Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My son pays $22/month for symmetric, 100 Mbps Internet service ... in South Korea

My son lives in a relatively small city about 50 miles from Seoul.

He has a choice of three major Internet providers -- their monthly list prices for symmetric 100 Mbps Internet connectivity are as follows:

KT Corp: 31,680 ₩
SK Broadband: 33,000 ₩
LG Corp: 31,350 ₩
1,000 won is just under one dollar – about 96 cents, so, they are all around $30 per month.

Here is a copy of his latest bill from SK Broadband:

The top line is his charge for the month. (The second line shows the balance due from the previous month).

The charge is 35,000 ₩ (I guess there are some taxes), but he has a 13,000 ₩ discount because he signed a two year contract. With that contract he is paying about $22 per month for 100 Mbps connectivity.

How does that compare to your Internet service bill and speed?

How about customer service? Here is a quote from a comparative review of South Korean ISPs:
As mentioned earlier of fierce competition between a much-similar service providers, they will dispatch a repairman within a few hours of your call, even on WeekEnd!
How is it that Korea has achieved intense ISP competition? There is no simple answer, but the government has pursued a multifaceted policy encouraging investment and demand creation and providing common infrastructure, which is used by compteting ISPs (as in Singapore, Sweden or Latvia)

By contrast, we have little ISP competition in the U. S., leaving customers in a weak position -- dealing with non-competitve providers of a necessary service.

Update 4/11/2014

My son saw this post and offered a couple of corrections. He sent me prices for the three major ISPs he can choose from, but says there are a number of smaller ones -- he said I understated the level of competition. He also said that the difference between his bill and the list price I quoted was not due to taxes, but the fact that the list price comparison he sent me was from a blog post and may not have been current. His list price is 35,000 ₩, not 33,000 ₩, but the general point remains true.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Laptop vs Chromebook vs Tablet

I have played around with an Acer C720 Chromebook on and off for the last two weeks -- trying to see where, if anywhere, it might fit into my digital life.

My primary computer is a laptop, but I use a tablet from time to time, and, the bottom line is that the Chromebook is not ready to replace my laptop, but, it trumps the tablet.

I came to this conclusion by considering my digital applications and the hardware. Let's begin with a look at my applications


Consuming Web content: I often have fifteen or twenty browser tabs open That is no problem for my laptop, which has 8 GBytes of memory, but, I worried that the C720, with only 4 GBytes of memory might not be up to the task. I did not have to worry -- the C720 surfs as well as my laptop.

Casting tabs: The C720 easily outperformed my laptop in smoothly, quietly (no fan noise) casting video streams to the Chromecast device on my TV set. The Chromebook wins this application hands down since my laptop is unusable for video tab casting. In testing tab casting, I also noticed that its display colors are cooler than the TV set or laptop.

Email: I use the Thunderbird email client for most of my email and my primary account is on my university's Exchange server. I prefer Thunderbird because I am used to it, but Outlook Web App (OWA) runs in a browser and is an excellent client. I could easily give up Thunderbird and use OWA on the Chromebook. I could also access it on the tablet, but want a real keyboard for writing email.

Drafting documents and HTML pages: On my laptop, I usually draft documents (like this post) and edit HTML pages with a text editor and paste them into an application like Blogger or Word. Google Docs or Word Online could replace my text editor. The Chromebook and laptop are about even on this score, with the tablet a distant third, for lack or a keyboard or precision pointing device.

File transfer: Edited HTML pages must be transferred to my server and I have not found a browser-based FTP client with the features I take for granted when using FileZilla on my laptop. If anyone knows of a good one, let me know.

Microsoft Office apps: As a teacher, I create a lot of Powerpoint presentations and frequently need to write a formatted document. Neither Google Docs nor Office Online can match Office. I expect the next big clash between Google and Microsoft to be in the browser, and, if I were in charge at either company, I would put a lot of resources into these applications, but, for now, I'm sticking with my laptop.

Image editing: I have not found a Web-based image editor with the speed and features I need. I do not need a high-end image editor like Photoshop, but do need speed and features like layers, magic wand and other selection modes, effects and adjustments, fat bits, etc. provided by the editor I use, If you know of a tablet or Web-based image editor that can keep up with, let me know.

Audio editing: I only work with speech, not music, so don't need a professional editor. I use Audacity to record, capture and edit speech and have not yet found a Web or tablet based equivalent.

Video editing: I use Camtasia Studio for capturing and editing video. It has plenty of features for what I do, but, unlike open source Audacity and, it is expensive. I would love to find a "good enough" video editor editor for my laptop or online or on a tablet.

Podcatching I download a lot of podcasts using iTunes and listen to them on a small mp3 player. I've never used a cloud-based podcatcher -- are there some good ones?

Writing programs: I don't do a lot of programming these days, but occasionally fire up Visual Studio for a utility example or in teaching. Microsoft is moving in the direction of a browser-based version of Visual Studio and Google is developing Spark, a browser-based development envirionment, if I were at Microsoft, I'd speed up that effort. For now, I need the laptop for running Visual Studio.


As we saw above, the C720 is fast. With 30 browser tabs open, I was able to stream video smoothly and there was no noticeable delay when changing or opening tabs. Checking memory utilization, we see that it nearly all being used:

In spite of that, the Chromebook operating system and swaps between memory and the solid state drive are so fast that I did not notice slowing.

