Nov 22, 2012

DALLAS

White Rock Lake


Driving into Dallas today I hit a spot along the road that boasted a new record for LTE speeds on this trip so far:

38 Mbps on the road? Amazing.

It was liking finding a warm pocket in the ocean while swimming-- gone all too quickly. It wasn't but a few miles later speed tests returned to somewhere around 7Mbps down, and I began to understand how unreliable these results are. The goal here is to find a consistant connection to high speed internet that won't age quickly as the internet and my business grow.

On a walk last month Amanda and I flagged down a Frontier truck out servicing my neighbor's house to ask about their service. He said connection speeds by us came over DSL and weren't very fast-- a few Mbps at best.  Presently DSL is often the suggested upgrade from dial up for rural residents. When it's not being super slow, DSL can achieve speeds around 3Mbps at the high end, and next to zero on the low end. This is one of those technologies that suffers from signal degradation as information moves farther away from its origin, and without close proximity to a booster station customers are likely to be just as well off on dial up.

But what else is there?




WHAT WE DOWNLOAD

The first video I downloaded was a music video in 1999. I think it was an Offspring song and it took most of the day to download on dial-up.  A far cry from full HD, the frame was maybe half the size of standard definition and compressed to pieces, but it was incredibly exciting to bypass the TV. Finding what you wanted was fun, required some skill, and the wait while the video crept over telephone wire built anticipation. All together, it made the otherwise forgettable "Pretty Fly For a White Guy" very memorable to me.

My parents' iPad now has an HBO app on it that streams Game of Thrones in HD, and they expect it to work whenever a wifi signal is around. At their place it does, and ever since the cable company began offering broadband in 2002, the holdup on getting high quality content wasn't on the home end of the connection. Once we were plugged in, we began eagerly awaiting websites like Youtube to spring up and make use of all the bandwidth. Well, they did, but suddenly we discovered all that bandwidth really isn't as much as we thought.

Of all the kinds of information we download online, video is the most demanding consumer of bandwidth. Currently, high definition video is the quality consumers expect, and its demand on our internet connection is equally high. You'll be downloading 2.3 Gb worth of information in an hour just to watch an HD movie on Netflix. In an urban area you'll find this to be an easy task, but even on the lowest video quality settings on our rural connection we experience frequent "buffering" pauses.

If video quality were to pique here, there's a lot that can be done to improve the situation. Codecs, the software that compresses video down to smaller file sizes while attempting to maintain the highest video quality, are constantly being improved. Where we currently require 5Mbps to watch an HD video, we may only require a 2Mbps connection in a few years to view the same quality video. The postage stamp sized music video I spent hours downloading thirteen years ago would stream in HD today without buffering.

Video standards aren't stagnant, but we might be inclined to look at the evolution of television formats as very broad and gradual: black and white, color TV, and now high definition tv in the span of fifty or more years. The reality, though, is that it won't take another twenty years to see the next big improvement in viewing quality. 3D TVs are already on the market, and we've begun to hear talk of a "4K" TV which would be up to four times larger than current HD frame sizes. These new larger formats aren't the latest hot-out-of-the-lab inventions-- it's just an estimation by electronics manufacturers of what consumers will possibly invest in. If it were conceivable, for instance, that we'd be willing to re-buy all our cameras and televisions tomorrow, the 8K technology would be ready to go by tonight. Upgrade to higher quality video is dependent, then, only on the rate at which consumers are willing to digest it, and how profitable it will be to strategically stagger each move out.

So in building a communications network it makes sense to keep an eye on the progression of video standards. Netflix, one of the most used high quality online video services, recently announced it streamed 1 billion hours of video in a month for the first time. Check out this crazy bit of information from Ciena:

And while 1 billion hours is a huge number, there is one even bigger – the total amount of bandwidth that was consumed for these 1 billion hours of streaming video. 
In fact, it’s a number so big that it is almost impossible for the average brain (like mine) to comprehend.  How much bandwidth was actually used?  This much:
7,200,000,000,000,000,000 bits
I actually had to do a Google search to figure out what that number is.  Turns out it is7.2 quintillion. That’s how many bits of Netflix video traffic were sent over networks during those 1 billion streaming hours.

