The Smart-Aleck House, Version 3.0

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 07:10

It got chilly all of a sudden; someone was pulling the covers off the bed. I sat up groggily and looked around. My wife was still sound asleep on the other side of the bed; it was not likely that she would notice anyway, since she tends to sleep with the covers half off in the first place. It was the whirring noise that finally caught my attention; Marvin, the robo-butler, was down at the bottom of the bed, slowly and methodically dragging the comforter off. He seemed to be getting a bit confused, because the covers had flopped over top of him, covering his optical sensors.

I yanked them away from him and tried to go back to sleep, but even more commotion started up downstairs. It sounded like every appliance in the house had come on, all at once. Imagine, if you will, the coffee grinder, the disposal, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, the dryer, and the washing machine, all going at once. I was waking up now, and threw my legs over the side of the bed, stepped into my slippers and housecoat, and headed downstairs. Marvin trailed behind me, muttering under his breath, his little wheel motors whining. I looked longingly at my wife, who was still sound asleep.

After I shut everything off, and got the baby out of her crib (she thought it was hilarious to have the vacuum cleaner driving in circles on her rug at 6:30 in the morning), I poured a cup of java from the Coff-o-Mat and sat down for a little chat with Harry, the house computer.

"Harry, what the heck is going on?"

"Well, Dave, you wouldn't get up this morning when I tried to wake you."

"Harry, it's Saturday morning and we were out late last night. You knew that, because you made me review the chore list at half past twelve."

"I guess I just forgot, Dave. It won't happen again."

"Alright, I'll forget about it. Now what's for breakfast?"

"Well, Dave, how about two scrambled eggs and a piece of whole wheat toast?"

"Sounds good."

"Coming right up, Dave."

I harrumphed, then started to get up to go look for the paper.

Will smart homes really be smart?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/22/2004 - 06:59

Here's an interesting note about an industry drive to make our homes "smart."

I wrote an article fifteen years ago about this, which I've posted in a separate item. The IT industry is drving the smart home phenomenon in part because it's "cool," and in part because it will increase profits. A very small part of smart home stuff will actually make things more convenient, but I remain skeptical.

If you buy into the smart home concept, it means replacing virtually every powered device in your home--coffe makers, washers, driers, refrigerators, stereos, and so on. A lot of money. And for what? So you can turn on your coffee maker by sending a Bluetooth signal from your Palm Pilot while you are still in bed? And then worry constantly you are going to turn the coffeemaker on by accident and burn the house down. No thanks.

I've had some ABus equipment for several years, but have never quite gotten around to installing it, because of the complexity of designing and installing the wiring and room controls. ABus is an industry standard for being able to distribute music from a single source to a bunch of different rooms in the house. You can control the volume in each room separately, and can even use your remote controls to change radio channels or switch to a different CD if you have a multi-CD player.

But it always seems like an enormous effort to get it all working, compared to just sticking one of the now very small stereos on a shelf in the room and forgetting about it.

FCC may regulate VoIP

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/20/2004 - 06:22

This story says the FCC is interested in regulating VoIP [link no longer available].

FCC Chairman Powell has a point--if the Feds do nothing, some states will certainly step in and try to control the new service and/or try to tax it, leading to only one possible outcome--a mess. The states can't possibly regulate VoIP, because it's not a place-based service. Companies like Vonage and AT&T don't have to any equipment located anywhere in a state to sell VoIP service to residents, and so the notion that a state should be trying to control an out of state company is silly. Nonetheless, some states will try.

According the article, Powell is a big fan of VoIP, and wants to see it succeed. Good. If the FCC uses a light hand here and keeps the states out of it, that's entirely appropriate.

Broadband Over Powerlines (BPL) gets the green light

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/19/2004 - 12:56

BPL has the green light from the FCC. The NewsFactor has an article that goes into more detail. I have to agree with the conclusions the author makes--BPL is not likely to be a major factor for rural communities. Like DSL and cable modems, you have to have a critical mass of customers to justify the expense of the equipment. And it is not significantly less expensive to install than DSL or cable, so it won't have a big price advantage.

It may make a difference in some communities, but communities will have to continue to do the hard work of market creation through content and service offerings via a community network project, and ongoing training and education programs.

Like DSL and cable, BPL is another technology that potentially lets a single public or private company capture the entire broadband marketplace (unless the community makes some transport layer infrastructure investments to level the playing field). Once a single company has captured the marketplace, the community's economic future is now at the mercy of that company. Is that what you want?

Voting machines problems--already

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/19/2004 - 07:53

As many had predicted (including me), the electronic voting systems are likely to be troublesome, if not downright threats to our country itself.

