Category Archives: google

Municipal Broadband – Not a Walk in the Park

President Obama

President Obama supporting Municipal Broadband

President Obama recently called upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its authority to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband.   At least 19 states have laws prohibiting cities from constructing municipal broadband networks providing Internet access for businesses and citizens.  Tom Wheeler, Chair of the FCC and a former telecommunications industry executive, has been publicly talking about doing just that for almost a year.   On January 22 three Democratic Senators introduced the Community Broadband Act which would explicitly make it illegal for states to prohibit “public providers” (cities, counties) from offering broadband.

But if municipal broadband is so great, why haven’t cities in the other 31 states been building broadband networks right and left?

To be fair, some cities are building high-speed broadband networks, usually with fiber optic cable to every home and business. In Chattanooga Tennessee, the Electric Power Board – a rough equivalent of Seattle City Light – has built fiber broadband and is offering gigabit (one billion bits) per second service.   In New York City, Citybridge, under the City’s authority, is replacing up to 10,000 payphones with free gigabit Wi-Fi hotspots which include free phone calls nationwide, tablet computers and charging stations.  Tacoma, Minneapolis, Riverside (California), Lafayette (Louisiana) and even places like Cedar Falls, Iowa, have municipal broadband.

2005 Report

2005 Report on Seattle Municipal Broadband

Seattle has had an on-again, off-again, love affair with the concept of a municipal broadband network (and in full disclosure, I’ve led some of that effort).  Now a local group is forming to push politicians to actually make it happen, although that campaign still lacks a nameUPTUN (Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods) has long advocated for fiber broadband networks for Beacon Hill, the Central Area and nearby neighborhoods.

But, for most places in the United States, including Seattle, municipal broadband is like a shining city on a distant hill:   alluring and inspiring yet distant.

Implementing municipal broadband is not simple or easy.   In fact, the path to municipal broadband is strewn with a whole series of landmines and gotchas similar to the “simple” idea of tunneling a freeway under downtown Seattle.

People are attracted to government-owned and operated broadband networks primarily because the incumbents are so roundly despised.

The cable companies continually raise their rates.  Comcast’s rates have risen 50% faster than inflation since 1996 according to Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America.   People hate their customer service, as well – the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) rated Comcast, which serves most of Seattle, as the “worst-rated company in the worst-rated industry”.   Well, that isn’t exactly true.   Time-Warner Cable was rated worse than Comcast, but Comcast is proposing to buy Time-Warner, perhaps to cement its bottom ranking.

Telecommunications companies like CenturyLink provide some competition for the cable companies in Internet service provision.   But the ACSI rates CenturyLink, AT&T and Verizon only slightly above the cable companies.

It is an amazing situation when private citizens demand government get into competition with private companies to improve customer service and lower prices.

What benefits could city government bring to the cable business?   Here are a few:

  1. Wired broadband is a natural monopoly.
    "You could try another cable company if there was one." Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    “You could try another cable company if there was one.” Jeff Stahler, 2014.

    It is expensive to run fiber optic cable to every home and business, just as it is expensive to run gas, water, sewer and electric lines.   Most local governments either provide such monopoly services themselves, or heavily regulate the private providers, including regulation of rate increases.   But the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits local or state regulation of Internet service. While the law does allow local or state government regulation of cable television, it severely restricts that authority.  Local cable franchising authorities, for example, can only regulate the most basic, lowest cost, tier of service.  Municipal Broadband would be as “natural” as municipal ownership of sewer, water or other utility services.

