July 2008 Archives

Just had a great moment. While interviewing Kevin Nalty, one of the top producers of funny videos on YouTube, we got to talking about my passion for broadband and all its wonders.

He shared that in a past life he worked for Qwest, but that he hadn't thought seriously about the importance of broadband for the last seven years.

In talking with him, though, I could sense the dawning realization of just how significant the broadband revolution has already been to his life.

As he put it: without it, he wouldn't be sharing his videos with a global audience of millions, he'd be left showing them to his neighbors.

It was interesting to hear him come to grips with this as I could tell that before our conversation he hadn't thought about broadband specifically as that enabling force.

Yet it's not that he's unaware of what broadband is with his history working for Qwest. And he's obviously someone for whom it has already had a transformative impact in his life.

To some degree, I found this lack of awareness exciting. It shows how broadband can be utilized without someone thinking all that much about the specifics of the technology. When you turn on your TV you're not thinking about the TV, you're interested in the content it delivers. That's a telltale sign of a maturing medium.

And that's where we need to get with broadband and the Internet. It's not that you're using broadband or going online, it's about what you're doing once you get there.

But at the same time, this is another sign that our ongoing battle to raise awareness about issues related to the needed for bigger, better broadband still has a big hill to climb.

It's not just the people for whom broadband is foreign we must convince; we also need to open the eyes of people like Kevin Nalty as to the vitally important role sufficient connectivity plays in empowering all the wondering things the Internet makes possible.

Mark Cuban's Take on Future of Digital Media

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I've been a long-time fan of Mark Cuban's writings on his site Blog Maverick, where he muses about basketball, business, and the future of digital media. Most recently I read this post that recounted his speech to the FCC on the future of media, and as always he has some provocative things to say.

While I know his viewpoints extend much more broadly than what's found herein, the five-minute time constraints forced him to boil things down to three primary points:

- A key component of digital media moving forward will be 3D experiences. He cited his experience showing a live 3D broadcast of a Dallas Mavericks game at a movie theater this past season. He used this as an example both of how networked experiences don't just exist inside the house, and of why we need more robust networks to support the delivery of really rich media experiences like this.

- His second major point was his perception of the potential value of application-specific networks. It's a fascinating thought that has opened my eyes to the possibility that legacy copper and wireless networks may still hold value even in a full fiber world. I've long thought the rightful place of broadband over power lines wasn't as the competitive broadband technology it's been touted as but instead I see it playing the complementary role of helping network devices without having to string new wires everywhere. And I'm beginning to see how we might one day have fiber everywhere but still have a role for copper networks. While I'm still not sure we need other networks once we have fiber because of its limited capacity, I can't deny that we should be looking at ways in which we can continue to squeeze value out of legacy infrastructure.

- His final main point is that there's great value to be found in application-specific protocols like multicast. I've written about multicast before, and Cuban makes an important point that I've argued for for a while but still hasn't seemed to take hold across the industry:

"At some point in time, someone will realize that the holy grail of distribution of digital media over the internet will come from partnering with the many ISPs to enable multicasting and its related protocols, and to peer them as an unwired network. It wont be cheap, fast or easy, but it would be a game changer."

So the key to a more robust tomorrow isn't simply a bigger Internet with fatter, dumb pipes; it's about finding opportunities for network operators and applications developers to work together to treat the different demands of different traffic differently in order to enable a better user experience.

Cuban is sometimes criticized for his punditry, and I don't always see eye-to-eye with him on every issue (like when he decreed that the Internet is dead and boring), but in this instance I think he's much more right than wrong, and I hope the FCC Commissioners were listening closely as the truth he describes is one that if we ignore we may miss out on some of the biggest opportunities to improve the quality and usefulness of all digital media.

Do We Have Enough Broadband Or Not?

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Last week at the behest of the inestimable Jessica Rohloff, I had the great fortune to attend the TechNO Bowl, an event in New Orleans that preceded the Arena Football League Super Bowel with a cocktail hour, behind-the-scenes tour, and panel discussion on the use of technology in sports video.

That panel featured a dynamic lineup of technologies, including NewTek's Tricaster, which touts itself as a TV production truck in a suitcase for delivering Internet video; Sling Media and their suite of tools for placeshifting TV and other video; and ESPN360, which was described as an Internet-only network of live and on-demand sports video. Also represented on the panel was a representative from Fox who's stated goal was to figure out how best to maximize the many new platforms now available for content distribution.

While the conversation was lively and far-ranging, there was one question in particular that led to some interesting answers, or lack thereof.

I posed the question: as people, companies, and technologies trying to enable the delivery of online video, are you satisfied with the current state of America's broadband infrastructure?

Here's the odd thing: initially there seemed to be no complaints.

No one stood up and said, "Yes! We need more broadband! We're dying here without it! We're falling behind the rest of the world!"

This lack of a response was flabbergasting. I couldn't believe that anyone had anything negative to say. Instead the focus was on how well they're able to manage with the current infrastructure, like Sling citing its capabilities for delivering high quality video without copious amounts of upload capacity to placeshift your TV at home to wherever else in the world you might be.

To a degree I can understand this. No one trying to enable online content delivery wants to admit the underlying infrastructure isn't quite there to truly support what they're trying to do, especially when they likely feel there's not much they can do to get more capacity in the ground. It'd be like trying to sell cars in a country where the roads were so bad you couldn't guarantee a customer would be able to get off the lot successfully, let alone all the way home and beyond.

Yet at the same time, after the panel during informal conversations, the truth started coming out. I began to hear stories about trying to stream live video from arenas that didn't even have 700Kbps to work with. About arenas where you show up and all they provide you with is a telephone jack.

In extensive conversations with NiftyTV, a provider of live P2P streaming technology, I learned that the highest bitrate video they tend to deliver today is 600Kbps, not because their technology isn't capable of higher--they claim it can do HD--but because they can't count on enough consumers having sufficient bandwidth to deliver and consumer more.

So the truth of the matter is that these enablers of the next-generation of online video applications are running smack dab into the limitations of today's broadband infrastructure in America, but they don't want to admit to.

And to a degree I understand this. Their focus has to be on navigating the road they're currently driving on in order to build a business. They can't spend all their time looking up at a high-speed overpass that's only available in some areas and may never reach everyone.

But even still, as an advocate for the highest-speed, full-fiber networks, I'd hoped that the innovators that are creating the apps that will drive demand for bandwidth would take a stronger stance on this issue. They are the ones that will be able to capture the imagination of the average consumers with examples of what having more bandwidth can empower, but what are we supposed to do if they're focused more on making due with what they've got than on showcasing what's possible once we usher in an era of bandwidth abundance and move past the current state of bandwidth scarcity?

Opening app developers' and content owners' eyes to the possibilities of big bandwidth networks is as, if not more, important as convincing government officials and the public at large as the apps are what will drive demand.

So any time you're talking with anyone related to creating online experiences, make sure you bring up the fact that while we are starting on our way to a 100Mbps Nation, we need their help in creating the vision for what that future can be, and that we need their imaginations turned to the challenge of figuring out what we can do with all that bandwidth.

First off, go check out this great post by Drew Clark at his terrific site BroadbandCensus.com entitled "Democratic Party Debate Over Net Neutrality Over, Advocates Declare."

Now consider this question: when exactly was there this supposed "debate" over net neutrality?

Last I checked the net neutrality "debate" was more of a shouting match, with both sides claiming the ultimate truth on their side and that the opposition was being unreasonable.

Did both sides have legitimate points? Absolutely.

Net neutrality advocates should be worried about unfair competitive practices by the incumbents, and incumbents should be concerned over what will happen to their networks if they can't manage them to drive new revenue to support additional buildout.

But were both sides wrong on others? Undeniably.

Net neutrality advocates have seem more concerned about idealism than the real-world impact of legislation, and incumbents have seemed unwilling to consider the possibility that some form of legislation or regulation is necessary to protect the inherent freedom of the Internet.

The fact that we now have politicians convinced that the whole truth can be found on one side of this debate vs. the other rather than somewhere in the middle has me troubled to no end.

Here's the craziest thing of all: the two sides of this debate generally agree on the two central issues related to net neutrality.

1. Network operators should not be allowed to intentionally slow down some traffic to benefit others with whom they've struck a deal. So Barnes & Noble can't strike a deal with Verizon to make Borders run slower.

2. Network operators should be allowed to manage traffic on their network and possibly enable higher tiers of service so long as that doesn't interfere with the broadband service they're selling to consumers.

So in the end, I would love it if we could end the net neutrality debate and find a way to move forward. In fact, we have to, otherwise we won't get anywhere on the many pressing telecom-related issues that need to be addressed.

But I can't get behind the idea that the truth lies solely on one side or the other as in almost all issues the real truth, the truth that is best for America rather than any particular ideology or interest group, will be found somewhere in between the two extremes, especially in a debate as polarized as the one surrounding net neutrality.

