Monthly Archives: May 2010

– Net Neutrality? But Affordability?!

Net Neutrality?  Click to enlarge

Network Neutrality?

The FCC and a large portion of the nation are wringing our collective hands about net neutrality. But the real issue is not “neutrality” but “affordability” and even “accessibility”. Clearly the future of the Nation depends upon the Internet, but a large portion of households and small businesses can’t afford Internet access at true broadband speeds. And, as cool new applications such as high-definition video develop, the gaps will only widen, and even more Americans will be left in the dust of the Net. Net Neutrality doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford a connection in the first place.

First of all, let’s recognize that providing Internet or broadband is not a competitive, market-driven business. It is a closely held, almost unregulated, monopoly (actually duopoly). Most areas of the United States have very little choice for Internet service providers. You can get DSL or dial-up from Ma Bell (the phone company), or you can get Internet from Ma Cable (the cable company). In a few places you can get Ma Wireless (Clear or Clearwire, also peddled by Sprint-Nextel).

Essentially this is a duopoly – Ma Bell and Ma Cable. And they make sure they don’t “really” compete – they keep prices high to keep profits high from their existing ancient outmoded copper cable networks. And they do everything they can to make the profit larger. You want more channels? You want HDTV? You want an extra modem or cable box? You want faster speeds? In every case, you pony up more bucks. Besides the certainty of death and taxes, there is the certainty your cable bill will rise 5% to 7% or more, year in, year out.

And where do those profits go? To create faster networks or fiber cable networks to help the United States dig our way out of the being in 15th place worldwide for broadband penetration? Hardly, Comcast wants to buy NBC so they will control not only the network, but more of the content flowing across it as well. No wonder Consumerist magazine rates Comcast the most hated company in America. But most cable companies are equally disliked.

Net neutrality is important. When most of the nation has very little choice in Internet providers, and those few providers want to maximize profits, they will be tempted to charge content providers for access. In other words, they might decide to charge Google so its search engine has priority for most users, and other search engines (e.g. Microsoft’s Bing) are slower. Or perhaps Fox’s, ABC’s, and CBS’s web sites will work a bit slower compared to NBC, which pays (or is owned by) an network provider to get priority access to the network. Worse yet, individual users who are on the leading edge, developing web content or Internet applications, may be using a lot of bandwidth. Ma Bell or Ma Cable are already deciding to cap the usage of such users, or charge THEM for priority access. This will stifle innovation. This is happening today, e.g. Frontier in Minnesota and cable companies across the U. S.

The FCC is addressing network neutrality, and is likely to take some action. I spoke on an FCC net neutrality panel in Seattle on April 28th. Most of the panelists supported FCC action to keep the network neutral. My presentation is here.

The real problem, however, is network accessibility and affordability.

The City of Seattle – and other cities and counties – can regulate cable TV to a limited extent. Therefore we can demand cable companies provide a low cost basic service – $12.55 in Seattle for Comcast, for example, and there’s even a discount to that low rate for low-income residents – more details here.

The State of Washington – and other States – can regulate telephone service, and require telephone companies to provide a low cost basic phone rate, e.g. $8 a month for 167,000 households.

But NO ONE regulates broadband/Internet access. Consequently ISPs can charge whatever the market will bear. So in our present monopoly or duopoly environment throughout the nation – that is little choice for most of us – prices are at $30, $40 or more for even moderate speed access. Higher speed access is $100 or more. And that means low-income, immigrant, seniors and other households cannot afford access to the Internet. So they and their children are denied what is probably the most important pathway to education, information, jobs and higher income – access to the Internet. Even middle income households or neighborhood businesses cannot get affordable truly fast (e.g. 5 megabits per second symmetric) broadband.

Elsewhere in the world, homes and businesses and get much higher Internet speeds at much lower costs. France and Japan, for example, have much lower prices than the US for really high speed broadband.

This is an economic development issue, it is making the United States competitive with the rest of the world for innovation in technology, it is a race and social justice issue.

The FCC, in the national broadband plan, has set a bold goal to bring 100 million households a broadband speed of 100 million bits per second by 2020. That’s a remarkable vision, and with active intervention by the FCC, network neutrality on that high speed network will be in place. But, in our nation with the Internet controlled by just a few providers, can such high speed networks really be constructed, and will the Internet access be affordable?

I think not.

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– Improving Govt Health with a Fiber Diet

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enteprise - click to see more

Louisiana Immersive Tech Enterprise

I was honored to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, this past week for Fiber-Fete. Lafayette is just finishing a City-owned fiber optic network which reaches every home and business. Fiber-Fete was an international gathering to celebrate the innovative work led by Parish President (Mayor) Joey Durel and his team of people from business, non-profits, education, healthcare and government.