  2. The cable industry has abused its monopoly. Susan Crawford, former technology adviser to President Obama, describes how, in 1997, the cable companies met and decided not to overbuild each other’s systems, cementing the monopoly on cable in most areas.   Comcast has purchased a number of other cable companies – including the pending purchase of Time Warner – further cementing its monopoly and profitability.  Comcast also has purchased a lot of the content delivered over cable TV channels and the Internet.   It owns or partly owns NBC Universal, Oxygen, MSNBC, History, PBS Kids, Sprout and many more producers of programming.   While all of this is legal, the continued concentration of cable networks and content leads to rising rates.   A municipal broadband network would be governed by the local elected Mayor and city council, rather than a board of directors in a faceless corporation in a distant city.
  3. Municipal broadband is good for the economically disadvantaged. A municipal network – controlled by elected officials – could offer discounts and other special services to low income residents, or for children in school, thereby reducing the digital divide and improving economic opportunity.
  4. Competition is good. If several different service providers offer any service, customer service should improve, rates should drop, and Internet speeds should increase.   We’ve seen this already, as Comcast’s rates in Tacoma are lower due to the presence of Tacoma Click (although Click! loses money).  Comcast has increased the speeds of its internet service, perhaps because CenturyLink recently announced it will provide fiber broadband to certain locations in Seattle and elsewhere, and Wave Broadband is also offering gigabit service.
  5. Theoretically, municipal broadband would have lower rates. A municipal network would not have to make profits, pay shareholders and pay exorbitant executive salaries.  Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts made $31.4 million in 2013.  CenturyLink’s Glen Post made almost $9 million.  Comcast’s part-time directors made $173,000 each.  Seattle Mayor Ed Murray makes less than $184,000, and Seattle City Council members make less than $118,000 each.
  6. Municipal networks would be higher speed and have fewer technical problems. Cable company networks typically are fiber optic cable to each neighborhood, with older coaxial cable down streets and alleys and into each home or premise.   Coaxial cable has connectors, is made of copper (which rusts), and can be decades old, all factors contributing to poor signal quality and technical problems.   Telephone companies usually deliver their DSL broadband over copper wires with similar kinds of technical problems combined with lower speeds.   In contrast, a new network – such as those in Chattanooga, Lafayette and Cedar Falls (but not Tacoma) – would be fiber optic cable throughout.   Fiber carries signals with light, not electricity, and is much more resistant to aging and technical issues.
  7. Municipal networks can serve other city needs.
    United States at Night

    Smart Grid (photo: NIST)

    Municipal networks could support smartgrids for water and electric utilities, where all the transformers, meters, distribution centers and valves in those networks are both automated and managed via the network.   Smartgrids reduce repair times because outages can be quickly located to a specific location.  Smartgrids also allow residents to control their costs because they can see their electric or water use in real time, minute-by-minute or appliance-by-appliance.   This also supports municipal goals for conservation and reduction of climate change.

But if municipal networks are nirvana, why aren’t they also sprouting like mosquitoes in a swamp?

  1. Incumbent internet providers would oppose cities tooth-and-nail. And they have deep pockets.   Comcast has $5 billion cash on hand for lowering rates, advertising and legal expenses.
  2. A new network is expensive. Building a fiber optic network to every one of 320,000 homes, apartments and businesses in Seattle might cost $800 million or more.  Now, that’s not much compared to the $4 billion price tag of Seattle’s ill-fated tunnel under downtown – and a fiber network would serve every home and business in the City, not just cars and trucks using the tunnel.   And $800 million is roughly the equivalent of building a new football or baseball stadium.  But getting voters to approve a $800 million bond issue.
  3. Legal challenges are certain. Lafayette had numerous challenges from Bell South and Cox (Cable) Communications, with both victories and losses in district and appellate courts, but ultimately prevailed in the Louisiana Supreme court after three years of litigation.  Chattanooga did not have as much difficulty, but the Tennessee legislature passed a law limiting its ability to expand its $70 a month gigabit fiber service.   Any major city which tried to implement a fiber broadband network must be prepared to litigate for years.  And Mayors and City Council members would probably have to stand re-election during the legal battles.
  4. The business case for subscribers to pay network costs doesn’t work. A 2011 study conducted by the City of Seattle estimated a municipal broadband network – if supported solely by subscriber fees for television, Internet and telephone – might need to attract 50% of the subscribers from existing service providers.  But a company like Comcast could use its huge cash reserves to cut its rates for Seattle customers for years, essentially starving the municipal network of operating capital until elected officials either gave up or were not re-elected.  The lower rates would be great for consumers and businesses, of course.
  5. Other business models have political risk. There are other models – using a property tax or property assessment to supplement the income of the municipal broadband network.  This makes good economic sense, as a high-speed broadband network in a high-tech city should attract technology workers from Amazon, Microsoft and other companies, improving property values.   But higher property values also means higher rents and housing prices, driving middle and low-income residents from the City.   And again, such an assessment – if passed by Seattle voters – would certainly face legal challenges.  (Note:  it is clearly illegal under state law to use electric utility or water utility rates to support a broadband utility.  Electric rates cannot even be used to provide streetlights, and water rates can’t be used for water flowing through fire hydrants).
  6. Some municipalities have struggled.
    Help me Google Fiber

    Google saves Provo

    Provo, Utah, built a $39 million fiber network in 2004, but, unable to create a successful broadband utility, sold the network to Google for $1.  UTOPIA, a coalition of suburban Salt Lake City cities, has $500 million in debt but no successful network.

