September 2008 Archives

Broadband Powers Revolution In How Congress Does Business

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In my post the week before last about the Why Broadband Matters Senate Commerce Committee hearing I forgot to mention the coolest part: they used videoconferencing technology to allow the gentleman from Alaska to provide his testimony.

At first when I walked into the room I didn't think much of it. I've seen videoconferencing being used many times before, not so much that I consider it commonplace but enough so that seeing it in action doesn't register that high on the excitement scale.

And the way they used it in this hearing--with two monitors, once facing the Senators and one facing the audience--seemed seamless so I didn't think much of it, assuming its use was commonplace on the Hill.

The audio and video were both great, and the only issue was a noticeable lag between when senators asked questions and the gentleman in Alaska responded. At one point it seemed as if he didn't hear a question altogether, but it was only a minor incident. And Senator Stevens tried waving goodbye to his constituent while walking out of the room but it didn't seem to register as I don't think the camera could see him while standing. So while it worked great, videoconferencing still doesn't quite replace the experience of being in a room with someone.

But afterwards in talking with Christine Kurth, the Senate Commerce Committee's chief of staff, I was amazed to learn that this was the first time they'd tried this setup, which was remarkable given how natural and unobtrusive the experiment was.

But that's not the most important thing. In thinking this through it dawned on me that I'd just watched one of the most potentially revolutionary things to ever happen to Congress.

Imagine what this could mean to the democratic process if the use of this technology became commonplace. Instead of hearings being dominated by experts and spokespeople that live inside the Beltway and limited to those who live outside the Beltway that can afford the time and money to come to DC, we could enable hearings to feature the leading experts no matter where they're located.

That means better insight, more diverse opinions, and therefore a hopefully more well-informed Congress, plus it's green as it saves the need to travel in to our Nation's capitol to have an influence there.

I also learned that if we're lucky, this will only be the beginning of broadband revolutionizing the way Congress does business. In chatting further with Christine I learned that they're very interested in not only using this videoconferencing setup more but also trying out technologies like telepresence, or videoconferencing on steroids where it feels like you're sitting across the table from the person you're talking with online.

I know AT&T; and Cisco are eager to find opportunities to showcase telepresence technologies, and I can't think of a more impactful, higher profile test case than this, not only improving the way government works but also showcasing firsthand to influential decisionmakers the power of what broadband makes possible.

I'm excited to see where all this may take us as through technology we can break the stranglehold of special interests and return the government to the people by facilitating more people to participate in the political process without worry of the limitations of geographic distance.

"There is no such thing as network neutrality."

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Without provocation I had an interesting encounter with the issue of net neutrality on my visit to Jackson, TN last week.

It came up while touring Union University when Curtis Parish, Jr, their director of network support, was showing off where JEA's fiber terminated in the building and we came upon his PacketShapers, which are essentially boxes that allow him to prioritize traffic and manage usage on his network. In introducing this technology he flatly stated, "There is no such thing as network neutrality."

He went on to highlight how the amount and variety of traffic running over his network has increased dramatically in the last few years, which means he has to rely more heavily on sophisticated technologies like these to keep his network running. He then cited two reasons why being able to prioritize traffic and manage usage through his PacketShapers are key to helping students and faculty maximize the use of the network:

- When someone's trying to initiate a videoconference he's able to prioritize that traffic over other people downloading files, which only makes sense give that without sufficient bandwidth you can't have a quality videocall whereas less bandwidth while downloading just means it'll take a little longer to get your file.

- When someone's consuming far more than their fair share of bandwidth, like through the constant use of P2P file sharing applications, he sometimes has to limit their throughput in order to preserve the ability of other users to connect at a reasonable speed. It's not that he doesn't like or prohibits P2P, it's just that those apps have a tendency to gobble up all available bandwidth leaving other users with a significantly degraded experience.

Too often our suppositions that network neutrality is a matter of good vs. evil cloud the basic fundamentals of how networks are run. That's why I found this insight so interesting as Curtis obviously has no interest in driving profit, he just wants to keep the network running. While admittedly managing a campus network vs. a residential one isn't a straight apples-to-apples comparison, they're close enough that there's good insight to be gleaned from people like Curtis.

My education on network neutrality continued when I brought the topic up to Matt York, the guy responsible for keeping JEA's network running.

He explained to me how there are accommodations already built in to any broadband network to prioritize different applications based on their traffic demands. So giving different priority to VoIP traffic vs. downloading a webpage is not only nothing new but it's essential to addressing the needs of different apps to help them run better on the network.

Though when I asked him what network neutrality meant to JEA he responded quite simply that it doesn't mean much of anything as they've got bandwidth to spare. in other words, they're not having to worry about slowing any one down or speeding them up as everyone gets access to super-fast speeds due to their full fiber infrastructure.

Now some may be asking, "What about the big evil telcos speeding up some websites over others?" But we have to realize this issue is not one of network neutrality but that of Internet neutrality.

As I've argued before, the term "net neutrality" is a bit of an obfuscation. It obscures the line between Internet and network neutrality, yet that's where these discussions break down.

Network engineers don't understand how anyone can be seriously considering a regime of network neutrality as it would effectively tie their hands when it comes to managing traffic on their networks.

While net neutrality advocates have begun to claim they never intended to call into question legitimate network management practices, if you read the legislation and rulings that have been put forth to date there doesn't seem to be a clear enough acknowledgment of this.

So if we're to move anywhere on this issue of net neutrality we must first recognize that there's a difference between Internet and network neutrality, and that while we may need safeguards to protect Internet neutrality we can't afford to let that bleed over into network neutrality lest we allow idealism to trump the reality of how to keep networks up and running.

After hitting up the FTTH Conference this week I swung by Jackson, TN to tour what I believe is still the largest deployed municipal full fiber network in the country.