Lafayette’s fiber network boasts speeds of 10 megabits per second, both ways, to every home and business in the City, for $29 a month, and 50 megabits both ways for $58. Speeds of 100 megabits or even a gigabit per second are possible very soon. The FCC’s recently released national broadband plan set a goal for much of the United States to achieve such speeds by 2020. But Lafayette virtually has it now, in 2010.

During the conference, one of our breakout groups brainstormed a set of ideas for using this network to improve government and governing. Here are a few of our ideas.

A Mini-Connect Communication Device. The telephone is almost ubiquitous in American homes, with 95% or more of homes having a phone. Land-line penetration is dropping now, of course, as many people use only their cell phones or use voice-over-Internet connections via their computers. An essential device for future premises certainly seems to be a mini-comm, possibly modeled after the mini-tel which was widely deployed in France a few years ago. The mini-comm would be a voice telephone, videophone with a small screen, and potentially have connections for a TV and keyboard to allow it to be used as a web browser to connect to the fiber network. Such a device needs to be cheap and probably subsidized so every home, regardless of income, has one.

The mini-comm has many potential applications beyond phone, videophone and web browser. It would have batteries so it would function even during extended power outages due to natural disasters. It could be activated by government preceding or during such disasters to alert residents to an oncoming hurricane, or the need to evacuate, with further instructions on what to do. It might even have a wi-fi connection so that students who bring laptops home from school (school-issued laptops for all students are another great idea) have connectivity at home.

Video and Web via TV. Ideally, every television set in a home will eventually be internet-enabled with a built-in video camera and web browser. Certainly the latest generation of set-top boxes for cable TV have such functions built in.

Video 311 and 911. With the devices above, anyone who calls 911 with an emergency or 311 for non-emergency access to government services could also activate a two-way video function. For 911, this means the 911 center could view a burglary in progress or domestic violence situation, and help the responding police officers understand what is happening. For medical emergencies the 911 center might be able to activate monitoring devices and understand the known health issues of the caller, thereby better directing care over the mini-comm or to responding emergency medical personnel. Residents might be able to transact a variety of business over the phone/data link, including consultation about potential building plans and permits, more accurate understanding of utility billing issues (especially if smartgrid or automated water/gas/electric metering infrastructure is in place). And even for routine calls or complaints, we could put a “face” on government via a live video chat with a customer service agent.

Public health nurse or Probation Officer virtual visits. Public health officers, human services and probation officers often have an obligation to check upon or visit clients. With the mini-comm or other two way video devices, such visits might be conducted over the network. This would be especially useful if people are quarantined for pandemic flu or other diseases. But it could includes home health monitoring for seniors, and monitoring of people on probation or any reason, but especially for alcohol or drug abuse and sex offenses.

Enhancing public meetings. Public meetings of city/county councils and other public boards or commissions are almost unchanged from 250 years ago. To attend such a meeting, people travel to the meeting room, wait in line, and speak for a closely-timed two or three minutes. Essentially the public meeting becomes a series of usually un-related mini-speeches. With a fiber network, there are some opportunities to enhance such meetings. At a minimum, people who are unable to travel due to work or childcare or disabilities could participate remotely. But using tools such as Google moderator or Ideascale or Microsoft’s Town Hall, participants could also submit questions remotely, and then rank them. The top ranked (“crowdsourced”) questions could then be asked. Indeed, with high-quality video, the people who submitted the highest ranking questions could ask the question her/himself. Meetings could also be enhanced as viewers are able to see PowerPoint or video presentations, or link to web-based documents, at the same time they are watching the meeting.

Virtual Neighborhoods to visualize redesigning a town or do community or neighborhood planning. Lafayette has Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), where innovative uses for 3D imaging are on development and display. Using these technologies along with some existing data such as Google Maps “bird’s eye view”, Microsoft’s Photosynth and digital orthophotograhy, we could create virtual representations of neighborhoods. Neighborhood planning groups could use these technologies to visualize how their neighborhood would appear with certain changes such as a new apartment building, or a boulevard, or different proposed configurations for a park.

These are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed for government use of such high speed networks. Other Fiber-Fete workgroups addressed uses for education, libraries, utilities, energy, business and much more.

Several facts are certain. Lafayette is the center of innovative Cajun culture plus great Cajun food and music. And this mid-sized city in Louisiana, is leading the nation with this innovative network. In ten years, the applications developed and tested there will be used throughout the nation.

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