Monday, August 25, 2014

Mobile service in the UK is cheaper than in the US

Minh Uong
New York Times
We've looked at the bad deal US landline Internet users get compared to places like Korea, Sweden, Japan or Latvia. (The list could be longer). How about mobile connectivity?

The New York Times just published a short article comparing the price charged by UK Cellular company UK Three (UK3) to that of Verizon in the US. The article compared prices for a two year contract with a subsidised Apple 5s phone.

UK3's price in this example is over $40 less than Verizon's. Furthermore, UK3 allows unlimited data transfer while Verizon has a 2 GB per month usage cap. Since UK3 is a low-cost carrier, I checked the prices of Vodafone accounts in the UK. A 3G Vodafone account with a 2 GB cap costs $72.31 per month. A 4G plan with a 4 GB cap is $79.60.

The author of the post cites one significant difference in explaining the price differences between the two nations:
Britain has forced companies to lease their networks to competitors at cost. The United States has not, allowing a formidable barrier against competitors.
The US Congress tried to spur competition in a similar manner with the Telecommunication Act of 1996, but the incumbent operators and their lobbyists defeated that attempt in courts and state houses.

William Kennard, who, as chairman of the United States Federal Communication from 1997-2001, was charged with implementing the Telecommunications Act, stated near the end of his term that “all too often companies work to change the regulations, instead of working to change the market,” and spoke of “regulatory capitalism” in which “companies invest in lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, instead of plant, people and customer service.” He went on to remark that regulation is “too often used as a shield, to protect the status quo from new competition -- often in the form of smaller, hungrier competitors -- and too infrequently as a sword -- to cut a pathway for new competitors to compete by creating new networks and services.”

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who will be first to capture an Amazon package-delivery drone and other intriguing, drone-related questions

Check out the drone zoning illustrations on Jacob Kastrenakesget's post.

I live in the flight path of a small airport and am bothered from time to time by the noise of planes landing. The folks on the take-off side have a worse noise problem. A few years ago, a small plane crashed on a house while landing at the airport. There seem to be no restrictions on small aircraft flying over my neighborhood.

This post by Jacob Kastrenakesget raises all sorts of difficult and intriguing drone-regulation questions that will arise when they are ubiquitous:
  • Do we need 3-D "zoning" laws?
  • Do we need privacy laws?
  • How could privacy intrusions be detected and the laws enforced?
  • Will we have automated detection and identification of drones?
  • Will we have automated anti aircraft weapons?
  • Who will be responsible for damage caused by crashes?
  • Will there be design safety regulations for drones?
  • What about drone-jackers?
  • Who will be first to capture an Amazon package-delivery drone?

Update 9/27/2014

DHL is also experimenting with drones for packet delivery.

Update 1/21/2016

Amazon has released this new video on their delivery drones and David Pogue has conducted an interview of Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy on their drone delivery plan.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler a sheep in wolf's clothing?

John Oliver wonders whether Tom Wheeler is
a dingo, but maybe he's a sheep.
President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, who had headed national organizations representing the interests of the cable and wireless telephone industries and lobbied on their behalf, as FCC Chairman.

Cynics (and realists) saw that as a payoff for the ISP industry. Comedian John Oliver characterized it as "the equivalent of needing a baby sitter and hiring a dingo."

But, maybe Mr. Wheeler is not in the ISP's pocket after all.
  • He was an invited expert by the The President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which issued a report calling for the use of smart radios and sharing federal spectrum. The executive order which followed cannot have pleased Wheeler's pals at AT&T who like exclusive spectrum licenses.
  • When asked to comment on John Oliver's comedy sketch, he said it was good that the public was taking an interest in net neutrality and the ISP industry and denied that he was a dingo.
  • He has spoken out against state laws that keep local governments from providing Internet connectivity.
  • More recently, he has responded to requests by legislators urging the FCC to take action against those restrictive laws, saying that laws restricting community broadband "have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition" and acknowledging that "state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances." Again, not something his ISP friends or politicians receiving donations from them want to hear.
Actions speak louder than words -- time will tell if he is a captive of the ISP industry or a sheep in wolf's clothing.

update 8/20/2014

Perhaps Tom Wheeler has decided to shift his attention from net neutrality and Internet fast lanes to local broadband networks. (It seems to me that the latter is a more important issue -- broadband competition is severely lacking in the US and the cost of fixing the blockage that is fueling the net neutrality debate between Netflix and the large ISP is small).

