Thursday, October 27, 2016

Internet service providers -- still the lowest ranked US industry on customer satisfaction

The performance of the ISP industry is as bad as it gets -- what do you expect from companies in monopoly or duopoly markets?

The other day, I got a notice saying my Internet service provider, Time Warner Cable (TWC), was changing its name to "Spectrum." At first I hoped they were changing their name because they were ashamed of the way I had been trashing them in blog posts. (For example, this is the most viewed post in the history of this blog).

But, then I remembered that Charter Communications bought TWC a while back.

The last time I looked at the University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), TWC was rated next to worst among Internet service providers and the ISP industry was the lowest rated of all.

Can I expect service to improve now that I am a Charter customer?

I guess not. The latest ACSI survey shows that the ISPs are still the worst regarded industry by Americans:

The six lowest rated industries

TWC was the worst of the worst last time I looked -- might Charter pull them up? Here are the latest ISP ratings:

ISP ratings

TWC has improved since I last checked -- they are no longer the lowest rated ISP. That's the good news. The bad news is that Charter is ranked lower than TWC. I guess it could have been worse -- Frontier Communications, the lowest ranking ISP, could have purchased TWC.

An irony -- Verizon FIOS, the highest rated ISP, was abandoned by Verizon years ago and has now been sold.

The performance of the ISP industry is as bad as it gets -- what do you expect from companies in monopoly or duopoly markets?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WiGig certification has begun -- in time for virtual/augmented reality

What we call "WiFi" today began at the National Cash Register company (NCR) with the development of a product to wirelessly connect point-of-sale terminals in stores. NCR took their design to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional society that defines standards. IEEE formed a committee, which issued their 802.11b and 802.11a wireless communication standards in 1999.

Standards enable competition and a number of companies began selling 802.11-compatible equipment. They also formed a trade association -- the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance -- to test and certify that their products met the IEEE standards and to market the concept of wireless local area networking. They soon changed the association name to the Wifi Alliance and coined the marketing term "WiFi."

As technology improved, new WiFi standards were invented -- 802.11a, b, g, n and ac.

This week, the WiFi Alliance began certifying compliance with the latest (though not the last) WiFi standard (802.11ad) and gave it the trade name "WiGig."

Each of these WiFi variants has different characteristics -- transmitting on different frequencies and using different methods of signalling whether a bit is a 1 or a 0. WiGig uses a much higher frequency than the others, which enables it to send data very fast -- at a gigabit per second or more -- with very low latency.

That is the good news. The bad news is that high frequency radio transmission travels short distances in air and loses power when passing through obstructions. WiGig will typically be used within rooms.

So, what are the WiGig use cases? The WiFi Alliance suggests these examples:

  • Wireless docking between devices like smartphones, laptops, projectors, and tablets
  • Simultaneous streaming of multiple, ultra-high definition videos and movies
  • More immersive gaming, augmented reality and virtual reality experiences
  • Fast download of HD movies
  • Convenient public kiosk services
  • Easier handling of bandwidth intensive applications in the enterprise
Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is the most interesting to me.

First head-mounted AR/VR display
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland wrote a short note outlining a sci-fi vision of the Ultimate Display, which "with appropriate programming ... could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked." He proceeded to build an AR/VR prototype using a headset that was tethered to a computer.

That was fifty years ago. Today, we have low-quality AR/VR using our phones, but high resolution, fast AR/VR -- anything approaching Alice in Wonderland -- still requires tethering a head-mounted display to a computer.

Next year computers, smart phones and tablets with WiGig connectivity will be on the market. How about head-mounted AR/VR displays?

WiGig will enable untethered, high-performance AR/VR. A computer or an AR/VR appliance in the room will generate high definition, low latency video that the user sees in a relatively "dumb," light and comfortable headset or glasses and information from the headset and any controllers will be transmitted wirelessly back to the computer.

The untethered user will be free to move about the room and, since most of the computation will be off-loaded to the computer, the headset will not consume much power.

To put the possibility of untethered, high performance AR/VR in perspective, check out this this short video showing Sutherland's research prototype demonstration of very slightly augmented reality:

Update 11/6/2016

Microsoft has demonstrated a relatively low cost, tethered head set that can track six degrees of freedom -- head up/down, head left/right and forward/backward in the room.

They say more details will be available in December and OEMs like Dell will be shipping product early next year starting at $299. The computing load is said to be low compared to the more expensive tethered virtual reality headsets on the market -- within the capability of a $500 PC.

Once WiGig is available, the tether will disappear and Microsoft will have a strong entry in the virtual reality market. They will also benefit from engineering synergy between this product and their untethered Hololens augmented reality product. (Some of the tracking technology was borrowed from the Hololens).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The government role in shaping the Internet in China and the US

The US government invested $124.5 million in building and demonstrating the feasibility and value of the ARPANet, TCP/IP internetworking protocol and subsequent deployment to education and research organizations with the establishment of NSFNet and the NSF developing nations program. That was a pretty good investment. (Government procurement was also important -- for example, lessons learned and programmers trained in building the SAGE early warning defense system played a key role in the progress of networking and computer science in the US).

Internet development timeline

NSFNet was at first the backbone for the international Internet, but the government stepped back once the initial research and development was completed, phasing out the NSFNet subsidies over a four year period. Private telephone and cable companies with local monopolies or oligopolies became Internet service providers and owners of our Internet infrastructure.

