Saturday, May 31, 2014

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts opens his mouth and inserts his foot -- who will invest in Internet infrastructure?

If ISPs have insufficient incentive to invest in infrastructure, who will? Google? Telcos? Government (at all levels)? Premises owners?

At a recent conference, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts rationalized charging Netflix to deliver content by comparing Comcast to the Post Office, saying that Netflix pays to mail DVDs to its customers but now expects to be able to deliver the same content over the internet for free. He forgot to mention that the Post Office does not charge recipients for those DVDs.

The issue is infrastructure investment and it is in our collective interest for that investment to be made. Comcast could invest in the infrastructure needed to insure rapid delivery of Netflix and other's traffic and pass that cost on to the paying customers at a fair rate of return on the investment. But, they make more money by refusing to upgrade their infrastructure, thereby slowing delivery of content and making their customers dissatisfied with content providers like Netflix. If there were competition in the ISP market, customers would switch to the ISP that provided the best price/performance, but since there is not competition, Comcast is able to reap monopoly profits. If they happen to have a competitor in a given location, perhaps AT&T, they together reap oligopoly profits.

What is the solution? One hope is for Google Fiber to provide meaningful investment and competition, which might work in the short run, but one has to wonder about the long run -- cities with Google Fiber would still be oligopolies.

Another hope is Verizon and other phone companies competing agressively, but it seems the cable and phone companies have reached a gentleman's non-competition agreement with phone companies focusing on mobile connectivity and cable companies on fixed connectivity.

If the ISPs will not make the necessary investments, government (at all levels) must make wholesale infrastructure investments and apply regulation as we do with roads and utilities. There is also a role for home and building owners investing in the last "100 meter" infrastructure as we do with water, gas and sewers.

Update 6/2/2014

Data on Comcast performance before and after their agreement with Netflix

Update 6/5/2014

Americans consumers are less satisfied with the ISP industry than any other industry, yet are satisfied with the package delivery industry. Both deliver things, but the package delivery industry has private and public competition.

Update 6/7/2014

There is a long of discussion (250 comments) of this post on Slashdot.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Apple, Microsoft, Google -- how about a Kindle Killer?

I have a Kindle and I like it, but I don't love it. I like the form factor and the e-paper display and the touch interface is OK, but I really wish it used voice input in the user interface and was well integrated with my laptop.

Reading is an active process -- kind of a dialog with the author -- and I create a lot of associations and marginal notes. I want an e-reader that lets me record those in a database while reading. Database entries would include a note, timestamp, tags (global to me, local to the document -- perhaps even global to the world), the document it was associated with, the selected passage or figure it was associated with, etc. The links would be hot.

I'd like to be able to search this database in a variety of ways, for example, finding entries with a given tag or combination of tags, free-text search or those associated with a given document and display the results in a variety of ways, for example in a table showing only the first N characters of a marginal note and the passage it was associated with.

Voice recognition -- for commands and text entry -- should be a first-class input modality. If I have selected a passage for annotation, a single voice command should initiate speech-to-text mode so I could dictate my note and tags.

The e-reader and my laptop should be integrated. I should be able to copy the annotation database to my laptop with a single command and search and display reports in the same way as on the e-reader. I should also have the option of updating the e-reader database from my laptop, uploading it to the Internet or exporting it in various formats, for example, docx or xlsx.

I've outlined a few features I'd like in an e-reader -- what would you like to see?

The business case -- low-hanging fruit

When the Kindle came out, Steve Jobs dismissed it saying “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore -- forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

Amazon does not release official sales figures, but Forbes estimated that between 2007, when the Kindle was released, and the end of 2013, roughly 43.7 million Kindles were sold. Assuming a 3-year replacement cycle, about 30 million Kindle e-readers are currently in use -- for reading and purchasing content from Amazon. Regardless of Jobs' opinion, there is a sizeable market.

Apple is a device manufacturer par excellence, Microsoft has elevated "devices" to its tag line and Google sells some devices, so they all have varying degrees of manufacturing experience.

Speech recognition is the key technology that I want added to an e-reader and Apple, Microsoft and Google have world-class speech recognition products and research projects.

Amazon may be taking a loss on each Kindle and making it up on content sales, but Apple, Microsoft and Google have online stores too and could be selling the same content as Amazon.