Although the merger of internet and conventional TV delivery systems is probably a good topic for a different post, it's important to note that we're already seeing the transition between traditional understandings of separate utilities like phone, TV, and internet to the one data connection that takes care of all your communication needs. It's a matter of time before all communication will be served through one type of digital connection and used on one multi-faced always connected computer. This isn't to mention the additional bundling of possibilities that could arrise from a high capacity network-- we shouldn't be thinking about simply meeting the demands we have right now, but about building an infrastructure that won't impede the development of those services we haven't yet dreamed of.

Amanda and I passed the time on the road yesterday by listening to old TV and music we hadn't heard since the 90's; it seems you can find anything on Youtube. 4G LTE is peppy, and it's easy to stream what we're looking for, but how long will it be before the content I'm looking for outstrips this network's capacity? Codec compression, for instance, may always provide a "mobile" version of the upcoming improvements in video quality, but at home there has to be an answer that addresses the need for "future proofing".





Nov 20, 2012

STOP THE CAPS

Interstate 40 stretches out a long way between both coasts, and out of all the times I've traveled across the country I40 has nearly always been a major part of the journey. As you drive along day after day you'll watch trees slowly shrink over the miles before turning into shrubs-- then the desert covers it all up. Right now we're just reaching the semi-shrub sparsely treed phase outside Little Rock, AK. 

While running a few more speed tests today around Memphis, TN I noticed the tiny little "LTE" initials next to the 4G indicator on Amanda's phone-- what in the world does that stand for anyway? Billboards for the major carriers are aimed at us in every major city claiming to have the nation's most awesome LTE service, so what exactly are they selling me? We were guessing: Long Term Eeenternet? Light Transmission of.....eeenternet? Lotta Tight EEENTERNET. I used the LTE on the phone to look it up, and The New York Times clarified:
For those pondering the abbreviations, “3G” stands for Third Generation, “4G” stands for Fourth Generation and “4G LTE” stands for Fourth Generation, Long Term Evolution. 
It is pretty fast; the theoretical limits are around 100 Mbps even if the real world speeds are down around 20 Mbps.  Today I finally broke through the 20's around Memphis:

Of the four or so snapshots I took through TN, this was by far the biggest result. 

After the realization that this phone was capable of cruising around the web at this rate, I began to think about the possibility of hooking up the phone to my router at home. Though we don't have access to a 4G LTE network in West Virginia, many people throughout the country could easily take advantage of these speeds for home computing use. Especially since cable internet can run $50 to $80/month and a data plan is closer to $40. 

The rub, of course, is data caps. For this latest generation of networks the major carriers impose a limit on the amount of data you can use per month-- this is dubbed data caps. On her phone Amanda has a little notification app that indicates how much data has been used this month, and so far we're at 584 Mb. On a typical 2 Gig plan, that's a lot for cell only browsing; if the connection were tied to a computer that barrier would be quickly surpassed. Luckily, Amanda is one of the fortunate few still grandfathered into Verizon's unlimited plan-- if only we were near an LTE tower, we would be set. 

From my point of view driving down I40 there's all kinds of speedy internet bouncing around, but at home I either can't access it, or if I could I'd quickly go through a tiny monthly allowance. While my work with large video files requires that I consume much more bandwidth than today's average user, the definition of average consumption is a moving target. It's hard to believe, but the first iPhone came out only five years ago-- how much will we use five years from now? What exactly brought carriers to conclude 2 gigs is enough?

There's a lot of time to sit around and Google stuff on a road trip, but it wasn't long before I was lucky enough to stumble across www.StopTheCap.com, an incredibly deep source of information about telecommunication companies and their broadband practices. I read aloud to Amanda several pages of posts, all of which I'd love to copy paste here. I'll likely turn to it  frequently for quotes, like this one:

...the costs of bandwidth and network upgrades to handle increased data demands are proving to be both incidental and declining. What has not declined is the price consumers pay for service.

Cell service providers realize at this point that broadband is their premium service as traditionally separate utilities like telephone and TV are now available through the same data connection. Quality and content online are guaranteed to increase, so keeping a careful hand on how much data can be accessed is key to maximizing profits. 2 gigs, it seems, is the number that won't scare off subscribers, but will introduce a mindset that data should cost a lot of money. 

At any rate, StoptheCap.com is a wealth of knowledge that I'm only beginning to read through, so I'll refrain from pointing too many fingers just yet, but my disappointment in finding a blockade while exploring a promising system is huge. Ultimately, I just want to have access to solid service at a reasonable rate so I can get on with doing what I do-- don't we all? 

Nov 19, 2012

West Virginia to Tennessee

Our first day took us down the middle of West Virginia, through beautiful Monongahela National Forest, and out Rt. 79. A few patches of snow still hold out on the higher mountains, but the weather all day was very warm which made for a pleasant drive.

