Philadelphia to fight ban on municipal wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:32

The City of Philadelphia has been much in the technology news lately because of its ambitious plans to offer wireless broadband throughout much of the city. It's now back in the news with its announcement that it will fight a statewide ban on municipalities offering Internet access and related services.

On the one hand, these legislative attempts to throttle community projects are almost always the handiwork of the incumbent phone companies, who typically are nonpartisan in their strategy--they give money to all legislators, who then too often pass bills favoring these companies. A cynic might view this as selling out the electorate.

On the other hand, I don't believe local governments ought to be in the service business for broadband. It's not the same as water or electricity, and the fact that the community has municipal water and/or electric service does not, in my opinion, necessarily justify going into the broadband business.

As I have said repeatedly, I view more it like roads. Communities build and maintain roads, but they don't own the cars and trucks (or the businesses) that use those roads.

I'm very much in favor of municipal and local government investments in broadband, ESPECIALLY in underserved communities, but I think the way to do it is to keep the delivery of access and services in the private sector, where jobs are created and taxes are paid. It's a little more work and effort at the outset to make sure you have the right business and administrative model, but over the long term, making the private sector a partner is going to have a much better outcome.

Congress gives thumbs up to space tourism

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:27

A crucial step in the developing space tourism business occurred when the House passed a bill approving taking tourists into space.

At issue is the potential risk. Investors in the space business don't want huge lawsuits hanging over their heads, and the bill would allow companies to take tourists into space under the same "at your own risk" liability that other dangerous sports like mountainclimbing, hang-gliding, and skydiving have--you sign a waiver if you want to jump out of an airplane.

This bill still has to go through the Senate and get signed by the President, but the fact that the House acted quickly on this is a good sign. The emerging Space Economy marches on.

Making a list...

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/19/2004 - 09:13

The Christmas catalogues are pouring into my mailbox, the newspaper is fat every morning with sales circulars from the local stores, and once again, electric razor ads are on TV (hint: no male has EVER bought an electric razor--spouses and significant others think this is something men want).

Just a year ago, I bought a progressive scan DVD player for $150, which I thought was a bargain. At that time, many progressive scan (better quality pictures) DVD players were often over $200. This morning, I saw an ad in the paper for a progressive scan player for $29.95.

It is amazing how much things have changed. I was in a small town restaurant two nights ago, eating dinner, and they had a stack of old magazines by the cash register. I picked one out to thumb through while eating. It was from 1998--a scant six years ago. In it, they had a short article explaining that DVD was this new kind of computer disc that could be used to play movies. It was treated as some exotic novelty.

Six years later, in our house, it's way too much trouble to watch a videotape. Remember those? Those old, antique things with moving parts, fuzzy pictures, and NO bonus material, director interviews, outtakes, dubbing in sixteen languages, or any of the other stuff that no one ever looks at but now comes on every DVD.

As an advocate of technology use, I find myself embarrased at the cheap junk being thrust upon us. Kid's toys are wretched excess. It seems that this year, virtually every toy made has about $5 worth of electronics (we're at a point where the cost of the batteries exceeds the cost of the electronics in the gadget).

Regrettably, I'm afraid that too many people think their kids will be technologically illiterate if they don't have electronic "books," electronic "first word" toys, electronic drawing games, and so on. The current crop of electronic "drawing" toys are apalling. The low resolution, the lack of printing ability, the lousy color choices, and the lack of appropriate tactile feedback are just the technological shortcomings of these things. What is much, much worse is the lack of intellectual adventure offered by them.

NASA scramjet breaks speed records

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/17/2004 - 07:01

NASA's X-34A scramjet broke every speed record in the book by traveling at nearly Mach 10, or about 7,000 miles per hour. Scramjets have been studied and under development for years, but they were mostly theoretical--no one was really sure they would work.

Scramjets, in addition to some military uses, offer an alternative to expensive and heavy chemical rockets for getting into space. One more signal for the emerging Space Economy.

Does the FCC control everything digital?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/16/2004 - 09:42

It's hard to know which way the wind blows in the corridors of the FCC. Hard on the heels of thoughtful rulings on the future of VoIP, the FCC has turned around and claimed jurisdiction over, well, everything digital, including your computer. That's the conclusion of a lot of interested parties, anyway.

The current gasoline being thrown on this fire is the Broadcast Flag mandated by the FCC to be supported on all TVs beginning with sets manufactured next year (right around the corner). The broadcast flag is a bit that tells the set or recording device that the content (i.e a television program, movie, etc.) cannot be copied.