Being driven around by Michael Johnston, Jackson Energy Authority's VP of IT, and Matt York, JEA's director of network management, I was able to see signs of the network's impact everywhere. (JEA is the public utility that deployed the fiber network.)

There was a call center that located in Jackson at least in part because of their fiber infrastructure, bringing quality jobs to the area.

There were electronic billboards that rotate ads delivered through JEA's network.

The school district was using Polycom phones as it transitions over to an IP-based phone system since they have bandwidth to spare.

There was an encrypted wireless network for public safety agencies that was able to be put up easily with the fiber in place to hook into.

There was a teleradiology company with its servers hosted in JEA's bunker that uses the capacity of fiber to move images quickly.

I spoke with multiple customers who raved about the speed, the reliability of the network, the quality of the customer support, and the value JEA delivers, as well as their willingness to work with their customers to find solutions that meet their needs, like a local college that can turn their bandwidth up and down based on the time of year (higher in the fall, lower in the summer).

Yet at the same time I couldn't help but find myself being a little disappointed: I didn't find a single new, truly innovative thing happening that required the bandwidth of fiber.

And this certainly wasn't going unnoticed by JEA. They're hungry for big bandwidth applications, both for the betterment of their community as well as the opportunity to differentiate the capacity of fiber vs. that of their copper-based competitors.

The inescapable reality, though, is that those apps don't seem to exist yet, or at least the ones that do like telepresence are still too expensive to have an impact across all facets of society and especially in the lives of average consumers.

But this isn't just a challenge, it's also an opportunity. We must come together to start the conversation about what can we do with all this bandwidth. And that's exactly why I'm so excited about the world's first CampFiber that'll be taking place on Saturday Oct. 4th in Lafayette, LA.

At this event, developers, businesspeople, and local leaders will be coming together to start brainstorming around this central issue with the goal of inspiring the development of applications that take full advantage of the capacity of full fiber networks.

After we get this inaugural event under our belt I'm going to be trying to get similar events set up in places like Jackson, TN and in Utah at the UTOPIA project, both communities that have expressed interest in pursuing this model.

We can't afford to sit back and wait for that killer app of full fiber networks to show up. Instead it's time we push forward on all fronts to engage creative, entrepreneurial types in these communities and across the nation to combine our collective ingenuity and focus our efforts on identifying those new apps that'll help prove the need for achieving a 100Mbps Nation.

I've long been a fan of Jim Baller's basic national broadband strategy premise that in order to be great we must set clear goals that strive for greatness.

Yesterday in a letter sent to key Congressional leaders, five organizations (CWA, FTTH Council, TechNet, Information Technology Industry Council, and the Voice on the Net Coaltion) joined forces to call for action on S. Res 191 and H.Res. 1292, companion resolutions introduced in Congress by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Representative Anne Eshoo (D-CA) that set two goals for America:

- Universal 10Mbps by 2010
- Universal 100Mbps by 2015

These are laudable goals that if achieved will position America to maintain its leadership role in the digital economy. But they're also ambitious enough goals that if embraced will demand the government start taking a much more proactive role in spurring the deployment of next-generation broadband networks.

Simply put: the free market left to its own devices will not be able to meet these goals.

I'm not trying to suggest this inability is entirely their fault. Consumer demand for this much bandwidth is still questionable as few apps require 10Mbps, let alone 100Mbps. And deploying this much capacity requires a lot of capital investment, especially in rural areas. So for a profit-driven entity, justifying the cost when the return on investment is more about the public good than their bottom line can be difficult.

That doesn't mean these goals aren't achievable, though. The key is we must find ways for all levels of the public and all facets of the private sectors to start pulling our country's broadband cart in the same direction. Duplicative efforts, endless lawsuits, overly burdensome regulation, and apathetic private providers only leave us further away from achieving these goals.

But in order to get everyone working towards the same future, I think we need to put a finer point on these goals.

Both the 10Mbps and 100Mbps goals are called for to be symmetrical. To realize the true power of the Internet users must be able to upload information as fast as they can download, otherwise we'll only end up benefiting from half of the potential of this new medium.

Here's the thing: Only full fiber networks can sustain that much upload capacity.

Even on their best days copper and wireless broadband infrastructures have trouble achieving 10Mbps, and I can't recall having seen anything reliably claiming that either is capable of 100Mbps even in the labs today.

On top of this, we can't assume that our connectivity needs will stop growing at 100Mbps. If we are to keep up with the rest of the world, eventually we're going to need to look at 1Gbps and beyond.

So from a perspective of which technological horse to pick, full fiber networks are the only answer to achieve these goals.

By picking copper we're essentially betting on the hope that someone comes up with a new technology that can squeeze more bandwidth to eek its way closer to these goals.

Whereas the great thing about fiber optics is that once the cable's in the ground, it already has the capacity to go to 100Mbps symmetric just by using different lasers, and it's ready to go to 1Gbps and beyond when needed.

So even though no one else seems to want to say this directly: setting the goal of 100Mbps Nation necessitates also setting the goal of a Full Fiber America.

Color Me Officially Excited About PEG's Future

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Last week I attended NATOA's annual conference in Atlanta. It was a fantastic experience, with tons of enthusiastic attendees to have great conversations with and a host of interesting speakers to learn from, really one of the best events I've been to in a while.

There's lots to share about my experiences there but the biggest thing I came away with was a newfound excitement over the future of PEG. There are just so many intriguing projects and trends underway. Here's a overview of some of the major ones:

- While not happening everywhere, many PEG stations are beginning to utilize social media tools. The focus of Web 2.0 too often seems to ignore physical proximity, yet those tools hold tremendous potential for strengthening the bonds between neighbors in a community. If PEG is going to achieve that larger goal of enabling local community media, finding innovative ways to use them is essential. I'm eager to learn more about this space.