So, the system hardware is fast, but what about the input/output devices?

Screen: The larger, high resolution screen on my laptop allows me to work comfortably with two windows open -- the Chromebook screen is cramped when creating content.

Keyboard: Typing is easier and faster on the laptop, with its larger, deeper keyboard. I don't have a tablet keyboard, but, if I did, I would want one that was full size.

Pointing device: The trackpad on my laptop is smoother and more precise than that of the Chromebook and there is enough physical space for real buttons rather than the virtual buttons on the Chromebook. I like the two and three finger gestures on the Chromebook trackpad, but that is not enough for me to favor it.

Summing it all up

As a content creator, I prefer my laptop because of its input/output devices, but as a content consumer, my laptop cannot compare to the security, simple set-up, battery life, quick charging, instant on/off, size, weight and $250 manufacturer's suggested retail price of the C720. The Chromebook is comparable to a tablet in convenience and simplicity, but is more useful for casual content creation and light editing. If I have one computer, it would be the laptop, but, if I could have two, the second machine would be a Chromebook.

Of course different people have different applications. I let my 11 year old grandson Lucas use the Chromebook for a while then asked him how he liked it and how it compared to his iPad. He said he likes the touch screen of the iPad and missed that on the Chromebook, but he said the Chromebook was better for the "Interweb" and there were more games that he liked. He did not like the feel of the Chromebook touchpad, but liked the keyboard because he could type things like he does with Microsoft Word. The bottom line question -- I asked if he could have only an iPad or the Chromebook, but not both, which would he choose, and he preferred the Chromebook.

My wife reads email, consumes Web content, does Skype calls, takes photos and plays games. She would probably prefer her iPad to the Chromebook. And, geekier folks might get around some of the Chromebook limitations by installing Crouton, which would allow them to run Linux-based applications like Audacity, the audio editor I mentioned above.

How about the future? What about five years from now, when I hopefully have at least 100Mb/s connectivity, a much faster CPU and a Chromebook that runs HTML 6? I suspect that I will be doing more in the browser, and the Chromebook will look better than it does today, but I will still want the form factor and input/output devices of my laptop for content creation. So, I bet I have a laptop and a small Chromebook in five years, but I don't expect to own a tablet. Sorry Apple.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Recommended podcast: Hans Rosling on data visualization (19:50)

In this data visualization classic, Hans Rosling applies his visualization tools to data on life expectancy, fertility rate, GDP, infant mortality, etc. His tools present data dynamically -- we see changes over time -- and he is a dynamic, funny speaker as well.

The talk ends with visualization of some Internet penetration data and a plea for open access to government data.

The talk is immodestly titled "The best stats talk you've ever seen," but it delivers what it promises. If you are hooked, you can interact with his tools and follow him on his Website.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Excellent phishing spam: Rakas sähköpostin käyttäjä

The other day, I got an email with the subject line "Rakas sähköpostin käyttäjä."

I figured it must be an excellent spam specimen, but did not know what it said or which language it was written in, so I popped it into Google Translate:

It turned out to be in Finnish. Next I checked the email source and this is what I found:

I shared this with my class -- it's a funny example that makes the point that you should be careful what you click on.

Recommended podcast: Radioab -- when the moon was close and the days were short (14 minutes)

The title of this podcast, "The Times they are a Changin," does not refer to the Bob Dylan song, but to the fact that, on a cosmic scale, we can't take anything for granted.

The Radiolab hosts weave commentary with clips from experts to explain that, about 4.5 billion years ago, when the moon was created, it was about ten times closer to the Earth than it is today and days were around six hours long.

(The podcast has a second part -- a six minute long conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson).

Friday, March 28, 2014

Office for the iPad -- too late? The browser is the next battleground.

Microsoft finally released Office for the iPad, but the iPad is four years old -- this announcement is long overdue. Preliminary reviews say they have done a good job on the touch user interface, but isn't that the last war?

The next war is not over the tablet or phone, but over the browser.

Don't take my word for it. In a 1997 Time interview (by Walter Isaacson) Bill Gates said:

Any operating system without a browser is going to be f****** out of business. Should we improve our product, or go out of business?
In 1998 he sent a memo to Microsoft executives saying:
One thing we have got to change in our strategy - allowing Office documents to be rendered very well by other peoples browsers is one of the most destructive things we could do to the company...This is a case where Office has to avoid doing something to destroy Windows.
I have been using a Chromebook for a week and I use Google Docs quite a bit, and, while I like both, am not ready to give up Windows. But, I bet there are a lot of folks who would abandon Windows if they could run Office in a browser.

What would have happened if Microsoft had released Office for the iPad, say, two years ago? It would have helped iPad sales and hurt Windows tablets for sure, but Windows tablets are not doing well regardless, and Microsoft and Office would have strengthened their dominant position with professional and enterprise users. Maybe they should have rebranded themselves the "software and services company" instead of "devices and services."

Now let's look forward, say, five years. I will have a gigabit Internet connection (well, not if Time Warner has their way) and my Chromebook will be very fast and compatible with HTML6. Will I want to use Office 365 and One Drive or Google Docs 2019 and Google Drive? Which one will my university or an enterprise settle on?

Today, Microsoft has the advantage of having many years of experience with Office and full-featured productivity applications. (Charles Simonyi, who worked on object-oriented programming on computers with bit-mapped displays at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s, led the development of Word and Excel at Microsoft). They also have a solid grip on the enterprise.

