Dialup vs. broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/13/2004 - 06:26

I would venture to guess that the majority of my readers have broadband access, either at the office, or at home, or both. If you are someone that has to use both, you know what the differences are--for those that have broadband at the office and at home, it is easy to forget how slow dialup really is.

When I travel, I often have to use dialup from a hotel, which usually means slow dialup--28k is not unusual. It is sobering to remind ourselves that a majority of U.S. Internet users are still on dialup (about 70%), as opposed to places like Singapore and South Korea, where virtually every home and business has broadband, often over fiber.

The advantage these other countries have is much higher population densities; broadband service providers can more easily make a business case for universal broadband service. Here in the U.S., the wide open spaces and the great quality of life it affords many of us also puts rural communities at a disadvantage when it comes to services.

This is an old story, dating back to the early part of the 20th century, when electricity, then telephone service became an issue exactly the way Internet access is now. Community-based solutions like coops were the answer then, and commmunity-based solutions are, I think, still better than waiting for a commercial company to be able to make a business case. And yes, one community-based solution is to help make the business case for commercial providers by supporting community network projects. A focus on rich local content and services (not dependent on broadband, but easily supplied over dialup lines) helps create a marketplace of buyers for Internet services.

Those buyers will attract private sector sellers of services, and we get the broadband we need to compete in the global Knowledge Economy.

FCC: Any means any for wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/28/2004 - 09:37

A ruling by the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology is an echo of the Bristol, Virginia decision that "any" means "any."

Airports, malls, and condo associations, among others, have been trying to limit the use of WiFi, primarily for financial reasons. The mall owner or airport authority wanted the revenue sharing from providing exclusive access to the facility from a single vendor. It's a form of bandwidth aggregation that does not always benefit consumers because not everyone benefits equally--the WiFi vendor and the property owner have a controlling interest in setting fees and keep all the profits. Bandwidth aggregation as a thinly veiled monopoly rarely benefits consumers.

Airports, as frequent travelers know well, are notorius for high access fees, averaging $10/day for a typical fifteen or twenty minute use as you pass through. The FCC ruling says the FCC alone can determine who may or may not deploy unlicensed WiFi services. It's a victory for consumers, and the FCC deserves a tip of the hat for doing so.

South Koreans abandon dial-up

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 06/13/2004 - 09:45

According to a report on the [telecom-cities] mailing list, fewer than 1% of South Koreans are still using dial-up to access the Internet; DSL, cable modem, and fiber have captured the market.

In the United States, despite a 42% increase in broadband users from 2002 to 2003, nearly half of Internet users, according to a recent Pew study, are still on dial-up. Once again, here is my favorite (tongue in cheek) marketing slogan for economic development: "Our region--almost as good as South Korea!"

TV: Coming to a Web near you

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/09/2004 - 10:28

A New York Times article (registration required) details a new service from Tivo, the makers of the wildly popular DVR (digital video recorder) that records programming on a hard drive so you can watch it later.

Tivo will add a new feature to its products that will allow the recorders to download and store TV programs that come straight off the Internet--completely bypassing traditional broadcast, cable TV, and satellite providers. Because the Tivo recorder can store programs for later viewing, the company anticipates that users with DSL or cable modem broadband services will download programs overnight and watch them later.

In the future, when we all have very fast fiber connections, we won't do that very much, because it will be easier and more convenient just to watch a program in real time. But DSL and cable modems don't have the bandwidth to do that.

Tivo has identified a sweet spot that is likely to be very lucrative for the company for a number of years but also marks the beginning of the end of traditional television. The Tivo recorder is matched perfectly with the limitations of current broadband offerings, and gives consumers more choice--which is what we all want.

As Tivo builds a marketplace, content producers (of TV-based programming) will fill it, and as the product offerings develop, consumers will be able to think about just dropping cable TV or satellite services.

How will it work? Here's a business: license the reruns of "I Love Lucy" for Internet distribution, buy a fat Internet pipe, format them for Tivo, and then sit back and collect, oh, say, fifteen cents every time someone wants to watch an episode.

This is going to be fun, and some non-traditional "media" companies that aren't located in Hollywood are likely to make a lot of money. As factory jobs move offshore, whole new industries are being created.

Time for the FCC to go?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/08/2004 - 09:50

Declan McCullagh, the chief political correspondent for Cnet, has an excellent article that questions the need for the FCC.

The article is well worth a read just to review the long list of head-shaking mistakes and blunders that the FCC has made dating back more than fifty years. Among the FCC initiatives McCullagh lists as problematic is the 1956 decision by the FCC to keep Americans from owning their own telephones, apparently believing that it was better to have customers pay AT&T a monthly lease fee for years after the cost of the phone had been amortized.

Like so many government initiatives that were started with the best of intentions but never seem to "finish" the job, the FCC is now trying to regulate things that don't seem to need any regulation, like Voice over IP services. In general, the FCC has seemed to favor the large incumbent providers. If there is any sense in that approach, I think the FCC thinking seems to be to avoid turbulence in the market place and to avoid disruption of services to consumers.