Regardless, a battle seems to be brewing over the right of states to restrict municipal broadband.

Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, argued that the FCC has no authority to invalidate state laws governing local broadband networks in a speech to the National Conference of State Legislatures. He evidently sees it as a states rights issue.

It would be nice to think that Mr. Pai and the other commissioners would decide this issue on the basis of broadband competition and investment rather than partisan politics and campaign contributions. Who is the FCC's constituency -- the ISP industry or the companies providing Internet services and the public which consumes them?

Unfortunately, I bet that even if Mr. Wheeler prevails, this question will be tied up in court until the next presidential election. If that is the case, folks like Google, Facebook and John Oliver better make Internet policy a major campaign issue.

Update 1/30/2014

The FCC has revised its definition of "broadband" from 4 mb/s download speed to 25 mb/s download speed -- much more realistic in the age streaming video. Using that definition, quite a few American have access to broadband, although that is often from a monopoly ISP:

Note that 6.8% of us have access to gigabit download speed and 6.7% of that is over fiber. In spite of Google Fiber, I was surprised that the figure is so high. It also seems that 0.1% have wireless gigabit access -- I wounder where.

Update 2/5/2015

Well, the big shoe has dropped -- Wheeler has proposed Title II, with forbearance, in an attempt to protect an open Internet. He evidently is a sheep in wolves clothing.

Here are a couple of links for details on the announcement:

Update 2/9/2016

FCC Chairman Wheeler has proposed a standard
TV-interface box that combines the functions of today's
set-top boxes and Internet interfaces.

Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) surveyed the top ten cable and satellite TV providers and found that approximately 99 percent of customers rent their set-top box directly from their pay-TV provider. The rents average $231 per year, which may total more than $19.5 billion annually.

FCC Chairman Wheeler has proposed a regulation requiring the cable and satellite providers to work with hardware and software companies to define a standard television set interface box that would combine the capabilities of their current set-top boxes and Internet interface devices from companies like Roku, Apple and Google.

The new set-top boxes would be capable of displaying video and would offer varying options for copy protection. There would also be a variety of user interfaces and capabilities for discovering video material.

I don't know what the current set-top boxes cost to manufacture, but renting them for $231 per year must be very profitable. If this proposal is accepted and an open standard defined, competing vendors will offer a variety of designs at lower prices than we are paying today.

The FCC will vote on the proposal February 18 and, if it passes, there will be a period of public discussion followed by the final regulation followed by product development, so don't expect new, standard set-top boxes to become available over night.

While this scenario would lead to low-cost integrated boxes with innovative user interfaces and content-discovery options, don't expect your overall bill to drop. The Internet/video service providers in the US are either local monopolists or near monopolists, and they will make up for lost revenue by increasing prices for content and connectivity.

Update 2/13/2016

Years before the FCC became involved with set top boxes that connect to cable and satellite networks, they were involved with the connection of devices to the telephone network.

Until 1956, AT&T succeeded in prohibiting anyone to connect devices to their network -- claiming they might cause damage. That policy was challenged by the Hush-a-Phone,

would not let users connect anything bu AT&T manufactured phones to their network.

The FCC sided with AT&T in baning the Hush-A-Phone, which users put over the phone so people nearby could not hear what was being said. They succeeded for some time, but were overruled by US Court of Appeals, in 1956.

