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App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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November 2007 Archives

November 1, 2007 10:23 AM

A Belated Broadband Halloween Bonanza

Ever since hanging up my candy sack and retiring from the ranks of door-to-door sugar solicitors, Halloween hasn't been a holiday that captures my attention when it rolls around each year. Because of this, I find myself becoming more and more surprised when October 31st hits and both the streets and the airwaves are filled with tributes to the ghoulish and absurd.

Last night in the midst of another surprise realization that Halloween was indeed upon us, my mind began to wander, wondering what a broadband-enabled All Hallow's Eve celebration might entail.

To set the mood, one might sit down to enjoy some Halloween-themed online videos. Maybe a horror film downloaded from Amazon, or some goofy costumed videos streamed from YouTube, or a Stephen King novel reading saved to my iPod from iTunes.

Then sufficiently inspired, one could search the endless aisles of the digital library to find information regarding how to make a costume or carve a pumpkin or bake the perfect skull cookies.

Once faced with the challenge of playing Martha Stewart, one could navigate away from educational resources and towards retail outlets where boutique candy and elaborate costumes can be ordered from the around the world.

As the big day nears, the urge to connect with family members grows, and the use of broadband to allow grandparents to see grandkids in costumes becomes attractive. Perhaps it's a videocall for a live chat, or some photo or video sharing so remote parties can share in the joy (as this writer did when an adorable photo of his grandma dressed as a sassy M&M; cross his desk).

Notice how the use of broadband in this scenario isn't about doing something with broadband that can't be done otherwise, but instead it's about leveraging broadband to make possible new extensions and opportunities for existing behaviors.

Over the last few weeks I've come to the realization that we need more dialogue about what a broadband-enabled world would look like so as to demystify what may seem like cutting edge, space age technology and refocus our attention on what that technology actually does.

Along these lines, for all those readers who did celebrate Halloween in one way or another, how did broadband affect your plans? How did you use broadband to further the enjoyment of this holiday?

November 1, 2007 1:47 PM

Finding Education Online

Came across a great Wired article entitled "The Top Web-Based Education Resources."

While this is far from a comprehensive list of educational resources available online, it provides a concise fly-by of some of the top options. Here were my favorites:

Curriki - Uses wiki technology to enable educators to share educational materials.

Kiddix - Not sure if the content found herein is as substantial as some of the other sites (they focus heavily on games), I was impressed by their focus on kids. I think it's important to not just create online educational resources for parents to use with their kids; we need to make sure we're empowering kids to find their own path.

Idealist.org - Not so much educational as inspirational, but I always appreciate efforts to inspire younger generations to get engaged and try to make a difference, which is what this site aims to do.

November 1, 2007 2:00 PM

Big News in Social Apps

One of the hottest trends in online applications development is the push towards popular sites and applications to open up platforms through which third party developers can extend core functionality however they see fit.

The most hyped example of this was the Facebook Platform. In May, popular social network Facebook launched their platform for developers to create applications that do things like add games to a Facebook page, encourage new modes of communication between Facebook users, and all sorts of other functionality. In about 5 months, this platform has seen the creation of more than 7000 applications. Some of them have gone from no users to 850,000 in a few days. A couple have already been bought up for millions of dollars.

Another highly prominent example is Salesforce.com. Their hosted customer relationship management platform boasts something called the AppExchange, which allows Salesforce.com customers to add to the core functionality of that platform by purchasing any of more than 600 applications like new interfaces, integration with other apps like Skype, and time tracking.

The problem with both of these and related endeavors is that they all ran on their own separate platforms. So in order to create an application that could run across multiple social networking sites, for example, demanded that developers build separate versions of their apps for each site they wanted to reach. Needless to say, for a developer wanting to reach the widest audience possible with their creations this was an untenable situation.

Enter OpenSocial, an initiative driven by Google with support from a number of applications platforms, like Salesforce.com, LinkedIn, Ning, and Friendster, among others.

OpenSocial is a set of common APIs through which developers can leverage to build applications that work across any social network that decides to opt in and support this initiative.

I'm a firm believer that a key component to driving adoption of broadband applications is anything that pushes the marketplace towards standardization. Nothing kills the average consumer's interest in technology than having to deal with conflicting acronyms. Simply put: they just want whatever they're using to work, they don't want to worry about how it works and what it works with (or more importantly doesn't work with).

While referring to OpenSocial as a new standard may be overly bold as not every social network has opted in (most notably Facebook), it does push things in that direction. So I'm eager to see what this might mean for enabling people who are already developing these apps to expand their customer base and for people who were on the fence about jumping in to the app development game now that their efforts won't have to be constrained by the limits of any one particular social network.

November 2, 2007 2:45 PM

Considering the Challenging Complexity of Online Video

In Boston earlier this week I had the opportunity to meet the CEO of the Culinary Media Network, "the world's first all-food podcast network."

While chatting about my interest in encouraging adoption and use of broadband and the Internet, she lamented the fact that there are a ton of people watching the Food Network every day, but that getting them to turn their attention online to find their food-related video is a big challenge.

From her perspective it's a simple matter of getting people looking at another screen and understanding how much more content is available on-demand online than on broadcast TV.

But I think the challenges of online video are much deeper than that.

Take, for example, the Culinary Media Network's own website.

First there's the challenge of finding it as it doesn't have its own domain; the site is set up as a blog under the gildedfork.com domain.

Secondly, when you go to the site it's not immediately obvious how to watch video or that there's even video to watch in the first place. In other words, it's nothing like TV, where you just turn it on and watch.

Don't get me wrong, it's not like the site is poorly constructed or the video's hidden, it's just that in order to start watching the video you need to understand concepts like what a podcast is.

(As an aside, here's how I define a podcast: it's an audio or video file that's most often delivered via RSS or push technology. These files are usually available for on-demand download, but most users subscribe to an RSS feed that pushes the files to an RSS aggregator as soon as new files become available. Podcasts also typically refer to a series of media rather than a one-off affair. Arguably the most popular way to us RSS today is people who subscribe to audio podcasts, which can be anything from books on tape to radio shows, through iTunes and listen to these podcasts on their iPods.)

The aforementioned CEO acknowledged these challenges and alluded to their efforts to phase out the term "podcast" as well as their attempts to simplify the user interface by adding large buttons that encourage users to click on them to start playing video.

But even still I think the issues surrounding interface and user experience are key limiters to the online video space. We can't keep relying on users to understand how to use all these different ways to get the video they want, because ultimately all they want is their video. They really don't care how they get it.

I'd encourage anyone trying to make it in the online video world to realize that if they want to reach out beyond the small circle of early adopters to grow their viewership that in addition to worrying about building brand awareness and implementing sophisticated search technologies, that they need to take whatever steps they can to make their sites as easy to use as TV.

You can always offer additional functionality under the hood for more advanced users, but for most technophobic viewers the key is that less is more when it comes to how much work you require your viewers to do before they can start watching your video.

November 5, 2007 8:31 AM

Defining the Need to Redefine Broadband

The FCC has released their latest data on the state of broadband in the US. The results? A 61% increase in '06, from 51.2 million to 82.5 million lines.

While this is impressive growth, I couldn't help but throw up in my mouth a little every time I read how they define "broadband": 200Kbps, and it only has to be in one direction.

As an advocate for the endless possibilities of broadband applications, I find this definition not only outdated but offensive.

The reason I speak so strongly is because of how little one can do with 200Kbps.

Sure you might be able to send and receive email (as long as you don't have any big attachments) or surf the Web (as long as the sites you read aren't too overloaded with Flash and images), but what about all the wondrous things made possible by delivering video over the Internet?

Here's the simple truth: the lowest bitrate video I ever hear anyone talking about being able to use effectively is 250-300Kbps. Anything lower than that and you get back to the postage-stamp-sized jerky video of the early days of the Internet.

This reality holds true across the entire spectrum of video-based broadband applications, everything from YouTube to videocalling to live webcasting and beyond.

So how can we define "broadband" at a speed that isn't capable of supporting the most revolutionary things made possible by the Internet?

There has been some movement to update the FCC's definition of broadband, though while the efforts have been well-intentioned they're ultimately misguided.

The biggest push happened earlier this year when a provision was included in the broadband mapping bill currently making it's way through Congress. It mandated that the definition of broadband be based on the speed needed to support one high definition video stream.

The problem with this is that what constitutes "HD" video can be a rather ambiguous number. There isn't even a single standard for HD on TV, and it gets increasingly muddled online.