Armed with Amanda's Verizon Droid Bionic smart phone, we kept an eye on cell strength throughout the state: 1x call strength, and a non-existant data connection. Amanda joked that we'd know when we were reaching the state line when 3G returned on the phone-- she was, however, dead on. A few miles from the boarder we could easily stream video, and as we moved into Kentucky there was a steady 3G connection that grew into 4G LTE closer to Lexington. 

The website SpeedTest.net allows you to easily measure the speed of your internet connection on a computer or smart phone, and as a rough way of gauging what's possible in an area I'll be taking unscientific screenshots of the results I get on the road. Today's results really floored me:

kbps is an annoying way to think about speed, I should've switched to Mbps-- I'll do that next time. For now though, just divide by 1000: 2.1 Mbps, 9.7 Mbps, and 14 Mbps


All of these tests were generated on a smartphone driving down a major freeway outside the heart of the cities listed. We were driving past Morhead, KY when the Cincinnati connection was made, for example, so I believe the results aren't taken in any ideal situation. 

I wish I had taken a screen shot of my connection back home first (on a line of sight home connection, mind you), but I performed one a week ago that was roughtly 1.3 Mbps down and .8 Mbps up. For those of us starving for a reasonable speed the numbers I got today really jump out, but to put it in perspective for everyone else with a solid connections at home: all this essentially means today the internet was up to 14x faster on my cell phone going 70 MPH down the freeway than it is at my home (that is not on wheels) on a connection I pay twice as much for. 

And how's this for further dispare, this is the speed test I did over the wifi at the Days Inn outside Nashville:


It's like I've never downloaded cat gifs so fast in my life. 

The road through West Virginia is beautiful, but it's clear from the housing and shops along the way that very little growth or prosperity remains these days. Amanda and I marveled throughout our drive at the beautiful old buildings, clearly build during a different time, that are slowly falling apart due to disrepair. I know little about the industry or economy of West Virginia, but it's easy to imagine someone growing up in the area and wanting to stay, but being forced to find work elsewhere in the country. A strong communications network could allow young people to stay to rebuild the area and new residents to live in a place they connect with. 

Tomorrow we'll be making our way closer to Texas! 




Nov 18, 2012

STILL WAITING

In 8th grade I asked my parents if we could get "the internet". At the time AOL was littering the sidewalks with free trials to dial up, and I desperately wanted a way to access my HTML from home. Mom tells me now that she rolled her eyes and thought "doesn't he already have enough computer games?"

Somewhere around twenty million people in the US are without internet service according to the FCC, and it's not just World of Warcraft they're missing out on. This morning the Huffington Post published a lengthy and detailed account of the difficulties rural America is facing in receiving broadband. A few notable excerpts: 

To win over regulators, AT&T promised to offer broadband Internet to all residents in its combined territory, with at least 30 percent of wired Internet deployment -- known as DSL -- rolled out to rural or low-income communities. Low-income customers would also receive $10 Internet service.
The goal of commitment was “to provide at least some basic Internet service to rural areas,” Martin said.
But some former FCC commissioners and industry experts say merger conditions often contain loopholes that by themselves achieve little in expanding access to the Internet in rural areas. 
AT&T’s promise “relies on a definition of broadband that does not nearly put our country on par with our global competitors,” then-FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, adding that the deal "would have been substantially improved by the inclusion of more specific, quantifiable, and enforceable commitments for rural and low-income consumers." 

Civic responsibility and corporate profitability are unfortunately at odds here, with rural residents left to wait for a resolution. Unfortunately, this issue is less about people with established online connections looking to live outside the urban centers, and more about residents already in rural areas being left behind. Jobs and businesses aren't just relying on the internet, they are increasingly dependent on it, and as job listings move online residents without a reliable web connection are unable to find or discover work. Traditional and brand new kinds of jobs are being created online or in maintaining communications infrastructure, but without a push that supersedes profitability, they won't make it to rural workers.


Nov 17, 2012

INTRODUCTION VIDEO

Amanda and I are headed out on Monday to start our cross-country drive to learn more about the internet, and lives based around it, so we've created a short video to kick it off!


We're looking forward to connecting with people around the country that share a similar frustrating/liberating experience with the web--let us know if that is you!

Nov 7, 2012

THE STOVE


Amanda and I created this video last summer about a small part of our lives out here in West Virginia. We're new to using a wood stove to heat our home, so we took a moment to talk about our experience.