The Kindle reminds me of the Apple Newton -- a very early "personal digital assistant" with a stylus and handwritting recognition as its primary input modality. The Newton failed because the handwriting recognition was slow and inaccurate -- like typing on a Kindle's virtual keyboard -- and it was a stand-alone device, barely integrated with Apple or Windows computers. (I've still got a Newton -- in mint condition because I only used it to look cool). Apple learned from the failure of the Newton -- the iPod was one component in a system along with the iTunes store and software.

It seems to me that a Kindle-killing e-reader would be low-hanging fruit for Apple, Google or Microsoft. If any one of them builds it, I'll buy it. (Think of the competition if they each built one)!

Update 6/5/2014

There is a long (320 comments) discussion of this post on Slashdot.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Comcast expects to have data caps, but not competition

Last week, a Comcast executive VP, David Cohen, predicted that within five years all their customers would have data caps.

It turns out they have been experimenting with 300 GByte monthly caps in some markets and Cohen mentioned both 300 and 500 GByte cap possibilities.

Since Comcast is trying to acquire my friendly monopoly ISP, Time Warner Cable (TWC), I may very well end up being one of those capped customers, and that got me and my colleagues on the YATS podcast, wondering how much data we were up and downloading today.

I visited my TWC account and saw my usage for the last few months:

I have no idea what caused the variation, but even the heaviest month was comfortably under 300 GBytes. But, how typical is my usage? I am a cord cutter, which doubtless leads to atypically high usage, but there are only two users in our home, and we do not watch a lot of video or stream a lot of music.

I can easily imagine our two-person household going over the 3 or even 500 GBytes as video quality improves and more content is available.

But, our usage is a mere anecdote. Sandvine monitors global Internet traffic patterns, so I checked their Global Internet Phenomena Report for the first quarter of 2104 to get a more representative picture. This is what they observed in North America:

Folks were well under 300 GBytes.

But, they drilled down, estimating which users were cordcutters and typical subscribers and non-streamers:

Obviously there are relatively few cord cutters today, but aren't we in a transition to IP TV? The distinction between "TV" and "the Internet" is broken -- it's all bits.

By Sandvine's estimates, cord cutters are averaging over 200 GByte today. Where will they be in five years, when there is a lot more video material on the Net and average video resolution is a lot higher?

Comcast will adjust their pricing to maintain or increase revenue during this transition period.

They will be able to do that because they are a content provider as well as an ISP so they will be able to discriminate in favor of their content. Furthermore, they are big and getting bigger, so they will be able to extract increasing delivery fees from their content-provision competitors.

Don't get me wrong -- I do not oppose the idea of usage-based billing per se. (It would provide the answer to the ISP's claim that network neutrality is bad because it rewards bandwidth hogs). I would be happy to be billed by the GByte or whatever if there were ISP competition. If I could easily switch between several fast, reliable ISPs (as my son who lives in Korea can), they would not be able to set prices at will. But, sadly, that is not the case in the US.

Update 5/20/2014

On a related note, Comcast and their merger target Time Warner Cable, were the lowest ranked companies on the latest American Consumer Satisfaction Index for the first quarter of 2014.

Update 5/29/2014

The New York Times has published an editorial favoring rejection of the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tourtracker -- a better way to stream the Tour of California

In a recent post, I criticized NBC's streaming coverage of the Tour of Califronia for having way too many ads and reflecting conflicts of interest and requiring bundling with TV service. That was bad news.

The good news is that Tourtracker does a way better job of streaming the race.

For a start, there are fewer ads on Tourtracker. I don't know if that is by design, but, at least for now, their coverage is much less annoying than that of NBC.

NBC is owned by Comcast, and they require streaming viewers to have an authorized television subscription, but Tourtracker does not. It is freely available on the US Web -- I did not check to see if can be reached from other countries.

It is also apparent that the Tourtracker site was designed with cycling in mind. As shown below, there are a number of cycling related statistics, commentary and status displays:

Note that the video is surrounded by race information, not ads as in the case of NBC.

The user can toggle the race information on and off, as shown below, and, in-full screen mode, there is only a thin row of display ads (as is the case with NBC).

Off the top of my head, the only thing I liked better on the NBC site was their 15-second "rewind" button -- let's hope Tourtacker adds one of their own.

Why is the Tourtracker stream better than NBC's? It was designed for cycling, not sporting events in general, and Tourtracker does not have a conflicting TV or ISP businesses to protect. I was pleasantly surprised when commenter Matthew Ferdinand1 told me about Tourtracker, but wonder about rights to the broadcast -- are they licensed from NBC/Comcast?

Friday, May 16, 2014

You could have made a lot of money in one second yesterday if ...