  7. Content costs for a municipal network will be higher. The large cable companies have tens of millions of subscribers and, as mentioned above, often own or partially own content providers such as NBC or ESPN.   Their wholesale rates for such content will be lower than the rates a city would pay.   They can also extort payments from some content providers, such as Netflix, which recently agreed to pay Comcast so its movies and video would be delivered faster and more reliably.  This “net neutrality” debate rages in Washington DC, but today provides additional income for incumbent providers.
  8. In Seattle’s case, many of these risks, plus the different business models, are clearly laid out in a 2011 study.
  9. Governments aren’t good at operating entrepreneurial businesses. Governments are great at police and parks and fire and water utilities.  But providing Internet service is a business which has changed radically in the past 20 years, and will undoubtedly change radically again over the next 20.  Is a city government nimble and flexible enough to enter such a marketplace?

Municipal broadband has captured the imagination of Barack Obama and the Federal Communications Commission.  It’s had some notable successes.  Many Seattle consumers want an alternative to the existing monopolies.  But is municipal broadband right for Seattle?   Perhaps the next study by the Murray administration will find the right mix of politics and business to make it work.

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under broadband, google, internet

Saving Cities from the Clutches of the Internet Monopoly

internet-monopolyOn January 14, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled that telecommunications and cable companies can “play favorites” among websites, video channels and all other content providers. This decision struck down FCC rules which tried to make the Internet “neutral,” carrying all kinds of content with equal speed.

In other words, if the New York Times pays Verizon (or AT&T, or Comcast or any other company which owns wires) a fee to deliver its content, but Crosscut cannot, www.nytimes.comwill zip onto your computer screen rapidly, whilewww.crosscut.com will ever so slowly and painfully appear. Indeed, if Comcast owns NBC (which it does), NBC’s video content might zoom across Comcast’s wires into homes and businesses, while ABC, CBS, the Seattle Channeland other video feeds stumble slowly onto those same television sets.

It could get even more interesting when you go shopping. Do you want to buy a book or toys or new shoes? Well, if Wal-Mart pays Comcast and CenturyLink to deliver its content, you might seewww.walmart.com rapidly appear on your web browser, while Amazon, Sears and Macys come up slowly — or not at all.

As the Los Angeles Times headlined, “Bow to Comcast and Verizon, Your Overlords”.

All this wouldn’t be so bad, of course, if we…

[Read the rest of this post on Crosscut]

1 Comment

Filed under broadband, cable, fiber, google, seattle channel, wi-fi, wireless

– No More Car Collisions or Speeding Tickets

Seattle Car Accident

Seattle Car Accident courtesy Univ Of Washington

A long, long time ago in a galaxy – well, actually, a City – far away, I was a police officer – a street cop.  I witnessed some of the most horrific episodes of my life as I came upon scenes of automobile collisions with gruesome injuries.   I also wrote my share of speeding tickets (and NO, I did NOT have a quota!) and arrested a fair number of drunk drivers.

New technology, however, heralds the potential for an end to automobile collisions, speeding tickets, drunk driving and even most traffic management.   Gee, there’s even the possibility that the traffic jam may be relegated to the dustbin of history (along with the dustbin itself, I might add).

A combination of technologies is maturing which foretells such a future.

Google Driverless Car

Google Driverless Car

The first one, of course, is the driverless car.   Google has been at the forefront of prototyping that vehicle, to the point where California and Nevada have both passed laws explicitly allowing such vehicles on their roads.   Beyond Google, most of the major automobile manufacturers are also testing driverless vehicles.   And it’s only a matter of time before such vehicles are regularly driving our roads.

Next, we are seeing the appearance of the “vehicle area network” and “networked vehicles”.

I just purchased a new 2013 Toyota Prius C (and then promptly crashed it in a minor accident – subject matter for a different blog post).  When I plugged my iPhone into the Prius to charge it, the Prius recognized the iPhone and linked to it, and offered the ability to use the iPhone’s cellular connection to link the Prius’ own touchscreen display, maps and apps to the wider world.   Toyota also has an “entune” app for this purpose.

We’ll see much more of this in the future – where cars are linked to the Internet.  BMW already connects most of its vehicles worldwide to collect performance data via Teleservices.   GM’s Onstar has been around for a number of years.    Insurance companies are starting to offer discounts for good drivers who consent to put a monitoring device in their vehicle to sense sudden starts and stops, speeding, and other actions which may be dangerous (or at least insurance companies think are dangerous).

Future vehicles will have networks which link the vehicle to all your personal devices – keys, smart phone, tablets, DVD players and more, to keep you “connected” and in control on the highway.

Furthermore, cars will talk to each other.  They could exchange location information, proximity information, directional information and much more.   In this fashion cars might be able to avoid each other or allow for smooth lane changes and turns without colliding.

A related development is the instrumentation of the highway.