The thinking here was that digital TV would never take off unless the content creators (the giant media companies) were protected against rampant piracy. As the Ars Technical article notes, the FCC continues to be too easily influenced by the incumbent media companies, and tends to pay too little attention to consumer interests.

I have to agree. I don't see that Congress has directed the FCC to "make sure the big media companies don't suffer any competition." The FCC ought to be seeking to create a level playing field for all content providers, large and small. Secondarily, the notion that consumers are just a bunch of thieving pirates is not only extraordinarily small-minded, there is absolutely no evidence to support it. VCRs, twenty-five years ago, were going to kill the movie industry. Now movie makers make more from selling recorded movies than they typically make in theatre box office receipts.

We have a more recent example in the music industry. Even while music industry groups continue to sue consumers for filesharing, they are making hundreds of millions of dollars on legal music downloads. Why is the FCC falling for this nonsense?

New technology and new delivery systems for entertainment always create a period of displacement; it's the beauty of creative destruction. Time after time, we have seen new and bigger markets (and new job and work opportunities) emerge out of the ashes of old businesses. As a country, why are we trying to preserve the near monopoly status of buggy whip makers?

The fog of telecom

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/15/2004 - 18:36

There is a fair amount of disinformation being bandied about on the issue of community-managed telecom infrastructure. Read this article [link no longer available] by the deceptively name "Heartland Institute" for an example of a very one-sided view of community investments in telecom.

Here's another view. The context here is a proposed community telecom project in Illinois, where the incumbent telecom providers have spent millions to try to convince citizens and community leaders that the sky will fall if communities make investments.

Part of the disinformation campaign involves selective reporting. Bristol, Virginia's widely cited fiber to the home project has been misleadingly reported as bleeding red ink, but the way this is done is by looking at only the first two years of the project, where capital costs were correctly projected to be high. By looking at just the first two years, it's easy to show the project is "losing money" and cheating taxpayers. But the real facts are a bit more difficult--as the project moves into year three, Bristol has a big backlog of consumers and businesses clamoring for service, and the project expects to move into the black ahead of schedule.

Another problem with community infrastructure projects is that they fall into several different categories in terms of business models and levels of investment. Some articles that purport to "prove" that community projects are moneylosers by comparing two entirely different business models--one theoretical and one actual. It's very confusing unless you know what is going on.

We just are not far enough along in most real projects to have reliable data, and that's one of the tricks being played--it's entirely too early to tell if most of these community efforts are going to work over the long run or not. But if anecdotal reports from happy customers are any gauge at all, I'm not greatly worried.

And you always have to compare these theoretical doom and gloom stories with the actuality of most rural communities--little or limited DSL service, lack of choice, high prices, poor service, or some mix of all four.

Finally, the biggest trick of all is to take private sector ROI measures and use them as a yardstick for community projects, claiming that if these projects "don't make money," they aren't worth doing. When was the last time any community used ROI to develop support for a community project? The answer is, "Never." Because it just doesn't make sense in the context of "community good," which is why these things get started in the first place.

What's the ROI on a town park? What's the ROI on the community library? What's the ROI on garbage collection? We don't try to measure community services based on return on investment because that's not why we do them in the first place.

Should community telecom infrastructure projects be based on sound business models? Absolutely, and they should not require long term injections of funding from general tax funds. But that's not the same as trying to treat them as a private sector business.

Don't fall for the tricks.

Ukraine has a vision for the future

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/15/2004 - 09:56

Ukraine, a country still struggling with the legacy of the Soviet past, has what many other states in the U.S. still lack--a coherent and easy to explain vision for the future. BusinessWeek has a short article on the country's drive to be one of the top software and IT countries in the world.

That may sound brash, but they are not wringing their hands over the "old days" or talking about "we've never done that before." They are putting a heavy emphasis on education, and cranking out more programmers and IT specialists than many larger countries with a bigger population and more structural advantages.

I've never seen a community fail that has the will to succeed--regardless of how much or how little money they have. I have seen some very well off communities accomplish virtually nothing because they could not articulate where they wanted to go and how they wanted to get there. In the case of Ukraine, they are betting on education and training. I think it's a safe bet that the country will prosper.