Later that definition became more concrete with a proposal of upping it to 2Mbps, which gained some popular support.

The challenge with this is that while I'm all for pushing the envelope, I don't see how we can reasonable redefine broadband at a speed beyond what's supported by a large chunk of today's access networks, most notably the common 1.5Mbps ceiling of DSL connections.

But the biggest issue I had with these efforts was the fact they all seemed focused on the download side of the broadband equation, largely ignoring the upload.

Here's what people on the Hill seem to have missed: the Internet is not a broadcast medium. While it does support the sit-and-watch paradigm of TV, where it finds its ultimate possibilities is in its ability to allow users to lean forward and participate.

For the time being, though, this discussion is much adieu about nothing. The aforementioned attempts to redefine broadband as 2Mbps downstream have been tabled for the time being so as not to interfere with the momentum of larger legislation.

But even still, this is a debate that we need to have, and 200Kbps is a definition of broadband we need to change. The only question isn't if but when and how.

November 6, 2007 7:55 AM

Akamai HD Revisited: I'm Officially Agog

Last week I wrote about a marketing effort by leading content delivery network Akamai to promote their HD video capabilities.

Unfortunately at the time I was limited by the bandwidth constraints of my wireless Verizon AirCard (typically between 500-750Kbps), and therefore unable to experience HD video as the site wouldn't even attempt to serve it to me.

After finally getting my high speed Comcast connection up and running on Friday, I decided to revisit this to see what Akamai-delivered HD video actually looks like.

(long pause) Wow, I'm at a loss for words. I've been staring at the screen trying to find a way to capture how overwhelmed I am with excitement but nothing seems to quite do these feelings justice.

For anyone who hasn't already checked this out, I recommend you do so immediately, but only if you're on an Internet connection of at least 3-5Mbps. That should be sufficient for you to experience their lower res preview video.

Even that is simply remarkable. It stretches across the whole screen. It's crystal clear. It doesn't stutter and sputter. The colors are rich and deep. The visual impact has depth.

If you've got a connection in the 6-10Mbps range, go ahead and give the 720p video a try. My 8Mbps Comcast connection only paused once in a 44 minute episode of CSI.

And the video...oh the video...is unbelievably good. I mean, really, it's unfathomable how good it is.

This is the biggest leap forward in the quality of online video that I've ever experienced. It's a much bigger jump than from postage stamp to the business card, or even the business card to the napkin in terms of the size of the video window.

This is full screen, HD video that starts playing back almost instantly.

I think perhaps the impact of this was felt even more strongly by me as I have yet to take the HD plunge with my TV, so what I found most remarkable was that not only was the video quality competitive with TV, it surpassed it.

I was getting higher quality video over the Internet than on my TV.

I can't stress enough how revolutionary I find this to be.

That being said, delivering video at this quality is far from standard practice in the industry today.

I'm actually working on an article now for StreamingMedia.com that explores why the push towards higher bitrate video seems to have slowed down over the last year or two while consumer bandwidth continues increasing.

A major trend I've discovered is that delivering HD video can be much more expensive than standard definition video. The easy way to think about this is that the higher resolution the video, the more bits that need to be sent over the Internet, the more money it costs to deliver that video.

And at this point the online video marketplace is so nascent that there just aren't that many successful business models that can support full screen standard def video, let alone HD.

But that being said, when I revisited Akamai's HD showcase site last night, it was undoubtedly one of the most transformative experiences I've ever had online.

Internet video can now rival TV in terms of picture quality. Some said it'd never happen, but it has and we're here and I couldn't be more excited for it.

November 6, 2007 9:31 AM

Gaming the Future: A World Without Oil

Had an interesting story cross my desk last night about the use of gaming for societal gain. More specifically, a game put out by the Independent Television Service called World Without Oil.

Referring to this as a "game" may be a bit disingenuous as it was really more of a simulation, but that doesn't negate the intriguing possibilities raised by 1800 people across 12 countries coming together for six weeks to join together in finding solutions for a not-so-fictional oil crisis.

Here's a description of what this game entailed from an excellent Christian Science Monitor article:

"During the game, players worked from a shared "alternate reality dashboard," which provided real-time data on oil prices and availability, as well as descriptions of their impact on regional economies, society, and quality of life. They used this data to inspire their own ideas about how the fictional crisis would affect them personally and play out in their part of the world. They contributed fictional firsthand experiences and proposed real-world solutions to our oil dependence in thousands of blog posts, podcasts, videos, and wiki articles. The result is an online, immersive archive of the collective forecast and solutions toolkit created by the players (which you can find at www.worldwithoutoil.org)."

While the simulation is now over, their site encourages people to continue participating by imagining your life during an oil crisis and creating something to represent it, in my case this blog post.

I got to thinking not how an oil crisis would affect my life today, but how it might impact society if we were to more fully embrace the possibilities of broadband.

Firstly, I imagined that not having cars wouldn't be the end of the world as we'd all be telecommuting anyway, so need for oil to get us to the office any more.

Secondly, I thought about how more robust webconferencing technologies could replace the need for flying across the country to attend events (which I'm getting ready to do in about an hour).

Thirdly, on a more general note, we could begin to get rid of the need for ever traveling to physically be somewhere, instead using cameras to allow our eyes to see anything anywhere, whether it be talking to your doctor or a family member or a teacher, all made possible through broadband applications like videocalling.

Fourthly, I realized that without oil we'd have to get more efficient at the delivery of goods, meaning less reliance on popping over to the store and more emphasis on ordering goods over the Internet and consolidating into centralized distribution centers. This would mean less need for petroleum-based plastics for eye-catching packaging that litters store shelves.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if a world without oil wouldn't be such a bad thing, assuming we all have access to and know how to use broadband.

Now of course I say all this somewhat facetiously as I realize the true impact of a world without oil could be devastating, but I do so to highlight how much of what we rely on oil for today could be replaced with virtual constructs and broadband technologies.

And since we're facing the possibility of a world that's truly without oil within our lifetimes, I think this just adds more fuel to the fire for why we need to be doing more to fully embrace the possibilities of broadband today rather than waiting around for a crisis situation to force our hand.

November 7, 2007 10:28 AM

OECD Maintains US's Position as Broadband Follower

The OECD rankings dropped yesterday, and after seeing an article in my hometown paper about our troubling international standing relative to broadband deployment I think the conversation's jumped the shark.

The latest news? No news at all as the US has maintained its position in the teens.

This lack of movement has got me wondering: what impact will this have on the rallying cries previously spurred by the perceived diminishing of the US as a leader in all things broadband?

To be honest, I'm one who has never put a whole lot of stock in the OECD rankings.

First off, they don't factor in the nature of the major players in each country's telecom marketplace, ie private vs. government, monopolies vs. marketplaces (though perhaps this isn't a bad thing as it provides a clear picture of the results of one model vs. another on price, speed, and availability).

Secondly, it doesn't consider geographical and topographical concerns that are unique to each country, like the size and diversity of the American landscape (though it does admit that these factors weren't taken into consideration).

Thirdly, there's little consideration for other variables like all the dark fiber waiting to be tapped in the US.

Fourthly, and most damningly in my eyes, the only variable relative to usage and adoption they consider is the number of people with broadband and with computers at home. (I'd argue a country with an average broadband connection of 1Mbps that's actually using that connectivity to better society is more impressive and deserves more credit than a country with 100Mbps to every home but little usage.)

Here's my biggest concern about the uproar around these rankings: are we going to play Chicken Little every time we drop? Conversely, assuming some day we start moving back up the rankings will everyone back off and say everything's fine now?

Don't get me wrong, there's no doubt a lot of good can come out of tracking the rest of the world, identifying success stories, and doing what we can to learn lessons on how to further our broadband-related interests here.

But in my opinion we need to stop worrying so much about where we stand relative to the rest of the world and start focusing on what our own goals should be. It eats me up inside that these conversations have made us into followers when we should be leaders.

How can we define success in our country regardless of what the rest of the world is doing? What are the policies that will help us achieve our goals? And how can we regain our maverick American spirit as trailblazers into this digital age?

More than anything, though, what we need to do is stop debating what these OECD numbers mean. We can't keep wasting time arguing over whether or not this is a problem, and if so how big of a problem it is.

Instead, all of our energy should be placed on building our consensus around the need for more broadband deployment and adoption, and formulating the best plan of attack for realizing those goals in this country by taking the best of what's happening elsewhere and sprinkling in a healthy dash of America's ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit.