Michael Lewis has written a book entitled the eFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt in which he describes the efforts of high speed traders to gain an advantage by saving a few milliseconds in making a trade. Terry Gross also interviewed Lewis on Fresh Air, and you can listen to the interview (37m 25s) here or read the transcript here.

In addition to talking about the advantage that super fast access and trading algorithms confers, Lewis talks of the complexity of computer trading and the possibility of instability.

We saw a small example yesterday, when, as Bloomberg columist Matt Levine put it, the stock market went WOOSH for a second.

As you see here, you could have made a lot of money in one second if you had a super fast computer with a super fast connection to a stock exchange:

Does this sort of thing undermine our belief in the impartiality of capital markets?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

NBC's (Comcast's) sad live stream of the Tour of California bike race

I've taken an in-depth look at the live streaming coverage of the Olympic Games and the Tour de France in past posts so was curious to see what NBC's coverage of the Tour of California was like.

I liked NBC's coverage of the Tour de France last year, but it seems there is more advertising in this year's Tour of California.

The streaming site opens with the race video in a window surrounded by ads -- the ads cover 2/3 of the screen area:

If you switch to full screen viewing, most of the ads disappear, leaving only a think group of display ads across the top of the screen and an occasional pop-up ad or spoken plug by the announcer. But, just as you begin to relax, there is a commercial break. I timed the commercials for an hour and they are on about 30 percent of the time -- enough to wreck the experience for me.

I did not keep track of the number of commercials during last year's Tour de France, but I enjoyed it -- so either there were more commercials for this event or my tolerance for commercials has gone down since I have been a cord cutter for a couple of years.

Last year, NBC charged a fee to watch the Tour de France, but the Tour of California is free ... as long as you have an approved Cable TV subscription:

Note that Comcast Xfinity heads the list of those approved providers. But, wait, doesn't Comcast own NBC? Aren't they trying to acquire Time Warner Cable (home of the LA Dodgers)? Doesn't NBC have the rights to the Olympic Games through 2020 and the Tour de France through 2023?

If this is a glimpse of the future of live coverage of events on the Internet -- gratuitous bundling and conflicts of interest -- it is sad, but familiar.

Update 5/15/2014

The viewer has a couple of neat features (one of which is broken, but its a good idea regardless).

The first is an instant replay button -- click it and the video rewinds about 15 seconds. Click it twice and it rewinds about 30 seconds, etc. Very handy.

The second is a good idea, but buggy (for now). You can elect to Share a Play, as shown here:

The problem is that the feature is broken -- I tried to share a play and it took me to the Golf channel instead, which was not even streaming at the time.

Note also that they carelessly lifted this from another sport -- we do not have "plays" in bike racing :-).

Friday, May 09, 2014

Recommended podcast: Charles Robinson, Africa's next boom

Emerging markets economist Charles Robinson predicts an African boom, contending that Africa is where India, China and prosperous Asian nations were 25 years ago. He presents demographic, educational and other data and predicts African GDP will increase from $2 trillion today to $29 trillion in 2050. Africa also has the advantage of having learned from the experience of Asian nations and better domestic and global technology than those nations had at a similar stage in their development.

You can read a transcript of the talk here and here are a couple of his slides -- on the availablity of young workers and the relationship between poverty and corruption:

Thursday, May 08, 2014

ISPs have the lowest American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The ISP industry ranks 48th out of 48 industries on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Subscription TV is 47th.

Individual companies are also rated. Large companies are rated separately and smaller ISPs are lumped into "all other." Here are the ISP customer satisfaction indices:

Verizon Communications (FiOS) 71
Cox Communications 71
AT&T (U-verse) 68
Charter Communications 65
CenturyLink 65
Time Warner Cable 63
Comcast 62
All others 71

I am happy to see that my ISP, Time Warner Cable, which I have commented upon in previous posts, is not the lowest rated company in this dismal industry -- that honor belongs to their hopeful merger buddy, Comcast.

Update 5/19/2014

The latest quarterly survey results are out and Internet service providers are now the lowest ranked industry and merger buddies Time Warner Cable and Comcast are now the two lowest ranked companies of all industries. The inverse correlation between size and customer satisfaction still holds for the ISP industry, so I am confident that if Comcast acquires TWC, they will continue to set dissatisfaction records for years to come.

Update 6/11/2014

I just got a copy of the latest ACSI company ratings from the University of Michigan. Comcast is no longer the second lowest rated company in the survey -- that honor now belongs to Time Warner Cable (TV). My ISP, Time Warner Cable (ISP), retained its position as the lowest ranked company -- 230th out of 230 companies.