Big Brother will be watching while you drive

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 12:12

In a deeply disturbing ruling, the National Transportation Safety Board has ruled that car manufacturers must put black box data recorders in new cars and trucks. The boxes will record speed, acceleration, braking, direction, and other data that could be used to reconstruct accidents, among other things.

The problem with this is that the data does not belong to the vehicle owner--it can be accessed by third parties without your consent. Traffic safety experts like to talk at length about how the data is valuable in analyzing accidents and improving vehicle safety. Fair enough, but forcing private property owners to both buy the system and to give law enforcement officials, officers of the court, and other third parties access to the data without the permission of the property owner is not acceptable.

Expect a big fight over this one, and there should be a big fight. This is abusive technology--the fact that we now have the technology to monitor and collect this kind of data does not mean we should automatically force everyone to use, at great loss to our privacy.

Movies on your cellphone

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 12:06

If you've ever wondered, as I have, what on earth you would do with the new "movie" feature being advertised on cellphones, wonder no longer! You can watch advertisements!

Yes! In your spare time, if you have had nothing to do, you've been wishing for access to some good ads. "Gosh, I'm bored. I wish there was a good ad I could watch."

Rest easy. Now you can watch movie trailers on your cellphone.

This in the category of "Things I never knew I wanted." The "mobisodes" (mobile episodes) are coming from Twentieth Century Fox, and will advertise upcoming movies and televisions shows. Lasting just one minute, they will be rolled out in the U.K. first.

This particular, um, "feature" is not likely to last, but it is another indicator that entertainment generally is going to drive broadband use.

AOL dumps broadband services

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 11:56

AOL has announced that it is dumping its broadband customers in nine states. AOL has been in decline for years, and this is one more indication that the company is completely adrift. AOL's foray into broadband service was a mystery to me in the first place, since they had to resell access purchased wholesale from other providers.

I don't think AOL has ever really understood what it is about. For too long, it thought it was an access company because people bought AOL accounts to get Internet access. But I could told them that was doomed in 1997, if they had wanted to listen. Dial-up is over--growth in dialup peaked at least two years ago, and the DSL, cable, and other broadband providers have been taking AOL's customers since then.

AOL, in my mind, has always been a content company, but I don't think AOL has ever really embraced that as a strategy. They had it too easy for too long, with the Internet build-up dumping buckets of cash into their coffers while the Internet was hot. The problem for AOL has always been that it never was and still is not an Internet access provider. They've always maintained their own personal coccoon for users that was designed and developed long before the Internet took off, and they've never figured out an exit strategy. AOL's Web browser used to drive Web designers nuts because it was so bad--bad because AOL squeezed Internet data through an AOL sieve and still does. No one else does that anymore.

For certain kinds of users, AOL provides a good environment. They've done a nice job of providing a family-friendly interface, as one example. But unless they can finally let go of their legacy systems and reinvent themselves, the company will slowly go out of business.

More VoIP good news

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/12/2004 - 11:50

The FCC released another ruling on VoIP. The Federal Communications Commission has barred states from imposing telecom regulations on Voice over IP telephony providers.

This is additional good news for businesses and consumers who are saving money by using VoIP services (estimated to be well over 4 million customers). State and local taxes on telephone services with no local infrastructure or presence is simply taxation without representation in another form, and revenue-hungry governments ought to keep their hands off VoIP. Taxing things like that just makes the state or locality less competitive globally and retards economic development.

Unfortunately, the FCC has still not ruled on whether VoIP is an information service or a telephone service. If it is considered a telephone service, VoIP would be subject to the no longer relevant telephone regulation of the last century. But so far, the FCC rulings on VoIP have all been in the right direction.

Rollin', rollin', rollin', keep those new phones rollin'

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/11/2004 - 10:54

The FCC has ruled that VoIP is an interstate service, in response to a petition from Vonage, one of the best known national VoIP providers.

This is very significant, because it snatches VoIP out of the clutches of state by state regulation (we've got 50) that could have easily sunk the service before it got started. State regulation would have been a nightmare, and at the least, would have increased the cost of service. At the worst, some VoIP companies would have just quit the business and potentially sunk the industry. There is no way VoIP could be competitive if each VoIP provider had to deal with 50 different sets of taxes and regulation.

Historic meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia

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

I had the privilege of attending what I think was a historic and potentially revolutionary meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday. The provincial government had convened an all day conversation about the broadband needs of rural communities, and how to best get affordable broadband connections to those communities.

It was Garth Graham, one of the real pioneers of the community technology movement, who grabbed me after lunch and pointed out that as far as he knew, it was the first time ever that four different groups of people met in the same room to talk about rural broadband problems. Represented at the meeting were:

It was a remarkable meeting, with open, frank, and stimulating dialogue from all four groups. The fact that it happened, that so many people attended (over 50 people), and that there was such honest speaking, listening, and understanding, suggests that we have truly turned a corner in beginning to identify and actually implement community telecom solutions that have a chance of meeting both public needs (the common good) and private needs (increasing shareholder value).

The group agreed that more meetings were needed to hash out details, but there was remarkable consensus that the problem is largely one of policy, administration, and management, and that this is not a technology problem, in the sense that it is NOT a matter of just picking wireless, or fiber, or Gigabit Ethernet, or so on. All parties agreed that communities and regions need some new and yet to be determined entity to help with telecommunications issues (infrastructure, access, services, policy, regulation).

MPAA to sue movie downloaders

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 11/05/2004 - 08:46

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has decided to sue grandmothers and fourteen year old kids who are allegedly downloading bootleg copies of movies.

Like the music industry attempts at litigation, it accomplished little except prove the stupidity of these movie execs. When "millions" of people are trying to watch your movies, that's called a market opportunity, not a field day for lawyers.

If you haven't heard much about the evils of music sharing lately, it's because Apple (not a music company) is making the music industry millions of dollars through Apple's online music store. Competitors with similar legal music download services are also stuffing millions into the pockets of music company execs.

On the artist side, some bands and musicians now don't bother to even sign a recording contract. Instead, they market their music online, burn their own CDs and sell them online and at concerts, and are free of the tyranny of the music industry.

The movie industry is going through the same convolutions. The Blair Witch Project, an enormously profitable movie, was shot with cheap cameras and edited and produced on some Macintosh computers--no expensive movie industry post-production needed. Apple's Final Cut Pro is now being used to edit and produce big screen movies--changing the entire post production process that used to be dominated by high-priced Hollywood firms. The new technologies are putting much more control in the hands of musicians, directors, and writers--a good thing, unless you are an exec at one of the old Manufacturing Economy businesses that thinking sueing customers is great public relations.

eBay and business

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/04/2004 - 10:18

There is the old joke that goes like this:

"There are two kinds of people in the world--those that divide people into two groups, and those that don't."

At the risk of self parody, there are two kinds of people in the world (and I'm broadly overgeneralizing, of course)--those that use eBay and those that don't.

For those that don't, the eBay phenomenon is a bit of mystery. From a certain distance, EBay is cluttered with junk, trivia, excess, and silliness. But it also is a terrific business transaction mechanism, for both formal and informal business.

I just bought a part for my breadmaker. The manufacturer has been out of business for four years, and parts are no longer available through "normal" channels--that is to say, the Manufacturing Economy manufacturer--distributor--dealer supply chain.

But I found the part I needed for $9 (new cost was $15 when it was available) from a guy in Nebraska whose machine had burned up. Instead of throwing it in the landfill, he's selling usable parts from it and making a few extra bucks. It's not only reducing the amount of waste going into landfills (parts of his machine and all of mine), he's profiting from it, and I'm able to keep a perfectly good machine working.

It's amazing when you think about it. A scant ten years ago, the notion of linking a buyer for a very obscure machine part in Virginia with a seller in Nebraska was inconceivable. Today, we take it for granted.

Many small businesses are now using eBay as a strategic part of their business, putting both normal stock and overstocks there for sale. It's a cheap and easy mail order strategy that has virtually no downside.

Does your region's economic development strategy include workshops to help businesspeople learn how to use eBay? I bet not, and business growth opportunities are being missed.

Mac OS X the "safest" computing environment

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:53

A London computer security firm has just completed an extensive, year-long study of hundreds of thousands of security breaches against computers running a variety of operating systems, and OS X was found to be the most secure. OS X is a Unix computing environment running the BSD variant.

Surprisingly, Linux was found to be the target of many security attacks, although the Windows platform also recorded very high numbers of breaches.

More on videoconferncing

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:28

I wrote yesterday about Apple's excellent and free videoconferencing software. Last night, I saw a Microsoft ad touting the advantages of their LiveMeeting product. It's interesting to look at the two very different approaches to the same market space.

