Friday, October 27, 2006

Fiber is the future

In the long run, most of us will have fiber to our homes and other fixed locations. The cost of installing fiber is generally estimated at about $1,000 per home or building. You can see why it is so costly in this description of a Verizon fiber installation. (Incidentally, it is at the home of spreadsheet co-inventor Dan Bricklin).

While retrofitting old construction is expensive, the cost of installing fiber in a new housing tract or other new construction is relatively low and the maintenance cost is less than that for copper infrastructure.

The OECD reports that, as of June 2006, over 37% of broadband connections in the Czech Republic used fiber, 26% used fiber in Japan and 7% in the United States. (Of course the US and Japan have many more broadband connections than the Czech Republic). Many feel the deployment of communication infrastructure will impact the quality of life and economy in a nation.

While installing fiber is a daunting task in the United States, critics argue that the telephone and cable companies are slowing progress in order to maximize profit and minimize investment. Critics like Bruce Kushnick argue that US phone companies have already been given over $200 billion ($2,000 per household) in rate increases and tax breaks in return for commitments to install fiber which they reneged on. Kushnick recently stated his case in a PBS documentary on The Net at Risk.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Combination Wifi-cellular phone and service

T-Mobile announced a combination Wifi-cellular phone and service. You make and receive calls using Wifi when at home or at T-Mobile public hotspots. When you are out of range of a Wifi radio, the phone automatically switches to the cellular network. If you leave home while on the phone, the transfer is automatic and the call is not interrupted. T-Mobile has Wifi hotspots in Starbucks coffee shops, Hyatt hotels and other locations.

They are calling this "the only phone you need" because it will work well inside your home where cellular reception may be poor and outside. Calls are unlimited and the cost is fixed.

If you use your telephone for applications other then telephone calls, it may not be the "the only portable device" you need -- they are selling telephone service, not open Internet connectivity.

Would you consider this service yourself? (Check the prices before answering). What do you use your telephone for beside phone calls? What might you use it for in the future? How did you like the T-Mobile web site?

The New York Times covered the announcement in this article.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

TV is changing

The LA Times had a front page article on the flood of copyrighted sporting event video being posted on Youtube. The networks are ambivalent. On one hand, their "property" is being distributed for free, on the other, it is good publicity, the image quality is poor, and the videos are of limited length.

But what of the future? How is a program televised today?

  • A network crew produces the show.
  • Where relevant, they include paid references to products in the show (product placement).
  • The network publicizes the show.
  • The network distributes (broadcasts) the show.
  • Sponsors produce commercials.
  • Sponsors pay the network to distribute the commercials.
  • We watch the program when it is broadcast or record it if digital rights management software allows that.

How might it work in the future when we all have high-speed Internet connections to our homes?

  • The sponsor produces the show, and includes periodic announcements that the show is "brought to you" by them.
  • When relevant, they place their products or others in the program.
  • They put it on Internet servers.
  • We watch it at a convenient time.

Who wins in the latter scenario? Who loses?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A datacenter in a shipping container

Data center real-estate, cooling and electrical power are very expensive. Sun Microsystems hopes to cut cost and save power with their Blackbox data center in a shipping container. They estimate a cost 1/10 that of an equivalent traditional data center with ten percent less power consumption and a setup time of one week -- just connect it to the Internet, electrical power, and water for cooling. For comparison, check this traditional data center in a building.

Take Sun's cost saving figures with a grain of salt, but the idea of a portable, preconfigured data center is interesting. Google is rumored to be working on one too -- read about that here and this followup.

Read more on the blog of Sun CEO Jonathon Schwartz.

OECD broadband statistics

The OECD just released statistics on broadband connectivity per 100 habitants. The US ranks 12th, but the OECD did not report on cost, speed or symmetry. It is interesting to note that fiber to the home or premises is creeping up in Japan, Korea, Scandinavia and the Czech Republic.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Why contribute content and what is the Gross Contributed Product?