It is almost unbelievable, but some electronic voting systems in Florida failed within the first hours of use. So much for vendor claims of reliability.

Even more alarming, some of the systems apparently require telecom links back to another system in another location. The article referenced above describes how poll workers had to call on the telephone to verify voter registration, because the data link went down.

How on earth could elected officials agree to buy voting systems that rely on remote systems and datalinks? Anyone that has ever suffered at the hands of dropped modem connections knows these things don't always work. And any network technician can tell you that temporary hookups, like those that would be required for one day (or in Florida's case, two weeks) of voting, would be even more likely to fail.

I've got my fingers crossed that we get through this election without the contentious vote-counting issues of four years ago, but I don't have a good feeling about this. This time, I hope I'm wrong.

New hydrogen storage system

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 12:41

British researchers report that they have developed a new nanomaterial that stores hydrogen at low pressure. Hydrogen storage has been a primary obstacle to the development of a practical hydrogen-powered vehicle. To get enough fuel in a tank that will take a car a reasonable distance, until now, very high pressures were required.

The new nanomaterial absorbs hydrogen at high pressure but then stores the same amount of fuel at a lower pressure.

RTC Conference wrap up

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/15/2004 - 08:51

I'm back from the Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference in Spokane. It's the oldest and one of the only conferences focused on rural issues related to telecommunications and broadband.

There was a definite shift in energy, conversations, and presentations at the meeting. In past years, much of the discussions have focused on the "why" and the "if" of rural community investments in technology. This year, the conversation has shifted to "how." And it was not just me. Everyone I talked to agreed that the time of talking about doing something "in the future" is past. It's clear that limited funds are going to be available from state and Federal sources, so communities have to dig in, roll up their sleeves, and get going.

Vendor booths were crowded, and the vendors I talked to were pleased with the response they were getting to their products. One of the most exciting product lines I've seen in years is from PacketFront, a network equipment vendor that is designing their equipment specifically for use in open access networks. Network leader Cisco, by comparison, does not have an equivalent set of products.

Presentations were information-rich, with communities coming online and now being able to report their experiences in detail, rather than having to talk about future plans. All in all, it was a terrific meeting, and I can't wait for next year. As it has been for the past several years, this is my number one, must attend conference.

iPod still very popular

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/13/2004 - 11:14

Despite the availability of several "iPod killer" products from companies like Dell and Sony, the latest marketing data shows the Apple iPod has captured 92% of the portable MP3 music players with hard drives, and 65% of the overall portable player market.

What the iPod has that the other products don't is superb cross-platform music management/player software (iTunes is available for Windows and the Mac) and superb integration with the iTunes Music Store.

What is encouraging about the popularity of the iPod is that we sem to be moving beyond buying technology purely on price. The success of the iPod shows that consumers are very discriminating, and are want products that are designed well and are easy to use. The iPod delivers both.

RTC Conference: What states can do about broadband deployment

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/12/2004 - 18:10

Bob Rowe, from the Montana Public Service Commission, is the first speaker in this session.

Rowe says that states have a role in assisting regional deployment of infrastructure and to coordinate facilities permitting.

Local governments have much potential, and can do training, form buying pools, encourage local government investments in infrastructure, and promote egovernment.

The FCC Section 706 Report from September, 2004 notes that the FCC defines broadband as 200 kilobits/second or faster, that the US still lags the rest of the world in broadband deployment, and that the FCC has a mission to encourage "reasonable and timely deployment."

Bill Gillis, from the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide, is the next speaker. Gillis says that we can learn from "innovation businesses."

He says that an innovation business is knowledge intensive, makes extensive use of technology, is creative and flexible with respect o workforce functions, has a global business perspective, and has entrepreneurial management.

Gillis says that states can facilitate exchange of ideas, help the last 30% of residents that do not have broadband service, can help prepare the workforce for the innovation economy, and provide flexible gap capital. Innovation businesses are driving demand for broadband in rural areas.

The final speaker is Al Hammond, from the Santa Clara School of Law and the Alliance for Public Technology.

Hammond says that large parts of rural America lack adequate broadband services, with smaller towns at a real disavantage--only 5% of towns of 10,000 population or less have broadband.

BPL (Broadband over Power Lines) is getting a lot of interest. There are more electric lines to homes and businesses than phone lines, so BPL potentially can be widely deployed. At least 5 companies are manufacturing BPL equipment.

25 million homes have no cable modem or DSL service, and satellite broadband is becoming more affordable, with Wild Blue, a new statellite company, will be offering Internet access for about $50/month. TV programming will also be available, unlike some other satellite broadband systems.