November 8, 2007 9:33 AM

Blogging on Broadband from Blandin

Am on the road again, this time in St. Cloud, MN to attend the Blandin Foundation's Broadband Conference entitled "Community Broadband: Making the Right Choices".

So far we've had informative presentations on the present state and technologies of fiber and wireless, a rancorous panel about the realities of the business and mechanics of deploying broadband, and an exercise where we broke into small groups, were assigned roles to play like Mayor and Telecom Operator, and attempted to develop a broadband plan for a fictional community.

My community was a rural county with an incumbent telecom and cable operator whose residents were envious of the service and value being provided by a neighboring independent coop and who wanted to do more with broadband to attract jobs to the area.

I ended up playing the role of Telecom Operator, which in Minnesota means the oft-reviled Qwest.

We boiled our big-picture strategies down into the three tracks facing any community: work with the incumbents, bring in another competitor like that coop, or build a municipal network.

Needless to say, making the market more competitive was not my first choice as a telecom operator. But at the same time without competition I didn't have much incentive to invest in my network's capacity.

In the end, the mayor offered to build a fiber network that the incumbents could ride to provide their services on. I was hesitant to jump on board without knowing more about the details and business terms, but as soon as the cable company signed on I couldn't move fast enough to push in my chips.

It was an interesting experience that led to conversations which rang true for other participants in terms of what they've faced in their communities, especially in more rural areas.

To finish off the day we were treated to a great talk by the inestimable Mayor Graham Richard of Fort Wayne, IN. While I've heard different variations on a similar talk by him on more than one occasion, he always manages to make it fresh and capture my attention.

In particular this time around I was struck by his comment that I'll attempt to paraphrase here: "When we have to call a snow day in the summer due to an outbreak of avian flu, then we'll finally understand the true value and benefits of broadband."

This is an interesting thing to think about: what would happen if an emergency occurred that forced us all to stay home for a day, or a week? Would the gears of society have to grind to a halt if no one can go to work?

Not in a world empowered by broadband we won't.

The challenge we face now is that if this were to happen today, we're not ready to leverage what broadband has to offer. Not everyone has broadband. Most who do don't know what they can do with it. Businesses and government agencies often have no standard procedures for telecommuting. And the applications that will make this all possible are woefully underutilized.

What we should realize, though, is that by preparing ourselves for an emergency of this sort we can simultaneously figure out how to make telecommuting a bigger part of our day-to-day lives.

November 8, 2007 12:18 PM

Broadband Curing Cancer Through Grid Computing

In September, I wrote about the World Community Grid, an effort sponsored by IBM to make grid computing available to entities working for the public good that have need of massive computing power.

The latest news on this endeavor comes out of Canada, where cancer researchers want to use this grid computing network in order to more thoroughly analyze and understand the defective proteins that often cause cancer.

This article highlights the huge gains in efficiency and productivity grid computing makes possible by sharing that the researchers estimated that using conventional computer systems it would've taken them more than 150 years to crunch through all their data. Using the World Community Grid they expect to finish their analysis in a year or two.

Claiming this effort is actually curing cancer may be a bit premature, but there's little doubt that grid computing is a tremendous example of how broadband is making possible a future where technology can defeat disease.

November 8, 2007 4:58 PM

TV Strike Good for Internet Video?

WashingtonPost.com has a great article up exploring the potential impact of the TV writers' strike on interest in online video.

To summarize, TV writers are now on strike, which has forced TV productions to be put on hold, meaning daily shows are already airing reruns in lieu of fresh content each night, and primetime shows are facing the prospect of truncated seasons ending around January if this strike isn't resolved.

In the aforementioned article, they cited how the last writers' strike led to the rise in prominence of unscripted, lower budget reality TV shows.

So the question that the article raises is what might happen this time around when you juxtapose this strike against the rising tide of Internet video.

I think it's a fascinating question, especially because of the wealth of content being made available online. Whether it's primetime TV shows, or live sporting events, or that dynamic space known as user-generated video, there's a lot to watch online.

In particular as this article notes, there's been a significant ramp up in the amount of video being produced with the intent of delivering exclusively over the Internet. These are high value, original shows that you simply can't find anywhere else.

All this being said, the vast majority of video being watched online is still the random short clips made popular by YouTube.

Yet when you look at the amount and quality of content coming online and combine that with the potential for this writers' strike diverting attention away from TV as it slips into reruns, I can't help but think that we might see another evolutionary leap in demand for online video hitting sometime in the not too distant future, which will only further fuel the efforts by content creators to produce high quality video to reach online audiences.

November 9, 2007 10:47 AM

Blogging from Blandin: Tim Nulty Shares Wisdom from Burlington, VT

The first session on yesterday's agenda at the Blandin Broadband Conference was a talk by Tim Nulty, the man behind the fiber build in Burlington, VT. (For a more detailed case study of what he accomplished there, check out this great white paper put out by Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self Reliance.)

He covered a wide range of issues in his remarks, but these were the ones that stuck out to me the most:

- Networks need to be future proof. Now this may sound overly obvious, but the nuance in what he said wasn't that you needed to build a 100Mbps network today, just that when you design your network you need to have a clear technological path for upgrading down the road.

- Networks need to make money. Even if you're a public entity, which Burlington Telecom is, your business plan must prove its capacity to make money. This was especially important for Burlington as Nulty has developed a financing model that's able to build out their network using purely private financing without any city money. And because of his success in this endeavor, he's seeing growing interest among private financiers to get involved with projects like his because they know they can make money off of him.

- Public builds must try their best to run like businesses. Nulty ran through a laundry list of tactics typically ascribed to cutthroat corporate types as being vital for a successful muni build. Like hiring and firing employees, making and breaking contracts, and continually improving to develop efficiencies rarely seen in government. To help facilitate this he recommended not housing the network team in a government agency but instead break them out into a publicly owned corporation.

- Public/private partnerships may not be the answer. It seems like everywhere you turn nowadays someone's talking about how the ultimate solution to broadband deployment are public/private partnerships. But Nulty has his doubts for the simple reason that in his experiences endeavors uniting two entities with differing goals (utility: build to everyone, don't worry about revenue; private: maximize profit) is rarely a recipe for success.

In an area that has seen their best hope for fiber (Verizon) try to divest themselves of the whole state by selling off their network, Nulty has stepped up to champion a new model for public fiber deployment that he believes has the potential to cover every inch of the state before he's done.

He's proven that fiber builds in rural areas can not only be feasible but also successful. And he's now in the process of starting back up the mountain with ValleyNet.

I'm excited to watch as he continues his way across Vermont, leaving fertile communities brimming with bandwidth in his wake.

November 9, 2007 11:01 AM

Go Check Out Blandin's Blog for LOTS More Info

Just realized I'd been remiss in not pointing to Blandin's own blog, manned by the lovely and indefatigable Ann Treacy.

She's already got 8 posts up detailing the happenings of the conference, which will provide you an even richer sense of the great things that were hosted at this event.

November 9, 2007 2:16 PM

Coolest Thing I Learned at the Blandin Conference

Yesterday at the Blandin Broadband conference I encountered one of the coolest, most head-slappingly-obvious ideas I've never heard of before in terms of the use of broadband to promote economic development.

On a panel entitled "Community Transformation via Portals" we were treated to the tales of a handful of cities across Minnesota that through a Blandin grant pursued initiatives to create portals of various sorts, like a website that combined all of Moose Lake's city resources into one interface, and an effort by KAXE to inspire citizen journalism.

But what really caught my attention was the effort by the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce championed by Sheila Howk to create a virtual mall for local businesses.

To take a step back, what they first did was set up a series of Tech Tuesdays, which had the goal of engaging local retailers with the Internet revolution by showing them how to build websites for their businesses. They set out with the goal of reaching 24 businesses; they've now topped 50.

The next, and in my opinion most brilliant, phase of this project will launch sometime in the next few months.

What it will be is a virtual mall for local New Ulm businesses. Users will be able to navigate to a central site that will create a mall-like atmosphere in which they can discover local businesses selling their products online.

When I heard Sheila talking about this concept I couldn't help but get excited by it.

There seems to be a growing desire to buy local and support small businesses, well what better way to help facilitate that than to leverage the Internet and pull together these small businesses based on geography?

I see this as allowing area residents to have more awareness about the products available in their local community while simultaneously opening up the possibility to use this as a way to encourage more national and even international dollars to flow into small local businesses.

Maybe it's a customer who used to live in the area, or has family in the area, or maybe it's a polka enthusiast who knows that New Ulm is the polka capitol of America.