I recently learned about Levelator, a new program for audio processing. I tried it and found it to be effective and easy to use -- a terrific addition to my audio tool kit.

Levelator was written by Bruce Sharpe and his son Malcom, and, like much Internet content, it is free. What motivated the Sharpes to spend the time to develop Levelator and why did they contribute it to the community? I don't know, but one clue is the fact that they are distributing it through the Gigavox network, which grew out of IT Conversations, a volunteer organization for podcasting IT-related conferences. IT Conversations editors and audio engineers were all volunteers, so it may have seemed natural for the Sharpe's to contribute their software.

My personal reaction to Levelator may also help with the "why" question. I spent about two hours testing Levelator and creating a teaching note -- an example of its use. I will use the note in teaching, and I also posted it on the Levelator Forum so others could use it. What did I gain from that effort?

The teaching note has no monetary value (the program surely does), but it is "capital" since I can use it on my job. Someone else using it would make me happy -- I would get a kick out of that at no additional cost. Creating the note was also fun. Even small creative acts are enjoyable, although there is usually some tedium in the execution. Reputation building provided another motivation -- in a small way, I am now a contributor to the community of Levelator users.

The bottom line is that the payoff was sufficient that I contributed two hours of my time. In return for creating and contributing the teaching note:

  • I had it for my own use.
  • I had the pleasure of knowing some members of the community might use it.
  • I had the fun of creating it.
  • My reputation was slightly enhanced.
But, I am not unique. The Internet is a platform for millions of small contributions like mine as well as large ones like that of the Sharpes. At the low-effort end of the scale, people click "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" on a video or song, forward an interesting email to a person or list, or vote in an online poll.

More effort is required of those who post millions of reviews of books, restaurants, movies, videos, and other products every day. Others, like the Sharpes or the Wikipedians or the Linux and Apache developers, contribute much more. These large and small contributions add up. How many millions of hours did Internet users contribute to the online community yesterday? What is the economic value of those millions of hours -- how does the Gross Contributed Product compare to the Gross National Product? What will it be in ten years? Might this non-market economy one day rival the market economy in importance? (Stay-at-home mothers and grandmothers might ask the same thing). If so, what are the implications for organizations or management or the entertainment industry? (Writing a new teaching note is more fun than watching most TV programs).

This is reminiscent of the Wikipedia. Neither the government nor the market economy could create and maintain the Wikipedia, it could only be done for free -- a cool paradox. If this sort of thing seems interesting, check out The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler or listen to his talk on IT Conversations or at UC Berkeley. Of course you can read about him and his ideas on Wikipedia too. Going further back, I talked about incentives to cooperate in a 1992 academic journal article called Systems for Finding People.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Higher education applications: Cyberone and Berkeley Webcasts

We have discussed the applications and implications of the Internet for higher education. Most of our class felt that watching Vint Cerf's lecture The Internet Today and Tomorrow on the Net was better than being there. Universities are putting increasing numbers of courses online. For example, UC Berkeley offers a growing list of webcasts and podcasts of courses and special events like distinguished lectures. (The courses may also be streamed from Google).

I have been following Professor Charles Nesson's Harvard Law School course "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion." Cyberone is relevant to our course. For example, the course covers ways the Internet facilitates collaboration and explores the implications of collaboration technology for organizations and the economy. It is also interesting that the course was intended from the outset to be open to the general public along with Harvard Law and Extension students. (The Extension students meet in Second Life). The Wiki and projects they create, student notes, lecture videos, etc. are all online with Creative Commons license. The instructor hopes this material will influence public opinion.

Is this the future of the university? Would you rather hear a lecture on the history of intellectual property law by me or by a Harvard law professor who specializes in the area? Professors struggle to involve students and elicit participation. Professor Nissen took a similar approach in his Evidence course, and, in a three week period, the students accessed the course Wiki over 10,000 times. How's that for participation?

Follow these links for more information on the course: