Tuesday, April 18, 2017

No longer a cord-cutter -- I've spliced the cord

My 2014 post "How I cut my Time Warner bill by 33%" has been viewed 152,846 times -- the most of any in the history of this blog. The bill-cutting technique is simple -- threaten to cancel your service and the ISP will renegotiate the price.

I recently repeated the process, with a twist.

I was an early cord-cutter -- getting my local TV with a rabbit ears antenna and streaming the rest from the Internet. That worked fairly well, but I could not get local content in some of the rooms of my house and even in the best room, there would be an occasional glitch and I had to play around with the antenna orientation. I tried amplified antennas, but none were better than my rabbit ears and I am too lazy to install a rooftop antenna. (The local TV transmitters are on a mountain 24.5 miles as the crow flies from my home).

My monopoly ISP bill crept up over time, as monopoly ISP bills do, and my old monopoly ISP, time-Warner Cable (TWC), had sold to a new monopoly ISP, Spectrum.

Spectrum started sending out flyers offering good deals to new subscribers -- Internet, phone and cable-TV service for a little less than I had been paying TWC. I called and offered to switch to the introductory offer and they accepted -- I spliced the cord.

I now get rock-solid local TV and a DVR for less than I was paying before. That is an improvement, but nothing like I could get by moving to place with a competitve Internet service market like Riga, Stockholm or Korea.

Are you hoping new wireless technology like 5G mobile or PCell technology from Google will provide ISP competition? The technology remains to be seen in the field but, if it turns out to be a threat, the ISPs will work hard to fight competition, for example, by outlawing the sharing of public infrastructure.

In spite of periodic renegotiation with my ISP, the cost is drifting up and I pay for streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I seldom go out to a movie these days. It looks like the long-run losers will be movie theaters and the public.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Presentation on the implications of the Internet for politics

I teach a class on the applications, implications and technology of the Internet and we look at relevant current events each week. Last semester there were many current events dealing with the election and I accumulated a large, chronologically ordered, PowerPoint slide deck on the political implications of the Internet.

Last week I substituted for a faculty colleague and gave two 75-minute lectures on the topic, using selected slides from the full deck. The selected slides are not chronological, but organized as follows:

  • Historical context
  • Lying
  • Fact checking
  • Fake news for money
  • Fake news for politics
  • Fake images
  • Trump dominated social media
  • More historical context - disillusion
  • Real world consequences
  • Hacking
  • The Internet is ephemeral
  • Breitbart – “alt right” press
  • Money behind the scenes
  • (Imperfect) fixes
  • Future fake media
There are over 100 selected slides with mnemonic images, few words, links to supporting material and notes. (I use annotated slides in lieu of a textbook). Here are thumbnails of a few of them:







Saturday, March 04, 2017

Why did't the Internet zap Singapore's Straits Times newspaper?

A Wednesday edition of the Straits Times had 16 pages of color classified ads in spite of Craigslist.

Business Insider
US papers employed 56,900 full-time journalists in 1990, the year Tim Berners Lee began testing his World Wide Web software, and they employed 32,900 in 2015. The disruption of the newspaper business began 22 years ago, when Craig Newmark launched his classified ad site, Craigslist. (Note that Newmark now generously supports investigative journalism and fact-checking organizations). Newspapers have adapted to the Internet by adding digital editions, but they generate less ad revenue than print editions have lost.

Thomas Jefferson and a lot of other smart people believed that democracy requires a free press. (See these quotes). If we agree with Jefferson, et al, that investigative journalism and fact-checking are important facilitators of democracy, can the Internet at least help keep organizations like newspapers alive?

At least one newspaper seems to be OK -- can we learn from it?

I was in Singapore a few weeks ago and picked up a copy of the 2/1/17 edition their major, English language newspaper, the Straits Times. I was impressed -- the paper was physically large, every page had color and the price was only S1.1, about 78 US cents. When I got home, I compared it to a 2/22/17 copy of my home town newspaper, the Los Angeles times, which sells for $2. (Both were Wednesday editions).

Number of pages in each section
The pages of the Strait's Times were 27 percent larger than those of the LA Times (which shrunk after it was purchased by Tribune Publishing in 2000) and there were more of them, as you see here. And what about those "dead" classified ads? The Straits Times had 16 pages of classifieds and the LA Times only 2/3 of a page at the end of the Sports section.

Why does the newspaper business in Singapore seem to be thriving, while US newspapers are having a hard time?

It's not the market size. The population of Singapore is about 5.6 million, the poulation of Los Angles is about 4 million and greater Los Angeles is about 10.2 million.

It's not economies of scale. In August 2016, the Straits Times had a daily print circulation of 277,100 and 116,200 digital. The LA Times media kit says their weekday circulation is 690,870 and it's 955,319 on Sunday.

The Straits Times is not a local paper -- they have 16 bureaus and special correspondents in major cities worldwide. (Both of the stories that were "above the fold" on the front page of the edition I picked up were about US politics).

Maybe there is no Craigslist in Singapore -- but there is.

The government role

Singapore's fast, affordable Internet connectivity makes the digital edition of the Straits Times attractive. There are five competing ISPs and most of the country is covered by fiber as well as copper. A 1 gb/s account will set you back S$49.99 per month if you sign a two year contract or S$59.99 without a contract. For two gig, you pay $69.99 with a two year contract. The slowest offering is 100 mb/s. (Singapore dollars are around 71 US cents).

The Singapore government deserves a good deal of credit for their Internet service. In 2000, I worked on a study of the Singapore Internet and, with the help of my nephew who was with Goldman Sachs in Singapore, developed this figure:

Singapore, Inc.

As you see, the government had equity positions in the ISPs and an indirect link to Singapore Press Holdings, a media conglomerate that owns the Straits Times. The government provides wholesale backbone connectivity to those competing retail ISPs. (Other cities, notably Stockholm, have followed a similar strategy and Google has done so in Africa).

Competition is the key to the success of the Internet in Singapore and, while the current US administration claims to like free markets, moves to weaken net neutrality, set-top box standards and municpal wholesale networks strike me as anti-competitive. (Also, see this interview of outgoing FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler).

The Singapore government plays an important role in the economy, doing strategic economic and educational planning and they have invested in the oil, shipping, finance, media, Internet and biotech industries since World War II. I am not advocating a Singapore model for the US, but neither should we ignore possible steps local and national government can take to increase competition in the Internet service market.

The Straits Times benefits from the strong Singapore Internet, but I suspect the government also offers direct or indirect subsidy. I understand that we don't want the government to control our press, although there is considerable precedent for US government support of broadcast and print media. That being said, the current US administration will doubtless do its best to eliminate what little federal support remains.

But, since Republicans favor free markets and decentralized choice when it comes to health care, energy and schools, why not the press? How about media vouchers for voting age adults? Individuals would be free to allocate their media subsidy as they see fit -- to the New York Times or Breitbart, NPR or Rush Limbaugh. Milton Friedman might have even gone for that.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Two approaches to routers in space -- SpaceX and OneWeb

Competing global ISPs would be of great value to mankind.

OneWeb collaborators and investors (Source)
Two companies hope to revolutionize the Internet by providing global connectivity using constellations of low-earth orbit satellites -- Elon Musk's SpaceX and Greg Wyler's OneWeb. It seems that SpaceX gets a lot more publicity than OneWeb, but both are formidable.

They have the same goal, but their organizations are dissimilar. SpaceX is integrated -- building the rockets, satellites and ground stations themselves -- while OneWeb has a number of collaborators and investors, including Bharti Enterprises, Coca-Cola, Intelsat, Hughes, Totalplay Telecommunications, Virgin Galactic and Softbank.

One strategic investor, Softbank, invested $1.2 billion last December and was given a board seat. OneWeb says they have now raised enough capital to finance the remainder of the project with loans.

OneWeb had planned to build 900 satellites and initially launch 648, but Wyler says Softbank has encouraged them to be more aggressive and he is considering adding an additional 1,972 satellites. Doing so would dramatically increase the total capacity of the system. Regardless, their goal is to connect every school by 2022 and "fully bridge the digital divide" by 2027.

Teledesic animation
Critics of the SpaceX and OneWeb projects argue that they will not be able to compete with terrestrial wireless and they also run the risk of causing "space junk" collisions in low-earth orbit. Others counter that it will be decades before ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity reaches the majority of the people on Earth and the odds of such collisions are very small at such high altitudes.

(Teledesic, a similar project, failed in the 1990s, but launch and communication technology have improved dramatically since that time and Internet connectivity has become much more valuable).

What if one of these companies succeeds and the other fails? That would leave the winner with a monopoly in much of the rural and developing world. It is even conceivable that they could compete effectively with terrestrial ISPs -- in access or backbone networks. Would global ISPs require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

Los Angles - Punta Arenas 5 satellite hops, 14 terrestrial hops

I'm not smart enough to answer the critics who raise difficult questions, but I hope SpaceX and OneWeb both succeed -- competing global ISPs would be of great value to mankind.

(For more background and news on this topic, click here).

-----
Update 3/1/2017

The satellite Internet strategies of OneWeb and SpaceX have diverged further with a proposed merger between OneWeb and Intelsat. (Softbank is an investor in both companies).

If the merger is completed, they will integrate their geostationary (Intelsat) and low-earth orbit (OneWeb) networks, enabling them to have global coverage quickly with mixed high and low-latency service, depending on the customer's location and requirements.
Presumably many current Intelsat broadband customers would transition to the OneWeb network as it becomes available and OneWeb customers will be able to offer mixed-speed service globally. As shown here, Intelsat would also bring regulatory approval access to 200 countries and territories to the combined company, but I wonder if those agreements would have to be renegotiated.

If the merger is approved, they will face a stiff challenge in integrating both the communication technology and the marketing/business models, but this is an interesting twist.


Monday, January 30, 2017

Do-it-yourself rural fiber

M-PAC cable
I doubt that any elementary school in the US has fiber to the premises, but, in 2013, an elementary school in rural Bhutan was connected to the Internet using optical fiber in the "last mile."

They were able to connect the school because the cabling they used, metal-packed armored cable (M-PAC), which is modeled on undersea cables, does not have to be in a protective duct. It is 4mm in diameter, light and flexible, so it can be installed by supervised volunteers or unskilled workers.

As shown below, a portion of the cable to the school is buried in a hand-dug ditch and another link is suspended overhead:


The cable used in this installation was supplied by OCC Corporation, but last June the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) adodpted a standard for "low-cost sustainable telecommunications infrastructure for rural communications in developing countries," L.1700.

As a framework standard, L.1700 is largely technology-neutral. Technology-specific best practices are provided by supplement texts such as ITU-T L Supplement 22, which specifies the design of a low-cost, terabit-capable optical cable that can be deployed on the ground’s surface with minimal expense and environmental impact. For more on the standard and it's intended application, check this post.

We have major fiber backbones in large cities -- might we also have do-it-yourself backbones in rural villages?

Thursday, January 05, 2017

History is written and revised by the winners -- can the Internet Archive change that?

Kremvax during the Soviet coup attempt
I was naively optimistic in the early days of the Internet, assuming that it would enhance democracy while providing "big data" for historians. My first taste of that came during the Soviet coup attempt of 1991 when I worked with colleagues to create an archive of the network traffic in, out and within the Soviet Union. That traffic flowed through a computer called "Kremvax," operated by RELCOM, a Russian software company.

The content of that archive was not generated by the government or the establishment media -- it was citizen journalism, the collective work of independent observers and participants stored on a server at a university. What could go wrong with that?

Mumbai terrorist attack
The advent of the Web and Wikipedia fed my optimism. For example, when terrorists attacked various locations in Mumbai, India in 2008, citizen journalists inside and outside the hotels that were under attack began posting accounts. The Wikipedia topic began with two sentences:
The 28 November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks were a series of attacks by terrorists in Mumbai, India. 25 are injured and 2 killed.
In less than 22 hours, 242 people had edited the page 942 times expanding it to 4,780 words organized into six major headings with five subheadings. (Today it is over 130,000 bytes, revisions continue and it is still viewed over 2,000 times per month). What could go wrong with that?

The Arab Spring
The 2011 Arab Spring was also seen as a demonstration of the power of the Internet as a democratic tool and repository of history. What could go wrong with that?

What went wrong

The problem is that the Internet turned out to be a tool of governments and terrorists as well as citizens. Furthermore, historical archives can disappear or, worse yet, be changed to reflect the view of the "winner."

Our Soviet Coup archive was set up on a server at the State University of New York, Oswego, by professor Dave Bozack. What will happen to it when he retires?

If someone tried to delete or significantly alter the Wikipedia page on the Mumbai attack, they might be thwarted by one of the volunteers who has signed up to be "page watchers" -- people who are notified whenever the page they are watching is edited. We saw a reassuring demonstration of the rapid correction of vandalism in a podcast by Jon Udell. That was cool, but does it scale? Volunteers burn out. The page on the Mumbai attacks has 358 page watchers, but only 32 have visited the page after recent edits.

Even if a Wikipedia page remains intact, links to references and supporting material will eventually break -- "link rot." If our Soviet Coup archive disappears after Dave's retirement, all the links to it will break.

By the time of the Arab Spring, we were well aware of our earlier naivete -- the Internet was already being used for terrorism and government cyberwar and the dream of providing raw data for future historians and political scientists was fading.

