SmartFlix: Deconstructing education, one brick at a time

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 10:49

I just stumbled across SmartFlix, which is the education and training version of NetFlix. You can rent a wide variety of training and education DVDs by mail, just like NetFlix. They have many different topics available, ranging from the mundane (cooking videos) to the more sophisticated and esoteric: welding, machine lathe operations, and knifemaking. A lot of the skill-related topics (e.g. welding, machining, etc.) used to be offered as courses in high school and community colleges, but some time in the past twenty years, most of those "live" classes were eliminated. And today, many U.S. manufacturers can't find anyone who knows how to weld or run a lathe.

Apple has just disrupted another industry

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 09:53

Apple's announcement yesterday of an improved iBooks application for iPads and iPhones may seem like a kind of ho-hum sort of thing, but it is potentially as big a deal as the introduction of the iPod was a few years ago. Remember that there were all sorts of digital music players on the market prior to the introduction of the iPod; they were uniformly awful to use. The iPod set a very high bar for usability that resonated with customers.

The iBooks announcement was less about the bookshelf app itself than about the accompanying application called iBooks Author. Apple is giving this application away for free, and it sets a new standard for the ease of creation of ebooks. iBooks Author makes it much easier for textbook authors particularly to embed multimedia content in an ebook.

Apple has cleverly paved the way for the sale of millions of iPads that will replace conventional textbooks in both K12 schools and in higher education.

But while that is interesting and brilliant, it's not the real story.

The real story is that iBooks Author allows writers and teachers to create ebooks and sell them directly through the iBooks store without the services of a publisher. Uh oh. Text book publishing is extremely lucrative, with very high prices for the books, and very low royalties paid to the actual authors of the books. Now, text book authors can, albeit with a bit more work, cut out the publishers completely and reap much larger income by selling directly to students via Apple's iBooks service.

The future of the Internet is fiber

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 09:40

Here is an interesting statement from the Roku folks:

"Generally we recommend a network speed of at least 1.2 Mbps, but to view live events, like Major League Baseball games, you’ll want at least 3 Mbps. For HD viewing, we recommend 5 Mbps.”

Notice that they are saying a single channel of live HD requires AT LEAST 5 Meg of bandwidth. Roku does not say, "...up to 5 Meg," or "...5 meg when no one else in the neighborhood is sucking all the bandwidth down watching a movie." They are saying, "...if you want to watch live events in HD, you need 5 meg of bandwidth per stream." By per stream, that means if two of you in your home are watching two different live events, you need 5 Meg x 2 = 10 Meg of bandwidth. That will never happen over DSL, and even on cable networks where they are now advertising wildly inflated bandwidth promises ("...up to 15 meg with SuperIncredibleGinormousCableBoost technology...."), just a few people trying to watch an HD broadcast in the same neighborhood are going to slow things to a crawl.

It's worse for business. The ever-increasing cost of travel, coupled with much improved technology is pushing videoconferencing quickly into a "must have" business requirement. Our videoconferences with clients here at Design Nine often includes four different people in four different locations. Using the Roku standard for picture quality, each location would need 4 x 5 Meg = 20 Meg of bandwidth...at each location. Just for a routine business meeting.

Within ten years, 90% of the homes and businesses in America will have fiber, and much of it will NOT be supplied from the incumbent telephone and cable companies.

Is distance learning a killer app?

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/19/2012 - 14:32

Design Nine recently brought up a new 300 megabit wireless link that feeds a community center and a rural fiber to the home effort (100 residences). The fiber to the home work is still underway, but the community center went online a couple of weeks ago, with both wireless access and a lab with ten fully equipped computers. Local residents of this very rural community have been flocking to the center. Many are bringing their laptops and just using the wireless link to the Internet, and many others are using the computers in the lab. What is interesting is the number of people that are using the bandwidth to take college courses online. Formerly, they were driving anywhere between 15 and 30 miles to get to a location where they could get broadband Internet access, and they are delighted to have broadband just minutes from their home. Some of them will be able to order fiber connections directly to the home as that construction work is finished, but in this economy, the ability to take college classes without driving long distances saves real money.

SOPA and PIPA: Get ready for the Net Police

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 01/18/2012 - 09:42

Major sites on the Internet are displaying either a black banner (e.g. Google) or are completely blacked out, meaning there is no access to site content today (e.g. Wikipedia). The two bills (SOPA is the House version, PIPA is the Senate version) are appallingly bad, as they toss due process out the window and give unelected bureaucrats the right to shut down any site in the U.S. without any actual proof of a copyright violation--all that is needed is an unfounded accusation. But wait! Like a Ginzu knife ad, there is more! If the site is hosted outside the U.S., and many, if not most of the actual counterfeit and bootleg content sites are, bureaucrats can order every single U.S. Web site to remove all links to the offending site.

Really? Really?

How?