Seattle Traffic Management Center

Seattle Traffic Management Center

I had the privilege of working with the Seattle Transportation Department, which was at the forefront of intelligent transportation systems (ITS), when I was City CTO there.   Today ITS means, for the most part, traffic sensing and detection devices to time traffic signals, extensive networks of traffic cameras linked with fiber cable, readerboards on streets, and some novel technologies like traffic time estimators and displays.   Mobile apps are all the rage, of course, to display traffic conditions.   Seattle just launched an amazing mobile app which actually shows live video from traffic cams on your smartphone.

Indeed, the City of Los Angeles just became the first major City worldwide to automate all  of its 4,500 traffic signals, synchronizing them.   That will reduce travel times somewhat, although our experience with expansion of capacity (e.g. building new freeways or widening them) is just that more traffic is generated.

But sensors and instrumentation can be taken a step further.

Almost everything in the roadway could, of course, be instrumented – sensors in guard rails, school crosswalks, stop signs, bridges.   Such sensors might not only collect information but also broadcast it to traffic management centers or, indeed, nearby vehicles.

Your car would know when you are approaching a stop sign and automagically apply the brakes – gee, the “California stop” might become thing of the past.   As you approached a school zone during school hours, your car would automatically slow to no faster than the allowable speed.   Radars or sensors in the vehicle would detect the presence of children and stop for them – indeed, if every child was somehow sensor-equipped, they might never be struck by cars whose intelligent management systems would automatically avoid them.  (And no, I am NOT going to discuss the potential for placing microchips in human beings, although some sort of sensor attached as a smart phone or bracelet or watch DOES have its advantages!)

And you can see where this is leading – as cars become more “intelligent” with their own networks and sensors, and roads become more “intelligent” with their own sensors, networks and computers, the need for human drivers may become irrelevant.

  • You could put your 3 year old alone in a vehicle, tell it to take her to daycare, and have it drop her off there and return home.
  • Drunks (or their Washington-State modern day equivalents:  pot smokers) could stumble into their cars and the vehicle would quickly and efficiently woosh them home – or to the detox ward, as the case may be, with almost zero chance of that drunk killing or maiming someone.
  • With driverless cars, even the need for taxicab drivers might be eliminated – you’d use your smartphone to call a taxi and it would smoothly come to the curb;

Speeding tickets, collisions, accident investigations, even automobile deaths might become history.

This, of course, has many implications for local and state governments:

  • Cops would no longer “work traffic”, investigate accidents or write tickets – they’d concentrate on investigating and preventing non-traffic crimes;
  • There could be a new set of government regulations requiring regular maintenance of vehicles and government inspections of them, because the only major source of collisions would be mechanical failure;
  • Emergency rooms and morgues would not be treating traumas and death from car collisions;
  • A significant source of revenue for local governments (traffic tickets) would dry up, although they could respond by increasing parking rates or licensing fees;
  • As emergency vehicles speed to fires or crimes, traffic would autmagically stop and pull over  – somewhat like the parting of the Red Sea – reducing response times for police and fire.
  • Lawyers and courts would be freed (or put out of a job) litigating traffic accidents and court cases (see my blog post here explaining why most lawyers will be become history anyway);
  • Auto insurance rates would drop steeply, and, again, put a lot of people out of work adjusting claims, fixing cars, etc.;
  • Indeed, traffic might actually move faster and more efficiently through cities because the need for traffic lights and synchronization might end as vehicles negotiate with each other to speed along roads and through intersections.    However traffic signals would not go away in many places, because pedestrians still need to cross streets;
  • Transportation departments would probably spend less time building new roads and widening existing ones, but high quality roads would be essential to prevent damage to vehicles driving at higher speeds.
  • Many delivery jobs might be gone.  Perhaps mailboxes would move to the curb (if not there already) and driverless Postal Service, UPS, FedEx and similar vehicles with robotic arms would just deposit most mail and packages in the box.  This is a logical extension to today’s robot-filled Amazon warehouses.   Of course how people are able to buy anything to be delivered, given all the job losses, is a separate issue!

I don’t expect to see this traffic “nirvana” anytime soon. But I clearly see it on the horizon. Yes, there will be a lot of disruption and both loss of jobs and creation of new, unknown ones.

But I welcome the day when grandparents are not killed and ripped from their families by drunk drivers. I hope to see over 36,000 Americans saved from needless death and 3.9 million from injury at the hands of automobiles and their drivers.