What Excites Me About XOHM

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Sometimes I'm a little hard on the wireless world. I feel like I need to defend the rightful place of fiber in relation to the complementary role of wireless. But last week at the NARUC conference in Portland I had the opportunity to share a panel with Ali Tabassi, VP of technology development at Sprint Nextel, and not only learn more about but also get excited by the possibilities of the new XOHM network.

XOHM will be the first mobile WiMAX network in the US and represents a collaboration between Sprint Nextel, Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel, Google, and Bright House.

It's slated to launch in its first test market, Baltimore, in September, then in DC and Chicago, eventually spreading out to a nationwide rollout.

There are three primary aspects of XOHM that have captured my attention:

Speed - While you never really know how fast it will really be until it's deployed and people are using it, tests have shown XOHM capable of delivering 3-5Mbps down and 1-2Mbps up. Assuming these numbers hold and aren't greatly affected by the number of users online at any given part of the day, then XOHM may be able to provide a near-term competitor to wireline service as it'll be delivering speeds that fit roughly in between that of DSL and cable. Certainly a big step up from the sub-1Mbps I tend to realize on my wireless Verizon modem.

Flexibility - On the panel, Ali shared that access to XOHM will be available in many different pricing models. You can sign up for a monthly service, or only have to pay for access by the day or even the hour. So no longer having to pay for a month's worth of service when you only need it for a couple of days, and vice versa now you can subscribe monthly instead of ponying up more money each day you need access while on the road.

Portability - This is the piece that's really interesting. As far as I know, XOHM will be the most portable broadband service ever. Once you sign up, you can setup a special wireless router in your home or you can use it through a WiMAX modem on your laptop or you can access the Internet through your WiMAX-enabled phone or handheld PC, all over the same service. While there are phones out today you can plug your computer into for wireless access, none are as aggressively portable as XOHM promises to be and none offer the capacity of XOHM to potentially replace your wireline connection in the near-term.

I'm still a believer that long-term fiber is the answer, but for the immediate future once XOHM launches I'm going to be seriously considering jumping onto the wireless bandwagon. Though I haven't yet seen any specific prices, I have to imagine that between the $70 I pay Comcast for my cable modem service and the $60 I pay Verizon for my wireless connectivity, that there's money to be saved by moving to XOHM.

But only time will tell as mobile WiMAX has long been promised but never realized. I won't be able to move to a wireless-only service if the quality isn't reliable enough. And if I want anytime, anywhere access, I'll likely have to hold on to my Verizon wireless connection until XOHM has more time to be built out everywhere.

Even still, this is the kind of wireless development I can get behind. So good luck, XOHM! Let's see if you can make it happen.

During my time in Louisiana last week, one of the most eye-opening trends I saw was a series of examples of how proactive government can drive innovation in the development of cutting-edge broadband applications.

The first I learned of came from Chris Schultz, who runs Voodoo Ventures, a startup incubator that helps entrepreneurs go from business plan and concept to prototype and readiness to attract venture capital. At lunch on Friday at Herbsaint in New Orleans, he opened my eyes to an angel investor tax credit in Louisiana. It allows angel investors to write off half of all angel investments over $100,000. So you put $100,000 as an angel investor into a company, you get to write off $50,000.

This idea almost floored me. It just makes so much sense to help stimulate investment by sharing risk. And because of the relatively low minimum of $100,000, I can see this tax credit opening up the possibilities of becoming angel investors to a whole new class of individuals. Of special interest to me is how this tax credit may impact the entrepreneurial atmosphere of Lafayette, where I've been told by multiple sources that there are many well-heeled locals who want to support the development of applications that take advantage of the new LUSFiber network. I think this tax credit is going to be an incredible tool to get money out of banks and into the more explosive economic engine of application development.

The second tax credit I learned about while listening to Chris Stelly, directory of film industry development within the Office of Entertainment Industry Development. While Louisiana has put a lot of effort and attention into attracting Hollywood producers and the like to film in Louisiana, I was excited to learn their efforts aren't limited to content production. One of the tax credits that falls under this larger umbrella is for "digital interactive" projects. While initially designed to attract video game developers, Chris shared that it can also be applied to something like an online financial planning tool, and when I followed up with him he confirmed that potentially any interactive Internet application could qualify.

While there are some restrictions regarding things like where in the life cycle a company or product is and how many jobs a company plans to create in Louisiana, the tax credit that's currently available provides 25% of the money a company puts in to developing the infrastructure of and for new interactive applications. So say it costs you $100,000 to build an app, now you can get $25,000 back. While I don't know if this is a large enough incentive to convince people to invest and companies to start that might not have otherwise, I do believe quite strongly in the likelihood that companies who get these credits will be reinvesting that money back into their businesses, whether it be for further development, marketing and sales support, hiring more people, or whatever.

To date they've only had nine projects qualify for this digital interactive credit compared to more than sixty for film productions and almost forty for film infrastructure, but in chatting with Chris afterwards I learned that supporting the application development community is of keen interest to them and that there may be potential for exploring additional tax credits targeted at this specific market.

The final example I'll share with you today came when I met the wonderful people at Nifty TV, aka Network Foundation Technologies. In chatting with them about their innovative live P2P video technology, which enables live events to be delivered to an infinitely large audience without it costing an infinitely large amount of money to deliver, I learned about an interesting part of their history: they're funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Now I'd long thought about the NSF as more purely research-centric than commercial-focused, and to have more interest in traditional sciences than the wide, wild world of the Web. But Nifty has managed to secure multiple Small Business Innovation Research Grants, most recently a Phase II one worth $500,000 in April.

Though this fact surprised me, its possibilities also excite me. It seems to suggest that the NSF has realized the value in supporting those initiatives that are developing new ways to fundamentally improve how the Internet works. While I'd be surprised if we ever saw them invest in a new social network or media sharing site, I'm hopeful that there may be additional opportunities for them to fund the research that's going to be needed to create a better Internet experience for all apps, content producers, and users.

While I often write about the important role government can play in spurring broadband deployment and usage, this trip through the great state of Louisiana also opened my eyes to how impactful government can be in spurring the development of the applications themselves that make broadband networks worthwhile and help users understand why broadband should matter to them.

If anyone reading this has other examples of how positive, proactive government policy can drive the development of broadband applications, please add them as a comment below!

A constant thorn in the side of progress towards a full fiber nation is the tendency of incumbents to react to municipal projects litigiously.

Most recently I read this great article about what's happening in Monticello, MN, where an effort by the city to deploy fiber is now being met with a lawsuit by the incumbent, Bridgewater Telephone, who claim the city can't use tax-exempt bonds to go into direct competition with the private sector.

This issue weighs heavily on my thoughts as I write this from Lafayette, LA, where a protracted legal battle took multiple years to resolve, only now Lafayette Utility Systems seems poised to realize tremendous success with the much-anticipated launch of the first phase of its residential full fiber deployment in January.

Here's the thing about this practice. I can see why incumbents think having to battle a municipal entity is unfair as cities have access to money private companies generally don't, plus they can work through permitting and rights-of-way issues more readily. But let's consider this a little more closely.

First off, I want to cite a post of mine entitled "In The End, The Users Always Pay" in which I argued that it doesn't matter how the fiber's getting out there, in the end the money to pay for that deployment is coming out of our pockets. It's an important concept to remember in these discussions.

Second, I want to put this out there, which is better: competition or progress? These legal arguments by incumbents claim municipal broadband threatens competition, but I'd argue that these lawsuits threaten progress as they're derailing community-driven efforts to upgrade infrastructure.

Third, no one should have the right to determine what's best for a city other than the people who live in it. There seems to be an undercurrent in these lawsuits that cities are wasting their money on fiber, that the incumbents don't think anyone wants or needs it, but in my mind that's not their decision to make. We can't have private companies determining what we need and don't need.

Now this takes us into why incumbents should think twice before using the legal system as a default response to community-driven demand for fiber: they can't win.

Think about it. In the article above about Monticello it reports that 74% of the public voted for fiber. Down here in Lafayette the number was above 60%. Now imagine what these numbers could translate into in terms of take rates. By fighting municipal broadband, incumbents are simultaneously raising awareness about it, improving its chances for success.

Plus, communities deploying fiber are often already not totally satisfied with the service incumbents are delivering, which means fighting public opinion not only boosts municipal efforts it harms public perception of the incumbent. Making this worse are situations like in Monticello where, according to that article, the city first approached the incumbent about deploying fiber but were stonewalled. While I don't know the details of those conversations, I do know that as a businessman if you came and told me more than half the city wants new service and that you're going to build it if I don't, then I can't see how I could say no. And by not either moving forward or getting out of the way, they're clearly blocking progress and the public knows it.

But there are even deeper levels to the risks incumbents incur by fighting the push for fiber.

Take Lafayette. While they had to spent a ton of money in court fighting for the right to deploy fiber, once they were finally able to get started building they discovered that over the years the cost of network components has dropped dramatically, therefore making the project even more viable than it would've been if they had been allowed to start on it from day one. So because they were sued they saved money in the long-run.