Whatever the circumstances, this is such a no-brainer, great way to help support local business I'm flabbergasted we haven't seen more of it.

I asked Sheila if she knew of other efforts around the country to pursue similar initiatives but she hadn't heard of any. If anyone knows of some, please share them in the comments. In the meantime, I'm going to work on seeing if I can find any of my own.

But whether not it has or has not been done elsewhere, I'm a strong proponent now of this being an essential tool for any community to use that wants to support its local small business community.

November 12, 2007 9:34 AM

When Interest Meets Availability: A Tale of Consumer Broadband Adoption

After attending the Blandin Broadband conference in St. Cloud, I spent the weekend visiting friends around the Minneapolis area where I grew up.

Friday night I spent with a best friend of mine that I've known since kindergarten, Jeff Valley. He and I chatted at length about what I was working on and all the wonderful things made possible by broadband.

To step back for a moment and frame this relationship: back in college at the tail end of the 20th century, he pushed me to experiment with a fascinating new technology called VoIP. (Talking over the Internet was a pretty neat experience the first time, despite the horrible lags.)

Since then, though, he admitted that he hadn't really kept up on what was happening online, that he wasn't familiar with most of the applications I was mentioning.

Now, I find this interesting because here's a young, techno-savvy male who has certainly been engaged with broadband applications in the past yet who doesn't use them to any great degree in his day-to-day life.

Just as we began to discuss why it is that he had fallen off the cutting edge when he shared something with me: his recent purchase of an IPTV box and subscription to the IPTV service of ITVN.

The impetus behind this purchase was his fervor as a soccer fan. He bought into a $15 a month service because it allowed him to watch Premiere league soccer matches that simply weren't available anywhere on TV.

The quality was good, though not great, sometimes looking blocky during the fast back-and-forth action of a top-flight soccer game. And while the service allowed him to watch soccer all day on the weekends, it wasn't like this was a TV replacement service; all that's on is soccer.

But all this doesn't matter because through this broadband application he was able to get the content that he wanted. And despite his claims not to be engaged with the broadband revolution, here he was with an IPTV box hooked up to the Internet sitting in his living room underneath his TV.

Why had this application caught his attention above all others? Because it gave him something he wanted at a price he thought was fair in a form factor that made sense.

Interestingly, when I got home from this trip, a similar thing had happened for my Internet-phobic wife, Ji Choe. She still has yet to make her first purchase on Amazon due to fears of giving out her credit card and uncertainty about how the Internet works, yet what did she spend a large part of her time doing while I was gone? Watching episodes of her favorite anime on a recently discovered website that housed the show's entire archives for free for on-demand playback.

Here was a girl who never did anything other than browse a couple websites, check the weather and the Metro schedule, surf craigslist, and maybe watch a YouTube video or two, and now because she found content that was relevant to her at a price that was unbeatable in a manner that was easy to use, and now she's watching multiple hours of full-length episodes in a single sitting over the Internet.

To me what this all demonstrates is that arguably the biggest barrier to adoption of broadband applications is matching up user interest to availability. Driving adoption demands building awareness, but that can be a double edged sword.

On the one hand, navigating to a website is the easiest thing in the world. On the other, getting people to find a site that matches their personal interests can be the hardest thing in the world.

But instead of trying to solve that problem in this post, I simply wanted to share this anecdotal experience of what's possible when availability and interest combine to create possibilities and opportunities for engaging more people with the broadband revolution.

November 12, 2007 10:59 AM

Broadband Changes Lives! A Report from the Alliance for Public Technology

While on the road last week I unfortunately had to miss an event this past Wednesday on the Hill at which the Alliance for Public Technology released its 2007 report and announced the winners of its Broadband Changed My Life! campaign.

I'm currently reviewing the lengthy and fascinating report put together by Peter Backof now, and I hope to sit down for him to chat about the stories contained therein and his experiences compiling these stories later this week. So more on the specifics of these efforts soon.

But for now I just wanted to make sure you all were aware that this report had dropped. If you want to download the PDF, you can do so by clicking this link.

I'm a firm believer that the more we can do to celebrate the possibilities of broadband and highlight specific real-world examples where broadband applications are having positive impacts, that that will do nothing but help make the case for needing more broadband and greater adoption of broadband.

To that end, I'm going to be working on pulling together whatever resources like this I can find over the next few months so that we can begin to codify these experiences and translate them into actionable insights that can be shared between communities. If you have any suggestions on where to look for additional materials like this APT report, please feel encouraged to add a comment to this post with your thoughts.

If we are to succeed to the degree to which we are all capable and enabled by broadband to do so, then we must work together diligently to break down the silos that often exist between different parts of society in order to share information about best practices and success stories whenever and wherever possible.

November 12, 2007 3:58 PM

User-Generated Content Gets Bigger

Didn't even know this was possible, but it looks like user-generated content is set to get a whole lot bigger, literally from a bandwidth perspective.

Last week YouTube introduced the YouTube Uploader, a desktop application aimed at making it easier to upload your videos to their site. Their hope is that this will encourage more people to upload more of the videos that make their site valuable.

They simultaneously unveiled the fact that they're raising their 100MB file size limit to 1GB, though they still won't let you upload a video longer than 10 minutes. This means they're preparing to start delivering video that isn't as compressed, meaning higher quality.

Last month, video sharing site Vimeo.com began offering the ability to upload and watch HD video through their site.

It won't be long before user-generated video will break free from the blocky constraints of lower bitrates for the full-screen wonder that is HD, and that'll mean its appetite for bandwidth will begin to grow even more steeply.

There is still a question of whether or not this higher quality video will drive more users to watch or if the bandwidth constraints of many new users will restrict their ability to join in on the fun, but perhaps this will end up being the straw that breaks the camel's back, proving the need and creating the demand for multimegabit broadband.

November 13, 2007 9:14 AM

Broadband Vs. Peak Oil Revisited

A week ago today I wrote a post about what a world without oil would look like if we were to more fully embrace the possibilities of broadband, coming to the conclusion that maybe it wouldn't be so bad.

Those thoughts garnered the attention of Marc Strassman through Jim Baller and his highly recommended email newsletter.

Marc is an editor/producer for the Etopia News Channel and host of the Strassman Report. He covers a wide range of topics, but in particular has recently focused on the nexus of Peak Oil and telecommuting, recently coining the term "petrocommuting" as a way to highlight the gas-guzzling nature of most any physical commute.

He pinged me late last week and we set up an interview to discuss these issues.

To conduct the interview we stepped boldly into the 21st century using a videocalling application I've written about before called SightSpeed. Here is the resultant video:

As you watch this you'll notice we still live in a world where the limitations of last mile access networks hamper the effectiveness of live two-way video communications.

Don't get me wrong, I stand by my sentiment that for much of this interview I felt like we were having a real conversation. But starting in the middle you'll begin to notice some dropped words and the occasional stutter in the video.

I don't know this for sure but my suspicion is that both of these happenings were related to our lack of upload capacity on both ends of the call, as evidenced by the fact both sides suffered through similar issues.

The funny thing is, though, that on my end I'm on a premium cable connection that claims 750Kbps and often hits 1.5Mbps; the best consumer broadband my money can buy in my current location.

And I know in talking with the SightSpeed guys their app can run over as little as 300Kbps.

So this either suggests I had the settings in the app wrong, or I was suffering through the perils of a shared cable system, where your neighbor's traffic can affect your connection's performance.

In any event, it was a fascinating experience and one that you can expect to see utilized many times over the coming months on App-Rising.com as I use SightSpeed's impressive toolset (which I encourage everyone to download and try out) to conduct interviews of my own as well as roundtable discussions with thought leaders like Marc Strassman.

November 14, 2007 11:10 AM

State Legislatures Attempt to Tackle the Internet Economy

While federal Internet legislation gets all the attention, state legislatures are also struggling with determining how best to regulate the silo-breaking nature of broadband. And in their attempts to cram this brave new world into the existing structure of modern society they may be inadvertently dissuading the use of broadband.

In New York state, for example, the government has recently determined that because of programs like Amazon Associates--where anyone can link to Amazon products from their websites and earn referral fees--some online retailers should have to collect state sales tax because they now have a physical presence selling their products in the form of this virtual salesforce. Historically, online retailers have skirted this because by and large they don't have physical presences in states marketing or selling products, ie no bricks-and-mortar stores.

For a more detailed rundown of what's happening, check out this article.

I'm not going to argue against the legality of this push, but I do wonder about the efficacy of it and how the details regarding enforcement will be hashed out.

For example, does this mean Amazon must now collect New York state sales tax from anyone with a New York address, or only those people who found a product through a New York-based member of Amazon Associates?

Also, what happens if this new enforcement of existing law forces Amazon's hand to decide it's not worth supporting Amazon Associates in New York because they don't want to have to collect state sales tax? This might be an extreme notion, but it doesn't seem totally unrealistic and if it were to happen I don't see how taking away revenue-generating opportunities from New York citizens is a good thing.

Another example of state government in action is in Massachusetts, where a bill authorizing three new casinos contains a provision banning online gaming.

Beyond the obvious concerns about whether or not this provision is trying to protect established interests, I also wonder about how one makes online gambling illegal.

You can't stop anyone from making a bet online. Most online gambling entities are off-shore so you can't go directly after them. I'd be shocked if they tried talking ISPs into blocking those sites, except possibly for the most egregiously gambling oriented, but even then there are ways around those safeguards.

It's just remarkable to me how government continues to try and legislate human behavior, and I think the wrongheadedness of trying to do so is heightened in an online world, where it's hard if not impossible to stop people from doing something they really want to do.

Not only that, but I think we need to step back for a moment and more seriously consider why we're attempting to discourage these behaviors. Is New York really all that worried about the bite online retail is taking out of the local tax coffers? Does massachusetts really think online gambling is such a horrible thing relative to physically sitting in a casino and throwing money away?

If it's an issue of online dollars subverting traditional local economies and leaving for other areas, well I'd argue the focus should be less on punishing behavior online and moreso on trying to attract players in these spaces to your state. Encourage people to explore new business opportunities where they can generate revenue and add to the state coffers. Bring in the companies that house the data centers that make online gambling possible, likely creating higher quality jobs using less resources.

Change isn't something we should fear but embrace. And we must work diligently to see that the endless possibilities of broadband aren't squashed by the regulatory limitations of the 20th century.

November 14, 2007 12:35 PM

My Wife the Pirate

I had a sickening realization last night: my wife might be a pirate.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the desire for content you can't find elsewhere can drive adoption and use of the Internet, in particular mentioning my wife's recent discovery of a site stocked with dozens of episodes of her favorite anime.

How'd she find this site? She Googled the name of the show, clicked on one of the first links, and started watching video.

But here's the thing: I don't know if the site she's using is hosting legal content. Sure it's got all the videos, and the show's name is plastered everywhere, but it doesn't seem professional enough to be from the show producers, and even though many of the videos include a disclaimer that these are "free fansub" it's surprising to me that multiple seasons worth of content can be legally available without the official involvement of the content owners.

So, I could be married to an inadvertent criminal.

I say all this juxtaposed against the background of a recent push to enact federal legislation aimed at further criminalizing the act of watching and sharing illegal content.

The PIRATE Act wants to force the Department of Justice to take up the task of pursing individual file swappers who engage in the illegal distribution of content. Basically that can mean anyone who uses P2P networks for moving around music and movies they don't own the rights to.

And the most recent education bill includes provisions the require institutes of higher learning to take a more proactive role in discouraging and prosecuting content piracy by students.

These two bills are more narrowly focused on the P2P space, but really what we're talking about is illegal content distribution, no matter how that content is being distributed.

So what about my wife? Is she a pirate?

I'd argue that much of what drives what's been labeled as piracy stems from analogous situations to my wife's: she was looking for content she wanted and started watching the first place she found it.

This problem was worse a couple years ago, when legal content libraries were severely limited. Today content owners may argue that there are many legitimate channels through which you can get content legally.

But that claim needs to be qualified by the fact that much of what's available online is saddled with complex DRM restrictions, which muddle the value proposition of what you're actually buying when you pay for a movie or song. It's not as simple as buying a DVD or CD and knowing you can play that whenever wherever you want.

Simply put, consumers are confused. They don't know what's legal and what's not. It's not immediately obvious on most sites if they're legit or not. Even if someone wants to buy content the right way it's a confusing mess.

And if that weren't enough, all the early adopters have become accustomed to the P2P environment where everything's free to download and free to use wherever and however they choose.

So who's fault is all this? The consumers? The P2P applications developers? Or the content companies for their inability to innovate and meet the demand for their content with viable online solutions?

We need to be careful about making criminals out of Internet users as before that should be a focus there needs to be more emphasis on finding solutions for this demand.

I mean, it's just common business sense; what should companies spend more money on: creating new opportunities for people to buy their content online, or throwing potential customers in jail?

November 15, 2007 11:06 AM

The Comcast P2P Situation Continues to Snowball

Comcast's policies towards its heaviest users have been covered in AppRising on more than one occasion, but they're like the gift that keeps on giving as more news continues to come out as the storm around their decision to interfere with P2P traffic grows ever larger.

On November 1st a handful of consumer groups asked the FCC to step in and stop Comcast from interfering with P2P traffic. No word yet on if, when, or how the FCC might step in, but rest assured this incident is significant enough to force their hand into acting one way or another. I don't think they can punt on this one.

On November 7th the net neutrality crowd gained a surprising uproar in their effort to press the FCC: a letter from the anti-net neutrality group Hands Off the Internet citing their concerns that Comcast may have in fact violated the four principles of open Internet access the FCC has previously set out. This is an interesting move that highlights the fact that while there are unresolved questions regarding proper network management practices, there is a growing consensus regarding the need to protect fair access to Internet content and application among both sides of this debate.

Then on November 14th, a class action lawsuit was filed in California for breach of contract, breach of implied convenant of good faith and fair dealing, and violating ca consumer legal remedies act. This suit seemed inevitable after the story first broke. The interesting thing will be seeing how the courts differentiate between what's right and what's legal as I'm not entirely sure if the two match up in this instance.

One thing that's surprised me somewhat about all this brouhaha is the relative silence by the telcos. If I were them, I'd be crowing from the rooftops about how bad Comcast is and I'd start touting how my network doesn't discriminate like that (assuming they don't, of course). The combination of this latest P2P fiasco combined with Comcast's much-reviled policies towards its heaviest users create a huge opportunity to position DSL as a service unencumbered by these restrictions, though I haven't necessarily seen this tact taken yet.

For better or worse, Comcast has reignited the net neutrality debate. And since I'd be surprised if this issue found any resolution before the end of the year (unless Comcast backs off from its belief that it has the right to do this), it sets the stage for 2008 to bear witness to further struggles over the issue of how network operators should be allowed to manage traffic on their networks.

Whether or not this means we'll actually start having a real dialogue instead of just two sides shouting past each other is very much still left to be seen...

November 15, 2007 4:17 PM

Searching for Applications...

Came across an interesting new search engine today: Clever Hippo.

It's a search engine for applications and widgets.

A widget is essentially a mini-application, most often dedicated to a single task. They're often also associated with something else, a website, a brand, or another application, rather than being standalone.

Much of what you can find by perusing this site are promotional widgets and fluffy apps that won't necessarily do much to benefit society. But if you're looking for an app, it might be worth throwing it into this search engine to see what shows up.

On the downside, it's most definitely not a comprehensive search engine for all applications. For example, put in the word "videocall" or "videoconference" and not a single result turns up.

November 16, 2007 10:54 AM

Surveying the Broadband Mapping Bill

It's looking more and more like we might see a broadband mapping bill pass through Congress before the end of the year.

Everyone seems to agree we need to do more to improve our understanding of the US broadband marketplace, and most everyone has pointed to the Connect Kentucky model as a good starting point.

But does that mean this bill is the best it can be? Let's take a moment to dive in and find out:

Redefine broadband - Everyone knows we need to revisit the FCC's 200Kbps definition of broadband. What I like about this bill is that it cites the need to introduce different tiers of broadband. I don't see how we can introduce a new speed that takes most DSL lines out of the broadband category, at least not right away. That said, having a tiered definition may end up frustrating consumers who are already confused by the claims of dialup providers that they offer high-speed access. The biggest issue I have with this section, though, is that they're still pushing to define broadband based on the speed needed to transmit an HD video signal. I've written about the wrongheadedness of this approach in a previous post.

Map unserved areas - Hugely important. We need to quickly identify areas that don't have broadband and do everything we can to get it there. It boggles my mind that we're spending money subsidizing new entrants into under-served areas when there are still a number of unserved areas.