Microsoft "got" bit mapped displays before Google existed, but Google "got" the Internet before Microsoft did and they have more experience with network infrastructure and applications with their data centers, Google Fiber and Google Docs/Drive. They've also got the chromebook and Chrome. (That being said, both may end up running on Mainframe 2 if that technology prevails).

I don't know which will "win" the browser battle (it may end a tie) and neither do the folks at Google and Microsoft -- and that is good news for us as consumers and citizens.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Internet censorship is a cat and mouse game, and there are many mice

When the Turkish government decided to "obliterate" Twitter, they got a court order allowing them to delete the IP address corresponding to from the domain name servers (DNS) used by Turkish ISPs. became an unknown host name.

But the DNS your ISP uses is not the only one on the Internet -- there are many. If you knew the IP address of an alternative DNS, you could continue accessing Twitter.

A few years ago, Google decided to run a DNS as a public service in order to improve Internet security and speed. Word quickly got out that one could change the DNS address supplied by their ISP to Google's: or

The government ploy may have worked a few years ago, but people are now more computer savvy and those who wished to continue using Twitter quickly switched to Google's public DNS.

The government countered by blocking traffic to/from Twitter's IP address, but Turks could circumvent that by using proxy servers, which hide the fact that they are communicating with

As the government learns the IP addresses of the various proxy servers around the Internet, they can block them, but there are many available and new ones come online when old ones are discovered.

Twitter also posted a tweet showing how to post using SMS rather than the Internet:

This cat and mouse game has been going on since the time of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, when the network operators abandoned their office for the anonymity of their laptops at home:

At that time, there were only a handful of citizen journalists; today there are millions.
Update 3/24/2014

More on the ability of the Net to route around censorship.
Update 3/26/2014

Turkey will hold municipal and regional elections on March 30, and Reporters without Borders just published a post on the “Toxic climate for media a week ahead of elections.” The post links to several other posts from this month and last. While focused primarily on television and print, the posts also address electronic media. Check, for example “Blocking of Twitter -- worthy of the most repressive regimes,” which offers a tutorial on four ways to remain in contact with Twitter.
Update 3/30/2014

Turkey blocked YouTube after a recording of a top-secret military meeting was posted, but the recording has been copied to Dropbox and circulated online -- you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube once its out. Their attempt to block Twitter earlier in the week resulted in silencing regime loyalists, but not critics. Twitter now has posts mocking the prime minister’s high voice and the failed attempt to block Twitter.
Update 3/30/2014

The cat fights back -- the Turkish government has blocked access to Google's public DNS -- Turks using or will now be using a fake domain name server.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has posted a call for “strong net neutrality.”

In a post entitled Internet Tolls And The Case For Strong Net Neutrality, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says that deteriorating customer experience fored him to agree to pay Comcast an interconnection fee. While that was a necessary short term step, he argues that, in the long run, such tolls would lead to escalating fees. Soon, every large ISP would be charging interconnection feesa toll, as depicted here:

Here are a couple of quotes from Hastings’ post:
For any given U.S. household, there is often only one or two choices for getting high-speed (10 Mbps) Internet access and that’s unlikely to change.


When an ISP sells a consumer a 10 or 50 megabits-per-second Internet package, the consumer should get that rate, no matter where the data is coming from.
As a consumer, I like the sound of that second quote -- I think that is what Hastings considers “strong net neutrality.” But, if the ISPs are not allowed to charge a “toll” for your traffic, won’t they pass their interconnect cost on to us consumers?

Isn't the monopoly market the real problem? If Netflix and others do not pay a fee to the ISP, won't they raise consumer prices?

What can be done to solve the real problem (for individuals and society) -- a lack of ISP competition?

Regulation or competition from local government-operated networks are two traditional answers and there are hopeful signs on both fronts. The FCC wants to formulate new rules with regard to net neutrality and is considering measures to overturn state laws restricting public broadband. Perhaps the citizens (voters) are getting fed up and the FCC is beginning to hear them -- is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Recommended podcast: James Baller on Fighting Telecom Giants (6m 52s)

Bob Garfield of On the Media interviews James Baller, an attorney representing local governments in their effort to provide or help provide broadband service.
"I believe communities should have the right to choose for themselves. They’re the most affected by the decision and should have the right to make it." James Baller
Baller, who has worked on municipal broadband networks for many years, points out that when a city asks a cable provider to upgrade their service, they are often turned down because the cable company does not think it is a good use of their capital, but, if the city then decides to do their own network, the cable company fights them in court.
"The commercial broadband providers want to not have their cake and not eat it too." Bob Garfield
The large ISPs have succeeded in passing legislation blocking public broadband networks in nineteen states and they are currently trying to do the same in Kansas, perhaps triggered by Google Fiber's presense there.

(Note that the FCC may try to overturn turn those state laws).

The Baller-Herbst web site also has links to a lot of resources related to community broadband.

A lesson for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan -- the Net routes around censorship

Yesterday, I gave my class a presentation on citizen journalism. Today, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan provided a terrific example when he declared his intention to "eradicate Twitter" and went on to block access to their site.

The futility of that act was soon apparent -- Twitter and others published technical tips showing how Turks could continue using Twitter -- and they did.

Politicians -- the President of Turkey, the Mayor of Ankara and the vice-president of the EU commission -- also spoke out against the move by Erdogan.