RTC Conference: Building Last (First) Mile Infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 19:23

The second speaker is James Baker, from central Pennsylvania, with the Council of Governments--an 11 county area with 300 local government entities of one kind or another. Most communities are under 2500 population, and many are under 1000. Generally a very low density area--20-40 households per square mile as an average.

Broadband services are expanding in the area. However, 98% of Pennsylvania urban areas have some form of broadband, but only 25% of rural areas have some kind of service. Providers view rural areas as not good markets.

The state of Pennsylvania has funded a GIS system that provides service maps for various kinds of services available (i.e. DSL, cable modem, etc). Good tool, but data quality varies, some limitations in granularity of data.

Wireless services were considered for expansion in one county by swapping tower space on an EMS tower with space on a commercially-owned tower in another part of the county. EMS would get better radio coverage, and residents and businesses would get more access and choice in broadband.

Murphy's Law kicked in...the six inch square antenna which was to be put on the county tower would require a $5000 engineering study to make sure it would not add significant wind loading to the 200' tower. No one would pay for the study, so the project got slowed down while a variety of funding sources were pursued. The ARC came to the rescue, but the $5000 grant application required almost the same amount of paperwork as a $150,000 grant.

After the engineering studies were done, it was discovered that the county did have legal control of the tower, and that has required additional effort. Testing by the service provider has shown that nearly the entire anticipated service area will be covered.

In the meantime, the government fiber project is using wireless to expand coverage beyond the ends of the fiber. Some nonprofits are getting service.

Issues include legal problems--one person, the county lawyer, has the power to stop these projects dead in their tracks. If the cable company expands service, the wireless provider may feel it is not worth it to continue expansion--it becomes very important for government to be able to move quickly to help private businesses.

RTC Conference: Building Last (First) Mile Infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 18:59

Dave Nelson is the first speaker, from Chelan County, WA. The PUDs in the state can provide wholesale broadband (not retail). Chelan decided to do a PON (Passive Optical Network) pilot project.

The project turned out well--high take rate, costs were close to estimates, and technology worked well. This led to a broader build out.

Take rates for the optical service is between 25% and 50%. By 2003 fiber had been placed by more than 3000 homes, and dial tone services were added to the network. In 2004, an additional 5000 drops are being added. Cable TV services are being studied--primarily a policy and administrative issue, not a technology issue.

By 2008, goal is to have 75% of county with fiber, or about 30,000 homes and businesses. This is an open access network with 12 ISPs offering access on the network. One provider offers fully E911 compliant telephone service. Television should be available in 2004; content and franchise issues have made this more difficult. Alcatel's B-PON system is being used.

The cable companies have been offered access to deliver programming, but so far, they have not been interested. Service providers pay the PUD for each port (Ethernet, phone line, etc) for which they deliver a service. PUD operates on a nonprofit basis. DSL and cable modem service is available in most areas of the county.

Take rates are ahead of projections. The PUD maintains the right of way and fiber distribution. The biggest problem is not being able to build out fast enough--"a million phone calls a day" about when fiber is getting past someone's house. The PUD had to design a real time Web site that shows construction progress on a daily basis to help ease the phone calls.

Wireless has been provided in some areas where it was going to be some time before fiber arrived. Customers have actually cried (true) when the fiber arrived, they were so happy. The PUD has a good relationship with the service providers (12!).

BPL pilot is also underway; there are some distance/repeater issues.

RTC Conference: Wilhelm keynote

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/11/2004 - 11:27

I'm at the Rural Telecommunications Congress 8th Annual Conference.

Dr. Tony Wilhelm is the Director of TOP (Technologies Opportunities Program) at the Department of Commerce.

Wilhelm is emphasizing the need to tie technology investments to identified community needs. TOP does not fund infrastructure, it funds applications that use infrastructure to improve communities.

Demand for broadband is outstripping available funds. Demand exists because every facet of communities--first responders, businesses, citizens, local government--have a need for broadband.

Small businesses are using virtual business incubators, some funded by TOP, to help these businesses expand into international markets.

TOP priorities include economic development. Special emphasis this year is on broadband wireless technologies. Wireless projects are growing very rapidly. The third priority is to support faith-based initiatives. Some faith-based projects have included entrepreneurship development, sustainable economic development, and business ecommerce training.