Better metrics for evaluation - I just about leaped out of my chair in joy when I read the item calling for more emphasis placed on establishing metrics that do a better job of informing consumers about the cost and capability of their broadband connection, in particular as it relates to the advertised vs. realized speed. There's way too much confusion in this space, so any efforts to clarify this for consumers is more than welcomed. Unfortunately, this bill also cites the need for metrics to better compare US broadband with that in other countries. In this post reacting to the latest OECD rankings, I argue that we need to focus on what's best for our country and not worry so much about where we stand relative to everyone else.

Establish local grassroots technology teams -
I couldn't be more excited about this. Appointing leaders in areas like medicine, education, government, and business is a less-publicized but equally important aspect of the Connect Kentucky project relative to their much-touted mapping initiative. As it stands right now, most entities are forced to find their own way through the broadband landscape, leaving the trailblazers to learn through trial and error. But if we can establish leadership positions in these areas then we can begin to do a better job of sharing best practices within and between communities. Only by doing this will we begin to more rapidly realize the true benefits of broadband.

So all in all, this is a pretty decent looking bill. While I don't agree with everything, it's heart is in the right place and there isn't anything that's egregiously bad.

What I'm most interested to watch now is what will happen if it passes to the Connect Kentucky project. It's been touted by everyone from government types to network operators, and this bill seems tailormade for their model. Already a couple of other states have signed on for similar initiatives, and I continue to read about states starting broadband committees of various sorts.

So it looks to me like 2008 is shaping up to be the year where the broadband debate finally gets serious, moving past the cries for why we need it towards more concrete discussions for how we make all this happen.

November 19, 2007 9:44 AM

Discussing the Need for Broadband Through Broadband

I was invited by Marc Strassman to join him in his first attempt at a 4-person videocall through SightSpeed, along with noted columnist James Carlini and Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.

Here's the video from that conversation:

Some of the quality issues found in the one-on-one interview Marc and I conducted last week are evident here as well.

I'd say as we were chatting I caught maybe 80% of the words spoken. Certainly enough to understand what was being said, but still somewhat limited in terms of creating a real back-and-forth conversation.

I'm curious as to what the primary limiting factor is in conducting these multiparty videocalls so I'm going to check in with Peter Csathy, CEO of SightSpeed to discuss. My guess is it points to the lack of sufficient upload capacity in our last-mile access networks, though it could also be an issue on the server side.

When I learn more I'll let you know.

November 19, 2007 3:02 PM

Hospitals Get $400 Million for Broadband

Last week FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced a three year $400 million expansion of a program to get broadband to hospitals.

On the surface, this is fantastic news that could help bolster healthcare in a number of communities, but I wonder also if it's a missed opportunity of sorts.

For one, this program seems only aimed at putting the broadband networks in place, not doing anything to encourage their use. It adheres to the if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality.

This may work over the long run, but why aren't we including incentives to put programs in place that actually use the broadband alongside deploying the networks?

The most I've read along these lines are that by having broadband hospitals will be better equipped to pursue telehealth initiatives.

Secondly, I haven't seen much scrutiny being placed on how the networks should and could be built. i think it's time we start thinking strategically about any effort to deploy fiber so that we can maximize our efficiency in reaching the goal of a fully fibered fully realized Internet.

What I mean by this is: as we deploy fiber to hospitals, we should be thinking about engineering that network in such a way so that it could be used for other purposes, like for the local utility or public safety organizations. Trying to get other entities on board should not slow down the deployment of fiber but it could shape decisions that are made that may prove beneficial down the road.

And finally, I think it's important to note that while $400 million is a big number, if you spread it out over the three years and all fifty states, you're left with less than $3 million a year, which can certainly do a lot of good but it likely isn't enough to get everyone online.

All this being said, I don't want to disparage this effort as it highlights the FCC's commitment to healthcare, the federal government's growing awareness of the importance of broadband, and possibly one of the best uses of USF money to date.

November 19, 2007 4:16 PM

Educating Online Opportunities and Challenges

Just found a tremendous article about the push to move post-secondary education online into an open, collaborative environment.

It discusses MIT's soon-to-be-reached goal of having materials for its entire course catalog available online.

It mentions the unexpected demand among self-learners for this content.

It delves into the challenges of sustaining these initiatives, which cost MIT more than $4 million a year.

And it ventures into what the future may hold for online education.

In other words, it's a great article for anyone interested in the possibilities of broadband-enabled learning to check out for themselves.

One thought that popped into my head while reading this is the opportunity and challenge of getting teachers and professors engaged with making their course materials available online.

On the one hand, there's the general reluctance among many older educators to embrace new technologies.

On the other, there's the potential to sell this to them as a way to archive their materials and have a better system for building upon and distributing them each year.

Internet-enabled education means being able to build closer ties with students, but it raises the possibility the classroom experience will be devalued as the necessary materials to learn are made available online.

Making materials available to the public means increasing the reach and potential impact of education, but it also opens the possibility of teachers getting distracted by students who aren't tuition-paying students.

It's easy to talk about the impact of broadband on society in the abstract as an unassailable good, but it's also important to consider the unintended consequences of adopting these technologies, which if not addressed proactively can weigh down initiatives that may have the best of intentions.

November 20, 2007 9:56 AM

Fullscreen Internet Video: A Revolution Weighting to Happen

In my research for a StreamingMedia.com feature that explores the opportunities and challenges of online HD video delivery, I learned about a company called Move Networks, which powers ABC's library of full-screen first-run episodes from its most popular TV shows.

One of the core elements of Move is giving content owners the ability to do variable bitrate delivery.

"Variable bitrate delivery" may sound like techno-talk, but what it enables is pretty straightforward: it delivers video at a bitrate that fits within the constraints of your last mile connection.

But this isn't just a matter of picking the right encoding rate for your speed at the outset; Move can help adjust the bitrate on the fly in order to compensate for shifting network conditions as you're watching a video.

While I've sampled ABC's player in the past, it's been a few months and I don't think I ever seen an entire show, so over the weekend I called up an episode of Ugly Betty to watch with my wife. I should have plenty of bandwidth, mind you, as I've got Comcast's premium tier of service. But like any cable connection, I'm on a shared network.

The episode started out amazingly well. Since we have yet to upgrade our TV to HD, the clarity was in some ways better than what we get in our living room, which by itself is a remarkable achievement for online video.

About eight minutes in we hit our first stop, which cleared quickly. Unfortunately it wasn't the last stop and we did near the point of deciding it wasn't worth continuing to try and watch, but we were already too engaged with the episode to not see it through until the end. Plus there's only one 30-second commercial during each break instead of the two and a half minutes of broadcast TV.

The most interesting thing about the experience, though, was watching variable bitrate delivery in action. Pretty much every time it stopped, when it started up again the resolution dropped significantly. I'm talking down to VHS or worse quality. But then it would gradually or quickly improve, often back to the point we were when the video started.

It's an extremely innovative approach to the challenges of unsteady network conditions, and I've generally heard good things about it in the industry, but I also have some reservations about the user experience.

Will everyone be all right watching a fullscreen video experience that looks like you're swapping VHS, broadcast, and DVD signals in and out?

It's like watching the Internet's impotency in action.

The Internet has now proven that it is demonstrably capable of delivering HD video (I saw it myself as talked about here), but that doesn't mean it always can. And despite the fact I'm paying for 8Mbps of service, I sometimes have trouble streaming a 1.5Mbps video.

At the same time, we're at a remarkable turning point.

Most Internet videos are encoded at 750Kbps and lower, but 1.5Mbps is going to start becoming a lot more common as anyone subscribed to a 5Mbps pipe or higher should be able to have a decent user experience at that rate.

And what do you get for 1.5Mbps? Full screen video somewhere between broadcast and DVD quality.

Formerly most 1Mbps+ videos were only accessible as wait-and-watch downloads, but now they'll be available instantly, which could create explosive demand for the abundance of premium content (TV shows, movies, music videos, sports, etc.) now available online today.

But instead of being overwhelmed with excitement, I can't help worrying about the impact this burgeoning demand will have on broadband networks. Perhaps even more importantly, though, I'm concerned with the potential negative impact these sagging networks may have on the adoption of Internet video.

The more a video stops and stutters, the less people will want to watch it, so having enough bandwidth to deliver smooth playback is essential, especially in these early days of high quality online video.

And while perhaps one day Internet entrepreneurs like Move Networks will devise another clever way around network limitations, there really is no substitute for more bandwidth.

November 21, 2007 11:25 AM

Three Great Articles - Broadband, Education, and Entertainment

Some lighter fare today leading into the holiday weekend: the top three articles I've read in the last 24 hours.

News from Vermont - Continuing consternation over the Fairpoint acquisition of Verizon's lines in that state, and concern about Fairpoint's ability to follow through on its promises of an upgraded fiber infrastructure.