As the saying goes -- the Net routes around damage. The hashtag #TwitterOlmadanYaşayamam (I can't live without Twitter) soon rose to the top of Twitter's worldwide trending topics.

Internet-based citizen journalism has played a role in politics for nearly a quarter century, but both bad guys and good guys use it as a political tool. I may be naive, but when historians look back years from now, I think the good guys will have won.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Recommended podcast: Cable Barons (6:18)

Brooke Gladstone of On The Media interviews communication scholar Susan Crawford, author of "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age."

Crawford opposes the Comcast takeover of Time Warner Cable, and it is not yet a done deal. She says its impact on the markets for content and equipment will be considered along with the ISP market.

Regardless of the Comcast takeover, the Crawford feels the ISP's local monopolies must be addressed through either regulation or alternative (local government) networks.

Reporters Without Borders has added the US NSA and UK GCHQ to their list of "Internet enemies."

Reporters Without Borders has published their 2014 Enemies of the Internet report. The report names 31 specific national agencies and the US National Security Agency (NSA) and UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) are on the list.

The report considers surveillance, censorship, imprisonment and disinformation in characterizing a nation as an Internet enemy. The NSA was cited for surveillance and imprisonment and the GCHQ for surveillance.

There are reports on each offending nation. Here are quotes from the UK and US reports:

United Kingdom: World champion of surveillance
“They are worse that the U.S.” – Edward Snowden

The widespread surveillance practices of the British and U.S. governments, unveiled by Edward Snowden in June last year, put Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and its U.S. equivalent, the National Security Agency (NSA), at the centre of a worldwide scandal. As part of its project “Mastering the Internet”, GCHQ has developed the world’s biggest data monitoring system. Supported by the NSA and with the prospect of sharing data, the British agency brushed aside all legal obstacles and embarked on mass surveillance of nearly a quarter of the world’s communications.
NSA symbolises intelligence services’ abuses
In June 2013, computer specialist Edward Snowden disclosed the extent of the surveillance practices of the U.S. and British intelligence services. Snowden, who worked for a government sub-contractor and had access to confidential documents, later exposed more targeted surveillance, focusing on the telecommunications of world leaders and diplomats of allied countries. Activists, governments and international bodies have taken issue with the Obama administration, as the newspapers The Guardian and The Washington Post have revealed the extent of the surveillance. The main player in this vast surveillance operation is the highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA) which, in the light of Snowden’s revelations, has come to symbolize the abuses by the world’s intelligence agencies. Against this background, those involved in reporting on security issues have found their sources under increasing pressure.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Recommended podcast: Capturing Egypt's neverending story (9:54)

Brooke Gladstone of On The Media interviews Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, the producer and director of The Square, an Oscar nominated documentary on the Arab Spring. They speak of the Arab Spring and the global paradigm shift social media is causing.

Producer Karim Amer on the importance of social media:
And we look today at what’s happening in Kiev, we see the same exact image. We look at Caracas last week, and the same thing is happening. We look at Istanbul. And we start to realize that this isn’t just the Arab Spring, Winter or Summer. This is a global paradigm shift. When it started off in Egypt it was a very lonely fight between the Egyptian dictator versus the Egyptian protester, but when all of you and the rest of the world started watching what was happening, you leveled the playing field. Your witness provided protection for us. And that’s the way that we can change the world today.
(For what was perhaps the first example of political citizen journalism on the Internet, see this discussion of Usenet during the 1991 Soviet Coup attempt).

Friday, March 14, 2014

Are the new Roku radios less sensitive than the old ones?

I had an old Roku XD in my bedroom but, when Roku added PBS, it turned out their programs were incompatible with my XD. (The explanation of the incompatibility is interesting in its own right -- See this discussion and this post from Roku for the details).

I had gotten my money's worth out of that old Roku and also wanted the remote headphone feature and faster processor in the newer Roku 3, so ordered one.

When it arrived, I installed it and settled back to watch TV, but it went through the menus more slowly than the old XD had and I began seeing pauses for buffering, which I had never seen with the XD.

I checked the signal strength using inSSIDer and saw that it vacilated around -60 dBm as shown in this two minute sample:

It was not robust, but the old Roku XD had functioned well with that signal -- could the new Roku radio be less sensitive than the old one?

I had been meaning to return my ISP's WiFi router/radio, so I purchased a new one and was happy, but surprised, to discover that the Roku 3 worked well with it. I checked the signal strength with the new router/radio and found that it was more stable over time:

and, as shown in this overlay, a little bit stronger:

Neither is a "five bar" signal, but my old Roku works with either. I may have gotten a bad Roku 3 (Roku is willing to exchange it, but that would leave me without TV for a week or so) or it may be that the radio in the newer model is less sensitive.

Regardless, it would be helpful if radio sensitivity were included in product specs and reviews -- by Roku and any other WiFi device manufacturer.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reminiscence -- my early days with the Web

Some have declared this month the 25th birthday of the Web because Tim Berners-Lee submitted a document called Information Management: a Proposal to his bosses at CERN in March 1989.

I am not sure what constitutes the birthday of an application. For example, Request for Comments 1945, defining HTTP/1.0, states that "HTTP has been in use by the World-Wide Web global information initiative since 1990" and the following announcement of availability of running code was posted in August, 1991.