1 Comment

Filed under future of technology, google, Law Enforcement, Seattle Transportation

– ePark, gooPark, noPark

Click to see Travelers' Information Map

Travelers' Info Map

Concrete and asphalt are everywhere in the Naked City or in any City for that matter.  I was startled to learn that up to 50% of any City is paved or tarred over to provide space for transportation – autos, trucks, buses and trains.  I certainly know about intelligent transportation systems (ITS).   But streets can’t be very intelligent, can they?   They are just slabs of concrete supporting the movements of vehicular contraptions of metal and rubber with fume-spewing internal combustion engines, right? 

So I was quite surprised when ITS snuck up on me and bit me right in the tailpipe.  The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), mirroring the work of similar organizations around the country and the world, actually has built an intelligent street grid right under my nose.

The latest iteration of intelligent street grid is SDOT’s travelers’ map, which displays actual travel times between major points in the City.  This map also shows video from every traffic camera in the City and real-time alerts for transportation issues and construction.   All of this can be viewed from smartphones as well as the web.  

The travel times are calculated through license plate recognition.  A traffic camera in one place records license plates of cars passing through its field of vision.   A camera a little ways down the road does the same.  The computer compares the two, calculates the elapsed time, which is displayed on the Travelers’ Information Map.   A set of dynamic signs hoisted above roadways in the city shows similar information to motorists.

Another major use of concrete in cities is for parking.  SDOT is also bringing intelligence to parking, with EPark.  A major source of motorist frustration and air pollution on downtown streets is cars circling the streets looking for on-street parking.  Epark brings automation to this, as downtown parking garages automatically catalog available parking spaces and the City’s website and on-street signs direct motorists to places with parking.  There is even a map catalog of most of the parking lots and garages in the City.  That same map also shows on-street parking zones, street-level views of the spaces, and more.  

San Francisco is taking this intelligence to a new level, thanks to a $20 million federal grant.  The other “City-by-the-Bay” (Seattle is on a bay too) is trying to track on-street parking spaces in real time, dynamically cataloging the open spaces to help circling motorists (presumably with a smartphone) find them on the street.    

Many cities have ripped out their parking meters at each space in favor of parking kiosks on each block.   The kiosks take credit cards and spit out a piece of paper to put on the car’s window.  To me, however, the logical step would have been to automate the parking meters – give them each detection technology to determine if the space was occupied or not, and then wireless technology to communicate that back to the traffic computer in the sky.  Then you could see an open space from your smartphone, pay to reserve it online, a little yellow flag goes up on the meter to show it is reserved, and then you drive to the space.  No fuss, no muss, no waiting.  Of course if any City wants to implement that, it means ripping out the parking kiosks and putting the meters back in, but that’s life in the ever-changing world of high technology.

Seattle is also taking parking ticket technology to the next level.   Already Seattle police cars with special cameras cruise the streets employing license plate recognition to find stolen or wanted cars.   The same cars also enforce two-hour parking restrictions.  They drive down the street once, drive down the same street two hours later and then parking tickets can be issued to overtime parkers.

The Boot is coming to Seattle as well (as it has come to some other cities).  Today cars with more than four parking tickets are towed by private companies.  But in an odd twist of bureaucracy, you can pay the towing bill to get your car out of hock but you don’t have to pay the tickets.  So some people are racking up dozens or hundreds of tickets.  The new Seattle system will have the parking enforcement officer Boot the car.  You can call a 1-800 number, pay all your tickets, then get a code to unlock the boot, which you will, being a good citizen, dutifully drive back to the police precinct.  This might make the towing companies mad about the lost business.  But if you don’t pay and remove the Boot expeditiously (say within 8 hours), the car will be towed.  Then you’ll have to pay the towing company to get the car back, and the Booting company to get the Boot off, and then drive the Boot back to the Precinct.   Or maybe just leave the car as a donation to the City.

The ideal situation for commuters and traffic engineers, I suppose, is the self-driving automobile, which, we all are surprised to learn, has actually been traversing our streets for some time, thanks to Google.   In the ultimate scenario, you might not even need to own a car.  You could “call” for a car which would drive itself to your house, then drive you to work, then drive itself away to pick up the next passenger.  Kind of a combination of the Google driverless car and the Zipcar concept.   A ZipGoog program.  Perhaps the ZipGoog cars can, when not in use, park in special GooPark parking spots until they get their next call.  

I suppose some users of the program would end up trashing the ZipGoog cars just as they spray paint graffiti and drop cigarette butts on buses and trains.  But knowing Google, they’ll add graffiti-detection and trash-detection technology to the cars, probably with automatic door locks to prevent the scofflaw’s exit until the mess is cleaned up

Of course what I (and many others) would like is the “no park” City, where every home and business is connected by fiber optic cable (fiber-to-the-premise).   This makes really high speed internet, two-way HDTV and 3D TV possible.  With such connections, many people could work from home, attend school or college classes from home, shop from home and even visit friends and family without long times wasted traveling in automobiles and on buses.  Grandparents could “virtually” eat dinner every evening with their grandchildren.  Seniors in nursing homes could have virtual visits from relatives every day. 