The claim that a Hush-a-Phone could damage the phone network seemed ludicrous -- it did no more than would cupping one's hand around the phone while talking.

The next challenge was a little more reasonable. The Carterfone enabled one to connect a radio transmitter/receiver to the phone network. It let one patch a short wave radio call into a phone conversation. In 1968, the FCC ruled in favor of the Carterfone and other devices as long as they conformed to the specification of the network.

That opened the path for connecting computers to the phone network, and we soon had acoustic couplers, that cradled the telephone handset in a device that enabled one to connect computers to the network.

The early terminals that connected to acoustic couplers transmitted and receive data at the rate of 10 characters per second. They gave way to modems that were connected electronically. The early telephone modems ran at 1,200 bits per second and improved over time until modem speeds reached 64kbps.

If the FCC and courts had succeeded in stopping the Hush-A-fone and Cartherphone companies, we might still be purchasing modems from monopoly phone companies and our choices limited to their products. The current disagreement over the open standard set-top box is the latest fight in the war between corporate profit and the public good.

I hope the FCC proposal succeeds, but that will not be the end of the story. The ISPs will try to raise their Internet connectivity charges in order to compensate for lost set-top box revenue. They will be able to do so as long as they remain local monopolies or small oligopolies.


The FCC has voted 3 to 2 to pursue a plan to "unlock the set-top box: creating choice and innovation." (What do the two dissenting members have against competition)?

The proposal will compel cable companies to give third-party device makers the information they need to build set-top boxes that will be able to stream Internet and cable video. The boxes will be required to comply with open standards, thereby providing the opportunity for competition.

If all goes as planned, we will end up with cheaper set-top boxes that enable us to easily discover and display content while providing copy protection alternatives for content providers. Satellite and cable providers will lose a significant chunk of revenue.

That's the good news. The bad news is that this will take some time to come to fruition, and when it does, the Internet service providers will raise the prices on connectivity. They will be able to do that because they have monopolies or small oligopolies in most areas.

Update 4/19/2016

President Obama announced a new initiative through an Executive Order calling on departments and agencies "to make further progress through specific, pro-competition executive actions that empower and inform consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs." They are to report back with specific suggestions within 60 days.

He singled out set top boxes as being ripe for competition and also discussed set top boxes in his Weekly address to the nation:

Monday, August 18, 2014

IBM's "TrueNorth" neural net chips -- increased density and decreased power consumption will lead to surprising applications.

Big Data led to qualitative improvement in search -- will Big Neural Nets lead to qualitative improvement in artificial intelligence?

The field of artificial intelligence (AI) has two historical roots, dating from the 1950s. The first is information processing models like the chess playing program of Newell, Simon and Shaw, who sought to understand how people did things like play chess by interviewing experts, then programming computers to emulate them.

Herbert Simon and Alan Newell asked chess
experts to think out loud while playing and wrote
programs that used the same heuristics.

The second branch of AI was exemplified by the self-organizing neural networks of researchers like Clark and Farley, who sought to build programs that could learn to recognize patterns by emulating the neurons of a brain. For example, their programs could learn to discriminate between horizontal and vertical images.

(For a lot more on the history of AI, see The Quest for Artificial Intelligence, a History of Ideas and Achievements by Nils Nilsson).

We've come a long way since then, and neural nets have been applied to many "subconscious" pattern recognition problems like speech and character recognition, robot control and spotting cats in images. The logical, algorithmic approach to AI has led to expert systems that emulate conscious thinking processes. IBM AI researchers characterize the difference by saying traditional AI programs are left-brained and neural nets are right-brained. Their goal is to create holistic systems that combine both approaches.

Those same IBM researchers have announced a dramatic improvement in neural net hardware -- they have sharply reduced the size and, equally important, the power requirements of simulated neurons and synapses.

The IBM researchers are able to tile their "TrueNorth" chips to create larger systems, as shown here:

Their next goal is a 4,096 chip system with 4 billion neurons and 1 trillion synapses while consuming ~4kW of power.

That is still not comparable to a human brain, which has roughly 86 billion neurons and 10^14–10^15 and consumes only 20-40 watts of power, and even if they could build a system of comparable complexity, it would not be a brain -- it would be a system inspired by the architecture of the brain.

We will not be able to follow the "reasoning" of neural nets as we can the descendents of early chess-playing programs, but, if they succeed, we will be surprised by the performance and applications of systems containing massive, low-cost, low-power neural nets.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The White House forms USDS and 18F to improve e-government.

The government has formed two new IT organizations in response to the HealthCare.Gov fiasco -- was HealthCare.Gov a blessing in disguise?

The White House just launched the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), headed by Mickey Dickerson, who led the team that bailed out the troubled HealthCare.Gov Web site and earlier worked on President Obama's campaign.

USDS is a management consulting firm for federal agencies, but they do not sound like typical management consultants. They are young technologists and entrepreneurs from startups, Internet companies and and e-government projects. I'm not sure, but I bet none are Harvard MBAs. (Maybe a few from Stanford).

USDS favors lean startup methods, open source and agile development by small teams. They seem more like folks who wear t-shirts to work than wear suits -- reminiscent of an earlier group of young people the government found to develop the ARPAnet.

This list of "plays" from their "playbook" gives you an idea of their development and management style:

You can see more (and comment) on the the playbook here.

USDS will complement 18F, a government agency that was formed last March. (Their office is at the corner of F and 18th in Washington). Both groups are largely staffed by former Presidential Innovation Fellows and they have a common point of view. Unlike USDS, 18F actually builds tools and implements government systems. I am sure they will work closely together.

President Roosevelt (radio) and Kennedy (TV) were leaders at using new commuication media and President Obama was the first succesful Internet campaigner. Now he hopes to modernize government IT -- he might be remembered as the Internet President.

Update 8/13/2014

USDS is also offering suggestions for addressing problems with the federal procurement process that leads to IT failures like HealthCare.Gov -- the TechFAR Handbook, which highlights the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that can help agencies implement “plays” from the Digital Services Playbook that would be accomplished with acquisition support — with a particular focus on how to use contractors to support an iterative, customer-driven software development process, as is routinely done in the private sector.


18F is building tools and expanding -- hacking bureaucracy and promoting open source. They've reduced the hiring cycle from six to nine months to six to eight weeks by making Schedule A hires, which are limited to four years. That is sufficient for people used to working in "startup mode" and reminiscent of the grad students who worked on short-term grants to build the ARPANet and NSFnet.

Update 9/9/2014

18F is building a new system for processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Since the passage of the FOIA in 1966, journalists and other citizens have been able to request copies of government documents, but the system is often slow and fails to find relevant documents. 18F hopes to fix that with a consolidated FOIA request submission hub.

They began the project by meeting with stakeholders, both inside and outside the government, to discuss some of the practical obstacles impeding the current FOIA experience. They are now have a rough prototype of the FOIA request system running and the development process is open to public scrutiny and participation. You can follow, comment and contribute to the project here.

Update 11/1/2014

18F Executive Director Greg Godbout, speaking at the 50th annual TechAmerica Foundation Vision conference reported that since its founding in March, 18F has grown from 14 to 100 employees -- it is now a small business, not a startup.

He said they were not competing with Federal contractors, but were a third-party trusted adviser to the contracting agency and developer, with "no skin in the game."

Their expertise is in "agile" hiring and development and "user centered design." Let's hope these are more than buzz words and their consulting pays off.

Update 12/4/2014

USDS is expanding, working on 2.0, digitizing the VA and collaborating with 18F.