Regardless, by 1992 the Web was well underway and we were surfing using a text-oriented browser called Lynx from the University of Kansas. (Recall that graphic workstations were quite expensive at the time and PC graphics were very crude, so nearly everyone worked with text in those days days, and the first Web release was text only -- no images).

In 1993, I attended a presentation on "The World-Wide Web Initiative" by Tim Berners-Lee at the Internet Society INET Conference. In my usual prescient manner, I found it interesting, but recall dismissing it as "Gopher with pictures." (Gopher was a system for distributed documents, but links were restricted to a table of contents at the start of a document and there were no pictures).

(I was working in developing nations at the time -- my presentation was on "Empowering Low-Bandwidth Users" -- people with no hope of Web access).

My next encounter with the Web was as an instructor in the 1995 Internet Society Developing Nations Workshop. On the last day of the workshop, we installed Mosaic on a Sun Workstation, and showed the students a collection of pictures of dinosaurs at a community college in Hawaii.

That was pretty cool -- I finally got it. I returned to campus and put our university's first Web site online using a PC running Windows 3.1 and an HTTP server written by Bob Denny. It crashed a lot, but my students were able to design, collect data for and publish a Web site with the course catalog and pages for each professor with their photos and interests and the departments and majors. (This was just for the School, not the entire university).

I also got funds from the USC Information Sciences Institute and installed a T1 link to four old NeXT workstations at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles -- we were off and running.
Update 3/13/2014

You cannot trust reminiscence! In looking back, the last paragraph of this post is totally incorrect. We had eight NeXT machines, not four and they were online before I saw the Web! We used them for surfing Gopher sites and for a telementoring project.

Update 3/22/2014

I just came across an old blog post that sheds further light on the early Internet culture -- a discussion of the choice of the top level domain names like .com and .edu.

Innovative online courses from World Science University

I have claimed that we would see innovation in educational pedagogy and technology as a result of the feasibility and interest in MOOCs and modular courseware.

Well, I just saw a post by Lauren Weinstein in which he linked to a good example, World Science University (WSU). So far, there is not much there, but what is, is indeed innovative. I've watched part of a course on special relativity and here are some of the innovations.

There are three levels of granularity. The first level is like an FAQ on the topic. The teacher, PBS Nova host Brian Greene, poses questions then answers them. The second level is a no-math short course -- eight or nine hours of self-paced material with no math or homework. The third level is an 8-10 week college-level course with math.

Greene uses a TV-like lecture style. He is not a talking head or a voice behind a screen presentation, but an animated lecturer moving around on a stage -- like a TED talk. The lectures are tightly scripted, shot with multiple cameras and edited like polished TV video.

The user interface features a five-dimension timeline, showing the video lectures, demonstrations, (threaded) discussion, office hours and reviews. It is displayed below the video and can be toggled on and off.

Greene uses two large interactive displays. He can write and draw on the displays -- as one would on a whiteboard. He also uses them to display animations and to interact with programmed demonstrations and simulations.

The lecture segments are interspersed with review videos. In addition to multiple choice questions, the review might have Greene asking, then answering, a significant question or giving a summary of the previous video lecture.

The students can run the demonstrations themselves. For example, during a lecture on experiments to demonstrate that the speed of light is constant, Greene interacts with a binary star simulation. After watching Greene run the simulation, the student can link to and run it themselves.

I've only watched part of one course -- a short course on special relativity -- and found it impressive. It was a better learning experience than sitting back and watching a Nova program, but just as accessible.

So far, WSU has produced hundreds of answers to "FAQ" questions, three physics short courses and three university level physics courses. They are working on biology.

But, can it scale? The production cost and quality are high. (Some of the animations I saw were repurposed from Greene's PBS Nova production "The Fabric of the Cosmos"). Greene is an experienced, dynamic lecturer and author -- can they find other lecturers as good as he is? WSU is a .com -- do they have a viable business model?

Well, I for one hope it scales and prospers -- the course I've been taking is terrific.

Here is Greene's preliminary description of WSU:


Monday, March 10, 2014

Short MOOCs -- departing from the university course format

When World's Collide is a University of Leeds MOOC on environmental policy. Even if you are not interested in the topic, check out the format:

The first applications of new media -- books, movies, television, radio, textbooks -- often mimic previous media. Early MOOCs emulated university classes.

But, most people who take MOOCs are not interested in emulating a university class or getting university credit.

Netflix deviated from the standard format TV format with their 13 hour drama House of Cards and The University of Leeds has departed from the university course format in this 8-hour short course.

What other forms will the MOOC take?

Saturday, March 08, 2014

You are in a weak position when dealing with the monopoly provider of a necessary service

I wrote a post on the conversation I had with a Time Warner Cable (TWC) retention agent, in which I cut nearly $40 from my monthly bill by threatening to cancel my account.

The post was referenced on Slashdot, causing it to be viewed over 45,000 times, and it occurred to me that it might be noticed by someone at TWC, who could reverse my savings in retaliation. To document my promised promotions, I started a chat session with Rueben, a TWC online representative.

It turns out that was a mistake.

The day before the ill-fated chat session, I was getting the following performance:

At one point during the chat (the red line in the transcript below), Rueben said he needed to talk with someone. It seems that they concluded that the representative who gave me a break in the first place had given me too good a break, and they throttled my speed. This is what it looks like now:

When this entire transaction began, I was on a plan with up to 20 mbps download and up to 2 mbps upload. The first representative evidently increased that to 20/5, and Rueben cut it back to 15/1.