The Internet Archive

Soviet coup archive from Internet Archive
I was slow to understand the fragility of the Internet, but others saw it early -- most importantly, Brewster Kahle, who, in 1996, established the Internet Archive to cache Web pages and preserve them against deletion or modification. They have been at it for 20 years now and have a massive online repository of books, music, software, educational material, and, of course, Web sites, including our Soviet Coup archive. As shown here, it has been archived 50 times since October 3, 2002 and it will be online long after Dave retires -- as long as the Internet Archive is online.

Khale understands that saving static Web sites like the Soviet Coup archive only captures part of what is happening online today. Since the late 1990s, we have been able to add programs to Web sites, turning them into interactive services. As such, he has recently begun archiving virtual machine versions of interactive government services and databases.

Khale is understandably concerned by the election of Donald Trump, who has demonstrated a keen ability to exploit the Internet and a disregard for truth. As such, he is raising money to create a backup copy of the Interent Archive in Canada and working to archive US Government Web sites and services.

The Internet is inconceivably large and growing exponentially. There is no way the Internet Archive can capture all of it, but it is the leading Internet-preservation organization today. Khale and his staff will continue their work and will inspire and collaborate with other relatively specialized efforts like that of climate scientists who are working to preserve government climate-science research results, data and services.

For more on the Internet Archive check out the following PBS News Hour segment (9m 12s):


You can read the transcript here.

I'd also recommend listening to this short (5m 14s) podcast interview of Brewster Kahle. He describes the End of Term project -- a collaborative effort to record US government (.gov and .mil) Web sites and services when a new administration takes over. He describes deletions and modifications from 2008 and 2012 and feels a special urgency today for obvious reasons.

You can read a transcript of the interview here.

-----
Update 1/6/2017

The Internet Archive has launched the Trump Archive with 700+ televised speeches, interviews, debates, and other news broadcasts. Mention by a fact-checking site was the "signal" used for inclusion of a video and links to the fact-check document are included in a companion spreadsheet. I hope they use speech recognition to produce searchable transcripts as well.

Too bad we did not have Trump and Clinton archives during the campaign -- I hope we will have similar, timely archives in the future. One can even imagine similar archives for state and local campaigns if a crowd-sourcing system were developed.


-----
Update 1/7/2017

There is an annotated PowerPoint presentation on citizen journalism here. I use it in teaching an Internet literacy class and there is a note on my PowerPoint presentation style here.


Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Package delivery -- the other "last mile" problem

We've had bad luck with package delivery during the last six months:
  • An order of kids rain boots from Walmart was stolen from our front porch. Unfortunately, a small box containing a ring from TheRealReal was delivered at the same time and was also stolen.
  • Walmart replaced the rain boots and TheRealReal gave us a refund, but my wife was disappointed not to get the ring.
  • We received a package from TheRealReal via Federal express. It should have contained a bracelet, but it was empty. Again, we received a refund, but not the gift. It may have been taken by someone at TheRealReal or Federal Express.
  • We ordered a pressure cooker from Amazon. The package it came in was marked "fragile" but was in poor condition. We opened it, saw two dents in the pressure cooker and returned it for a refund.
  • We ordered a blanket from SweetDreamsHome, an Amazon Marketplace retailer. The order was placed on December 14 and scheduled for delivery. We planned to be out of town on the scheduled delivery date, so requested a different and were assured it would arrive on December 23. It did not arrive on that date, so we contacted Amazon. We were assured that it would arrive on December 28th. It did not. When it did not arrive on the 29th, we cancelled the order. It arrived on the 30th.
Amazon and the others were extremely polite and responsive and we received prompt, no-hassle refunds, but we were disappointed, a Christmas gift was late and we had to be worrying that a package might come while we were out and unable to sign for it or, worse, that it would be stolen.
I checked the American Customer Satisfaction Index of the Consumer Shipping and Internet Retail industries and found that their scores of 80 out of 100 put them in the top six of 43 industries surveyed. (Internet service providers were ranked last because there is little competition in the industry).

That being said, the survey only considers the US Postal Service (74), UPS (80) and Federal Express (82). The private companies are rated higher than the Postal Service and all three have been relatively stable over time. (The US Postal Service moved up in the late 1990s, while UPS and Federal Express have slipped a little).

Fortune magazine says Silicon Valley venture capitalists are giving up on on-demand delivery and I am not expecting on-demand drones or robots or self-driving delivery trucks any time soon. (If they do, the thieves may start stealing drones and robots as well as packages). Are vendor-agnostic local pickup locations a solution?

Maybe this was a run of bad luck and we plan to keep shopping online, but not as frequently.