- Wish I could give greater detail but for now all I can say is that there are some interesting projects afoot aimed at improving the ability of PEG channels to share and collaborate. What makes this so powerful is that individually most PEG stations are minuscule, but taken as a whole they represent the largest TV network in America.

- Reconnecting with Tom Spengler, CEO of Granicus, I learned that their government webcasting solution has been going gangbusters this past year, with communities all across the country coming to realize how the use of online video can strengthen the democratic process.

- On another front that I unfortunately have to keep a bit under my hat, there was some talk of highly intriguing experimentation going on in the coming months surrounding redefining what PEG can mean, especially in a big bandwidth environment. I don't think I'm yet supposed to share any details, but know that as soon as I can I'll be doing so as I'm a fervent believer that PEG has an opportunity to be at the center of an incredible amount of innovation over the next few years, both in the delivery on online content and the evolution of TV.

- The final thought I'll share stems from a sense that while we can't just drop the contentious issues surrounding protecting PEG's present as it comes under attack from cable operators not wanting to pay franchise fees and not treating PEG fairly, there's also a growing hunger to move the discussion forward to focus less on the passing paradigm and more on figuring out how PEG can be establishing a new paradigm for itself in the 21st century.

Needless to say, I couldn't be more excited about PEG's future. While there are most definitely bumpy roads ahead, the promise of what's possible seems closer than ever and the energy of the people who are working to reach those goals is infectious.

I'm now more eager than ever to continue my exploration of what PEG can mean in the 21st century as the more wonderful people I meet the more I learn the more possibilities I see for PEG to continue its role at the heart of America's democracy and public discourse.

Last week I lamented the federal government's trillion bailout of the financial industry as proof positive that it's not that we can't afford a full fiber nation; it's all about our priorities.

This week I want to argue that this economic instability has created an opportunity for our politicians to prove their commitment to America's future, especially that of rural communities.

In the discussion about government buying bad mortgages to stabilize markets there's been talk about the need for these policies to also address America's infrastructure needs, as argued for in this HuffingtonPost article:

"The package should include at least $200 billion of new economic stimulus, in the form of aid to states, cities, and towns, for infrastructure rebuilding, more generous unemployment and retraining benefits, and green investment."

As we all know, fiber optic networks are the most important and impactful infrastructure of the 21st century. Those countries that get a fiber strand laid to every building are best positioned to drive economic development, find new efficiencies, and open up opportunities to improve all parts of society.

As we also know, for around $100-150 billion we could lay that fiber cable to every home in America.

But let's not let ambition get in the way of taking real action. Therefore I have an alternative suggestion:

We should take $10-50 billion of the hundreds of billions and even trillions that we're using to buy bad debt from and save financial institutions into a fund to wire every rural community in America with a full fiber network.

There are many reasons to pursue this initiative:

- Pretty much everyone agrees that we have a rural problem regarding telecommunications as private providers can't seem to find viable business models to upgrade their infrastructure, and cities are often overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling a project as complex and expensive as building fiber networks.

- Everyone acknowledges that without this new infrastructure, rural communities aren't likely to survive much further into this century and they most certainly won't be positioned to thrive in the global economy.

- On the flipside, if rural communities do have access to world-class connectivity, then all of a sudden they're able to compete on a level playing field with anywhere in the world, allowing us to move from worrying about outsourcing to embracing the concept of insourcing.

- On a percentage basis, this really isn't that much money, less than 10% of this latest infusion of $700 billion, 1% of the overall $2 trillion the government's going to end up pumping into the financial markets, and less than 1% of our $11+ trillion debt ceiling. Yet there's no infrastructure investment that can do more to encourage economic development than full fiber networks.

For all these reasons and more, it's my fervent belief that if our politicians don't address America's lagging rural telecommunications infrastructure in this great giveaway, they are doing a disservice to our country and ignoring the best way to guarantee a brighter future for all Americans.

If you agree with the arguments I make here, then submit a comment showing your support or suggesting ways to expand/enhance this basic concept, send this article to friends and family, or contact your local/federal lawmakers. Do something to bring this issue to the attention of more people so we can make sure we don't miss this opportunity to take a bold step forward.

The only way we're ultimately going to get out of this economic mess that rampant greed has put us in is if we can find ways to innovate and grow to take full advantage of that which the 21st century has to offer, and there is no better way to do this than wiring the country with fiber.

On a final note, while this issue is much too important to become a partisan political issue, I would also suggest to both campaigns that I can't imagine a better initiative to champion when it comes to proving your ability to operate with a forward-looking 21st century mindset as well as your commitment to the sustainability of rural communities than supporting an initiative like this.

Sen. McCain and Obama - You are both Senators. You both have the public stage. You can make this happen. Again, it's not a matter of ability but that of political will. And the only way we're going to accomplish the great things that America is capable of is through strong leadership. Prove that you can be that strong leader to guide America into the 21st century by supporting this initiative.

(And as an aside - Whoever supports this first will likely gain a huge edge among both young tech-aware as well as rural voters. So time is of the essence! Don't miss this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: securing the economic future of America's rural communities while building support for your campaign.)

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend my first Senate hearing in person. The subject: "Why Broadband Matters." Needless to say with a topic like that I couldn't have been more excited to go.

Unfortunately when I first arrived that enthusiasm quickly waned. Out of the 23 Senators on the Commerce committee holding this hearing there were only three in attendance: committee chairman Sen. Inouye, Sen. McCaskill, and the infamous Sen. Stevens (aka Mr. Tubes). Over the course of the hearing three other Senators showed up but by the end we were left with only Sen. Inouye.

He even lamented that fact in his closing remarks saying, "This is an important issue, yet we have only two Senators here." (That second Senator left shortly thereafter.)