TOP looks for projects that use technology creatively to help communities prosper. A major stumbling block for rural communities is lack of affordable broadband service. The Sevier River project in Utah has dramatically increased available water by providing more timely information to water managers. TOP looks for "infomation" projects that don't just automate (replacing people with technology). Infomation projects go beyond automation to provide leaders and decisionmakers with better tools to manage information and to solve problems.

Technology investments have created about half the productivity gains in the U.S. in recent years.

Successful TOP projects typically include:

Best predictor of success is an organization's ability to integrate new ideas and concepts--organizational maturity, not size. Leadership, leadership, leadership--solid principles and clear goals, good use of talented people, solid values clearly articulated with a willingness to take risks.

Why the airlines are bankrupt, Part 4

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/10/2004 - 09:04

I am at the Roanoke Airport, on the way to the Rural Telecommunications Congress Annual Conference in Spokane. I have a Delta flight to Cinncinati, then switch to Northwest for the rest of the trip.

Delta can't give me a boarding pass at the check-in counter. I have to go upstairs to the gate. Huh? If they can assign seats at the gate, why can't they do it at the ticket counter? Apparently the Delta electrons, used in their IT system, are tired on Sunday morning and can't make it from the counter to the gate. This is beyond comprehension. It's all one system--if they can assign seats upstairs, they should certainly be able to do it downstairs. It creates twice as much work for Delta.

I then walk over to the Northwest ticket counter and try to check in for my other two flights. They can only give me seats, but cannot check me in. They have no explanation other than "the system won't do that." Huh? If you can assign a seat, why not just print out the bloody boarding pass? Another utter and complete IT failure.

This is particularly irritating because it means I have to start my trip without being checked in. If my Delta flight arrives late in Cinncinati, I could lose my Northwest seats. Nice treatment of customers by Northwest.

Counting jobs in the community

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 11:21

The U.S. Dept. of Labor has announced they are going to revise the way they count jobs. In the past, the emphasis was on the Payroll Survey. In this survey, employers are called and asked how many employees they have. Payroll jobs have been shrinking, hence a lot of political heat and smoke about whether the economy is improving or not. But Labor has also been doing what's called the Household Survey, in which households are polled about who is working in the household. Job counts based on the Household Survey have been increasing rather dramatically, but the government has not really factored those jobs into the "jobs" number that typically gets published and discussed widely.

If you have a self-employed husband and wife, both fully "employed" in their own businesses, those jobs never show up on the Payroll Survey. They would on the Household Survey.

This is an important issue for communities trying to measure the impact of new and diversified economic development efforts, like investments in getting affordable broadband and small business training and development. If economic developers are being rewarded for increases in payroll jobs, the community is losing out big time--that's not where the growth is.

Not only that, a factory floor payroll job is not necessarily equal to a self-employed job. A prosperous microenterprise owner with a gross business income of $150,000/year and take home "pay" of half that has a much larger impact on the economic health of the community than a $12/hour full time hourly worker, and it's probably much more than just a simple 3x factor. One economic developer I talked to thought that the impact of a single self-employed professional in the community might be worth as much as ten shop floor jobs, because of the indirect effect. Self-employed professionals are spending some of their business income on local businesses--attorneys, accountants, copy services, and other professionals in the community, lifting all of them.

eRate disaggregates community buying power

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 09:51

The papers have been full of stories this week about the suspension of eRate payments to schools and libraries. The FCC suspended the program because of chronic abuses by some recipients of the payments. That aside, let me point out some structural shortcomings of the effort.

Why USAir is bankrupt, part 3

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 10/08/2004 - 09:40

It's hard to feel very sorry for USAir and the company's financial problems. Yesterday, I saw yet another example of IT stupidity. I got to Charlotte and wanted to catch an earlier flight. The Roanoke flight that was leaving was nearly full, so I had to stand and watch the poor gate agent laboriously hand key every boarding pass into the computer. Fifty boarding passes, each one requiring several keystrokes. And virtually every boarding pass had a bar code on it.

Now Delta has very expensive, custom made scanners that must easily cost $20-30K each (note that Delta is also bankrupt). Southwest, which is making money, has cheap, off the shelf barcode scanners (cost about $50) duct-taped to the side of their cheap off the shelf PC computers. So bankrupt USAir manages their seats by hand, bankrupt Delta buys hideously expensive custom terminals, and profitable Southwest makes good use of off the shelf technology. Get the picture?

But wait, there's more, as they say in the knife infomercials. The USAir agent finally established that there was a seat on the plane for me. By this time, the plane was about to leave. He looks at my ticket and informs me that there will be a $25 charge to change the ticket, and that I have to go to the Special Services desk in the main terminal to take care of it. He then apologizes there is not time to do that, and the plane takes off.

Before leaving, I observe the special, custom keyboard he is using has a card reader on it, but USAir's crack IT department apparently never bothered to give the agent software that would allow him to take customer money.

So we have a bankrupt airline that is not equipped to take money from their customers. Hmmm. Anyone see anything wrong with this picture?

Is space important?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:41

I keep hearing a lot of scepticism over my reporting on the emerging Space Economy. This article on the accomplishment of SpaceShipOne and future plans helps illuminate the growing potential.

If you are inclined to think there are more pressing problems on earth than getting tourists into space, you are both right and wrong. This is not some pie in the sky program for rich tourists--this is the beginning of the greatest economic boom in human history.

Remember the personal computer and the Internet? Those two little innovations touched off the second biggest economic boom in human history, but what enabled those two developments was the integrated circuit.

Guess where the IC (integrated circuit) came from? The sixties era space program. Anyone involved in economic development who thinks going to the moon was a waste of money needs to go back to the history books--not to study science, but economics. The moon was a bargain, because the money spent by the government to get reliable IC circuitry for the Apollo spacecraft was paid back many times over by the resulting IT boom that started in the late seventies and ended around 2001.

Earthlink adds VoIP services

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:23

Earthlink faces the same problem AOL is already struggling with--a shrinking market for dial access to the Internet. Earthlink has been staying in the black by slashing customer support and by providing barebones access, as opposed to AOL's tedious, ad-laden interface.

Earthlink has a lot of customers like me, who need occasional dial access from the road, and don't want the dreck AOL ladles out along with it. But I find I need to dial through Earthlink less and less as hotspots, especially in hotels, become more common. As I've written previously, I and many other travelers now pick hotels based on the availability of broadband, not on the kind of shampoo you find in the bathroom.

AOL has tried to keep its customers by extortion--for example, you can't forward your AOL email to another account, which makes it much more difficult to quit AOL if you have used your AOL email address for a long time. AOL is basically saying to customers, "Leave us and your life will be miserable while all your email goes missing for a while." Most other email account providers let you forward your mail.

But back to Earthlink, which is now providing limited VoIP services if you have an Earthlink broadband account. It's a clever move, because the appeal of free calling (at least to some of your friends and family) will help sell the access part.

We're going to see more bundling of services--the phone companies are trying to win back some broadband customers by bundling local, long distance, and broadband, and the appeal, aside from saving a little money, is that you potentially go to one bill from three. In theory, you should also be able to get better service and customer support (in theory).

Does WiFi work?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/05/2004 - 08:15

In the Telecomm Cities mailing list, Barry Drogin wrote:

The ugly thing here is that in the short term, these [WiFi] deployments will work,
just like shared-media Ethernet networks worked well in the 1980's. But at
some point, user density gets so high that the protocols break down. They
spend more time recovering from errors than they do transmitting good data.
For Ethernet, switches saved the day. But for wireless, that won't work.

I call cheap WiFi the "pizza lady" model. In the grocery store, a little old lady hands out little pieces of pizza, saying, "Try this, it's good!"

WiFi is way of getting dial up users to move at low cost to broadband. What I tell communities is that WiFi will sell fiber. As more and more users crowd on to WiFi, the bandwidth degrades, but by then, people are hooked on broadband, and can't live without the pizza, er, bandwidth.

So they are more willing to support community fiber projects.

WiFi is not THE solution. It is A solution. Fiber is also a solution. There is no one transport mechanism that will satisfy everything we want to do.

Are you a digital immigrant?

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/04/2004 - 14:04

CNet has a must read article on the digital divide. The divide the online news site discusses is the one between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants."

Digital natives are those 25 and younger, who have grown up immersed in the Internet, computers, and technology. Digital immigrants are the older group, especially 40 and above, who have had to "cross over" to the new digital world from the old, paper-based world.

As organizations retire more of the immigrants and are replacing them with more natives, the organizations are being changed. The old central command and central authority structures are being undermined and replaced by distributed command and control. Technology and the Internet are the catalysts for often informal lines of communication and collaboration that cut across top-down org charts and limit the ability of managers to "control" the work.

The challenge for communities is to help leaders recognize that this shift is taking place--that the old, authoritarian ways of making decisions in the community don't work anymore--the Internet lets citizens and businesspeople route around the old, top down procedures. If your community is worried that too many young people are leaving, could it be in part because they view community-decisionmaking as out of step with their needs and interests? Conversely, what is the community losing in jobs and opportunities because of outmoded control structures that are not able to lead the community successfully in the fast-paced, highly interlinked Knowledge Economy?

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