But at some point, as technologies change, disruption is impossible to avoid without permanently vesting obsolete systems and technologies. Currently, the FCC seems to be trying very hard to prop up the incumbent telephone and cable providers. This keeps the marketplace stable, but at what cost? That kind of policy makes it more difficult for low cost competitive providers to enter the marketplace, and denies to consumers the choice to trade stable service for lower prices and/or access to more and different kinds of services.

At worst, the FCC is taking a dim view of consumers and businesses and their ability to sort out these issues. Why not assume that customers, over time, have the capacity to figure this out on their own, and give local communities and governments more flexibility to invest appropriately to ensure that

Internet access changes buying patterns

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 05/26/2004 - 20:50

Where I stay when I travel is now determined largely by the availability of Internet access, and I'm sure I'm not the only one making buying decisions differently. Twice recently I have had to stay overnight in a city because of bad weather and delayed flights. Both times, I picked hotels that offered free broadband access.

Marriott Courtyard is one of my favorites, even though it is often a bit more expensive because virtually all Courtyards have fast, reliable broadband in the rooms. It's usually hardwired, which is much better than the wireless many hotels offer. Courtyards often have other amenities for business travelers, like free use of an inkjet printer, although the printer was out of ink last time I stayed.

Slowly but surely, the presence or absence of broadband is changing our communities.

WiFi startup stops

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/20/2004 - 07:15

Cometa, a startup national WiFi hotspot firm, has shut down. Cometa was bankrolled by Intel, AT&T, and IBM, and planned to create 20,000 hotspots nationwide and wholesale them to other companies who would actually provide the end user service.

It was a good plan, but apparently poorly executed. No doubt the company was stuffed with execs from Intel, AT&T, and IBM, who apparently acted arrogantly and spent too much money too soon.

The problem with all of the firms planning national networks is twofold. First, WiFi will not take off, really take off, until there are widespread roaming agreements in place. Right now, if I'm at O'Hare in Chicago and want to check my mail via WiFi, I probably have to spend $10 for 15 minutes of access. Two hours later, in Omaha, some other company will want $10 for another 15 minutes. Even dumber, T-Mobile thinks I'll happily pay yet another $10 two days later as I pass back through o'Hare.

That's the state of WiFi right now. National roaming agreements, just the way cellphones can roam, where you pay a fixed monthly subscription, is the only thing that makes sense. Why are so many firms in the market despite the lack of roaming? Because WiFi is in a growth phase; for every customer who stops paying T-Mobile $10/day, two new ones pop up. It's exactly like the early days of dial-up modem access. But it won't last. Cometa is the first of many firms that will go out of business after wasting a lot of investor funds.

But I said there were two problems. The second is local, rather than national. Communities need ubiquitous WiFi to make it really useful, and just putting hotspots in hotels and McDonald's is not enough. Rural communities are especially unlikely to get much attention from the big national firms. The sensible approach is for communities to get involved in identifying appropriate antenna locations, mapping out a hotspot grid so that everyone in the community can get service, and in that fashion creating the incentives that will attract local and regional wireless providers to come into the market and sell services.

A la carte cable television?

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 05/16/2004 - 08:20

An article in the business section of the Sunday Roanoke Times talks about cable TV and the growing clamor for a la carte rates--in other words, instead of paying for 60,70, or 200 channels at a flat rate, you could pick and choose which channels you want to watch, and pay only for those.

I see two problems with that approach. The first is that it probably would not lower rates. It would increase the cost of billing, and since we are already paying fifty cents a month per channel (or less) now, just the cost of tracking which channels a household watches and billing for that would probably result in a net increase in the cost of programming. It would also probably reduce the number of channels available, but it's debatable whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

My real objection is this: Why bother trying to force more rules and regulation on a dying medium? Cable TV is based on forty year old copper technology, and the current rate structure is based on what was technically possible in 1960 or so.

We already have a new, completely unregulated medium that is technologically ready for pay by the drink, consumer-choice driven television programming. It's called the Internet. Affordable, high capacity broadband (which we will all have in the next decade) is technologically able to deliver HDTV quality TV programming right now.

Let the cable companies continue to tinker with a dying and obsolete model. We don't need to waste time and effort at the local, state, and national level fussing with something that will be gone in ten years.

FCC Chairman says VoIP "biggest breakthrough...ever"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 05/10/2004 - 08:45

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has it exactly right in an article in the Business section of the Rocky Mountain News. At a speech in New Orleans to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Powell said, "I think it's going to be the very, very best and biggest breakthrough in our ambitions and dreams about competition ever."

Exaggeration? I don't think so.

VoIP is the killer app for broadband. It's what all those enormous dot-com investments in infrastructure were hoping for back in 1999 and 2000. It is the trifecta--it will lower prices for current voice services, it will introduce valuable new voice services at little or no additional cost, and the use of VoIP will spur competition and attract new and other kinds of services.