This is what has been missing in the whole SOPA discussion: enforcement. If SOPA is passed, the Federal government will have to create a whole new bureaucracy--let's call it what is is, the U.S. Bureau of Net Police. The Net Police will be responsible for swooping down on bloggers, business Web sites, community network-supported discussion boards, and all sorts of other entirely innocent and useful Web sites and forcing them to remove links. How will they do this, you ask? Well, my guess is they will start with enormous fines, say $1,000/day for each offending link, and if you aren't quick enough, Net Police SWAT teams will show up, toss a few flash bang grenades through your door, confiscate anything that looks like computer, arrest you, and toss you in jail. All because your Quilting Club site accidentally linked to some offshore site selling bootleg fabric.

But don't worry...lawmakers have assured us that this is not the "intent" of the law. So what could go wrong?

Facebook gives away private postings

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/17/2012 - 11:28

Facebook is now going to give Politico every singe public AND PRIVATE Facebook posting that mentions the name of a Presidential candidate. Supposedly this will be done anonymously, but there is no way to opt out. So either you never discuss anything political anymore or mention a candidate's name in every single post to make the whole exercise worthless.

Open Access to be highlighted at Broadband Communities Summit in April

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/10/2012 - 08:58

Open Access networks will be a main highlight at the Broadband Communities Summit in April. This conference was formerly called "Broadband Properties Summit," but the focus of the conference has been widened considerably to include community-owned and municipal networks. In addition to a complete track on Open Access Networks, there is also a full track on Economic Development (in the context of telecommunications), which should be of interest to planners, developers, and local government officials.

More information is available here.

There's just not enough capacity there

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 12/23/2011 - 15:36

The always insightful Eldo Telecom points to a news item that quotes a telecom analyst who tried to use the much ballyhooed LTE for several months as his primary broadband connection. He gave up and went back to a landline, partly because of the cost and partly because of performance. The money quote is, "There's just not enough capacity there."

Death of TV: Part XXXIII -- Netflix just cuts out the studios

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/13/2011 - 17:26

Netflix, despite their clumsy handling of price changes, is not stupid. Somewhere along the way, they noticed they could pay outsized royalty fees to the studios every time someone streamed a TV show, or they could just produce their own TV shows and KEEP ALL THE MONEY.

Netflix has cut a deal with Fox to restart the cult favorite TV show Arrested Development, which has been off the air for almost five years. Fox is certainly getting a cut of the profits, but it is surely much less than if Netflix was not involved in financing the venture.

I talked to someone recently who was worried about the complexity of set top boxes needed for some IP TV services. The set top box is going the way of the dodo, and that's good news, because the boxes are a pain in the neck for both customers and IP TV providers.

The whole TV model is collapsing faster than even I imagined, and the cable companies don't have a strategy for saving their business.

Fuzebox: Poor billing practice

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 12/08/2011 - 10:16

Fuzebox is selling a videoconferencing service, and apparently business is so bad that they feel the need to bill customers that don't want their service. We signed up for a free trial some months ago, used it once, and decided it did not meet our needs. Some months after that, they started billing us a huge monthly charge. They claimed they sent out emails notifying us that they were converting the free trial to a paid subscription, but we never received anything. Nor did we receive any other email from them.

This practice is despicable, and I can't recommend this company.

NY Times: "The New Digital Divide"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/07/2011 - 09:56

The New York Times has an excellent article on the now almost two decades old digital divide problem. Where the digital divide was once "who has dial up access and who doesn't," it is now "who has real high speed access and who doesn't?"

The article does a good job of outlining the challenges that face communities, including the citizens and businesses that find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. Of particular note is this:


"...it is hard to get a college degree from a remote location using wireless. Few people would start a business using only a wireless connection."

Fiber is the long term technology solution for both wired business and residential access as well as improved wireless and mobility access; what everyone forgets is that wireless networks have to move data and voice traffic onto the wired network, and robust open access fiber networks make wireless networks work better and makes wireless less expensive..

Will Microsoft win the TV race?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/07/2011 - 09:48

Wired has an interesting article on the slow and steady approach Microsoft has taken with the Xbox. Wired describes the huge sales numbers for the Xbox over the Black Friday weekend, noting that it can't just be gamers buying a six year old design.

What has happened is that Microsoft has been able to sign a lot of content agreements so that you can use the Xbox to replace your TV, with lots of on-demand video from a wide variety of content providers.

The rest of the article, though, tries to shed some light on what Apple may or may not be doing without really providing any clarity. Apple is famously successful at keeping secrets, so no one really has any idea what one of Steve Jobs' last comments, about Apple's TV strategy, really means: "I finally cracked it."

Rumors have been flying around for months that Apple intends to roll out a "smart TV," as opposed to the Microsoft "smart box" strategy a la the Xbox. As I have maintained for years, whatever the hardware is, if you don't have content, customers won't buy.

I'm glad Xbox is doing well. Apple, Google, and others trying to break into the "TV" market need good, strong competition. The losers in this epic battle are going to be the cable companies, because analog TV is dead, dead, dead. And the cable firms have no strategy for making the transition to on-demand video. The TV market is cracking up before our eyes. Top notch shows like the CBS "Person of Interest" can be watched on demand on the CBS Web site. So why does CBS need to license its content to the cable companies?