Now I know this is the way hearings often go, and of course we're in election season, which further distracts the already overloaded agendas of Senators. But I couldn't help but get the feeling that the lack of participation reflected a certain level of disinterest among the no-shows on this issue.

Though to be frank, I don't totally blame them for not showing up as there wasn't much said that anyone who's an advocate for broadband doesn't already know, ie broadband improves healthcare, education, etc.

Luckily the time was more than well spent by Sen. Inouye's comments alone.

Continuing on in his closing remarks he shared his belief that broadband is just as important an innovation as the printing press, that it's a shame we don't have this universally available and utilized, and that something must be wrong if we who were the pioneers of the Internet are now not much better off than a third-world country.

Two are important points he made are: one, if we have no broadband policy, than this becomes a political issue, which it has, pitting left vs. right at a time when we need to all be working together and when we're all in general agreement that broadband's important and we need to be doing more to spur deployment and adoption; and two, he expressed his frustration over the fact no one can tell him how much it'll cost to get these networks built and fully utilized.

He implored the presenters to send him and his colleagues more hard data about costs, efficacy, and the like, that they're starving for information to help guide their decision-making. He even went so far as to say that he's got no problem putting in an earmark, he just needs to know for what, how it will help, and what it will cost.

Here's a Senator who really gets the significance of the broadband issue. I found myself leaning forward in my chair getting more excited with every word. I now know I need to follow up with and meet Sen. Inouye's staff as I'm guessing when I do I'm going to find kindred spirits.

I have observations to share on two of the other Senators in attendance: Senator Thune and Senator Stevens.

Senator Thune, who I learned has been a long-time advocate for telemedicine, expressed his frustration during his questioning of the panel that each year he's having to fight just to appropriate a few million dollars to put towards the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth. On the one hand I was excited to learn there was a champion on these issues in the Senate, on the other it's frustrating to hear that in an area where the use of broadband can have such a clearly profound impact on the quality of people's lives we're still not able to cut through the bureaucracy and old-fashioned mindset to push forward aggressively with policies that advance the state of our healthcare system.

Seeing and hearing Senator Stevens at this hearing was an interesting revelation for me. He's been widely mocked for his describing the Internet as a series of tubes, being branded as out of touch and unfamiliar with what the Internet is and can do, yet from my observations not only was he there longer than anyone but Sen. Inouye, he was highly engaged the entire time. While some Senators spent most of the time reclining or texting on their Blackberries, Sen. Stevens' attention was rapt throughout. And when he had a chance to speak briefly, he expressed his clear understanding that in a state like Alaska without roads and mass transportation having a robust broadband infrastructure is vital to preserving the health of his constituents. He even cited a specific in that there are many veterans a thousand miles from the nearest VA hospital, yet with requirements that they be tracked for 5 years after serving he sees that the only this is possible is through the use of telecommunications.

So while he's taken a lot of flack for not getting it, from my observations he has a personal understanding about the value of broadband that surpasses many of his colleagues, and I can't help but applaud his commitment to these issues.

One final overall thought on the Senators collective questioning and lines of thought, it seemed like this hearing was less about why broadband matters, since all in attendance seemed to understand that, and ended up being more about deployment, in particular to rural areas. Just about every Senator made mention of that in their questioning and/or remarks.

It's fantastic that strong attention is being put on the rural problem as it's one of the more daunting ones we face, yet I have to admit some level of disappointment that they didn't express more interest in asking about what the federal government can be doing to spur adoption and use of broadband, despite that being a common theme of the remarks of the panelists.

Touching on those remarks, here's a brief overview of who spoke and the main point(s) they made:

Rey Ramsey, chairman and CEO of One Economy - We need to not focus solely on deployment but more heavily on generating demand and spurring the creation of applications. We also should prioritize networking low-income housing, whose connectivity needs too often get left behind as an afterthought.

Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America - The US is lagging behind its global competitors when it comes to connectivity and price, and a primary reason we've fallen back is our lack of a national broadband policy. In fact, we're the only modernized country without a clear national broadband policy, which is what's preventing us from moving forward.

Jonathan Linkous, executive director of American Telemedicine Association - There are many examples of cool new telemedicine apps, like support groups in the virtual world Second Life, but on too many fronts the US has lagged behind in adopting these apps. Places like Africa have leapt ahead of us in the use of things like health applications on their cellphones.

Dr. Mara Mayor, board member at AARP - We need to rethink the caricature of old people not using the Internet. Many rely on it for many things, from researching health conditions to engaging in distance learning to telecommuting into their senior years. But not enough have access to broadband at home, especially in rural areas.

Margaret Conroy, Missouri state librarian - Contrary to popular belief the Internet has not brought about the end of libraries. Instead libraries have proven themselves to be important hubs for offering access to the Internet as well as training for how to use it. Sometimes libraries are the only place people can get this kind of access and information in their community.

Gene Peltola, president and CEO of Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation - He provided living proof of the impact of broadband in recounting tales like how they use teleradiology to send medical images from Alaska to Dayton, OH to tap into the medical expertise there, benefiting from a system where these remote diagnosis can be made in a matter of minutes. But he lamented numerous examples of how current government structures haven't adapted to support these new technologies, like the inability to get reimbursed by Medicare for medical services that cross state lines.

Overall this was a fantastic experience for my first time in a Senate hearing. While it was sometimes frustrating to constantly hear things I and anyone else who's been paying attention already know about why broadband matters, it was heartening to know that at least for some Senators these are important issues that demand their attention.

I look forward to working with those Senators and their staff to find collaborative solutions that can move past the rhetoric towards a more robust utilization of the transformative potential that broadband and its applications make possible for all parts of society.

...we're bailing out financial institutions to the tune of a trillion dollars over the last week?