QUESTIONABLE BROADBAND AVAILABILITY

Election recaps and summaries of the past term are cropping up this morning, so there's a lot of talk about what's changed and what we've all got to look forward to. There's long lists covering a wide spectrum of subjects, but I didn't expect to so quickly stumble across this bit about broadband access on Gizmodo:
Obama promised years ago to get broadband access "to every community in America." He's gotten closer than you'd think. According to PolitiFact, as of this spring about 95% of US homes had broadband access (although only 67% subscribe).
95% is a huge number-- I'm traveling to a place in my mind where nearly every human being in the country has the opportunity to call up and get really fast internet right to their house. I can see parents Skyping with their kids without interruption, TED talks streaming without buffering, and file transfers that don't have to happen over the course of the night. 95%?

After a little digging it seems I've taken for granted the shifting definition of broadband across providers and regions. It's an easy mistake to make, because whether I'm hooking up my internet connection in Los Angeles or West Virginia I call the ISP and ask for the same thing: "broadband." What I get, though, is vastly different.

Broadband as a technical term, it turns out, is similar to calling a car fast. Although the FCC updated its definition broadband in 2010 to describe a connection with a minimum 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, what that translates to frequently falls short of expectations. In our instance, we pay for ("up to" as they say) 6 Mbps down / 2 MBps up, but in a speed test I performed just now, I've actually got 2.12 Mbps down / 0.71 Mbps up. This discrepancy is explained in part by the fact that we're also on a "shared connection" with every other subscriber in our region. This means all of us are sharing the same advertised bandwidth between us, and the more people there are online the less "speed" there is to go around. Our ISP doesn't make this a choice, and I can't pay for my own connection-- it's just the way it works. In short, only on a good day if no one else in town used the internet could we achieve the defined speeds of broadband. It seems only theoretical possibilities are required for service descriptions, which can lead to a lot of confusion for customers like me.

The FCC has a pretty nice website-- I snagged the above map of fixed broadband deployment after doing a quick search there for broadband information. It's pretty cool, or disheartening in my case, as you can zoom way in and check out access by county; where we are in West Virginia has 0% access. No wonder my speeds are so dismal, they don't appear even to exist.


The consequences of misunderstanding what our infrastructure is currently capable of makes future possibilities less awesome. While most of the population in dense urban and surrounding areas may have a strong connection, the outliers in "rural" areas have only thin threads connecting them to the web-- this isn't a job 95% done. Without strong connections to even the most distant camp, the workforce will cluster where the speeds are instead of venturing out to more personal  or practical lifestyles with the ISPs in tow. 

Nov 6, 2012

INTERNET EVERYWHERE



If not for that tower a few miles from us we'd be completely isolated. Most of the homes near us are camps occupied occasionally in the summer months, and the rest of the town lives on the other side of our three mile dirt road. It's a choice we made to live remotely, but without a constant connection to our family, friends, and work thousands of miles away it would be an unsustainable life.

When it comes down to it, though, I don't know very much about the way the internet works-- the thing that makes this all possible-- and that's a little unsettling. Our needs are fixed (and growing): for work we've got big files that need to be uploaded and downloaded (and buffering ruins Netflix). But unlike ISP customers in urban areas, it's not as easy as calling the cable company and moving up to a faster speed. The best offered in an area like ours is in practice around 1 Mb upload/download-- barely enough to stream video. Likewise, cell coverage here is spotty, and the 4G smartphone can only pick up a 1x signal. Building a dependable life around this shaky framework isn't simple, and it's not a wonder more people aren't doing it.

But it's made us think about how much our lives are dictated by bandwidth. If fast-- truly fast-- internet was available anywhere in the country, would more people live outside urban clusters? How many people are tethered to an area they don't like because of their work? We're interested in the unique ways people have substituted their physical presence at work with a digital tool that empowers them to simultaneously pursue the lifestyle they want. Thanks to tools like email, Skype, Facebook, Youtube and more, it's starting to make more sense to think about lifestyle first and fitting everything else in second. Going out into the woods to live isn't a new idea, but bringing the world along with you is, and the possibilities are hampered only by technology.

As we learn and make sense of all this we'll be documenting it all in a video that, for credibility, we'll call a movie. Our own pursuit of this new possibility for life is fueling a tour around the country that will take us from Maine to Los Angeles at least, so stick with us or get in touch and we'll see what's possible together!