Even IP TV is dying before it even catches on. The original concept of IP TV was (is) to emulate the channel line up packages of analog cable TV with a digital set top box that lets you "tune" (select) from a traditional channel line up. But why bother with that at all if the same content is available on demand, without the bother, complexity, and cost of a set top box? The simplicity and reduced cost of on-demand video versus the more expensive IP TV/set top box solution suggests IP TV is not going to be around long.

Modern broadband networks need fast, cheap bandwidth so that all forms of on-demand video can be supported, including the emerging heavy use of live HD video during the daytime by the business community.

Dumbest smartphone app ever?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/30/2011 - 08:59

Folks at Dartmouth and the University of Bologna (Italy) have developed a smartphone app that uses the phone's camera to determine if, as you walk down the street, you are about to be run over by a car. This is expected to save the lives of many Darwin Award candidates who walk while texting.

Could Roanoke be a Silicon Valley?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/29/2011 - 10:26

Business Insider lists the Roanoke, Virginia area as one of twenty smaller areas of the country that could become a high tech "Silicon Valley" type of region. The factors used to create the list are instructive:

FCC proposes new universal service fund approach

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/28/2011 - 14:27

Fred Pilot of Eldo Telecom writes about the proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund, which would now be called the "Connect America Fund." At first glance, this does not appear to make it easy for community-owned broadband projects to tap this money.

A modern failure to communicate

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/17/2011 - 11:45

David Strom does a good job of describing the awful Tower of Babel mess we are in with the myriad of ways to supposedly "contact" someone. It's a good read, and describes what most of us struggle with on a daily basis.

To Strom's complaints, I'd add one more: the utter worthlessness of the old-fashioned phone book. We get two or three different versions of a telephone directory book at home and at the office. Each one comes from a different local phone providers, and each one has a different set of listings for the white pages. To find someone's number, you might, if you are lucky, have to look in three different directories. If the person for whom you are trying to locate a number has gone to a VoIP provider, they won't be in any of them. Or if they only have a cell phone, they won't be in any of them.

Read Strom's whole article, and then weep.

Is social media harming the development of our youth?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/15/2011 - 12:09

A new study suggests that a slight majority of adults think social media is harmful to the social development of today's youth. With the ever-increasing use of social media by young people, Poll Position wanted to know if Americans think social media is helpful or harmful to the social development of today’s youth.

In a national telephone survey of registered voters, 53% said it is harmful, 20% said it is helpful in the social development of youth, 17% said it is not making a difference either way and 11% did not offer an opinion.

Men and women shared similar views on the question with 53% saying social media is harmful to the social development of young people.

Among men, 22% said it is helpful, 17% said it is not making a difference and 9% had no opinion.

Among women, 18% found social media helpful in the social development of young people, 17% said it is not making a difference, 13% did not have an opinion.

By a smaller margin than the national average, young people in the 18-29 year old age group found social media more harmful than helpful with 47% choosing harmful versus 35% who thought it was helpful to the social development of today’s youth. Sixteen percent said social media is not making a difference and 3% did not offer an opinion.

Anecdotally, I see a problem constantly with young people in the workforce who do not know how to communicate in an appropriate way. Many of the younger people I interact with simply won't pick up the phone to discuss a business issue, and instead rely on email, which is often a time-consuming way to identify a problem and propose a solution. I also see an over-reliance on texting and email for urgent information requests. Neither email nor texting is a synchronous communications medium. And when I'm in a business meeting, my attention is on the meeting, not on incoming texts and email. I rarely ever check email or texts during a meeting--if I'm with customers, it is just plain rude.

I have lost count of the number of times someone has emailed me for information that they need within an hour or two, and instead of calling me or talking to our receptionist to determine if I am available, they start sending ever more frantic emails--three or four in the space of an hour, demanding to know where I am and why I have not answered them.

There is a broader issue afoot here than arrested development of social skills, and that is our technology makes it more difficult to escape work. We are expected to read email, respond to texts, and answer phone calls in the evening and on weekends, just because we can. Our ubiquitous connectivity adds stress and strain to our lives. Let's all take a deep breath and slow down a bit.

Is the telecom lobby killing municipal and community broadband?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/08/2011 - 09:01

The Atlantic Cities has a very well researched article on the recent vote for muni broadband in Longmont, Colorado and the broader push by some of the incumbents to lobby for state laws that effectively outlaw community broadband projects and indirectly grant the incumbents a monopoly on telecom. Read the whole thing.

XKCD: Twitter is faster than earthquakes

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 11/06/2011 - 11:00



Twitter messages are turning out to be useful for all sorts of real time data collection needs.

Muni Networks mailing list

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 11/02/2011 - 08:49

Muni Networks has an excellent weekly email that summarizes their coverage of community broadband issues during the week. There is a link up on the right hand top of the home page to subscribe.

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