Future technologies will include rooms with projectors and video so you could actually attend meetings for work, or even feel like you are sitting in someone else’s home while visiting virtually.  Somewhat like a Star Trek Holodeck  but probably more like Cisco’s Telepresence. And the entertainment/gaming possibilities are endless.  

Many progressive cities and nations (Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia, Amsterdam, Chattanooga) have built or are building such fiber-to-the-premise networks.  Because of entrenched monopoly cable and telecom companies with their legacy copper-wire networks, most places in the United States will be the last  to realize the benefits of such fiber networks, which also include less greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, less use of precious fossil fuels, and less dependence on foreign oil.

Streets and parking won’t really go away, of course.  We’ll still need to move goods and even have our physical bodies travel occasionally.  It is hard to visit the beach or the zoo or attend a dinner party (and actually eat the food) via telepresence. 

But until the days of ubiquitous fiber networks and telepresence come to pass (and probably for some time afterward) we’ll need license plate recognition, the Boot, Travelers’ Information Map and ePark.  They are great innovations thanks to forward-looking transportation agencies like Seattle’s.

Leave a comment

Filed under broadband, egovernment, future of technology, google, Seattle Transportation

– What’s Google Doing?

Seattle applies for Google's Broadband - click to see more

Seattle applies for Google's Broadband

The nation’s e-mail and blogging and twitter engines worked overtime on Wednesday February 10th when Google announced its intent to fund ultra-high-speed Internet access for 50,000 to 500,000 people nationwide.
This ain’t your grandma’s “broadband” connection. And it ain’t the 100-squared broadband envisioned by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski in a speech on Tuesday February 15th – 100-squared is 100 megabits per second to 100 million people by 2020 – a pretty bold vision in and of itself.
Google wants to provide one gigabit (one billion bits or about 120 million bytes) per second to homes via fiber optic cable. At a gigabit per second, a very high quality movie would download in 8 seconds flat, compared to an hour or more with a fast cable modem or DSL connection.
Google published an RFI and is seeking responses from cities who want Google to come and build. The City of Seattle announced very quickly its intention to apply and jump on the bandwagon. Of course we have a visionary Mayor, Mike McGinn, who is publicly seeking, as a priority for his administration, to build a fiber network to every home and business in Seattle.
So what is Google trying to do here? Is it being a altruistic corporation, hoping to better the lives of average citizens while fulfilling its pledge to “make money without doing evil”?
Some of Google’s motives are clear. They want to offer a competitive service and these networks are clearly “experimental”. This is all about Internet, not about offering phone or cable TV service, although, at a gigabit a second, you can watch HDTV video from websites and use video conferencing and telephone service until you are blind and hoarse.
They explicitly want to “see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it’s creating new bandwidth-intensive “killer apps” and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine”. That implies to me that they want to connect high-tech businesses to other high-tech businesses and to their own employees in their homes as well as connecting other very tech-savvy users, students, and others who will push the envelope. This is probably NOT a network for serving low-income neighborhoods, bridging the digital divide, or connecting mom-and-pop businesses in neighborhoods.
Furthermore, Google would build networks to serve 50,000 to 500,000 “people” (not households or businesses). They want to serve multiple cities, so the chances any individual City would get service are pretty low (1 in 600 or maybe 1 in 6000). And in any given City, not many households would be served. If they do networks to serve 100,000 people, that’s probably about 30,000 households, and if they do this in five cities, it is about 6,000 households in any given place.
What other strings will be attached? . Google makes money selling targeted ads. They also like consumers to use their products, e.g. if you want to use Buzz you need a Gmail account and it undoubtedly will gather information about how people use these networks as aprt of the “experiment”.
Finally, I am certain Google is sending a message to the cable companies and telecommunications carriers here. Those companies thrive on making broadband scarce. As a scarce commodity and a duopoly service (as it is in many communities), they can charge more and keep hiking up rates. The put limits on how much broadband any given consumer can use. They undoubtedly would like to charge “content providers” – companies like Microsoft and Amazon and … yes … Google money to make sure the content of those companies gets priority and guaranteed delivery in an allegedly scarce and constrained bandwidth network. This is what the “net neutrality” debate is all about.
But Google (and lots of other people) know better. With fiber-to-the-home, speed is unlimited, the bandwidth is no longer scarce and the fat profits of the cable companies evaporate.
I’m certainly excited about the Google challenge. They are challenging the developers, the carriers, the cable companies and the FCC, to push the limits in its national broadband plan, due out March 17th.
Are there strings attached? No doubt. But this is a revolutionary proposal.
Cool.