The ISP industry remains at the bottom of the list, with subscription television services next to last

The American public is fed up with the cable TV and Internet service companies (and we are ridiculing them) -- let's hope that translates into political pressure.

Update 6/23/2016

Time Warner Cable and Charter Communication recently merged. Now a US Senate report concludes that they routinely overcharged customers and failed to issue refunds.

ISPs are aggressively pursuing their goal of remaining the industry with the lowest customer satisfaction index and worst customer service in the US.

The Senate subcommittee’s report also said that consumers are frustrated by the ongoing rise of the cost for cable and satellite TV, with some packages increasing up to 33% since 2011 A copy of the report is available here.

Don't you love monopolies?

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Outline of a system for asking, answering and discussing student and teacher questions

I give my students weekly quizzes to focus their studying on key skills and concepts and to encourage them to keep up with the class. The quizzes typically have 7-9 questions and a typical answer is a couple of words or sentences.

After they take a quiz, I post it online so, by the end of the term, they have all the questions. I refuse to give the students answers (that drives some of them nuts), but am willing to discuss the questions and encourage them to discuss them among themselves. (I curve grades relative to the top person in the class, so helping another student does not hurt one's grade).

Each semester, an enterprising student sets up a forum for collectively answering the questions -- perhaps on a blog with a post and comments for each question or, more likely, as a shared Google doc.

I like that because it provides an example of a student assuming leadership and illustrates the use of the Internet to facilitate collaboration, but I very much dislike the focus it puts on memorizing the "right" answer rather than discussion and explanation and, more important, raising new questions.

A blog or shared document with comments or a vanilla threaded discussion, allows for questions and discussion, but the students take the easy way out and pretty much focus on a single answer, period. (I find that the first answer someone posts is usually accepted without question or discussion, even if it is incorrect).

So, I would like a collaborative system that encouraged discussion and questioning. What might that look like?

I would seed the discussions with the sorts of weekly quiz questions I currently give and students could respond by suggesting an answer or asking a related question. A simple answer would not suffice -- it would have to be supported by a brief explanation and/or a link to its source. The system would present the student with a simple answer submission form (with all fields required):

There would also be a mechanism for the other students to evaluate the answer and its explanation. A simple mechanism like a "Thumbs Up" button would encourage voting, but is somewhat superficial and easily gamed (though one might detect that through statistical analysis -- or at least tell the students you could :-). More elaborate systems in which students have to fill out a simple form in order to vote for an answer would also be possible. That would discourage thoughtless voting and also provide more fine-grained data for determining the value of an answer, but would discourage voting.

The system should allow the teacher to customize the answer-evaluation mechanism and to allow or disallow anonymous contributions.

More important than answering questions, students should have a mechanism for posing questions. (Our education system focuses on getting correct answers to questions, but raising questions and seeking satisfactory answers is a more valuable skill -- life is not a series of multiple choice exams).

The same answer-submission form would be used for a question asked by a student as one asked by the teacher.

In addition, there should be a means of evaluating a question -- again, ranging from a simple "Thumbs Up" to a short form.

In addition to student evaluation of answers and questions, the system should be instrumented to give the teacher feedback on what is working and what is not and for (optional) use in grading. (Like it or not, grades are the primary motivation for most students). The teacher should also have the option of sharing those statistics with the students or keeping them hidden.

Well, that is a rough sketch of the question discussion and answering system I would like to have. The closest thing I have seen is Stack Overflow, where users post technical programming questions, answers are voted up or down and a contributor's reputation is a function of the ratings of his or her answers over time -- perhaps that could be a starting point for implementing what I've outlined here. In the meantime, I plan to take a look at QSQA, an open source question answering system that I may be able to use for my class. Has anyone reading this post used it?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The wrath -- and the protection -- of the crowd

Last week, we saw how quickly a viral post on the Internet can damage a person when a recording of Donald Sterling's conversation with his young girlfriend was posted. He was quickly outed as a racist and a bully who used his power to get his way and buy affection. He also seemed quite illogical -- perhaps suffering from dementia.

Today, Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez posted a vivid description of a caudillo watching a coerced crowd cheering him at a large May Day rally on her blog. The Internet has provided visibility for Sánchez -- her blog has won international awards and her posts are re-posted on the Huffington Post and other sites. Would she have dared to speak this way without the cover of her Internet-based fame?

Would she have dared entitle her post "Raúl Castro: Man alone in the crowd" or included this unflattering photo of him?