Anyone who's against the idea of America moving aggressively into a full fiber future tends to cite the enormous cost of doing so as a reason not to.

Yet the cost to do so is pretty clear: about $1000 a home, with about 100 million homes, that roughly equates to $100 billion.

If we can come up with a trillion dollars to make up for the reckless actions of irresponsible parties simply to stave off the potentially devastating impact their mistakes may have on our economy, why can't we invest a tenth of that in our future by upgrading the most important infrastructure of the 21st century?

Put another way, it's almost like we've let our healthcare infrastructure languish and prices skyrocket while greedy health insurance companies try their hardest not to pay for treatments and then when a health crisis strikes we bail out the billion dollar companies when for less money we could've taken a more proactive approach towards investing in the infrastructure that can keep people healthy.

Of course the state of our healthcare system is another issue entirely, and hopefully this situation is one we never have to face, but the analogy still holds and my argument that if we set out minds to it we can afford to wire the country with fiber still stands.

Why are we spending all of our money propping up broken systems when we should be investing in the new paradigms of the 21st century, especially something like broadband that can revolutionize the efficiency and effectiveness of absolutely every facet of our society?

The Challenge of Being an Online-Only Football Fan

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As I've shared before I canceled my cable TV service this summer, other than the four main broadcast channels I get all my TV over the Internet. But now I'm running into a dilemma since football season started.

While I can still get most games on TV as I still get Fox, CBS, and NBC, Monday night games are now only available on ESPN, which I can no longer watch.

I've tried finding some way of watching ESPN games online but so far no luck. doesn't seem to offer it; even if did my broadband provider hasn't struck a deal with them so I can't access any content on that site, though I don't think this game is on here anyway.

I've done a little hunting for less-than-legal ways of accessing the signal online. Last year I successfully found a P2P TV streaming application that let me watch the games being shown on NFL Network, a cable channel that's only available on some cable systems. But none of the equivalent options I've found so far for ESPN seem to work.

What really got my goat on Sunday was watching a game and seeing multiple commercials for DIRECTV's Sunday Ticket, an add-on package that affords satellite TV subscribers the ability to access up to 14 games every Sunday. But guess what? If you don't subscribe to satellite TV, you can't get Sunday ticket.

Here's where things get really nutty: another feature of DIRECTV's Sunday Ticket is the ability to watch games online using a desktop video player. So if you're a subscriber, you don't even need to use satellite TV to watch, you can just go online to access live streams. But if you're not a subscriber? You can go pound sand.

So as it stands right now, the only way to be able to access every NFL game is to first subscribe to satellite TV, and then pay an extra monthly fee of roughly $80 a month. If you don't have, don't want, or can't get satellite TV, then tough luck, even though you likely do have broadband and therefore technologically are capable of receiving those streams.

How bizarre is this? Here I am, eager to watch football and yet unable to do so. I'm willing to pay money to watch games online, but I can't; I have to subscribe to satellite TV first.

Yet on the flip side it must be cost effective to deliver games online as NBC is simulcasting their Sunday night games online and you don't have to pay a thing; they make their money purely off of ads.

So it's not a technological issue. It's not a matter of lack of demand. It's even arguable that it's not a business issue per NBC's example.

Nope, instead it's just another example of the NFL caring more about cashing big checks for exclusivity from TV providers than about ensuring their fans can watch what they want, when they want, where they want.

The reason I bring this up isn't just to gnash my teeth in frustration but instead to point out that one of the biggest things holding back the future of the Internet isn't technology or demand or even the business case but instead it's greed and an unwillingness by many content owners (though thankfully not all) to be forward-looking in how this new medium is perceived and utilized as a distribution mechanism.

While the debate over whether the Internet can totally replace TV is a separate issue, I can't wait for the day when at the very least we're able to realize the promise of the Internet to watch what we want to watch without all these other interests getting in the way.

When Will Cameras Be Like Lightbulbs?

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It dawned on me this weekend: why can't cameras and broadband be more like lightbulbs and electricity?

With a light bulb you just screw it into a lamp or fixture, plug it in, turn it on, and it works.

The same can not be said for cameras and broadband. Though technologies do exist that make it pretty easy--like, a site where you can be webcasting in minutes for free--there are still a lot of steps. From setting up the camera and worrying about software and drivers and encoding to ensuring sufficient connectivity and a robust method of distribution, you can't just plug it into a computer, hook up broadband, and it works.

This reality hit me most recently at my fantasy football draft that I attended remotely. You can read about those travails here.

But this analogy goes a step deeper than ease of use.

Think about the impact of the light bulb on human history. It broke the barrier between day and night, empowering humanity to not have to schedule their lives around outdated concepts of day and night.

Now consider cameras connected to broadband. On their most basic level they enable your eyes to be anywhere in the world, and for the rest of the world to see what you're doing, in effect destroying the limitations of physical distance when it comes to communicating with others and learning about the status of the world.

Light bulbs powered by electricity have already fundamentally expanded the human experience, but the impact of broadband-connected cameras has only begun.

The challenge we face now is how can we make cameras more like light bulbs so that when we want to share something with others or the world we can do so just by plugging it in and it just works. I want to be able to take my camera, plug it in to broadband, push a button, and have it work, but I can't.

We are getting closer every day. Now that I have an account with set up I can be streaming live video from my laptop to the world within minutes, seconds even. But this functionality still resides within the realm of techies and early adopters, even those technologies that make this process simple tend to seem too technologically sophisticated for most.

But if we are to enable everyone to benefit from broadband in the same way that electricity lit up people's lives and revolutionized the human experience a hundred years ago, then we've got to continue finding ways to bring these complex technologies out of the realm of technological complexity and instead towards a paradigm where broadband-enabled cameras are like light bulbs: you just plug them in and they work.