2 Comments

Filed under broadband, cable, google

– Twitter, Facebook & Gov’t 2.0

Twitter Social Networking

Twitter Social Networking

“Web 2.0” is taking the Internet by storm. Use of Facebook (and similar sites) has exploded and may even have become passé for some people. Even that notorious bastion of anti-change troglodytes, the U.S. Congress, apparently loves Twitter.

But, amazingly enough, social networking tools may not be of much use to local government, unless there are significant improvements or new applications.

This subject of this blog is basically: how do social media companies and local governments need to change to really bring social networking “to the people”?

Why do local governments (cities and counties) even exist? The answer to this question is easy: these are the governments most visible and directly involved in the daily lives of most people (although you certainly wouldn’t know that by looking at newspaper headlines, the evening TV news and the blogosphere where the fedgov gets a lot more square inches of newspaper or computer monitor space).

Local governments take care of streets and parks, provide water and dispose of solid waste/wastewater. When you call 911 your local police or fire department responds, not the FBI or the Army. Local governments are very much connected to neighborhoods and individual communities. Almost everyone can walk into their county courthouse or city hall and ask for help or complain about a service. People can actually attend City Council meetings and make comments, or even – most cases – talk directly to the officials they’ve elected to run their city/county government.

In contrast, finding the right state or the federal government agency to address an issue – much less contacting them – is more difficult. Try walking into the U.S. Capitol to talk to your Congressperson!

But the bottom line is that local governments are very much in the “call and we’ll respond” mode.

It would seem that the “social media” – which are built for enhancing interaction and communications among individual people – are tailor made to work for local government. These tools, however, need some significant enhancements to be really useful. Here are some specific suggestions.

Use of Facebook has really exploded, especially among folks my age, which I’ll just say is the “over 50” set. Local government should really want to use this sort of social networking tool. We set up blockwatches, so people can let each other know about suspicious activities and crime in their neighborhoods. In Seattle, we have “SNAP” teams (“Seattle Neighbors Actively Prepare“) / try to train blocks of residents to be self-reliant and help each other after a disaster such as an earthquake when it may take days for help to arrive.

Facebook should be a natural application to allow neighbors to build stronger blockwatches or SNAP teams. But that’s not really the case. First, as a individual, I don’t necessarily want to share the same kind of information about myself with my neighbors as I do with my “friends” or relatives. That’s a serious deficiency of Facebook today, where my boss or co-workers as well as my “friends” and “relatives” – and now “neighbors” all might be Facebook “friends”. When I think about posting “25 things about myself”, I keep all those “relationships” in mind.

Next, there needs to be some relatively easy yet not overwhelming way for groups of neighbors on Facebook to communicate with their local government, and their government to communicate back. We (the City) want to hear about suspicious activities and get tips about crime. But clearly no police department can investigate the hundreds or thousands of such reports which might flow in daily from a thousand blockwatches which could be established in the City of Seattle. A really useful Facebook-like application would have an easy way to correlate these reports and allow neighbors to verify issues and support each other or at least sort out the “wheat” (real problems) from the “chaff” of perceived problems.

This is an issue on a daily basis but is ten times more important during an emergency situation or a disaster, when first responders are overwhelmed and reports of problems multiply.

On the other hand, a Facebook-like social networking tool might allow local government to quickly dispel rumors and calm out-of-control fears during those same situations. And, if structured correctly, the tool could allow the police to educate residents about keeping themselves safe. A Facebook-like application might allow the Fire Department/Public Health to be aware of health problems in neighborhoods, for example (with privacy controls) help neighbors check on and support the elderly or infirm in our neighborhood.

There are dozens of other uses I’m not mentioning – encouraging people to form and manage Parks Department sports teams, or find out about recreation opportunities or to join their neighborhood council for graffiti reduction or a neighborhood clean-up campaign. All these activities build community.

A second great service with similar application is Twitter. Twitter’s great strength is its short, 140 character statements, and the fact that one can tweet from cell phones and i-phones as well as computers. The applications for local government are legion, ranging from reporting public safety hazards – streetlights out, traffic accidents, potholes – to gaining a rapid, accurate assessment of what is happening during a major incident such as a gas line explosion, earthquake, power outage, the rantings of a CTO, or a plane crash-landing in the Hudson River.