Also an unfortunate tale of contracts getting in the way of deploying fiber. What I wouldn't give to free the deployment of fiber from the burden of regulation and litigation!

What I found most interesting about this article was its concluding reference to our nation's fragile economy and the need to bolster Vermont's broadband infrastructure if they are to prepare themselves for any potential economic storms. Whoever wrote this is obviously someone who gets it!

10 Places to Get a Free Business Education Online - Click here to find a tremendous list of links to programs that enable online learning.

What I love most about this list is that it doesn't include so-so content from questionable sources; many of these feature materials from real courses at real universities as well as legitimate publishing operations.

One of the bigger challenges with the adoption of online resources is the question of the credibility of anything you find online. But now that this content is often coming from trusted sources, it can mean a huge step forward in making online education matter.

Google Prepares to Invade Your TV - An extended column that explores what Google may be up to with regards to their plans to attempt to bridge the gap between their Internet efforts and the TV.

While somewhat lengthy, this piece touches on a lot of good points, important issues, and notable opportunities of the Internet to TV space, so I highly encourage anyone who's interested in this area to take a moment and check it out.

I still have some reservations about what's possible in terms of bringing the Internet to the TV, but much of that has to do with the limitations of the user interface more than anything else.

The standard remote control is an amazingly basic device that severely limits the usability of more interactive applications on the TV, and we've yet to reach the point where most consumers are willing to have a keyboard and mouse in their living room.

For this reason I believe it's worth keeping an eye on a company like Hillcrest Labs, who've invented a remote control that is aware of its position in 3D space.

November 26, 2007 8:42 AM

Telecommuting Meet McLuhan In the Age of Broadband

For Thanksgiving this year, I headed out to Colorado to visit friends.

The wife of the family we stayed with has recently entered the ranks of telecommuters as her employer was acquired and their Denver office closed. This isn't an altogether new world for her, though, as she runs sales and marketing of retail goods in Asian markets and has managed a small overseas team for quite some time.

As we continued chatting, we started discussing the pros and cons of telecommuting.

While we both agreed on the oft-cited pros of flexible schedules and cons of not having enough separation between work and play, what I found most interesting was how strongly she spoke out against the efficacy of telecommuting relative to physically being in the same office as her coworkers.

Her primary point was that even though applications like videoconferencing allow for face-to-face conversations that doesn't mean the quality of the communication is the same, in particular when it comes to building real relationships with coworkers.

I have to admit: at first, this sentiment took me aback. I tend to be an unabashed cheerleader of broadband, citing its ability to supplant all kinds of traditional in-person interactions.

But then I began to see the truth to her observation. Building personal relationships often demands casual conversation, especially when you're first meeting someone, and videoconferencing is rarely conducive to getting to know someone on that level.

There are the technological issues that sometimes hamper the back-and-forth flow of conversation. There's the somewhat distant, sterile environment of sitting in front of your computer vs. physically sitting in front of a person. And unless you're using a high-end telepresence system, there's no eye contact.

These limitations aren't as big of a deal when you already know the person you're talking to, or when the conversation you're trying to have has clear parameters and/or goals. But they can be significant hindrances to more casual types of conversation that can be crucial to relationship building.

So simply put, chatting through your computer is not the same as chatting in real life, even if the people talking can see each other.

Taking this line of thought a step further, my mind hearkens back to a college communications course when I was first introduced to the writings of Marshall McLuhan.

The ways in which conversations change when conducted through computers are a prime example of McLuhan's famous credo that the medium is the message.

Without delving into communications theory, the core element of this idea is that the medium through which information is delivered has a fundamental impact on the nature and efficacy of that message.

For McLuhan, the medium that sparked this thought was TV.

Today, I'm beginning to think this core concept needs to be revisited as it relates to the new paradigms being introduced by computers and the Internet.

Because no matter how cool new technologies may be and how close what they enable mimics real life activities, we can't assume that just because a medium can do something it will without altering the message, for better or worse.

November 26, 2007 11:18 AM

Free the Internet from Free Stuff Online

Came across a great list of the "101 Best Web Freebies" put out by BusinessWeek.

It's got links to all sorts of interesting things you can find online that are free, including a host of Internet applications and services that allow you to do everything from make phone calls to manage your finances to design business cards.

But in all honesty, I kind of hate this list.

One of the biggest challenges the Internet faces is the sense among the average consumer that everything found online is, or at least should be, free. At most, you only need to sit through some ads to do what you want to do. The thought of actually paying for something is totally foreign

Of course, the exception to this is online retailers, where you're buying something online that you might normally go to a store to purchase.

But what about the thousands of broadband applications that are out there?

I'm a firm believer that ad dollars can only support so much, and that eventually consumers will have to start being willing to pay for services they receive online.

Yet this understanding is still incredibly nascent, especially with most every broadband application available as a lite version for free along with the far-reaching practice of piracy, where through websites and P2P networks you can find everything from movies to music to software, download it to your computer, and not pay a cent.

The most important thing that needs to be impressed on Internet users is that while there's a ton of great stuff available for free online, there's a growing number of applications, services, and content available for a fee online, and that the value they'll receive by paying for these things can far outweigh their cost.

November 27, 2007 10:43 AM

Cyber Monday Hits Hard - Big Numbers Creating Big Problems

As all bargain hunters know, the day after Thanksgiving--dubbed Black Friday--is the biggest retail shopping day of the year. People line up early and stampede into stores for what are often the best deals of the holiday shopping season.

This year, the Internet held it's own special shopping day, now being referred to as Cyber Monday, a day on which many major online retailers offered a variety of deep discounts to try and attract more dollars out of consumers' wallets.

Now I don't know this for sure, but this is the first time I can remember such a heavy emphasis being placed on online retail during this time of year. And the results were quite notable as early estimates peg a record $700 million day for online retailers.

Further evidence of the popularity of Cyber Monday came from Akamai, which hosts a number of retail websites like BestBuy.com and JCPenney.com, as they announced that across the more than 300 retail websites tracked they track, traffic peaked at a record 4.6 million visitors per minute.

But all was not necessarily well, though, as despite the promise of ecommerce to free shoppers from waiting for doors to open, many Cyber Monday shoppers were left waiting in a line of the digital variety.

Reports have come out from across the Web about online retailers--even giants like Yahoo!--not being able to handle the influx of traffic to their sites. For some sites, this just meant a slowdown in performance, for others it meant crashing completely.

Most devastating of all was the fact that many appeared to have problems not while shopping/browsing, but instead in the checkout line, once customers had already decided they wanted to buy something.

I haven't seen any estimates yet of what impact these hang-ups might have had on driving consumers to other sites or away from online shopping altogether, but it can't have helped.

I also haven't read any definitive proclamations as to what was causing these issues, though it seems most likely that they occurred due the servers these sites were hosted on becoming overwhelmed with too many customers trying to sign on and swoop up deals.

What should have been a triumphant day for online retailers has instead been marred for many by the inability of the Internet to keep up with demand.

But it's important to note that this wasn't an issue of not having enough capacity in the network, but instead on the server side of the equation. This points to the fact that if the Internet is to realize its ultimate potential, we need to realize massive investment all the way up and down the value chain through which Internet traffic flows.

November 27, 2007 12:00 PM

Broadband Apps Drive Competition

Traditional software delivery models have tended towards near monopolies dominated by major players like Microsoft. Look back even just two years ago and see how much competition Microsoft's Office suite faced and while you may find some competitors, you certainly won't find much marketshare left over after you take Office out of the picture.

But today, through broadband, that competition paradigm is well on its way to shifting dramatically.

The latest news is an announcement by a former Hotmail cofounder on his release of another online competitor (of sorts) to Office - Live-Documents.com.

I say "of sorts" as a big part of Live Documents is its ability to serve as a wrapper around your existing Office software, enabling Office documents to be easily shared and collaborated on online. At the same time, one can see how it wouldn't be an overly large leap for Live Documents to ultimately start pushing itself as an Office-replacement offering.

But Live Documents is far from alone in terms of Internet-based competitors to Office.

Adobe acquired a Flash-based word processor called Buzzword.

Zoho offers everything from an online word processor to spreadsheet and presentation creators and beyond.
includes Google Docs and Spreadsheets.

And these are just the major players. There are also a host of smaller competitors trying to make names for themselves in this space.

While I'm not sure if any of these online Office alternatives have taken a significant amount of marketshare from Microsoft, I can't help but get excited about the possibilities this new competition holds for driving innovation in the document creation space.

