internet offer

Maarten van Engeland of Bite Group describes the new Vodaphone Mobile Connect and Bite Hotspot services the company is introducing in Latvia.
I know that Latvian blogger Arturs Mednis doesn't think he benefits from video rather than text, but I think this is short, simple and turned out well.
Kristaps Kaupe of will probably see nothing again, unless he has updated his Flash gadgets. He has seen too much already :) :) and I am waiting for the blowback* of his Latvian-language post about my post about Lattelecom and IP TV for ordinary TV sets. The will be looking for the blabbermouth at the Great Satan**.
So I have pre-empted two critical comments :).

Murky hints :)

Things are going to happen in the Latvian WiMax space in the next few months. Big names are involved, things may be being tested soon. Mid or late 2007 could be when it is rolled out and when it may be the disruptive alternative to GSM/UMTS that some analysts have said it could be.
Certainly, Skype on mobile internet has some people concerned. Mobile operators are thinking of offering flat rate minutes to corporate customers as a counterweight (say, 600 minutes per user to Sweden or whatever for a sum comparable to SkypeOut and with some quality guarantees, as well as guarantees that business calls are actually made to Sweden and not to Cousin Borat in Kazakhstan, which can happen with SkypeOut since it practically has one rate to the world). The disruption is starting even before Niklas Z and his Estonian whiz kids finally work out how to do Skype on Symbian. Were it summer (nay, winter is 'a comin' in, loudly sing goddamn -- Ezra Pound or some dude parodying some medieval tune about summer, what you sing with lutes and shit...) I would then go out and finally figure out how the f**k to connect my Nokia N80 to one of Lattelecom's WiFi phone booths (I have a small collection of their scratch cards). I would then use the as yet unborn Skype for Symbian to gnaw at the revenue leg of Lattelecom's cousin Latvian Mobile Telephone (LMT).
And that was the bizarrely worded post of the month. 'Tis Halloween after all...
* blowback describes news published in a foreign language coming back into the domestic, local language news market.
** the Great Satan is a name I borrowed from the rhetoric of eminent and dead Iranian clerics to describe a certain telecommunications company as viewed, in the late 90s and early 00s, by many Latvians. I even wrote an article for Northern Enterprise magazine (dead, too, I believe) with the title Surfing With The Great Satan about, among other things, how that company started offering DSL internet.