And now that Lafayette has some momentum behind it, the incumbents are starting to get worried that they're about to lose a lot of customers, so they've begun pumping millions of dollars into the community in an effort to stave off these losses. Yet while this is great for the city of Lafayette, I wonder if it's foolish for the incumbents. They're going to lose some number of customers right off the bat just because of how much public support was behind this project. Plus they have to face down the fact that LUS will be able to offer a far superior network to anything the incumbents have. So they're having to invest in incremental upgrades to their infrastructure just to hope that they can hold on to the customers they already have.

Now, I can understand why incumbents have a tendency to turn to litigation. They don't want to see new entrants, especially if competition isn't level. Their livelihood is at stake so they're going to do everything they can to maintain the status quo.

But by doing so, they risk turning public opinion even further against them and increasing public awareness about the municipal effort while simultaneously potentially saving cities money and then having to invest more of their own just to retain the customers they already have.

To be honest, without qualifying whether or not the competition municipal broadband introduces is fair, suing these efforts just doesn't make any sense from a business perspective.

So I say to all incumbents - Be forewarned! By suing municipal broadband, you may just be making it stronger.

In Portland on Monday after my panel I was chatting with fellow panelist Jim Stegeman, president of CostQuest Associates.

While his presentation dealt with the cost of deploying wireless 3G nationwide, during our follow-up conversation we got into the topic of how much it costs to deploy fiber. That's when Jim shared a stunning number with me: fiber only costs $1 a foot while putting in the underground conduit that it needs to run through can cost $13-14 a foot, with that number varying based on the characteristics of the areas in which it's being deployed.

The reason laying conduit's so expensive is because of the labor it takes to dig up the streets, put in the conduit, and then cover it back up again. The actual cost of the conduit itself isn't all that high.

What that also means is that once the conduit's in the ground, the cost of laying fiber can be reduced dramatically, orders of magnitude cheaper.

So imagine this: what could happen if we started having cities lay conduit whenever they're ripping up roads for other reasons, like upgrading the sewer system?

There are many reasons why cities have to rip up roads, and once they're ripped up there isn't all that much additional cost that would be needed to put in conduit.

And once that conduit's in place, it would dramatically reduce the cost, time, and complexity of deploying fiber.

Plus, if cities needed to recoup their investment in conduit, they could likely charge whoever comes in to lay fiber for access to it. Of course they wouldn't want to charge too much lest they dissuade private investment, but I'd think there'd certainly be enough there to have the deployment of conduit pay for itself.

By doing this, cities can improve the economics of any public or private deployment of full fiber networks. So much so, in fact, that I'd bet at least in some communities it would shift the balance sheet so dramatically that it might cause incumbents who are currently sitting on the sidelines when it comes to deploying fiber all the way to the home to get up off the bench since now the economics of these endeavors become much more feasible.

So if you ask me what's the best broadband strategy for any municipality, I'll say that it starts with making sure you don't miss the opportunity to lay conduit whenever possible, thereby setting the stage for improving your chances of getting wired with fiber in the future.

My Grandpa's Killer App

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Everyone has a killer app that switches on the light bulb for why they need the Internet. Over the weekend I learned what that was for my grandpa on my mom's side.

While visiting my aunt and uncle out in Portland, our conversation turned to my uncle's work teaching computer skills to the elderly. In discussing the challenges he faces helping older people understand how a computer works, he recounted the story of how his folks first got hooked up to the Internet.

For years they, and especially my grandpa, resisted, citing the fact they didn't see a compelling reason for paying for a service they weren't likely to use.

Eventually, my uncle got fed up and on a visit ordered a month's worth of DSL and got them set up and online. He didn't ask their permission, he just did it as a gift.

As my uncle tells the story, my grandparents' Depression-era instincts kicked in, forcing them to at least try using the Internet lest the money being paid for the service be wasted.

During this month my grandpa's biennial trip to his local Buick dealer to trade in his car for a new one came up. Only this time instead of just heading over, he did something a little different: he went online first to see what else was out there.

After a bit of searching, he discovered the exact car he was intending to buy down the road in North Carolina for $2000 less in Minnesota, and he just so happened to be headed up their to visit my mom and dad making it feasible for him to consider changing his pattern to purchase a car elsewhere.

But first he took this information down the road and presented it to his regular dealership. And he got the deal he was looking for.

Using the Internet meant saving him $2000, and there's nothing he loves more than a bargain.

Now both my grandparents have email addresses, they both use the Internet to find information about hobbies and current events, and it's fast become an important part of their lives.

Why? Because my grandpa found his killer app: saving money through researching purchases online.

So to anyone who says older people won't use the Internet, I say all you need to do is help them find their killer app and their eyes will be opened, their concerns will be mitigated, and their imagination will be sparked by the limitless possibilities of being online.

My Speech to NARUC on Wireless Broadband

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This afternoon I'll be addressing the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners on a panel entitled "Wireless Broadband: Has Its Time Arrived?"

Since I don't think I'll have any video to share, I want to post my remarks here so you all can read along about what I think about the present and future of wireless broadband and how it should be perceived relative to wireline.


Hello, I'd like to thank Commissioner Jones for the opportunity to address this esteemed audience today.

He's asked me to provide a mile-high view of what all this means in terms of the ever-shifting paradigm of telecommunications in the 21st century. That's what I try to do on my blog App-Rising.com every day: make sense of how broadband can help make America great.

Ultimately that's what this is all about for me: harnessing the power of technology to expand opportunities and make more efficient all parts of society. While AT&T; does sponsor the blog, my only interests are in what's best for America, not any individual company.

So today we're discussing wireless broadband. Has its time finally arrived?

On many fronts I can confidently say a resounding "Yes!", but in order to better understand what this all means it's important to acknowledge the nuances and limitations of wireless broadband in order to understand where its true potential lies.

Take speed. I personally have been a wireless broadband customer for about a year. I found myself paying $10 a night to get Internet access in hotel rooms and figured it'd be cheaper to pay $50 a month to Verizon to get an EVDO card. And with that card I've been able to realize 200Kbps plus speeds all across the country. And on weekends while in the heart of DC, it's topped out at over 2Mbps down. While not overwhelming speeds, it has been enough to do basic web surfing, and at times I've even been able to use it to watch Internet video. Overall I'm a satisfied customer.

But we can't ignore some of the limitations of the connectivity wireless technologies are able to deliver. They're shared networks so the more people using them the less bandwidth you have, and that fluctuates throughout the day. They're affected by distance so the farther you are from a tower the less speed you'll get. And speeds can be impacted by other variables like weather and the composition of any walls wireless signals have to pass through.

Initiatives like Sprint/Clearwire's WiMax deployment are terrific. In the near term they're going to offer new competition in the broadband marketplace to wireline services, offering roughly equivalent multi-megabit speeds.

But in the long term they can't realistically compete with wireline. Already we're starting to see wireline connections hit 100Mbps. And future demand for bandwidth should rise to 1Gbps and beyond through the advent of new video technologies like 3DTV and UltraHD.

While you can get some point-to-point wireless connections at those speeds, it's not realistic that we'll ever have ubiquitous wireless connectivity at those speeds. You quickly start running into issues of basic physics, where there just isn't enough spectrum to push unlimited bits. Whereas fiber optics have been shown in the labs today of being capable of delivering all the world's Internet traffic over a single strand.

Because of this, it's my belief that wireless broadband is best thought of as a complementary technology rather than competitive to wireline. Whenever you can't be hooked up to a pipe, wireless makes connectivity possible. Because of this, where I see the greatest potential for wireless is in mobility-driven applications. Wireless isn't another pipe into your home, it's a way for you to never have to be without access.

For example, I've done some work with a Internet video security company called GOSN that offers a product called the SafetyBlanket. It blankets the outside of buildings or structures with a motion-sensitive SafeZone that gives dispatchers the ability to see what's happening during emergencies. While it can deliver video over wireless pipes, the less bandwidth it has the lower the quality of video it can deliver. The better the quality of video the more dispatchers can see and the more effective the protection becomes, which is why it's their preference to run that video over fiber optic cables. But at the same time, wireless connectivity provides tremendous utility for scenarios like when first responders are driving up to an ongoing emergency. With wireless they'll be able to pull up video from these cameras from their vehicles, so no longer are they having to walk into potential dangerous situations blind.

This being said, in the near-term wireless broadband does hold tremendous potential both for providing competition to wireline and especially on extending broadband quickly into rural areas. Too many parts of our country have limited or no access to broadband, despite what the FCC's data shows. While I ultimately want to see them get wired with fiber, deploying that fiber can take a lot of time so wireless offers the potential to get them online sooner rather than later.

Yet, it seems unlikely a purely private enterprise-driven strategy for deployment will reach rural areas any time soon if even at all. While I prefer market-driven approaches, in some areas that just won't work and some form of government intervention will be needed. And to anyone who says it's too expensive or not worth the effort, I defy those thoughts because nowhere is connectivity more urgently needed than in rural areas. With it, they no longer have to be isolated and disadvantaged from the global economy. The simple truth is that if we don't want to see our rural communities shrivel up and fade away, we need to get them online as quickly as possible, and wireless broadband offers one of the greatest hopes for doing so.