In contrast, the market for Internet applications and services was competitive from the start. Private capital has financed and developed our Internet startups and ecosystems of organizations to support them -- incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, investors, consultants and hackerspaces. The first startup ecosystems were in the Silicon Valley and along Massachusets Route 128, but many, including my home town, Los Angeles, have followed their lead.

1,113 tech startups in Los Angeles

535 startup support organizations

The Chinese have taken a different approach to Internet infrastructure. They established an academic network in 1987, linked it to Stanford University in 1993 and the following year established a full Internet connection. Like all other nations, they began with a slow link to a small academic network, but within a few years, the Chinese had realized the importance of the Internet and had established competing, government-owned national backbone networks.

Unlike the United States, the Chinese government is also playing an active role in support of Internet application and service companies. In his 2016 Report on the Work of the Government, Chinese premier Li Keqiang stated that
Further progress was made in implementing the strategy of innovation-driven development, the penetration of the Internet into all industries picked up the pace, and emerging industries grew rapidly.
The Chinese are funding startup ecosystem organizations like those created by the private sector in the US. For example, 710 subsidized startups are clustered in the Dream Town district of Hangzhou.

Chinese workers remodeling Dream Town spaces

How has it worked out?

The US had a significant lead over the entire world when a small Chinese academic network joined the Internet. One cannot directly compare the US and China -- there are many confounding differences, but we can compare China with India, a nation with some similarities. India's academic networks joined the Internet a little before China, but they essentially started at the same time. By 2002, the Chinese Internet was significantly more advance than that of India.

The International Telecommunication Union's Information and Communication Technology development index (IDI) provides a recent indicator of Chinese progress. The IDI is a function of eleven indicators measuring ICT access, use and skills in a nation. In 2015, China ranked 82nd on the IDI while India ranked 131st. In 2010, China ranked 87th and India ranked 125th.

While China has done better than India to date, their economy is slowing and their program of support for startups can lead to misallocation of resources and cronyism -- as happened in the Chinese construction industry:

The US started at the top, so our infrastructure had no where to go but down relative to other nations. The US ranks 21st in fiber deployment among the 34 OECD nations and our average Internet connection speed ranks 15th among the 74 nations served by Akamai.

Percent of broadband connections with fiber,
OECD, December 2015

Connection speeds, Akamai, Q1 2016

While the US has faltered in infrastructure deployment, we have retained the lead in Internet applications and services. As shown here, the US had 39 of the most popular 100 Web sites as ranked by Alexa in September 2016 while China had only 10.

These rankings should be taken with a grain of salt – SimilarWeb, an Israeli company, rates the US substantially higher with 40 sites in the top 100 as opposed to 10 for China. Chinese sites also focus heavily on China whereas the US sites generally seek a global audience.

It seems that the US private sector has done well in Internet applications and services and not as well in deploying infrastructure. Private companies seek to maximize corporate profit rather than social goals regarding education, the economy, etc. This has contributed to other nations surpassing our infrastructure in spite of our pioneering role.

These are complex issues and I cannot reach definite, generalizable conclusions (nor can anyone else), but, if I had to guess, I would think that China would be better off cutting back on subsidies for Internet application and service companies and the US would be better off with a more competitive Internet service provider market -- discouraging consolidation and "gentleman's agreements" among companies and encouraging ownership of infrastructure by local governments and customers.

Update 10/16/2016

For teachers or others who might like to present this topic, I have prepared (and used) a nine-slide, one-video annotated PowerPoint presentation.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Vision precedes engineering prototypes which precede products

Google unveiled voice controlled "intelligent" assistants today -- in a phone and a home listening device.

The vision of a voice-controlled intelligent assistant in which the manufacturer made tightly integrated hardware and software was shown in Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator concept video.

We'll see if Google has pulled it off.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Google Hangouts on Air is a useful, evolving teaching medium

Google Hangouts on Air is a useful tool for teaching today and it will be different and improved tomorrow.

Google Hangouts on Air (HoA) is a free service within YouTube. It allows one to hold a live teleconference with up to ten people. During the teleconference, an unlimited number of people can watch the live stream and it is recorded. When the teleconference ends, the video is automatically archived on YouTube. (See this presentation for some examples and instructions on how to create an HoA).

I've experimented with HoA for teaching three times. The first time, my class met online when I was out of town in 2013. It was a complete failure -- the Internet speed and student hardware were not up to the task.

The second time, the results were good, but we made and learned from some mistakes:

The third time -- a couple weeks ago -- we avoided most of those mistakes (and made a couple new ones). I am ready to use HoA more frequently, even when I am not out of town.

I polled the students the week after our last HoA session. Eight students were in the live hangout, 2 watched the live stream, but were not in the live hangout, 8 others only watched the archived video later and two did not participate. (A couple were also absent the night I did the poll). Here are the results:

This is a small, anecdotal sample but it is consistent with the assessment of the students last year. We also talked about the experience in class the following week and the students confirmed that they were batter able to focus in the hangout than in the classroom and were more relaxed and willing to participate. (Most also saved travel time by participating from home). The students who were in the live hangout had a generally better experience than those who only watched the video.

We are entering an era of live-streaming on the Internet -- Twitter is streaming football games and a number of Web sites streamed the presidential debate. Google, Facebook and others are offering streaming services and, like all other media (including textbooks), live streaming will evolve and improve. Google HoA is a useful tool for teaching today and it will be different and improved tomorrow.