What's the catch? You have to have reliable, high capacity, affordable broadband. DSL and cable modems will only carry us part of the way. This is a core economic development issue, and rural communities, suburbs, and any part of the country that does not have a community-based telecommunications master plan is going to be in trouble from a jobs perspective in the next decade.

Estonia going wireless in a big way

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 05/06/2004 - 07:24

The former Soviet satellite Estonia has embraced WiFi, according to a BBC report. Admittedly, Estonia is small--smaller than some larger counties in this country, but that's a clue that this is can be done at the local level.

The country has more than 280 WiFi hotspots (how many does your county have?) covering more than two-thirds of the country, and every hotspot has an attractive and easily identifiable blue and orange sign. Here in the United States, you find hotspots in urban areas by looking for chalkmarks on the sides of buildings--not exactly a well-organized economic development strategy.

As entrepreneurs, business owners, tourists, and families drive through your community, can they easily find WiFi hotspots? Good signage is good marketing, as the signs effectively shout out, "We're connected here....we get it."

But the article gets better. Estonia's government has wholeheartedly embraced technology, with government meeting rooms fully wired and broadband enabled (again, can you say the same about your town or county supervisors?). And here is the money quote that should send chills down the spines of economic developers who still think their job is bricks and mortar:

...."You don't need to invest in an office anymore," Haamer says. "You have an idea, a computer with a wireless card, and a space to work (at a cafe with wireless). You can use your time more efficiently."

So if there is a trend (and there is clearly a trend in Estonia) to move away from bricks and mortar offices for business, how do you measure business activity in your community? It's a conversation you need to have.

A Model Technology Council

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/04/2004 - 07:33

The Redwood Technology Council may well be the best example of a successful Tech Council in the United States. The work that the RTC is doing gives me hope that it is possible to develop, run, and sustain a regional tech council. Located in the Eureka/Arcata area of northern California, the RTC is trying to overcome rural isolation, create jobs, and get more fiber and broadband options into the region.

I had the privilege of giving some workshops at their annual Tech Expo, and while I was visiting I learned a lot about their activities. The RTC's most significant achievement was to break a permitting logjam that had prevented the phone company from bringing fiber to the region. The Tech Expo, a two day technology fair that showcases the products and services of local firms, attracts thousands, and is especially notable because they offer workshops and seminars to the public throughout the event. And it's practical, useful stuff, like how to use Photoshop, which was jammed. The number and variety of booths was terrific, and I found two vendors that had products I had never seen and am likely to buy.

In fact, the RTC is doing many of the things that community networks do, and the group is well-positioned to do much more.

Bush calls for broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 10:15

President Bush came out strongly for broadband yesterday, and called for a permanent tax ban on Internet services. Bush also seemed to recognize that more regulation is not the way to get more broadband alternatives; let's hope that the FCC was listening, as the agency seems reluctant to let go of the legacy taxes and regulations.

Phone number registry completes the puzzle

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 09:05

Stealth Communications has announced the ENUM registry, which will allow VoIP providers to complete calls without going through the public switched telephone network (PSTN). When a VoIP called completed, it usually goes over the "old" telephone network at least part of the way. In turn, the VoIP provider has to pay an access fee to the network owner (e.g. Verizon, SBC, Qwest, etc).

The ENUM registery is a free service that links a VoIP telephone number with the IP address where the phone is plugged in, so the VoIP provider can simply look up the called number in the registry and send the voice packets straight to the IP address of the receiving phone.

This sounds simple, and it is. But it is critically important, because it provides a way to build a "pure" VoIP global voice system without ever using the old switched system. It's the last piece of the VoIP puzzle.

Don't count out fiber

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 08:37

There is much interest in wireless systems right now, and rightly so. Wireless broadband is inexpensive and a great way to get people a broadband alternative quickly. But many of those wireless hotspots still need a wired connection to the Internet, and most homes and businesses will want both--it's not either/or. Fiber is going to be needed for high definition television, high quality videoconferencing, and network backups, among other bandwidth-intensive applications.

The good news about fiber is the falling prices. LENOWISCO Planning District, one of the nation's leaders in community fiber initiatives, was budgeting $30,000/mile a year ago for duct/fiber installations. Today, their cost is about $8500/mile, due in large part to the falling cost of fiber, which is now about the same price as copper. Fiber switches and Ethernet interfaces are also much less expensive than a year or two ago, so the overall cost of fiber to the home and fiber to the business systems is lower.

Updated news page

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 04/25/2004 - 20:31

Welcome to the new and improved news page. I'm using some blogging software that will enable me to add stories and news more frequently and with less effort.

This news page is now syndicated, so if you are using an RSS news reader, you can now point it here as well. To get the URL of the news feed, just click on the orange XML button over on the right.

If you have any problems or encounter errors, please let me know (


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