Apple has chosen to build value into the basic operating system by providing the software for free. It's functionality is basic, but it works very well, and the next upgrade will suppposedly support videoconferencing with multiple site (the equivalent of a conference call). However, there is no support for document sharing, which would really enhance the value of the service. There are several third party products for the Macintosh would do provide some document sharing and whiteboard functions.

Microsoft's LiveMeeting is a fee-based service that provides some meeting management tools, document sharing, and the ability to include several sites, but there is no videoconferencing. You apparently have to use traditional telephone conference calls to provide the audio portion of the meeting. I say "apparently" because I could not find that information on the site without watching a thirty minute presentation online.

LiveMeeting is a slick product that offers a lot of useful services, but it's really a broadcast medium--which would be quite useful in many situations. The document sharing and whiteboarding won't scale up (on any platform) beyond a few people. Microsoft seems to be aiming for the corporate market, where you might want to make a company presentation to hundreds of people at once in several locations.

Apple is more focused on relationships. In the Knowledge Economy, who you know is more important than what you know, and the ability to maintain and support face to face meetings is going to be increasingly important. From our current book of the month on social networks:

"This is not so much about pushing more information through a group but about developing relationships that can be rapidly sought out when needed."

The other difference between the two models is that Apple, by making their software part of the operating system (and free) is trying to empower their customers to use it freely for whatever purpose they choose, whenever they choose. Microsoft wants to charge you every time you have a meeting. Admittedly, the products are somewhat different, so you can't make too much of my comparison, but I do think the two companies have a very different philosophy toward their customers.

Google's Gmail already needed a security fix

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/02/2004 - 10:24

Google's popular Gmail has already required a security patch that allowed a third party to easily log in and gain full access to one's mail.

I'm amazed at people's willingness to hand over all their private and/or business correspondance to a third party that can do anything it likes with it. Yes, they have a privacy policy, but they also reserve the right to change the privacy policy without your permission.

Gmail, by all accounts, has done a great job with the interface for the software, and in general, email clients desperately need better design in this area. But the risk is just too high. I'm keeping my email on my own machine, under my own control.

ADSL2+ increases the digital divide

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/01/2004 - 09:09

A flurry of articles like this are talking about ADSL2+, a new standard for DSL service over old copper phone lines. ADSL2+ is not only too long as an acronym, it offers too little, and ironically increases the digital divide, in my opinion.

In short, the new service will provide increased bandwidth over copper phone lines, but only if you are about one and a half miles from the telephone switch, as opposed to the three miles of the current DSL offering. ADSL2+ also will go further than the old three mile limitation, but only at low data rates--about four times dial up speeds.

So a few subscribers may get DSL service where they could not before, but only at much slower than "normal" DSL. And a few subscribers may get much faster service, but only if they are very close to the telephone central office. And it's important to remember that the distance rule of thumb is not line of sight, but cable feet; not only that, the ability to deliver DSL is highly dependent on the quality of the copper cable. In many rural areas, DSL just does not work on older cable plant, even inside the distance limits.

It's hard to see how this benefits anyone, even the phone company. It further segments their own customer base and prevents them from offering the same set of services to all customers. For example, some ADSL2+ customers might be able to get a single channel of high quality high defintion TV (HDTV), but others will not. How you market that is a mystery to me--"HDTV--it might work in your area, but maybe not!"

The phone companies are still very fixated on market share, rather than on offering good services in a competitive marketplace. So in their minds, anything that continues to allow them to lock customers up over copper is good, even if it's bad. Does that make sense to you? It doesn't to me either, but that's their strategy until they can figure out a way to justify running fiber to neighborhood.

Videophones are ready for business

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/01/2004 - 08:58

CNet has an article on the "plunging" prices of videophone systems, heralding a drop to under $500.

These are hybrid phone systems that wed old phone system technology with video, in an attempt to create a bridge between conventional phone systems and Internet-based protocols.

I would not spend any time or money on these systems. There are already much less expensive all-IP based systems. I routinely use an inexpensive but high quality iSight camera with the very good videophone software that Apple provides free on every Macintosh.

For the cost of one station using these hybrid systems, you could buy four iSight cameras and give them to three friends, family, or business colleagues--if you and your associates use Macs.

Right about now, some of you are about to click to some other site, having little patience with Mac users. The larger point is this: what's available now on the Mac will be available on the Wintel platform in a year or so. I'm not trying to argue Macs are better, I'm trying to illustrate that these relatively expensive hybrid videophone systems won't last long in the face of less expensive and easier to use alternatives.

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