In the second part of my imagining what I'd do if I ran AT&T; I want to respond to their plans I just learned about in this article to limit the throughput of U-Verse customers "when a customer is using other U-verse services in a manner that requires high bandwidth."

Let's parse through what this really means.

When they say "other U-Verse services" that could be as simple as watching U-Verse TV. So that means they're admitting that the more TV channels your household's watching simultaneously the less bandwidth you may have available to access the Internet.

Now this reality isn't all that surprising given AT&T;'s decision to only lay fiber to the neighborhood rather than all the way to your house, meaning there's a finite amount of bandwidth to work with. And at least AT&T;'s being transparent about the fact they will be throttling.

But then read this: "In order to provide a consistently high-quality video service..." The justification for slowing throughput is to ensure their TV service works well. For most users, TV is still much more important than the Internet, so this may not be a big deal. Until, that is, you look at this through the net neutrality angle. Whether right or wrong, one of the biggest arguments by pro-NN people is that network operators will prioritize their own traffic over that of the public Internet. And here AT&T;'s basically admitting it's the case that their TV service traffic has a higher priority than Internet traffic, regardless of which the consumer thinks is more important.

It gets worse:

"This could occur more often with higher speed Internet access products. It may be necessary, for some AT&T; High Speed Internet users, for AT&T; to set a maximum downstream speed on a customer line to enhance the reliability and consistency of performance."

So now they're saying that the higher the speed broadband service you purchase from them, the less likely you'll be to get the speeds you're paying for. Talk about a disincentive to sign up for faster service! Why would I upgrade from a 2Mbps to a 5Mbps plan if I'm going to have to cap my usage at 3Mbps to not interfere with my TV signal? (These are hypothetical numbers, not specifics on how the system will work.)

In one fell swoop, AT&T; has admitted that their network doesn't have enough capacity, that the more you pay the less you might get, and that they have no problem prioritizing their own traffic over the customer's.

So what would I do if I ran AT&T;?

Well the most obvious but also most complicated and expensive answer is to start laying fiber to every home so that there's sufficient bandwidth to not have these limitations.

But assuming that's off the table for now, let's look at how they might be able to make these plans more consumer friendly, or at least appear to be so.

First off, if bandwidth's going to be scarce customers need an easy way to determine how much is available. Why not develop a widget that shows you in real-time how much bandwidth you have available? It could even tie into an ambient display technology that could glow green when it's all clear, and red when there's a lot of congestion. Only by doing something like this will you avoid customers getting frustrated when they lack bandwidth but don't know why.

Second, find ways to give customers more control. Instead of just assuming that everyone wants high quality TV and restricted broadband, I'd try to give them the option of deprioritizing TV service. If I'm trying to download a big file online and my kids are watching three different HD movies on TV, I may want to knock them down to standard def so I don't have to wait forever to do what I need to do.

Third, offer an option to get bursts of faster speeds when the TVs are turned off. Now what was once a liability could become a strength. It may seem a little silly to make people turn off their TVs to get faster Internet, but that's essentially what they're doing now only instead of just saying more TVs equals slower Internet you could also offer the reverse of fewer TVs meaning faster Internet.

Fourth, push the fact that cable networks don't deliver the speeds they promise consistently. That's the only way I can see this announcement not turning into a debacle for AT&T; in their competition against cablecos. I can already get TV, generally faster Internet (or at least higher advertised speeds), and now telephone service from my cable company. If I find out that AT&T;'s shiny new U-Verse service can't live up to its promises, why wouldn't I stay with or go to the cable company? AT&T;'s only hope is to make sure customers know that just because cablecos advertise higher speeds doesn't mean you'll get those higher speeds, otherwise I don't see why anyone would go with U-Verse after an announcement like this.

Maybe I'm overreacting and this announcement won't have any major impact on AT&T;'s ability to attract customers away from cablecos. Maybe this won't spark the latest skirmish regarding net neutrality. Again, at least AT&T;'s being upfront and honest about what they're doing.

But I know that if I ran AT&T;, things would be done differently. If you ran AT&T;, what would you do? How could you overcome the limitations of your network to deliver the best possible service to your customers?

Wow - Well here we go, proof positive that competition does drive deployment of faster networks. Time Warner's COO basically said that where there's fiber to compete against they'll be deploying DOCSIS 3.0, the next generation of cable broadband.

But then there's the flip side to his comments: for the near term, they're only going to be deploying DOCSIS 3.0 where they have to compete against fiber; everywhere else they're comfortable with their existing infrastructure's chances of competing against DSL.

So if you don't live in an area that's getting Verizon FiOS, fiber from a local telephone company, or a municipal full fiber network, then you're out of luck. There exists the possibility that unless a competitive fiber force shows up you'll never see a major upgrade in capacity. So long as the competition can only offer speeds slower than a cable modem, cable companies see no reason to invest in building up their networks.

Now lest you think this post is another railing against the cablecos that's not my point at all. From a business point of view, I don't fault them for this decision. If I'm in a market where my product's selling fine and no one's stepping up to offer a product that surpasses mine, why should I worry about improving my product?

But this gets to the heart of the fact that if we want our goal for America to be that we have the best possible telecom infrastructure, then we're never going to achieve that through a purely private, market-driven approach. Quite simply, going this route is going to take too long and it will likely never reach any level of universality as there are so many parts of our country that won't be seeing sufficient competition to drive this forward.

Of course, if all our telcos embraced Verizon's vision of the future that wouldn't be the case at all. If they were all deploying full fiber networks, the cablecos would have to respond with a ramp up in deploying DOCSIS 3.0. Then all of a sudden we'd be better off than other countries, which typically only have one big bandwidth provider.

But in lieu of that reality, which is likely years if not decades off, we're faced with the dueling facts that while competition can work, without the presence of a full fiber network to compete against, competition doesn't and won't work when it comes to increasing the capacity of America's last mile infrastructure.