Monday, August 11, 2014

An estimate of Netflix's "fast lane" fee to Comcast -- $.86 per subscriber per month

Netflix, ISPs and transit providers blame each other for poor Internet performance. The public would be well served by transparency -- seeing the cost and traffic data underlying the debates on network neutrality and, more important, the high cost of US Internet service and lagging investment in US Internet infrastructure.

Generator Research has estimated the cost of delivering Netflix content in their report Over-the-Top Television, 2014, which includes an estimate of the cost to Netflix and Comcast of delivering Netflix content and of the fee Netflix is paying Comcast.

They begin by noting that Netflix's total cost of revenue (including content, delivery and other costs) was reported as $1,849 million in 2013 and they had an average of 29 million US subscribers for the year, then make the following assumptions:
  • The cost of content is 80% of the total cost.
  • The cost of delivery is 80% of the remaining cost.
  • 75% of delivery cost is in the access network, 25% in the ISP network.
  • Comcast earns $30 per month per subscriber, $24 of which is as a result of delivering Netflix traffic.
  • 80% of Comcast traffic is due to Netflix.
Based on this, they estimate the total cost of delivering Netflix content as $2 per subscriber per month, with Netflix paying $.86 and Comcast $1.15. Assuming they split the cost in proportion to their monthly revenue ($7.99 for Netflix and $24 for Comcast), Generator guesses that Netflix's fee to Comcast is around $.28 per month per subscriber -- less than 5% pf the cost of a subscription. (Compare that to my ISP increasing my bill by 5-10% every year because, as a monopoly provider, they can).

Generator's conclusion is based upon several assumptions, which you may question, but it is a starting point in estimating cost of content delivery.

Update 8/26/2014

Whatever the marginal cost, someone has to pay for investment in Internet infrastructure. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says it would cost the ISPs very little to upgrade in order to provide the level of service they advertise to their customers.
It's worth noting that Netflix connects directly with hundreds of ISPs globally, and 99 percent of those agreements don't involve access fees. It is only a handful of the largest U.S. ISPs, which control the majority of consumer connections, demanding this toll. Why would more profitable, larger companies charge for connections and capacity that smaller companies provide for free? Because they can.
Hastings' post is one in a series on How to Save the Net running at

Update 9/24/2014

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was on a panel at the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing EuroSummit Conference in Copenhagen last week. Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global was a fellow panelist. Hastings "jokingly" offered Fries the following deal:
Consumers are choosing Netflix and if we’re supposed to pay some of the cost of the network, maybe we should get some of the broadband revenue ... we’ll pay 10% of your network costs if we get 10% of broadband revenue. Or we’ll pay 10% of your network costs if you want to pay 10% of our content costs.
Hastings also stated that
The crazy thing in this whole debate is the actual amount of money being talked about is trivial to both of us – but we’re both worried on both sides about the precedent and what does it mean in the longterm?

Monday, August 04, 2014

A visit to podcast Mecca -- the TWiT Brickhouse studio

Zen and the art of podcasting

I visited Podcast Mecca last week -- Leo Laporte's TWiT Brickhouse broadcast studio in Petaluma, California.

I got there just as Leo was starting Windows Weekly, Episode 373. There are several sets in the studio, and Windows Weekly is broadcast from one in Leo's office.

The start of the program

Here are some random impressions of my visit.

Seven of us were crammed into the office, facing Leo, as he did the show. There were two couples and three fan boys. (My wife was wandering around Petaluma -- not interested in coming in). The audience demographic surprised me -- several of us had gray beards. That was just the people in the room -- Leo's dog Ozzie was also a member of the office audience.

My first impression in seeing the small set/office was of clutter -- all sorts of geek brick-a-brack, old tech books, and tons of monitors, mobile devices, keyboards, cameras and lights. A box with a Harry's shaving kit was also on Leo's desk -- ready to be shown in a commercial.

Leo's cluttered office/set seen through the window

Leo is super friendly and informal -- "flirting" with the small audience in his office. One of the guys had a full beard, which his wife didn't like. Leo teased them and, after the show ended, he gave her the shaving kit. (I overheard one of the staff complaining that he had given away their only kit).