Also important on the deployment front to realize is that while we're seeing massive investment from the carriers, it appears as though we're only going to be able to count on the biggest incumbents to get wireless broadband out there. The investment environment for new entrants just isn't that strong, as evidenced by the plight of Frontline, which wanted to make an attempt to deploy wireless everywhere but couldn't drum up the money to do so. Deploying even a regional wireless network let alone a national one just requires so much capital that it's unlikely we're going to see any major new entrants beyond what's already happening. While there are some opportunities for smaller access networks in areas that aren't being properly served by incumbents, I personally know wireless guys who are walking away from the industry to focus on things like fiber deployment.

Another thought that's not talked about enough is that while new technologies like WiMAX offer exciting new opportunities for multi-megabit connectivity, there's no silver bullet in wireless broadband. Every carrier seems to be deploying different technologies offering their own pros and cons. One challenge that presents is that we may not be able to realize a wireless broadband equivalent of roaming on cell phones. Right now if you're trying to make a call but your carrier doesn't have a nearby tower it's not a big deal as your phone will just use someone else's tower. With wireless broadband, because of the different technologies, most people will only be able to connect to one type or another. So even if you are equipped to access the Internet wirelessly that doesn't mean you'll be able to access the Internet wirelessly if you're in an area covered by a technology different from yours. While multi-mode technologies do exist, they're years away from the mainstream as having WiMAX chips alone built into devices is still not yet a widespread reality.

One final thought to leave you with is that wireless networks are only as good as the wireline networks they're plugged into. Part of deploying new wireless networks is getting more fiber out there and/or utilizing fiber that already exists.

Utilities can play a potential role in this as while I haven't confirmed the specifics, in general I know that utilities have more dark fiber than just about anyone because of the prevalence of fiber networks being built to connect substations over the years. If we could coordinate utilities to open up those networks to help ease the deployment of wireless networks, we're likely to see more investment, more capacity, and a better chance for new entrants. And this becomes even more true if we're able to get full fiber networks deployed.

If I could snap my fingers and wire the country with fiber, it'd be a breeze to set up a wireless network. A technology like that offered by Meraki puts a wireless router into every house that can talk to each other to form an ad hoc wireless mesh network, enabling a handful of wireline connections to be shared by a larger area. There are also ideas out there like FCC Commissioner Copps suggesting we put up towers on libraries to reach the surrounding community, though that's currently not feasible as the average library only has 1.5Mbps, which isn't enough for their own needs let alone the community's. But once that library has fiber, ideas like this start making sense.

So I'd argue that the best thing you can do to help make wireless broadband a reality is focus on making a full fiber nation a reality.

In the end, I don't know if I can say that wireless broadband's time has arrived, but I can confidently share that it is in the process of arriving. And as it does, the best things we can be doing to foster its growth is to focus on figuring out how to use it to create demand for these services, while at the same time looking to how we can leverage existing and deploy new fiber networks in order to support the speedier, more robust deployment of broadband everywhere, making sure we don't ignore the plight of rural areas.

Recently, FCC chairman Kevin Martin made known his intent to rule against Comcast in the matters involving their interference with P2P traffic. A vote with the full FCC is scheduled for August 1st at which point an official decision will come down along with whatever sanctions or punishment the FCC decides to hand down to Comcast.

While I've long questioned what net neutrality really means and am still wary of any of the legislation I've seen addressing these issues to date because of overly broad language, I was quite heartened to hear Martin's thoughts on how to address Comcast's behavior.

While the possibility of levying financial punishment still exists, Martin's primary focus seems to not be on fines or banning certain network practices but instead on ensuring full disclosure by incumbents as to how they're managing traffic on their networks.

Chairman Martin must be reading App-Rising.com as that's one of the key steps I've been advocating for as a partial solution to net neutrality for months!

Before we have the government start banning network management practices, I'm curious to see what would happen if we made the network operators play with their cards up to their customers, who will then be able to make informed decisions regarding which broadband provider to subscribe to.

Now I know this isn't a perfect or the ultimate solution as this previous paragraph assumes a competitive marketplace where consumers have choice and market forces will reward those network operators who best address the needs of their customers.

But in the near term I don't see much harm in allowing network operators to continue managing traffic without government interference so long as they're transparent as to what they're doing. In this way we can put the marketplace to the test to see if its competitive enough to drive incumbents to be reasonable and responsible in how they treat their customers.

In the meantime, we can keep a close eye on what they're doing, how the market's responding, and how the American public is being treated. And then if the market proves incapable of reacting effectively to protect consumers' interests, we can move forward aggressively on legislating the specific dos and don'ts fo proper network management.

Let's not be too hasty in saddling a nascent market with imprecise legislation that will only lead to protracted court battles. Instead, I'd prefer to see us start with ironclad rules regarding disclosure and then leave the threat of net neutrality legislation hanging over incumbents head like Damocles sword representing a promise to move swiftly enshrine net neutrality in law if network operators don't play nice with both applications and users alike.

Great Why Broadband Matters Videos

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While perusing the list of sites that have linked to my VidChats, I discovered a terrific UK-based blog all about fiber called Fiberevolution.

In addition to recommending that site for anyone interested in keeping up to date on all things fiber, especially from an international perspective, while looking through it I discovered another post that featured a video from the Ofcom Consumer Panel. Ofcom is the regulator for the UK communications industry.

The video in question was a fantastic piece contrasting the Internet experiences of people in UTOPIA, that municipal full fiber build in Utah, versus what users in the UK have to deal with, especially in rural areas where connectivity is not only slow, it's unreliable.

While it doesn't necessarily highlight anything truly revolutionary going on in terms of applications in UTOPIA, it does provide terrific insight into how much faster UTOPIA is, how frustrated UK broadband subscribers are, and how much of an impact lower speeds have on Internet usage in the UK.

Entitled "Across the Generations: Contrasting Experiences of Broadband," you can watch it here:

After watching this I found that Ofcom has another video on YouTube, this one entitled "Older People and Technology" and consisting of interviews with older people who have issues keeping up with technology.

Though it doesn't necessarily contain any earth-shattering new insight, it was still fascinating to watch people refer to how they don't use anything digital, how it's all too confusing, and how their technological understanding stopped at the invention of the gramophone.

It's a stark reminder that there's a large segment of the population who are almost completely removed from the digital age. Though it was interesting at one point one gentleman mentioned how he knew he was going to ultimately go digital with his TV because he likes watching it. So it's not necessarily that these are people who refuse to use technology, but rather they don't know why they should use, how to use it, and what they could be doing if they were using it.

Watch here:

My Take On AT&T;'s Treatment Of PEG

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Last week I reported on the happenings of a private AT&T; demo of their PEG system to members of the ACM's Board of Directors.

In response to that post, Matt Schuster, who chairs the Board, wrote in the following comment:

"Let me clarify the Alliance for Community Media's position on AT&T;'s provision of the service. The Alliance does not feel that the U-Verse solution for PEG access is acceptable. The channels are treated in a sub-standard inferior manner to broadcast and commercial channels. PEG Channels must be treated in an equitable or identical manner to other channels on the system.

The possibility of interactive features and services does not make up for sub-standard treatment of PEG channels on the U-Verse platform."

As my first post was more unbiased observations, I wanted to follow up with my unvarnished reactions to what I saw during the PEG demo as it relates to the major issues the PEG community has with AT&T;'s offering.

Quality - There was a perceptible though not grotesque difference between standard definition TV channels and PEG, there's no denying it. Yet during the demo the video on the random PEG channel we were watching wasn't all that high a quality to begin with. First there was some OK video from a local government meeting, then what looked like the homemade rants of a guy on his couch. Even if the channel were encoded at a higher rate, it wouldn't make these look any better. At the same time, I know that some PEG channels aspire to HD production, and ultimately I do believe we should be striving to enable the delivery of HD across all PEG channels.

Loading Time - Let's be honest, there's a huge delay. Unbelievably long, maybe even up to a minute from when you first click on channel 99 until something shows up on screen. Put another way: if internet video paused that long before playing, no one would watch anything online. At the same time, I chalk this up more to technological nascence than ill intent to kill PEG. What I don't know is whether or not it was negligence that led to this issue or working out the kinks of new technology. But I'm not as worried about this as AT&T; laid out a clear plan for getting it resolved in the coming months.

Channel 99 - PEG advocates hate being lumped together into one channel buried in submenus. And I can see what they mean as it basically totally negates channel surfing, plus it's a new enough concept that it may confuse some viewers. One response to this has been that if PEG is all lumped together, every other channel should be as well. But to be honest, I think that might be where TV in general will be heading anyway. It's not very efficient to have to scroll up and down when you've got 500 channels, so it seems like it could make sense to put all sports channels under a single sports heading. Also, there is a flipside to this in that on channel 99 you not only get your local PEG channels you can often get PEG channels from surrounding communities. And because everything's IP-based, it seems like ultimately we might be able to access every PEG channel in America through the TV, which could be an really interesting opportunity for local community media to reach beyond its geographic boundaries.

Navigation - It does seem to require a lot of clicks to be able to start watching PEG channels. Even with AT&T;'s effort to add a PEG button to their main menu to ease access, there's an odd in-between screen that doesn't seem necessary and could confuse viewers. But I think some of this is that there's still a lot of innovation needed to happen in both physical interfaces and menu structuring in order to enable more robust and easy to use interactive TV experiences beyond just PEG.

Favorites - The fact you can't add PEG channels as Favorites in the U-Verse interface is odd. I can't believe it's all that hard to do because even though PEG is relegated to a separate application, ultimately the video is just an IP stream. Fixing this can't be impossible, and I think it'd improve navigation dramatically, especially for fans of PEG.

DVR - It's totally unacceptable that viewers can't use their U-Verse DVRs to record PEG channels. Because of this PEG on U-Verse means appointment-only viewing, which is extremely limiting for both the channels and the viewers. In last week's meeting, it seemed like there may not be an easy solution to getting DVRs to work given how channel 99 is structured, so I think the only way out of this is for AT&T; to enable PEG On-Demand.

This now brings us to the fun part, where we step beyond lamenting what AT&T;'s PEG system lacks and instead focus on what it could enable:

PEG On-Demand - If all shows are available on-demand, then there's no need for a DVR to record them. And since shows are sitting on servers anyway, I can't see how enabling their on-demand delivery would be all that painful. So long as the menu navigation isn't too tortured, PEG On-Demand could usher in a new era of local community media that overcomes the traditional limitations of trying to use a broadcast, appointment-only distribution mechanism to reach a narrowcast audience.

Distribution to TVs in Other Communities - My understanding is that because of AT&T;'s centralized infrastructure, making all PEG channels in a state available to all viewers should just be a matter of adding them to the interface. I'd think the same could potentially hold true for expanding the reach of channels across state lines. And I don't see how being able to get greater distribution could be a bad thing.

Provide Online Distribution - AT&T;'s making a big push back into the CDN world. PEG channels are already sitting as IP streams on servers. So why not alongside U-Verse distribution, also offer PEG channels free or cheap online distribution? When I brought this up at the meeting there was a sense that getting online isn't a problem, but I also know that it can be an expense, and for some access centers a complexity that they'd rather not have to deal with.

Enable New Search Functions
- I'd love to see navigation like you get in Granicus's integrated public record where instead of having to watch a whole city council meeting, you can click on an agenda item and go right to that point of a video. Combine this with on-demand delivery and you've got yourself a brand new paradigm for how viewers find PEG content and what video they're able to access at any given time.

Make PEG Interactive - We don't have to get crazy complicated to start, but even something as simple as basic polls where viewers can vote alongside their government representatives would be a game changer for how PEG engages its viewers.

Deliver Viewership Information - I have to admit some ignorance in how the TV industry gauges viewership, but my basic understanding is that PEG channels generally don't get any info regarding who's watching what when. In an IP-based system like U-Verse it seems quite feasible that AT&T; could start sharing that information with PEG channels, which will help them identify popular content, improve scheduling, better understand their audience, and identify unaddressed needs for content in their communities.

Make PEG Social
- If PEG is all about community media, then what could be better than knowing who's watching something at the same time as you? Or being able to easily share a video you like with your neighbor? These are the kinds of things that are possible with these new platforms.

In the end, here's my stance on PEG:

Matt makes the comment that "PEG Channels must be treated in an equitable or identical manner to other channels on the system."

I disagree. I believe that what the PEG community should be demanding is that they be treated better than the other channels. That they be given the opportunity to try out and serve as a testing ground for the future of TV and the Internet. That they shouldn't continue accepting the status quo but instead strive towards expanding the definition of PEG to mean community media and empowering communities to better know about and respond to what's happening in their communities through the combination of local grassroots content production and the power of IP technologies.

Unfortunately, I can't say whether or not AT&T; will take any of these ideas to heart and put them into action. But what I can say is that I think we're missing out if we spend all our time fighting to retain the status quo when an IP-based platform like U-Verse holds so much potential for introducing a host of new features that can extend the power of PEG as everything I suggested above is possible through IP.

Don't get me wrong, I fully understand that to date AT&T;'s treatment of PEG has resulted in many more things being taken away than added anew. But at the same time I'm trying to do my part in getting them and others to open their eyes to the tremendous opportunity staring them in the face to start finding ways to work with the PEG community rather than against them.

And I hope by enabling a robust dialog about what's possible with PEG 2.0, we can all work together to usher in a new era for local community media.

While enjoying an alfresco lunch with new friend Gary Arlen, our wide-ranging conversation turned to how big a part communications is to our economy.

Now to preface this, while I focus primarily on broadband, Gary's decades of experience reporting on and analyzing the communications industry includes a deep understanding of all its many forms, including cable and broadcast TV. So he's thinking at a whole other level from my more limited worldview of figuring out how to achieve and benefit from a full fiber future.

So as we're chatting, Gary stops to ask me a question: how much does my household spend on communications per month?

At first, I was almost embarrassed to admit the number as between our Verizon family plan with two cell phones, my Verizon wireless broadband connection, and my top-end Comcast cable modem, we're up above $200, which has always seemed like a lot of money, especially since we don't even subscribe to traditional telephone line or cable TV.

Much to my initial surprise he shared that the average bill for a middle American family and above is roughly $250 a month.

Now when you think about it, it's easy to see how we reach that number. Between broadband, TV, premium TV, landline, and cellphone, I'm sure there are many people for whom $250 would be a dream.

But this conversation led me to realize something: I'm spending almost as much money a month on communications as I am my car payment.

Of course, in thinking about it, this isn't a surprise at all given that I can live without my car but I can't live without my connectivity.

But on the flipside, just yesterday one of my best friends since kindegarten admitted that after moving into their new house instead of re-upping with Comcast they've jumped over to the Minneapolis Wi-Fi network. The reason? He couldn't justify paying $150 a month for communications at home. And while he's a former early adopter of technology, the loss in speed he's realized in making this switch wasn't much of a consideration.

On this last point, I found a similar sentiment expressed by Gary, who admitted that while Verizon's FiOS is available at his house, he hasn't yet signed up for service. Why? Because he doesn't need all that speed at home when he has it at his office.

So here we are in the position of trying to tout faster networks to consumers who don't think they need them and are already paying so much for what they're currently getting communications-wise that they're unlikely, unwilling, and sometimes even unable to pay more for faster service.

Needless to say, I think we've got our work cut out for us.

One of the more profound potential impacts of broadband in America is its use to strengthen public involvement in our democratic system.

Obama's made a point of promising that if elected his administration would be one of the most transparent in history, enabling the public to review legislation and submit comments before he signs anything into law.

Now the Republican side of the aisle is stepping up its efforts to engage the public online through a new website from the Republican Platform Committee.

On this site you're encouraged to register and then submit either text or video entries containing suggestions for how to build the Republican platform heading in to this year's elections.

I applaud this effort to open up new avenues for average folk to have their voices heard, but at the same time after a brief perusal of the site I'm a bit underwhelmed.

The text entries aren't easy to read, they only show a few on each page, and there's no way to comment on specific submissions other than to add another of your own, which leads to a rather disjointed attempt at creating a dialog between differing opinions.

To submit a video you can't do so on their site but instead have to upload the clip to YouTube and then submit the link to this site. Then in the interface to watch the videos, they've made the video player tiny.

Navigating the site is a bear as often you end up on pages that don't allow you to get to where you want to go without backtracking to a previous page. And there doesn't appear to be a way to add in any additional categories other than the 7 that are listed as part of the navigational menu on the right. It seems like they've already established what the platform is going to be, so why are they soliciting feedback?

Then there's the fact that the site has a widget you can add to your site or an app you can add to your Facebook.

It really gets my goat that they put time into trendy things like this.

First off, neither the widget nor the Facebook app seem to have any great utility. Not that widgets always do, but these really don't seem to add much of anything to the equation.

But making matters worse is that they made the effort to build in these add-ons without first addressing the severe limitations of the site itself.

Where are the comments?

Why not use a wiki?

What about having a basic social network where submitters can network and share ideas?

Why can't I upload videos straight to this site?

While I'll give the Republicans credit for at least trying to use the Internet to improve their ability to create a public dialog, I'll also encourage all of you to go check out this site to learn what not to do when creating your own.

It doesn't matter how pretty a site is (and admittedly this site is decent looking on the surface), or how many Web 2.0 widgets you throw in there, you can't lose sight of the fact that a site's functionality is much more important than its form.

At last week's Alliance for Community Media 2008 conference, one of the more interesting threads I picked up on was the sense that the entire PEG paradigm is facing revolutionary changes, for better or worse.

This feeling really hit home on a panel moderated by PEG luminary Chuck Sherwood about broadband policy issues featuring an all-star panel of Jim Baller, Ben Scott, and Joe Van Eaton.

While the bulk of this panel focused on Joe talking local, Jim talking state, and Ben talking federal broadband policy, what really opened my eyes was the Q&A; at the end.

One of the big areas the audience wanted to know more about is what the future will hold for the cable franchise fees that form the lifeblood of most PEG access centers.

As a quick frame of reference, PEG channels and access centers gain the bulk of their funding through fees paid by cable companies as a percentage of their cable TV revenue. The cable companies originally agreed to pay these fees in exchange for getting access to the rights of way in a community to lay cable.

But increasingly these fees are under attack by new entrants and statewide franchises. You could sense the fear in the questioner's voice when he asked what the future held for these fees, which his PEG station is totally reliant on.

The panelists were blunt and honest, though, sharing their assessment that PEG stations can not count on any certainty or favor in the legal environment related to protecting their way of life. Not that this battle is already lost, but instead that those PEG stations that aren't thinking beyond the current paradigm might get stuck out in the cold when and if that paradigm shifts.

Case in point, someone brought up the fact that even if the overall environment stays the same, there's still the potential that more and more consumers will drop their cable TV subscriptions in favor of getting all their video over the Internet. Since PEG channels generally don't gather fees from Internet service, this suggests that the current PEG paradigm may not be able to stand even without the interference of incumbents.

But while some may perceive this as a time of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the PEG community, Ben suggested the need for a more optimistic outlook.

Instead of focusing on passing or fighting specific policies today, instead he suggested that since it's unlikely federal legislation of any sort will be passed in the next year, that the PEG community should use these coming months to develop a vision for the future, that only by knowing where we want to go can we figure out how new or modified policies can help us get there.

Everyone at this conference seemed to understand that the opportunity we face is not merely enabling bigger, better PEG access, but instead we have the chance through PEG to redefine the meaning of community media and in so doing fundamentally alter the very nature of both the TV and the Internet.

That may sound overly grandiose, but think about it this way: a limitation of TV is that it's a broadcast medium where viewers are passive, and a limitation of the Internet has been how it lacks a sense of place. Now through the reimagining of PEG, we can create TV that's interactive, that engages viewers as producers and commenters, and we can enable online experiences that relate strongly to local issues.

So while the future for PEG is far from certain as the status quo is under serious attack, the future of PEG is also unlimited as we explore what "community media" can mean in the 21st century.

Yesterday at the Alliance for Community Media 2008 Conference I had the great fortune to sit in on a session about the opportunities of new media for PEG channels.

While the bulk of the session focused on a terrific introduction to Web 2.0 terms and technologies, what most captured my attention was learning about the amazing things going on at Denver Open Media.

I've already invited Tony Shawcross, their executive director, to do a VidChat with me at which point we can really go into all the details about what they're doing, but for now here's a broadstroke overview:

Tony and his team are developing a model for PEG access centers that introduces new efficiencies through automation and open source software, and that redefines what it means to have a community channel.

One big way they're accomplishing both goals is through their system for taking in video. Instead of handing a tape to a person, at Denver Open Media content creators have the responsibility of submitting their video on their own.

They can do this by using one of the kiosks at the access center, or they can upload videos over the Internet right from their home, though doing so requires they register and pay an annual fee. In addition to submitting the video, they also are able to insert metadata, or text that describes the content of that video.

One thing Tony mentioned is that everything that's submitted that's appropriate will make it onto the air at some point, but there's a twist. Denver Open Media solicits the opinions and votes of its viewers on its website in order to determine the most popular shows and therefore program them more prominently and frequently.

They also encourage viewers to contact them when something's wrong with a video or they see something potential inappropriate. In this way, Denver Open Media leverages the power of its audience to handle administrative tasks that used to require paid staffers.

These efforts are extremely intentional and stem from the models for people-powered initiatives managed by small staffs proven possible by Internet giants like YouTube, eBay, and Wikipedia. Wikipedia in particular seems to be an inspiration for Tony as it's a project that's had tremendous success both in terms of readership and audience participation, and still to this day it makes due with a staff of only handful of people.

It's Tony's vision to bring the same paradigm to PEG. And not just for Denver. They recently won a grant from the Knight Foundation of $380,000 intended for the express purpose of funding the development and implementation of this model in PEG centers across the country. The first outgrowth of this is an initial test deployment with a half dozen communities Tony is looking to get underway over the first half of '09.

What's remarkable about what Denver Open Media's doing is that they're helping to define what PEG 2.0 can mean right before our eyes. Their public access channels truly are of, by, and for the people. And even better, by pursuing this model it's reducing the demands for the access center to have paid staff handling what's now being taken care of by producers and viewers.

Even more exciting is that afterwards as I introduced myself to Tony and mentioned my interest in fiber and in particular the opportunity a community like Lafayette, LA presents, his eyes lit up and he expressed a strong interest in helping figure out what they can do with all that bandwidth and with a cable provider that sees PEG as an opportunity and not a burden.

To top it all off, they've even got a great video on their homepage about the remarkable transformation the TV industry specifically and media distribution in general are undergoing, what it means to the PEG community, and how PEG can establish itself as an integral part of this new media age. It's 27 minutes long, but very well produced and well worth the time. Click on the link above to go to their homepage where you can watch it.

There's little doubt that Denver Open Media is on the cutting edge of defining what PEG 2.0 can mean, and I'm eager to learn more from them and others as we move further down this path of figuring out what community media can mean in the 21st century.

Wow - If ever there was a story about the impact of broadband to warm your heart, this is it.

It's a tale of how a soldier stationed overseas was able to be with his wife and watch his first child being born through the use of videoconferencing.

The program that made this possible is called the Freedom Calls Foundation.

Looking through their site shows that they're enabling a lot of tremendous things for troops through broadband, including soft phones, video email kiosks, videoconferencing stations and more.

I'm usually not one to donate to non-profits, but this is one that I'm not sure if I can resist. As I learn more about them I'll be sure to share it with you all.

Broadband Enabling "Mom-and-Pop Multinationals"

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Great article in Business Week available here.

It talks about the rise of "mom-and-pop multinationals" or the ability for small business entrepreneurs to tap into a global workforce and in doing so gain new efficiencies and expanded opportunities.

What was most fascinating about this article, though, is that while it details the site Elance.com at length and discusses the competitive dynamics of the online outsourcing marketplace, it never once uses the words "Internet" or "broadband."

To be honest, I'm not sure how to read this omission.

On the one hand this seems like a missed opportunity to continue beating the drum for how broadband makes things like cheap international VoIP calls, high quality video calls, collaborative environments, and more that are the application that are what truly enable this outsourcing to happen.

But on the other, perhaps this is an early sign of how the perceptions of the Internet and broadband are changing, no longer focusing on the technology but instead what it can enable.

In either case, I still found this to be an interesting article as it highlights just one way in which the Internet is having a profound aspect on people's lives while simultaneously suggesting at how the availability of broadband can change the definition of what economic development is and how it can be attained.

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity to sit in on a meeting between AT&T; and some members of the board of directors for the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), which represents more than 3000 PEG access centers and is holding their annual conference in DC this week which I will be attending.

The event was presented to me as an effort by AT&T; to engage these leaders of the PEG community in a dialog, to walk them through their U-Verse PEG application, address the PEG community's concerns over its shortcomings, and solicit feedback on how it can be improved.

As we were given a demonstration by Chris Boyer of AT&T;, all of the complaints that have been aired online about the U-Verse PEG application came out. In no particular order, here are the main ones:

- The video's lower quality as it's encoded at 1.25Mbps for PEG instead of the 1.5-2Mbps that standard definition channels using MPEG-4 are typically encoded at.

- All PEG channels are listed in a separate application under channel 99, so it takes some clicking through menus to get to the PEG content.

- There's a significant delay of more than 20 seconds in getting the PEG application launched.

- It can't handle closed captions for the hearing impaired.

- You can't record PEG channels using the U-Verse DVR.

During our conversation, Boyer was upfront and frank in addressing these limitations, and shared examples of how AT&T; has taken this feedback to heart, including:

- PEG video used to be encoded at 1Mbps, but in response to complaints AT&T; bumped it up to 1.25Mbps. While this does make a noticeable difference, not everyone is satisfied as exemplified by the comments of Matt Schuster, Channel Manager for Louisville's MetroTV and chairman of ACM's board of directors, who pointed out that his city as well as others have invested in broadcast-quality production equipment and therefore have a hard time swallowing having to distribute that video at a much lower quality.

- Boyer admitted that the reason all PEG channels are lumped under channel 99 is because of technical limitations.

- To help make PEG channels more easily accessible, Boyer pointed out that AT&T; had listened to critics and added a direct link to the PEG application from their main menu.

- With regards to the delay in launching, Boyer explained that the reason it exists is because their PEG application is actually running in the network and not on the set-top box. He acknowledged this delay is a problem and informed us that a forthcoming upgrade to the box will reduce that delay to 8 seconds. Also he shared that the next update after that will bring the PEG application onto the box, which should eliminate that delay entirely.

- The lack of closed captions is another technical limitation of the IPTV platform that AT&T; has to address with Microsoft.

- Finally, he admitted that because PEG channels are under channel 99, it makes enabling a traditional DVR scenario quite troublesome.

But that leads us to the phase of this conversation I found most interesting: discussing what potential features could be added to AT&T;'s PEG system to push the PEG paradigm into the 21st century.

The DVR issue is a perfect place to start. I've long felt DVRs are a stopgap technology. As we touched on AT&T;'s PEG DVR limitation, I put forth the suggestion that couldn't an on-demand PEG system that let's you watch whatever videos whenever you want overcome this limitation?

While I didn't quite get overwhelming support for the idea that DVR-functionality isn't necessary, I did get strong support for the PEG community's interest in being able to deliver videos on-demand through the TV system. And Boyer hinted that enabling PEG on-demand is something AT&T; is exploring.

As we continued to chat, here are some of the other features that first came to mind from this crowd of PEG luminaries:

- Making content searchable. Some specifically cited government webcasting provider Granicus for how it allows users to click on agenda items and be taken right to a particular point in a meeting. Everyone seemed eager to get this type of functionality on the TV, including things like keyword search.

- Adding interactivity seemed like a holy grail for this group. This could mean things like allowing someone the ability to contact public officials while watching local government meetings to give feedback on different issues.

- Along similar lines, there was a suggestion of adding social features that would allow for viewers to know who else is watching PEG content and to communicate with them about what they're watching through things like chat. This could mean through the TV, or over the Internet in an integrated experience with what's being watched on TV.

- Finally these thoughts took on the big picture of introducing the concept of a community media server where everyone could be uploading video to share through PEG.

In the end this seemed like a positive conversation for all involved.

The ACM representatives appeared to really appreciate AT&T;'s efforts to reach out and engage them directly in both listening to the concerns of their constituents and brainstorming new ways to expand the platform.

And I know in talking with Chris Boyer afterwards he was ecstatic to have the opportunity to start talking about what PEG 2.0 can mean as he admitted that almost all of the focus to date from both sides of the table has been on how can we recreate the PEG 1.0 paradigm within AT&T;'s new IPTV system.

Where this will ultimately lead is still up in the air, though. Boyer promised to raise many of the ideas and concerns brought out at this meeting up the ladder, but couldn't make any promises regarding specific launch dates of new features and on some issues was unable to guarantee any changes will be made at all.

But at least people are talking with each other and not at each other. I consider that alone on any telecom-related issue to be a huge step in the right direction.

And in the meantime, I'm excited to see what the ACM's conference has to offer for expanding my understanding of where PEG stands today and what it can mean tomorrow. All of the ACM representatives in attendance proved themselves to be not only well-informed but passionate about PEG. Plus they all seem like really nice people who I'm eager to chat with further.

Look forward to more PEG-related thoughts to come later this week.

Email Could Be The Greenest Application Ever

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Over the weekend I was pondering how broadband can be used to improve the efficiencies of business, which led me to considering the long-promised paperless office.

At first I chuckled at the thought. The sad reality is that instead of eliminating paper, email and the Internet have created more paper waste than perhaps any technology that preceded it as so many people print off emails to read, annotate, and/or archive.

But then I took this a step further, wondering: What will it mean when we're able to transition all paper mail to electronic form?

That's when it hit me. By doing this we may be able to realize the greenest application ever.

The biggest part of this is recognizing how much energy and waste comes from traditional mail.

First there's the resources needed to create the envelope, the stamp, and the paper inside. While my general understanding is that we've gotten pretty efficient with our tree farms for paper so it's not like we're tearing down rainforests, even still it requires machines to plant, harvest, and process the trees as well as lots of water and chemicals to turn wood pulp into pristine white paper.

Then there are the chemicals and plastics needed to create ink, pens or printers, stamps, and the sticky part of an envelope that allows it to seal shut tightly. And unfortunately, it seems that spam, those unsolicited and unwanted letters, tend to have the highest concentration of colors, stickers, and plastic pieces, which almost always get deposited directly into the trash upon reception.

Once I letter's signed and sealed it needs to be delivered. That means a postman driving to your house to pick it up. The letter then has to be sorted and stored. Next it gets onto a plane, train, or automobile to move from one city to another, where it is sorted and stored again. And finally it's delivered by another postman on the other end. While I don't know the numbers for sure, I'd estimate the average letter travels on a minimum of three vehicles for what I'm sure is more than 100 miles.

Now, of course the ecological impact of each individual letter is minuscule. And adding another letter onto a plane or car won't add much incremental cost or result in a lot of extra pollution.

But I'm not talking about one letter. What I'm marveling at is what it could mean to fundamentally shift the dominant paradigm totally away from snail mail and over to email.

How many trees could stay standing?

How many fewer chemicals would we need to make paper and ink?

How many miles would be saved from having to move letters around?

How much trash could we reduce from entering our landfills?

This is not to say we get rid of the mail system entirely. Obviously we still have great need for it to move around objects that can't be sent electronically, like anything with physical substance bought online.

But imagine the benefits to our environment if we could only wake up to the potential of a decades old technology to replace a polluting 20th century paradigm with the promise of the 21st century.

This is the kind of fundamental shift in society that gets me excited as it's my belief that if we allow ourselves to think big and commit ourselves to following through, anything is possible through broadband.

America's Moonshot: A Full Fiber Nation

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Last night while watching a few minutes of a documentary on the moon I had a revelation about the similarities between the gumption it took for America to win the race to be the first nation to put a man on the moon and the determination necessary to realize one of the most important and challenging goals of the 21st century: wiring our country with fiber.

First let's take a look at what it took to get Apollo off the ground.

- The Russians sent a probe that captured the first pictures of the dark side of the moon, which woke up America's competitive spirit to want to be first in the space race.

- John F. Kennedy used the power of the White House to unite and inspire the country behind the common goal of putting a man on the moon.

- The federal government committed itself to supplying whatever resources were needed, despite the huge cost.

- Average people became engrossed with the challenge and followed the progress closely, cheering our successes as America reestablished its preeminence in what was then the most important scientific field.

- In the end we accomplished our goal in less than a decade in spite of astronomical costs, tremendous complexities, and the doubt by many that this endeavor was both worthwhile and even feasible.

Now let's compare that to the push for fiber in this country:

- South Korea, Japan, and others have taken our position as global leaders in the Internet revolution, though this seems to be more of a concern among the academic elite than the average person.

- We've lacked any form of leadership in the White House to date, but at least we now have one presidential candidate in Barack Obama who's at least mentioning the goal of getting the highest possible speed broadband to every citizen in America.

- Our federal government can't seem to bring itself to commit more than a few billion dollars to deliver broadband to un- and underserved areas, let alone fiber everywhere.

- Most people acknowledge that the Internet is a pretty neat thing, and more people than ever have some understanding of the potential of fiber optics, but we're still a ways away from having all eyes across the nation trained on accomplishing the goal of a Full Fiber Nation.

- At this pace, it's going to take decades for us to accomplish even a shadow of the ultimate goal of a Full Fiber Nation.

What laid the groundwork for this entire line of thought was a comment made by Stan Fendley of Corning a couple of weeks ago at the event celebrating the release of Jim Baller's e-NC report. In his remarks while discussing the recent calls in Congress to establish the goal of a 100Mbps Nation, Fendley described this push as "America's Moonshot," and after learning more about the history of Apollo I can see just how apropos that characterization is.

The only way we will achieve any semblance of a Full Fiber Nation is if we tackle this challenge with the same unified energy as when America reached out to touch the moon 40 years ago.

Notice that I don't necessarily say "more" energy. In fact, the parallels in terms of necessary investment are kind of creepy. According to the documentary last night, to get the Apollo project going required the federal government to put up $25 billion, or roughly $150 billion in today's dollars. Now compare that to the $100 billion fund EDUCAUSE has called for to help fund the nationwide buildout of fiber.

And then compare that against the potential impact of both projects. While it can be hard to quantify the psychological impact of reaching the moon, and there's no denying that the space program has led to many innovations that have directly impacted average Americans, the reality is that at the time the decision was made to go to the moon it didn't seem like the most practical thing to be doing.

Some may feel the same way about getting fiber everywhere, but there's simply no denying that a Full Fiber Nation has the potential to impact people's lives much more quickly and directly then putting a man on the moon. In fact, uniting people with other people and connecting them to boundless information through advanced telecommunications is arguably the defining opportunity of the 21st century, just as space travel was for the 20th.

But all this being said, there's another parallel between Apollo and fiber that has me worried. While the initial push to the moon was a huge popular success, during subsequent missions the public's interest waned, so much so that by the end NASA was having to pay TV networks to cover their efforts.

I'm concerned that the same thing may have already happened with the Internet. There was so much hype back in the late '90s that even now in the face of truly revolutionary new opportunities powered by big broadband connectivity we seem to be facing a disturbing level of apathy among the general public.

The thing about getting a man on the moon is that it was an undeniably sexy challenge, like reaching the peak of a mountain or crossing some great body of water. No one really knew why they wanted it but everyone knew what they wanted: for America to be the greatest country on the planet.

If we are to muster the resources needed to retain or recapture that title through the deployment of fiber optics, we must find a way to reignite the passion of the American people to recognize the greatness of this country so that we might all stand up together and demand our government take on the challenge of reaching for the 21st century's moonshot: laying fiber to everyone everywhere.

For those of us who've drunk the broadband kool-aid, it's easy to fall into the bad habit of talking about everything in terms of unlimited potential and boundless opportunity. But sometimes reality comes back and slaps us in the face.

Nowhere is this more evident than in how far the promise is from the reality when it comes to getting people to demand bigger, better, faster broadband.

Take this recent Leichtman Research Group study.

It shows that well over half of all current broadband subscribers are very satisfied with the speeds they're already getting. It's hard to convince the world we need fiber, when consumers aren't demanding more than what copper can deliver today.

Making matters worse, less than a quarter of current broadband subscribers are "very interested" in getting faster access at home. With but half the country subscribing to broadband, that means only an eighth of the US populace gives a damn about faster broadband.

And only one in ten broadband subscribers would be "very likely" to pay an additional $10 to double their speed. This gets to the heart of the broadband dilemma: if we're going to leave deployment up to a competition-driven private marketplace, how are we supposed to get more capacity in place if consumers aren't willing to pay for it?

How are we supposed to wire the country with fiber if less than 5% of people are willing to pay more for faster access?

Oh if that were end of it, but it's not as this tremendous article by Drew Clark about the most recent "Home Broadband Adoption Report 2008" from the Pew Internet & American Life Project highlights.

While there are some positive findings herein, namely that the growth in broadband adoption by older, lower to middle income, and rural Americans was strong over the last year, other indicators are worrisome, like the non-existent growth among low income and African American households.

But here's what's really troubling. 10% of America's Internet users are still on dialup, and of them nearly 20% say that nothing will convince them to move to broadband. Another 16% don't know what could get them to switch over. Add in the 2% that want someone else to pay for it and/or for it to be free, and you've got nearly 40% of dialup users seemingly not willing to move to even the most basic level of broadband let alone that which fiber can enable, and these feelings have little to do with price or availability.

The simple, overriding truth about the broadband marketplace in the US is that if we could somehow get the nation to stand together in mutual understanding about the benefits of broadband and how it can make our country great, I think you'd see private companies falling all over themselves to invest in the capacity needed to meet that demand.

But in a market that's left to rely on private competition for deployment, how can we be surprised at the lack of increasing capacity given the lack of consumer demand for faster speeds?

There's all this talk about supply, supply, supply, but I wonder what would happen if we instead focused on demand, demand, demand.

I still have reservations about whether a purely market-driven approach to deployment will ever get us to the point of a full fiber nation, but I do know that without demand the market won't have sufficient economic incentive to increase supply.

And the great thing about focusing on generating demand is that that's an issue we can all agree on. We may not see eye to eye on whether the best method for deploying broadband is public vs. private, open vs. closed, but at least we can all acknowledge and hopefully work towards achieving the common goal of opening up people's eyes as to the benefits of broadband and how through its use we can revolutionize the efficacy and opportunities of society.

By doing this, everyone wins.

Wow! That's the first thought that came to mind when I read this article, courtesy of the great people at the Blandin Foundation.

It's a story of how a Japanese researcher traveled to rural Minnesota to learn about how they're using broadband to transform communities.

While the article itself doesn't list a ton of specifics as to what these communities are doing, I still find it incredibly impressive that despite the sense they're light years ahead relative to anything related to broadband, Japan looks to us for leadership. Must mean we're not quite as pathetic as some make us out to be.

Also, while I knew Minnesota was doing reasonably well getting fiber deployed, I hadn't realized that in terms of getting it to rural areas they're considered a national and perhaps even international leader. Considering Minnesota's my home state, you can color me proud!

And the final thought that stuck out to me was how despite Japan being way out ahead of everyone, they're not content and through actions like this seem to acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do in order to take full advantage of all that broadband has to offer. Shouldn't we be doing that here in the US?

I'm going to see if I can track this researcher down to learn more, hopefully even getting her on a VidChat. Until then, enjoying pondering what it means that Japan is looking to us, or more accurately rural Minnesota, for broadband leadership.

Been heavy on the hardcore policy and fiber advocacy recently, and wanted to take a moment to share some less esoteric fare.

Super Mario Marathon Raises Over $11,100 For Child's Play
Over the weekend three friends set out to play all seven Super Mario games in a row. What might have been nothing more than a lost weekend turned into something more when they decided to webcast live video of this feat through Ustream.tv and solicit donations for their favorite charity: Child's Play, which provides games, books, and cash to children's hospitals around the world. Using Ustream.tv's free platform, they managed a sustained audience of over 2000 and to date have received nearly 150,000 views of their Ustream page here. And as a result they've raised more than $11,100 for Child's Play. While the games they played don't use broadband, it's still fascinating to see how these innovative gamers were able to use to create an event and raise money for others.

Hollywood big screen in an instant message
Hollywood's historically tight grip on its content continues to loosen as they find new ways to distribute and monetize in it. In this case through a new service called PopTok. It gives instant messaging users the ability to embed clips from famous movies in their text chats, even going so far as to enable users to create conversational threads by sending clips back and forth. This is a prime example of how formerly bandwidth-light applications are becoming increasingly bandwidth-intensive through the introduction of video. Plus it points to a future where content will be available in many forms for many different purposes.

Time Magazine's 50 Best Websites of 2008
This came out a few weeks ago, but it's worth bringing up as if you have 5 minutes and want to go hunting for new applications this is a great place to start. It covers the gamut, from gaming to social networks to informational sites. If you're on top of everything new that's coming out online you might not find a lot you don't already know, but if you're more of a casual observer interested in a taste of what's out there, this is a list of proven sites that were of enough value to compel people to vote for them.

VidChat: Talking Fiber with Joe Savage

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Seeing as how I love fiber, I was excited to sit down recently for a VidChat with Joe Savage, president of the FTTH Council.

We covered a lot of ground about the benefits, current state, and future potential of full fiber networks. Enjoy!

(Quick note: There's a bit of a synch issue in this, but I didn't want to reshoot as Joe said so many great things. Just know that despite appearances, I was not cutting Joe off. I have far too much respect for him to do so.)

Here are some followup thoughts:

- Here's the FTTH Council's website.

- I love the stat that FTTH subscribers are telecommuting one more day a month than they would be otherwise. I wonder how much that saves us in terms of our demand for oil. You'd think even if it reduced it a mere 1% that this would start paying for itself in a hurry.

- With the availability of broadband being the third most important consideration for where a business locates itself, you'd think that alone would convince communities they need bigger, better broadband infrastructure. It'll be interesting to see what happens as more and more companies choose fiber communities to set up shop.

- I covered that story about 150 jobs teach South Koreans English via videoconferencing coming to Wyoming because of the availability of fiber previously here.

- The point Joe makes that fiber's been around for a while is important, especially the fact that 100% of the backhaul transport infrastructure of the Internet is fiber, and fiber to large-scale business customers is pretty much built out, so laying fiber all the way to the home is simply the final frontier.

- I hadn't realized America was third in the world in terms of the number of fiber subscribers. It's also reassuring that that number is realizing a 100% year-over-year growth rate. But until we're #1, we can't be satisfied.

- Also important to realize is Joe's assertion that FTTH deployers in the US include Verizon and 599 other service providers, many of which are in rural communities.

- Here's a link to that op ed Joe wrote for the Des Moines Register about the successes being realized in Iowa. The fact that in that state some are seeing a reverse digital divide, where rural areas have better connectivity than suburban or urban is fascinating, especially as it's largely driven not by making money from networks but because these rural areas see fiber as a necessity for staying alive in the 21st century information age. Now if only the rest of the country could wake up to the same realization!

- Here's an eye-opening stat: relative to leading fiber deploying nations like South Korea and Japan, it's going to require laying upwards of ten times the amount of fiber to reach the same number of homes here in the US because of our population density and geography. I'd always known this was a significant factor but had never realized just how much so.

- And as a followup thought, I loved Joe's comment about how labor intensive fiber deployment is and that bucket trucks don't work on Moore's Law where they double in speed every 18 months.

- Finishing things up, Joe couldn't be more right that we need leadership in DC on these issues. Most everyone's agreed we need a national broadband policy, and now's the time to figure out how we can implement one.

- Final thought: here's a link to the FTTH Conference website. As I say in the video, it's the best event around if you want to bump elbows with fiber deployers and the suppliers who help make these networks possible.

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This page is an archive of entries from July 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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