Rob Atkinson Puts Broadband Policy Wars On Display

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Attending yesterday's ITIF event entitled "It's Time to End the Broadband Policy Wars" was fascinating not so much because it necessarily ended any war but instead for how it basically put the war up on stage for all to see.

Before getting into a review of what everyone said, let me first say that while Rob was able to maintain an air of civility and even good humor, I'm not sure we were able to move past the characterizations he mentioned at the beginning of pro-telco people sounding evil and pro-net neutrality and municipal broadband sounding communistic, or at least each side still perceives the other in roughly these same terms after the event as they did before.

Yet at the same time I think two things were accomplished that were incredibly helpful. First off, Rob got the two sides to share a stage and not have the dialog devolve into name-calling. And secondly, by doing so he gave the audience the opportunity to compare and consider arguments from both sides.

What I came out of this event with was the sense that if we could all just keep getting together in a room to discuss these issues we might be able to start making some progress forward. If nothing else it helps everyone realize that we're all human beings trying to tackle complex problems rather than continuing to consider individuals' perspectives as nothing more than stand-ins for larger ideologies.

The challenge we face is that so much of these "debates" happen online with each side standing up on its soapbox and shouting its position at the other side and out to the world without really listening to the other side or performing any self-reflection about their own positions.

But I'm increasingly hopeful that there's movement afoot to change the tenor of these debates, moving away from personal attacks and ideologically driven policies and towards respectful, fact-based discussions that can ultimately guide us to the truth in terms of what should be done to improve our country's broadband atmosphere.

Now to get started into the specifics of what happened I want to first begin by recounting Rob's introductory remarks in which he called out both sides of contentious issues, which he believes often falls into partisan right/left rhetoric, imploring them to realize where their positions could be improved to better reflect reality rather than ideology. I'm just including the highlights here. If you want to read the three-page paper where Rob goes into greater detail about each item, you can download a PDF here.

International Broadband Standing
Right - Stop denying the US lags behind other countries and faces a big challenge to overcome that.
Left - Stop claiming all the blame lies in our "bankrupt broadband policies."

Net Neutrality
Right - Acknowledge there's a role for government intervention in cases where broadband providers' business interests don't align with the public good.
Left - Stop claiming net neutrality legislation will somehow increase broadband takeup or investment.

Role of Competition
Right - Stop pretending inter-modal markets are already fully competitive and don't require government oversight.
Left - Stop holding up intra-modal competition as the Holy Grail.

Overall Broadband Policy
Right - It's time to acknowledge broadband market is different from other consumer goods.
Left - It's time to end government fundamentalism and acknowledge that there's a role for private companies to play.

Come Help End Broadband Policy Wars Tomorrow

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I mentioned this last week but it's worth sharing again: if you're in DC tomorrow, interested in telecom policy, and want an opportunity to potentially be part of history, then you'd better get yourself over to Rob Atkinson's ITIF event entitled "It's Time to End the Broadband Policy Wars" scheduled for Tuesday from 9-10:30am at 1250 Eye St NW Ste 200.

Now I'm realistic in that it's unlikely we can actually bring the broadband policy wars to a close in a single couple hour meeting, but I am hopeful that this meeting will be a big step in the right direction due to its overt call for everyone to settle down and hopefully start having a calmer, more direct debate over issues without characterizing the other side as either evil or ill-informed.

We need more efforts like Rob's to call out the partisan rancor that pervades telecom policy discussions so we can start realizing that these are issues are too important to allow them to get caught up in partisan politics. And that it's not about which side is right and which side is wrong, it's about determining what's best for America.

I know that Rob's isn't the only effort to try and bridge the telecom divide, but his is the first I've seen to come out and overtly call for a truce. And knowing the honest intellectual effort he gives to everything he does, I feel confident that tomorrow will be an event with the potential to change the tenor of these debates so long as we are all willing to enter into these discussions with an open mind and that we're all united in the common goal of trying to find real solutions to these real problems that respect the legitimate concerns of all parties involved.

It's vitally important that all stakeholders are participating in this process of meeting face to face as too often it seems like we're all shouting not at each other as individual human beings but instead as faceless representatives of larger ideals. By coming together to talk in person I'm hopeful we can all start to realize that just because you work for a big telco doesn't mean you're evil, and just because you believe in open, public networks you're a capitalism-hating communist.

I know I'll be there to share my perspective, and I hope all of you are able to make it as well.

ARRGGHHH!!! Sorry, had to get that out of my system now that the net neutrality debate has entered its next phase: taking this issue to the courts.

The reason for my frustration? What good is having this issue debated in the courts do anyone? Won't it just be a huge waste of time and money simply because we couldn't get the matter resolved effectively before it got to this point?

There's a valid argument to be made that Comcast would've sued no matter what unless the FCC said that everything they're doing was fine and nothing needed to change. But throughout all these discussions of new regulations and legislation that make net neutrality into law there's been hardly any mention of the inevitable fact that if we can't come to some form of an agreement between all parties involved then we're just going to get mired down in the courts, who aren't necessarily any more well-equipped to deal with this than anyone else.

Now that this has happened everyone's saying "Well of course Comcast is suing..." yet not only was there little discussion about this inevitability, no one seems to be acknowledging Comcast's legitimate complaint that the FCC has provided no concrete details about what is and is not allowed under their net neutrality regime. How could they have known they were breaking the rules if the rules were never spelled out in detail in the first place?

Making matters worse, the FCC didn't even use this opportunity to start spelling out what network operators can do. Instead all they did was say that you can't do what Comcast was doing. For one network operator's take on this, I'm reposting the VidChat I did with Michael Johnston of Jackson Energy Authority on this topic, which ran a couple weeks ago:

Now I'm not saying this will be an easy issue to resolve. There are many different ways traffic can be managed on a network, different apps require different treatment to run most effectively, and new burdens are being placed on networks every day.