So, I am paying less than I was before, but for slower service. The first rep had improved my service level, the second rep reversed that and then some.

TWC’s negotiation policy is opaque and capricious – perhaps expected when haggling at a garage sale, but not in dealing with a professional service provider. But, as the monopoly provider of an essential service, TWC can do whatever they please.

Here is the transcript of my chat with their “analyst:”

User LAURENCE_ has entered room
Analyst Rueben has entered room
Analyst has left room
Rueben>Thank you for contacting Time Warner Cable. At the end of our chat you will be given the option of taking a brief survey. My name is Rueben and I would be happy to help you.
Rueben>Hello Laurence!
Rueben>How can I be of your assistance?
LAURENCE_>Yesterday, your rep gave my account a promotional rate. Can I get the savings pro-rated for the balance of this month?
Rueben>Thank you for sharing the information with me.
Rueben>I will be happy to help you with the information regarding the billing and promotion on your account.
Rueben>Before we begin, I would like to review your account, allow me a moment here.
Rueben>I have checked your account and you are subscribed to Standard Internet and Home phone services for $64.99.
Rueben>The charge for modem is $5.99.
Rueben>There is a credit balance of $15.59 on your account.
LAURENCE_>Right, but my last month's bill was more -- before the promotion. Can that be prorated?
Rueben>Yes, that is correct.
Rueben>I do understand that you are concerned about the "Partial Month" charges reflecting on your bill. Any time a service is added or removed from your account, this line will appear on your bill. Your cable bill charges for one month's service in advance. All services are therefore prepaid prior to usage. The "Partial Month" (known as a Pro Rate) covers the period that you had service in addition to your "Monthly Service" charge. If your service was just installed or you’ve recently changed your service, partial month charges may be shown on your bill. This ensures that you will only be charged for the correct number of days for your service.
Rueben>Previously the charge for phone and internet services on your account was $83.99.
Rueben>Currently you have the same services for $64.99.
Rueben>As the services were changed in between your billing cycle, there are pro-rates applied on your account for the old and new package for phone and internet services.
LAURENCE_>You say my previous rate was $83.99, but I was billed $115 -- why?
Rueben>The charge for Turbo upgrade was $10, Home Wifi was $4.95.
Rueben>The charge for Voice mail was $3.95.
LAURENCE_>The rep told me my Internet service would be the same speed -- is Turbo faster than I currently have?
Rueben>Yes, that is correct.
Rueben>The download speed for Turbo is up to 20 mbps and Standard is up to 15 mbps.
LAURENCE_>So she was incorrect when she told me it would be unchanged?

Rueben>Please give me a moment while I check that for you.

Rueben>Thank you for waiting. I really appreciate that!
Rueben>I have checked the account details and Standard Internet and Home phone package was added on your account.
Rueben>If you wish, I can add Turbo upgrade on your account.
Rueben>The charge for Turbo upgrade is $10/mo, on top of current monthly charge.
LAURENCE_>So she was mistaken?
Rueben>I have checked the order details and Turbo 15 plan was added on your account.
Rueben>With our Turbo 15 Internet plan, you get download speeds up to 15 Mbps, upload speeds up to 2 Mbps.
Rueben>Previously, you had the Turbo plan which had the same download speed as of Standard plan. However, the upload speed is 1 mbps higher than Standard Internet plan.
LAURENCE_>I'm confused -- you said I previously had Turbo at 20mbps, then that it was changed to standard at 15 and now it is Turbo 15, which is the same speed as standard?
Rueben>I apologize for the confusion.
Rueben>We have Turbo 15 and Turbo 20 plan available.
LAURENCE_>So, I now have Turbo 15, not standard -- is that correct?
Rueben>Currently you have Standard plan on your account and Turbo 15 plan was removed from your account.
Rueben>The download speed for both the plans is the same.
Rueben>However, upload speed is 1 mbps higher for Turbo 15 plan.
LAURENCE_>I see -- now both my upload and download speeds are slower than previously. What was my old uplload speed?
Rueben>With our Standard Internet plan, you get download speeds up to 15 Mbps, upload speeds up to 1 Mbps.
Rueben>With our Turbo 15 Internet plan, you get download speeds up to 15 Mbps, upload speeds up to 2 Mbps.
LAURENCE_>And with my previous plane it was 20 down and 3 up?
Rueben>The Turbo 15 plan had 15 mbps download and 2 mbps upload.
LAURENCE_>And my initil Turbo plan was 20 down and 3 up, right?
Rueben>Let me check this for you right away.
Rueben>I am sorry, but we do not have a Turbo plan with 20 mbps down and 3 mbps up.
LAURENCE_>You mentioned turbo 20 above -- is that 20 down and 2 up?
Rueben>Yes, that is correct.
LAURENCE_>And is that what I had previously?
Rueben>Previously you had Turbo 15 - 15 mbps down and 2 mbps up.
LAURENCE_>Sorry, I thought you had said I had turbo 20 before. So, my standard plan is the same download speed as before, but the upload speed is lower. Right?
Rueben>Yes, that is correct.
LAURENCE_>So she was mistaken to say it was the same.
Rueben>Let me explain the plan change order.
Rueben>Previously you had Standard Internet + Home phone package for $83.99, Turbo 15 for $10, Home Wifi for $4.95, Modem for $5.99 and Voice mail for $3.95. Currently you have Standard Internet + Home phone package for $64.99 and Modem for $5.99.
Rueben>The download speeds are not affected by the package change, however, the upload speed is lowered by 1 mbps.
LAURENCE_>I get it now -- she was correct on the download speed, but not the upload speed.
Rueben>I do apologize for this inconvenience caused to you.
LAURENCE_>No inconvenience, just confusion.
Rueben>I apologize for the confusion.
LAURENCE_>I wish your rep had been straight with me.
Rueben>I will take this as a feedback and pass this to our Management. Your feedback is very important to us, as we thrive to improve our services. This will definitely help us to deliver quality services in future.
Rueben>Do you have any further questions I can assist you with?
Rueben>Again, my name is Rueben. Thank you for chatting with Time Warner Cable. We value you as a customer and are here to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you would like to take a brief survey, please click on close and the survey will load.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