It seems like Leo is just shooting the breeze with his co-host (Paul Thurrott in this case), but he is watching monitors showing the co-host, chat room, on-the air stream, topic rundown, queued stills and videos, his large-screen Mac, etc. He juggles all this effortlessly with his right hand on the console shown below.

Leo controls the show using the console on the right.

Leo multi-tasks during the program. The console on his right has a button that toggles the studio on/off the air and he is constantly going off the air to do things like unpack a new phone that arrived during the show, fiddle with a tablet, order lunch, eat bites of lunch, yawn, drum his fingers on the desktop, etc.

At first, you wonder if he is bored or not paying attention while off the air, then he toggles on and offers an astute comment or asks a good question -- he is attentive to the on-air conversation at all times.

Leo fidgets a lot, but is not nervous -- he seems totally relaxed while he rolls around or bounces on the large rubber ball he sits on. That relaxation shows through in the show.

Leo is meticulous -- after unpacking his new phone or the Harry's shaving kit, he carefully repackaged them during off-air moments. He (and therefore TWiT) does things properly, without loose ends.

As soon as he finished Windows Weekly and posing for souvenir photos, Leo switched his attention to the upcoming episode of This Week in Google -- he had switched context as completely and quickly as when he went off-air for a bite of lunch. He seems laid back, but is focused and mindful.

The guy is a total broadcasting pro.

The TWiT studio is also highly professional. It is filled with workstations for monitoring and controlling broadcasts and editing video.

There are several sets and control stations in the studio.
There are other sets -- for groups of in-studio participants and other shows. A few minutes after the end of Windows Weekly, Leo had moved to another set where he was preparing do This Week in Google with Jeff Jarvis and Gina Trapani. As shown here, the audience sees Jeff and Gina in monitors behind Leo and he sees them on monitors behind the audience.

Leo on a different set, ready for This Week in Google

Leo's professionalism was underlined at the end of Windows Weekly. If you are a TWiT fan, you are used to the format in which programs begin with a brief summary of the upcoming episode, its title and a short promo for each of the sponsors. As soon as the show went off the air, Leo asked the chat room to suggest a show title -- and then extemporaneously recorded what would become the intro to the show when it was posted online. No effort, totally natural and done in a minute.

If you are interested in seeing a state of the art podcasting facility and having some fun, I heartily recommend a visit to the TWiT Brickhouse. The technology and buzz are reminiscent of the pre-slick, early days of live television, when you felt the sense of good humored, spontaneous experimentation and often saw the technology -- the cameras, cameramen, lights, etc. on screen.

It felt like the early days of live television.

Just in case you think I am making this up -- check out this picture with Leo after the show -- wearing the obligatory TWiT fezes.

After the broadcast

Update 8/10/2014

I've noted Leo's ability to multitask and remain present in the on-air conversation. I just listened to TWiT 468, the episode recorded the week after my visit to the studio, and Leo confirmed my observation by discussing his attention deficit disorder (ADD). He told his on-air guests (who also claimed to have ADD) that when he is on air "I've got people in my ear, i've got things going on -- I just took a walk around the block while you were talking ..." (About 1 hour 10 minutes into the recording).

He and the guests seemed to agree that having ADD was helpful in their work in tech journalism, and Leo wondered about causality, asking
Are ADD people naturally attracted to tech or, and I think there might be some evidence for it, is all of this stimulus making us all a little bit ADD?
There is some evidence that the latter is true -- -- I know it is for me -- but I am not sure about the former.

This focus on ADD and multitasking reminded me of a biography I'd read of the writer D. H. Lawrence, who was said to be able to write and carry on conversations at the same time. (Conversing and drawing at the same time is pretty easy -- try it). Was Lawrence a super ADD multitasker? Is Leo? Is the Internet giving us all a bit of ADD?