But we can't keep talking about net neutrality in ideological yet vague terms; we need to start getting into specifics. And we can't expect that we'll ever find a solution to these issues if we don't engage both sides of the debate to try and find an answer that everyone can agree to or at least tolerate, otherwise we're just going to get stuck in the courts on these issues waiting for years to get them resolved.

Because so far, this net neutrality issue continues to be an abject failure for all involved, and it will continue to weigh down all telecom-related talks until we can find a way past it, which doesn't mean one side or the other winning but instead it must involve both sides coming together, talking through their differences, respecting the legitimate concerns of the other side, and trying to find a mutually agreeable solution.

I'm hopeful that while grandiose this ideal isn't impossible. And events like the ITIF is putting on next week in DC on Tuesday appropriately called "It's Time to End the Broadband Policy Wars" will be a place where everyone engaged in these discussions in DC can come together, set aside our differences, and try to figure out what's going to be best for America.

I could not be prouder to announce that has its newest sponsor: Lafayette Utility Systems (or LUS).

LUS is deploying a full fiber municipal network in Lafayette, LA, where readers of know I've been spending a fair amount of time this year and plan on continuing to do so due in large part to my excitement over the network they're building, which will be able to support a free 100Mbps intranet.

For this latest VidChat, I sat down with Terry Huval, director of LUS, to introduce the country to Lafayette and the exciting things going on down there. Enjoy!

- Here's LUS's website.

- For a very in-depth look at the capabilities of LUS's network, check out this post by Lafayette-based fiber advocate John St. Julien.

- I loved Terry's comment about how the idea for the 100Mbps intranet grew out of the community's desires vs. decisions made in a corporate boardroom. I think this is one of the greatest advantages of municipal networks: your community can build the network the way you want it and not have to accept whatever the incumbents decide to give you.

- The size of LUS's network is something important to consider. It'll reach 120,000 customers when completed. While not everyone will sign up for service, it's likely they're going to be able to get at least half. Though that can't rival a big metropolitan city, I do think we're starting to get markets big enough for apps developers to start targeting them. Imagine if you could come up with an app that captured 10% of LUS's customers paying $10 a month; that would equate to $60k a month in revenue from one city, which should be enough to sustain a business.

- I still can't get over the parallels between LUS first being created to deploy electricity when no one wanted to come to Lafayette and as a result enabled their community to grow faster than its neighbors, and now the same thing's happening against a hundred years later with fiber.

- The smartest thing any utility can do is follow LUS's lead when building an internal fiber network. They realized that if they just put a few more fiber optic cables into the ground a decade ago they could position themselves to help support the future needs of their community. And the value you get for your money by making this decision at the outset is astounding. LUS paid 20% more when building the network to get 700% more capacity, and now are using that network to build out fiber to every home. I'd argue it's irresponsible for a utility not to at least put extra capacity when deploying a ring, especially one that's publicly owned, because of how that capacity can help prepare a community for the future.

- It's great to hear that Terry can't go anywhere in the city without people asking them about the fiber. From my trips there I still don't think the community really understands just how exciting the network they're getting will be, but at least they're excited enough to ensure that LUS will be a sustainable success from day one.

- One of my missions moving forward is to help educate and enlighten applications developers about the opportunities that exist in Lafayette to use its network and its peopel as a testbed for the next generation of big bandwidth apps. Not only that, I'm hoping that the capacity being put in place down there will also inspire new ideas for applications that were previously impossible in an era of bandwidth scarcity but now are becoming feasible in places like Lafayette that are entering an era of bandwidth overabundance.

This is the driving force behind the Lafayette CampFiber, which will bring local, regional, and national thought leaders together to discuss what's possible in terms of new apps on this revolutionary network.

Searching Far and Wide

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I stumbled across this weekend and wanted to share it with you all.

The premise of the site is to be a search engine aggregator, but with a twist.

While many sites allow you to put in a keyword and search across multiple sites, Widexplorer actually displays the entire sites right within its own webpage.

Put in a search term and the results from Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, YouTube, and more pop up in a page that stretches horizontally. Scroll to the right to see the additional sites, then you can scroll down within each page to read and click through all the results.

They've also got groupings of sites already setup around categories like News, Buzz, Video, Sports, Travel, and more. Click on one of those links and the homepages for multiple top sites in each category appear together in the same horizontally orientated page.

As the site stands right now I think the functionality's a bit limited. You don't appear to be able to search across multiple sites within the News/Buzz/etc. categories. It also looks like there's no way to customize which sites show up under each category, so if you have a favorite site that isn't listed already you're out of luck. And scrolling horizontally is not something that shows up all that often so it feels a bit off.

Yet at the same time I find this site interesting for multiple reasons.

First off, while the horizontal scrolling is a bit awkward at first, it shows how app developers are starting to think outside the box when it comes to displaying information in the web browser.

Secondly, I like being able to see the search results as they appear on each page and then be able to navigate through each site within the Widexplorer page rather than having the results reformatted into a single page like most aggregators do.

Third, you can search using keywords for images or video, which I'm finding to be very effective when hunting for the perfect image or video, being able to see multiple sites quickly and easily versus having to go to each one separately.

And fourth, it's great to see another site that requires some bandwidth. My guess is it'll still work on a slower connection as none of the individual pages are all that bandwidth-hungry, but in aggregate loading a half dozen or more pages simultaneously and doing so quickly enough so that they don't lose my attention demands a speedy connection.

So overall while this might not be a revolutionary web app, it is an interesting one that highlights trends in app development and what's possible once we start breaking free from the constructs of the old and start working with brand new concepts for how information can be presented online.

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

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