ISP competition -- testing a Time Warner Cable public WiFi access site

As mentioned earlier, a welcome bit of infrastructure deployment competition seems to brewing between the telephone and cable companies. At the Mobile World Congress last week, Philips and Ericsson announced WiFi-ready streetlights and a coalition of five cable companies has formed to roll out open WiFi hotspots.

I am a Time Warner Cable (TWC) customer, so I decided to try it out. I checked in my neighborhood and found a WiFi hotspot at a school two blocks from my house. I drove over, parked on the street in front of the school and logged in using my TWC account credentials. I had a solid, five-bar connection (whatever that means).

I ran Speedtest, which showed 16 ms ping time, 40.6 mbps download and 5.06 mbps upload -- considerably faster than the service at my home.

Our phones are able to switch seamlessly between WiFi and the cellular network (see, for example, Republic Wireless). I do not want to be bothered knowing which I am using at any time -- I just want my phone to pick the best connection available given my ISP terms and the application I am running.

I've beaten up on TWC and the other ISPs for exploiting their non-competitive markets in many blog posts, so it is only fair that this post congratulate them on providing a meaningful, competitive service.

Today the five-ISP coalition lists 200,000 hotspots in their database. How many will they have in five years? Might the cable companies have outsmarted the phone companies in splitting up mobile and landline access?
Update 4/12/2014

Comcast has revealed that they have a million public access points, with at least 800,00 of them in the homes of their broadband subscribers and, if they succeed in acquiring Time Warner, that footprint will expand significantly.

We may be witnessing a race between cable companies deploying WiFi and phone companies deploying 4G (and later 5G) infrastructure. That might lead to increased competition or, more likely, they will gerrymander access so as to limit competition (following the example of the U. S. House of Representatives).

Monday, March 03, 2014

Cable versus telcos: the race between cellular and WiFi

We can think roughly of mobile, portable and fixed Internet access. It seems the cable and incumbent telephone companies have declared a, perhaps uneasy, truce with Verizon and AT&T focusing on mobile access, the cable companies focusing on fixed access, leaving portable access to go either way.

Do the cable folks hope to move in on portable and mobile users by rolling out WiFi hotspots while the phone companies put their radios on telephone poles and anywhere else they can? (Readers over a certain age will recall the short-lived Ricochet wireless network, which also used light poles).

It seems we have a bit of actual competition in this race to install wireless infrastructure.

Flat World Education and Brandman University will provide teaching material and learning managment for an integrated business degree

Flat World Education (an online textbook publisher) and Brandman University (an online university) have received $9.5 million in venture funding to develop an online, bachelor of business administration degree. The teaching material will not only be "digital first" -- not adapted from a print textbook -- it will be "mobile first."

There are few details, but it sounds like they are building a learning management system for self-paced ("competency-based") courses that is integrated with their own teaching material. That might lead to a pitch that says something like:
Don't adopt online textbooks from traditional publishers and teach using a general purpose LMS like Blackboard, get the whole thing, delivered on a mobile device, from us. Faculty can act as mentors when students get stuck, and we will do the data mining ("adaptive technology and analytics") necessary to support them in spotting problems.
That does not sound much like a Harvard Education, but neither does the experience at many other online and face-face universities.

I'd say this is a longshot, but it is way to early to tell, and it is always nice to see a fresh angle. If they are right, this might be the business degree that rules them all (or at least quite a few of them).

Friday, February 28, 2014

How I cut my Time Warner Cable bill by 33%

It started when I decided to get a new WiFi router. I bought one and installed it, then called my ISP, Time Warner Cable (TWC), to let them know. They told me to bring the old router to their store.

I went to the store and, after giving back the router, the very courteous representative thanked me and said "that was it" -- she was was finished with me and ready to go on to the next customer.

I almost left, but first asked her what my new monthly bill would be. She replied that it would be $110, said it had been $115 before I returned the router, thanked me again and was ready for her next customer.

But the $110 bill surprised me -- it seemed high -- so I kept the conversation going:

Me: How does that $110 break down between Internet and phone service? (I do not get cable TV).

Rep (after tapping on her keyboard): the phone is $41.84 per month.

Me: That is outrageous, I want to cancel the phone service.

Rep: I can lower your bill.

Me: OK.

Rep: (after a few more keyboard taps) Your bill is now $100, not $110.

Me: How did you do that?

Rep: I put you on a promotion.

Me: So my phone bill is now $31.84, right?

Rep: No, I lowered your Internet bill, not your phone bill, but, don't worry, the speed will remain unchanged.