Similarly, the city or county might be able to “tweet” the status of streets or traffic or snow emergencies, thereby informing people of emergent situations. Government twitterers could also be definitive sources of information, helping to quell rumors. But I think that tweets from on-the-scene “civilians” can play a major role in rumor-quelling and information gathering in and of themselves.

The problem with Twitter is just that it is so overwhelming. Mayor Gavin Newsom started to tweet a few weeks ago, and rapidly gained over 100,000 followers. Hey folks, there’s no way he can adequately respond to the @replies of 100,000 people!

We need some good way to link official twitter streams and @replies to City government service request systems or 311 services so duplicate reports are managed and government adequately acknowledges and responds to reports and requests. While you’re at it, Twitter could become GPS-enabled. Basically, that means your “tweet” about a pothole would automatically carry your present location along with it. In turn, if that pothole is scheduled for an asphalt bath, local government could immediately respond “that will be handled next Tuesday by noon”. Fedex delivery promises meet the local transportation department.

As a subset of Twitter and Facebook, I should also mention YouTube and Flickr services, which could allow people to post video of crimes or public safety issues or problems (or, god-forbid, the beauty and “what’s right”) of their neighborhoods as feedback to their governments.

Finally, I need to mention social networking and improving constituent input for the policy and legislative process. As I said above, one advantage of cities/counties is that people and walk right in and talk to elected officials or speak at Council meetings. But rarely do most people actually talk to their local council members, unless there is an issue of overwhelming concern. Usually special interest groups and gadflies provide feedback, while the interests and opinions of the vast majority of constituents are unknown. Every City has a “gang of 50” (or 10 or 100) who loudly give their opinions on almost any topic, while the ideas of the “silent majority of 500,000” (in Seattle’s case) are largely unknown.

Facebook, Twitter, LimeSurvey, Google Moderator and similar tools might provide a way to receive and better rank such input. Google Moderator was used by the Obama administration to allow people to post ideas, and then vote on them. Because a userid/password was required, a single individual could not overwhelm the voting process. Tools like Delicious can also be used for ranking. Visualization tools like Microsoft Virtual Earth or Flickr could be used in mashups to build visuals and gain comments on neighborhood plans, capital projects or parks improvements.

All these tools are in their infancy. They are not statistically valid measures, or even voter-valid measures (voter-valid means “elections”) for use by officials in formulating policy. These tools can produce a tremendous amount of data and opinions, but sifting that data and analyzing it into useful information is far beyond the current state of these tools. And the sheer amount of feedback and requests which people can generate to their government will rapidly overwhelm our ability to respond or even acknowledge it.

As almost an afterthought, I should mention the crying need for a working verison of audio and video search as key tools required to sift through data and make it into more useful information for government action.

As a final note, these tools could deepen the “digital divide” – the chasm between those people who have access to computers and Facebook and Twitter, and those who do not (although – as a bright spot in this – almost everyone has a cell phone, and you can tweet from a cell phone).

I’m convinced these new social media tools will make stronger neighborhoods and communities. They will improve the social fabric and cohesiveness of our society. But these tools need a lot of improvements and enhancements.

I hereby challenge the Facebooks and Googles and Twitters of the world to make those improvements happen.

“Yes you can.”

3 Comments

Filed under google, web 2.0

– Google: Doing Evil?

Advertising and Consumerism may be evil

Google: Advertising and Consumerism may be evil

Google’s corporate ethics includes “do no evil”.   Well, not exactly.  Technically their corporate philosophy includes ten things “Google has found to be true” and number six is “You can make money without doing evil”.
A noble piece of philosophy.
Not really true.
Ultimately, the Internet boom and the boom in startup web companies, like the newspaper and magazine industries before them, is fueled by advertising (puns intended).   And most advertising is fundamentally evil because it encourages consumption.  Lots and lots of consumption.   Buy buy buy.
And most buying is bad for individual human beings, for developed societies and for the planet.
Sure – we need food and shelter and a few other basics.  Pretty low on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy.   In fact, plastic bags, the toys you get in kids fast-food meals, GPS locator units, wine cellar machines, two cell phones and one automobile per person probably don’t rate a place in Maslow’s hierarchy at all (maybe – and it is a stretch – “self esteem”?).  Such consumption consumes vast amounts of our planet’s resources, contributing to climate change through transportation and processing of all the raw materials, not to mention the use of the materials themselves.   All that petroleum use makes us more dependent upon Middle East oil, and therefore more embroiled in the politics of that region.
Ergo – for the most part, the consumption caused by advertising is “doing evil”.
Sorry, GoogleGuys.
See next entry “Second Life” from May 30th for a fun way to consume without consuming.

1 Comment

Filed under consumerism, google