And this innovation will be able to more quickly make it into the hands of consumers as hosted applications like these can be updated dynamically on the server side without need for users to download and install service packages of any sort.

True, hosted office apps suffer from the fact that most won't work without access to the Internet, but a new day is dawning for consumers as broadband is enabling the creation of a remarkable new marketplace for the creation and delivery of applications, and I couldn't be more excited!

November 28, 2007 11:09 AM

What Is... the Internet?

This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to take technological terms that can seem nebulous and complex, and boil them down into understandable concepts with clear definitions.

So to begin, why not take on the biggest of big pictures: defining what the Internet is.

The Internet has often been defined as a series of interconnected private networks, and to a degree that's true: the Internet is fundamentally a network of networks. The Internet is not one homogenous network but many independent networks cobbled together so that data can go from one place to another, no matter what network the sender or receiver is on.

But we need to expand this in two ways.

First, the Internet is not just a series of interconnected private networks but also public networks as well. In fact, the Internet began as a series of interconnected public networks. And while today it's safe to say that the majority of networks that make up the Internet are private, there are certainly publicly owned networks that are part of the Internet as well.

Secondly, we need to break the definition of "network" into two categories: access and backbone.

The access networks--often referred to as "the last mile"--are those that you think of when you're getting broadband service. The cable, DSL, or fiber pipe that connects to your home. This is the part of the network that has been cited as a bottleneck due to the prevalence of slower copper instead of the faster fiber that makes up the rest of the Internet.

That brings us to the backbone. The backbone is made up of the large fiber pipes that crisscross the nation and the globe carrying Internet traffic in between last mile access networks. At least in the US, there's a lot of capacity available here in the form of dark fiber that was put in the ground during the late 90s but is still not yet fully utilized.

In my opinion, though, the Internet is more than just the networks that deliver traffic; it's also the equipment that attaches at either end through which content is supplied and consumed. Again I split these into two categories: computers and servers.

What computers are is pretty self-explanatory, though I do intend for it to go beyond desktop and laptops to include all forms of computers, including handheld devices and other non-traditional computers. These are the instruments through which users experience the Internet and consume content.

Servers are something often mentioned in broadband conversations but perhaps not often enough defined. Technologically speaking, they're basically computers, only these computers are specially designed to host content and applications and serve hundreds, thousands, and even millions of users.

Basically every time you go to a website you're pulling that content from a server. Most every time you watch a video it's being delivered from a server. Whenever you're using an online application where you didn't have to download and install anything, it's being hosted on a server. And even if you had to download software, you did so from a server (unless of course you were using a P2P network, but that's the subject of a future "What Is...").

So what does that leave us with?

The Internet is a series of interconnected private and public networks. The Internet includes both access and backbone networks, as well as the computers and servers that attach to them.

Because of all this cross-ownership, no one can own the Internet (and because of this some might argue no one can control it either).

It's also important to note that when we talk about the Internet not being prepared to live up to its potential to handle all the wonderful bandwidth intensive applications it makes possible, points of failure can be found at any point along this value chain.

Access networks often have limited capacity, especially those that rely heavily on shared bandwidth where one user's activity can negatively affect another's.

Backbone networks can become clogged through heavy usage, especially during flashpoint events like natural disasters, forcing traffic to slow down or reroute.

Computers can be insufficiently powered or bogged down by things like viruses.

And servers can lack the connectivity and/or the capacity to support the demand for whatever content it might be hosting.

Because of this when something goes wrong, resolving the problem can be difficult as simply identifying where the problem stems from is beyond all but the more advanced Internet users.

But if we can start establishing clearer definitions of what the Internet is and how it works, as I've attempted to do here, perhaps we can begin to grow past the pains caused by this nascence in understanding, learn how to better navigate the limitations of today's Internet, and more fully understand the need to continue investing heavily in all aspects of the Internet's infrastructure.

November 29, 2007 11:14 AM

Searching for the Broadband President

In the midst of a hotly contested presidential election, now would seem to be the perfect time to start having constructive dialogue about finding real-world solutions to our nation's problems.

And given the transformative power of broadband to realize new efficiencies across all aspects of society, you'd figure the deployment and use of broadband and the Internet would be elevated to a place of prominence by candidates jockeying to establish themselves as the best leader for America.

Unfortunately that's just not the case.

This article analyzing the Democratic frontrunners' Internet platforms inspired me to delve further into what's missing in the presidential debates.

First off, all the candidates have made the usual cries about the need for more broadband, but I see little to no concrete suggestions for how to achieve that goal. Saying we need more broadband is one thing; figuring out how to actually get it is another.

Secondly, they all support net neutrality to one degree or another, but so far all we've heard is the same tired rhetoric equating net neutrality to free speech, without any discussion regarding how it might actually be implemented (assuming we can first all agree on what it even means).

On an even broader note, I'm pretty sure they're all in favor of using the Internet to a greater degree, but you'd be hard pressed to confirm that by looking at their sites.

I decided to conduct a little experiment by going to the websites of Clinton, Obama, and Edwards and searching for the terms "broadband" and "internet" on the pages that included details of their plans for education, healthcare, and government reform.

On Obama's site the only hit I got was in his call to have all bills be available online to the public for 72 hours before they pass (which is brilliant, by the way, assuming there's an effective mechanism in place for accepting and reviewing comments and that those comments can then influence the language of bills).

On Edwards' site the only reference to the Internet was a tangential one, referencing the rise of online donors in his call for campaign finance reform. He does make a call for universal broadband and net neutrality as a way to bolster democracy, though, so I'll give him a little credit for that, even though he gives far fewer specifics than Obama on how to use broadband to truly benefit democracy.

On Clinton's site? Nothing at all.

Now, I don't want to make it sound like they're not talking about broadband or the Internet. The problem is that the standard practice seems to be to sequester all things broadband under the umbrella of a larger technology/innovation agenda that also includes things like the need to push science and math in schools and support innovation across all sciences and technologies.

This idea that broadband is an end unto itself, that it's a separate issue from all the other issues this country face, makes me want to pull out all my hair and run screaming around the Hill in disgust.

When oh when will a candidate realize the potential of establishing themselves as the person most willing to wave the broadband flag?

When oh when will candidates start figuring out that broadband isn't a separate thing but an enabling technology with the potential to enhance education, expand healthcare, streamline government, reduce our reliance on foreign oil, improve efficiencies in business, bolster international commerce...the list just goes on and on of where the use of broadband can help us all realize the goals we have for this country.

As far as I can tell, no one's stepped up to claim this mantle yet. But when someone does, you can bet where my vote's going to go.

November 30, 2007 9:54 AM

USF Starts Heading in Right Direction

Long reviled as a questionable use of taxpayer dollars, the universal service fund (USF) now seems on the verge of some significant changes to the ways it doles out money.

First and foremost, there's the recommendation by the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service to expand the services supported by the USF to include high speed broadband.

I think it's a crime to have any new telephone-only lines put into the ground or strung over the air, especially when you consider that by putting in broadband you can get telephone service!

Unfortunately this is only a recommendation at this point, and there is some question about how robust support is for this as the Joint Board has so far only called for $300 million to subsidize rural broadband, which is a big number but not big enough to solve the whole problem.

The second push is to refocus the USF on subsidizing broadband in unserved areas instead of the broader and more amorphous under-served markets.

This is such a no-brainer to me it's ridiculous. "Universal service" implies making sure everyone can get service. So shouldn't the focus of the USF be on making sure everyone has access to broadband before worrying about making sure everyone has access to more than one provider?

If we allow a program like this to get distracted worrying about encouraging competition, we then lose sight of the ultimate goal: getting everyone onto the network.

The third big potential shift is splitting the USF into three categories: wireline, wireless, and providers of last resort.

In the current model, wireless and wireline are lumped together, which muddles the fact that ultimately what we want is wireless and wireline connectivity, not either/or but both. Additionally, moving in this direction helps put further emphasis on the importance of wireline networks, which have sometimes been pushed into the background because of excitement over the possibility of a wireless world.

Deploying wireline networks may be expensive, complicated, and time-consuming, but they're also incredibly important to the future of bandwidth-intensive broadband applications.

I'm pretty sure none of these three aspects of change have officially been implemented yet, and there's undoubtedly some areas that need further fleshing out and exploration to ensure the billions in USF subsidies are spent wisely, but at the very least it's encouraging to hear the news laid out above that perhaps we're finally starting to steer this aspect of the Great Broadband Debate in the right direction.