Me: Then cancel the phone.

Rep: Let me try something else. (after quite a few taps on the keyboard) Now your bill is $76.37 -- $50 for the Internet, $20 for the phone and $6.37 tax.

Me: How did you do that?

Rep: I put you on a different promotion.

Me: So, after 1 year, the bill will go up to $110, right?

Rep: No, it will only go up by $5-10.

Me: Then how did it get so high after my initial promotion ended?

Rep: It goes up by $5-10 every year after a promotion ends.

Well, I am kind of embarrassed to tell you this story. I have written many blog posts about the lack of competition in the ISP market, but have been too busy and too lazy to be an active consumer. So, shame on me.

But, shame on TWC too. Their courteous rep wanted to get me out of the store without telling me I was overpaying. I am sure she was following TWC policy. Is it ethical to not tell a customer that he or she could be paying less for the same service if they asked to?

I do not recall what my initial bill was, but it had evidently jumped when my promotion ran out and then continued rising $5-10 each year thereafter. Did their cost go up by 5-10% per year? If not, are they exploiting their monopoly hold on me? (My "alternative" service is Verizon DSL at 1.5 mbps).

Well, shame on both me and TWC. I promise to be more watchful in the future, but they will not change their policy. But what would happen if every one of their 11.1 million residential high-speed data subscribers did the same thing as I did? That would be too cool!

Update 3/7/2014

There was a long (205 comment) discussion of this post on Slashdot. The comments are of varying quality, but there were tips from ex-ISP "retention reps" and suggestions of other ways to cut your bill -- primarily through alternative phone service.

Update 3/8/2014

I held a chat session with another TWC representative in an attempt to document this transaction and he reduced the speed of my connection. I lost. You are in a weak position when dealing with a monopoly provider of an essential service.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

European 5G vision spelled out at MWC

A European Union memo predicts that by 2020 there will be more than 30 times as much mobile internet traffic as there was in 2010 and that traffic will reflect the massive growth in machines and sensors using the Internet to communicate -- the "Internet of things."

They predict that 5G won't just be faster, it will bring new functionalities and applications with high social and economic value in the following areas:

  • eHealth
  • Connected homes:
  • Secure transport
  • Smart grids
  • Entertainment
The memo concludes with links to several 5G research projects in which the EU has invested €50 million, a Mobile World Congress speech on the Connected Continent by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda and the Digital Agenda Web site.

Update 4/8/2014

UK and Germany to cooperate on 5G. The UK government signals a push on ‘5G’ mobile technology -- after falling behind on 4G mobile, they hope to catch up with 5G.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Comcast is probably not cheating ... yet

Within the last few days, Comcast agreed to purchase Time Warner Cable and Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for direct access to their network. Will Netflix pass the Comcast payments along to us consumers? Will we get better quality and fewer pauses for buffering? Is this the end of network neutrality regardless of anything the FCC might do to restore it? Is this the beginning of the end for the good old Internet we have grown to love?

Maybe not.

It is true that Netflix will be paying Comcast for direct access to their network, but they will save what they had previously been paying intermeidate transit networks like Cogent. The overall cost to Netflix may be more, less or the same -- terms of the deal have not been disclosed. Don't get me wrong -- I doubt that they will be saving money, and, if they do, I am sure they will not pass the savings on to us consumers.

How about speed increases? Netflix has acknowledged performance problems, and this deal should help. It is practically certain that we will see improved performance, even if the blockage was done on purpose. (Hey, that was some good news).

This may not even be a violation of network neutrality. Couldn't the delays have been due to capacity problems of intermediate networks rather than Comcast? Is there evidence that Comcast was dropping or delaying Netflix packets? This is not to say that Comcast was not discriminating against Netflix traffic or that they may not in the future, but, as far as I know, there is no evidence that they did. (Where is Edward Snowden when you need him)?

Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing good to say about my ISP -- Time Warner Cable -- and I am confident that the situation will be even worse if the Comcast deal is approved. That sort of concentrated power cannot be good for anyone except those who have it.

Timothy Lee points out that one result of that concentration may be the elimination of the transit ISPs like Cogent, who are in a competitive market. Comcast and other companies that connect consumers face little or no competition.

GigaOm's Stacey Higginbotham has suggested that transparency -- opening the terms of these deals to public scrutiny -- might be a solution, but I am skeptical.

The following images show the route between one's home and Netflix before the agreement with Comcast, the way it is now that the deal has been done and the way it will end up if Comcast has their way.

Before the agreement, transit ISPs connected us to Netflix servers.
Now our ISPs connect us straight to Comcast.
After the merger, Comcast will be my ISP.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Google may give us some ISP competition

Just after we heard the competition-reducing news of Comcast buying Time Warner Cable, Google has announced that they may become a competitor in the ISP market -- they are evaluating 34 cities in 9 metropolitan areas as potential Google Fiber installations.

This is not a complete surprise. A Google executive announced their intention to expand last year, stating that Google Fiber is "a great business to be in."

Google is evaluating nine metropolitan areas, but none are big like New York or Chicago. I know a large installation would be daunting, but it would also be a learning experience and at least one big city mayor, Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, is looking for a fiber partner.

(Full disclosure on that last "hint" for Google -- I live in Los Angeles, and my chance for getting fiber dropped to zero when my phone company, Verizon, decided to get out of that business).