Feb 18, 2013

7,500 Miles

Amanda and I are now stationed up here in Maine where we will very happily be stationary for a bit. We bought a new car in Phoenix, AZ at the end of December, and here in Maine the odometer suggests we need a break at 7,500 miles. 

Nevertheless, the excitement over the issue of broadband continues to build. Our family has graciously offered us a space to work through the footage we've collected, and make plans for the next step. I'm lucky to be typing this from a 20Mbps connection on the coast, but just an hour inland the cell coverage disappears and the line of sight internet in homes chokes on 700 Kbps. People, however, live in both areas and it's easy to see the digital divide at work. 

Broadband in America has a fascinating history that's intertwined right from the beginning with television and telephone networks and has powerful applications for the future. Telling a story that accurately and meaningfully conveys the importance of protecting and promoting this technology is no small challenge, but thankfully we now have a lot of support from incredible people from all around the country. Ultimately, we'll have to cut the story down to something digestible, but hopefully the effort will encourage people to explore the subject on their own as well-- there's so many important and cool things going on. 

So we may be at the end of our drive across country, but the experience has felt more like the very beginning of the project than the majority of it. Now having time to talk it out, I think we're on the verge of making some big decisions about the next steps to take-- once we're on course, I'll let you know!

Feb 3, 2013

Invisible Speeds

In Arkansas our 4G LTE device was getting download rates in the 20-30 Mbps range and I was wondering how it would be possible to hook this up to my workstation-- only a couple months later I'm wondering how we can have doctors conferencing with us in our living rooms.

What began as a question about how the internet works is now a fascination for me with why the internet isn't doing more-- an incredible spectrum of possibilities that can help address seemingly unconnected problems like pollution, the deficit, and healthcare awaits implementation. We're not counting Mbps here and getting whipped up into a baseless drag race for speed; this is an excitement over what happens when speeds are so fast that counting doesn't matter anymore.

Upload and download rates are only important for how much they limit what we can do. If you have a fast connection you can get to high quality content faster, and more of it. A slow connection means less is available to you and what does come through is compressed or stripped down. Content providers and programmers are spending a good deal of their time cutting down and squeezing their information into smaller sizes so it can reach the widest audience of connected devices.

As an example, an entrepreneur would not produce a teleconference software that would make talking to a doctor as seamless as having them in the same room with you because not very many people have a connection that could withstand it. Most people have to make due with slow service, and applications used over the internet have to be built around that.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

When it comes to connecting our computers together we are accustom to asking how much we can store or how much we can send/receive, but what we're really after is a way of quantifying how much we can do. How long can I talk to my Mom and Dad on this data plan? Will I be able to see all of the detail in this documentary I'm watching on Netflix? Can I send you the song I made so you give me feedback on it? Can we share more and be closer when we want to? These are the deeper questions we're trying to get at, and when we're equating it to speeds we're really trying to figure out how much technology is forcing us to compromise. The effort to develop high speed networks is fueled by the desire to pull down these boundaries that data caps and throttled speeds create.

I often hear arguments from people that go something like this: they don't currently desire seamless high quality Skype calls because undemanding email is all they use. As long as Facebook is accessible, why would they need more? The answer to this is the same one we would find ourselves giving the early adopters of electricity who wondered why they'd need a lightbulb instead of a candle. First there was the lightbulb, but with a steady supply of power to every house there came developments like the TV, refrigerators, washing machines, computers, etc-- electricity is a platform to build on, and the internet is only different in that it could even be better that that.

What if a patient could schedule a meeting with their doctor from the comfort of their home without fear of not being able to see or hear them well enough? What if kids could pull up any piece of information on their school subject or personal interest and listen to, watch, or interact with it? What if instead of going into a crappy office to do your computer job you could do it from home and where you don't need to burn fossil fuels to build an office, run a car, or be away from your family? What about the things we don't know about yet?

The web isn't a new thing at this point, and the accomplishments in widespread collaboration, communication, and development we've made using it so far prove the inherent value. Saying that it should be available to all at a rate that removes limitations is therefore a no brainer. The only question left is "why isn't it here yet?" and that's what we're trying to answer.

Feb 2, 2013

Bit or Byte

Here's an important difference I should've known by now: Bit vs. Byte. There are so many things about computers the average user won't ever need to know through the course of their dealings, but this is one as important as Miles Per Gallon. 

I've been measuring speeds on the smart phone with the use of SpeedTest.net, and the numbers that come back have been a bit deceiving. By now I, like many people, are accustom to hard drive measurements and how to calculate what I need based on how large images, videos, or other files are. It's natural, therefore, to think about internet speeds in terms of these same measurements. Because I often download these files, it is also natural to think about how fast I can do so-- how many seconds, for instance, does it take to download a 10 megabyte file? SpeedTest.net appears to have the answer: lets say I open the site, click "Begin Test" and after some calculating it tells me I get 1 Mbps. That's one mega..byte?...per...second? That was always my assumption, and from there I'd conclude 10 Mb over a 1 Mbps connection takes 10 seconds

Turns out that is wrong. If you bought a new car that advertised 30 MPG, but after 30 miles you had used almost 4 gallsons it would be pretty annoying, and that's essentially how I felt when I discovered:

Mbps= MegaBITS per second. I have a 10 MegaBYTE file and I'm downloading it at 1 MegaBITs per second. 

So that's annoying. What's the difference between a bit and a byte then? From WiseGeek:
A gigabit is a unit of measurement used in computers, equal to one billion bits of data. A bit is the smallest unit of data. It takes eight bits to form or store a single character of text. These 8-bit units are known as bytes.
We calculate hard drive space based on bytes because bytes are what we are interested in storing. To say a hard drive can store X amount of bits isn't as important to us as how many bytes because a eight thousand random bits aren't as important as 8 thousand bits organized into 1000 meaningful bytes. So while you can talk about anything in bits, it's only really useful to talk about bytes when it comes to hard drive space.

With connection speeds, however, we're interested bits because information is transmitted at that most basic form. An image is broken down into bits and transmitted over the internet where it is reconstituted into bytes on the other end. The transmission speed is calculated, then, by how fast we can send each bite.

Thankfully, that's about all there is to it. It means you have to do some basic math when you want to determine how long a file of X bytes will take to download over an X bits per second connection, but happily the computer will do this work for you in the background.

Where this distinction really matters is when you're shopping for an ISP.

Lets look at the top and bottom end of what's available. Google Fiber is advertised as a Gigabit service (that's 1,000 Mbps), and before this explanation you might have assumed you could download a one gigabyte video in one second. A file that is 3.5 gigabytes? That will only take three and a half seconds, right? No, it will actually take just over thirty seconds. No big deal, right? Well, if you have a much slower connection (like I do) at around 1.5 Mbps, then that same 3.5 Gigabyte file will take five and a half hours to download. Here's a nifty calculator so you can use to compare download rates on various connection speeds: Download Time Calculator

At a time when Megabytes have become Gigabytes and now Terabytes in consumer electronics, it can be difficult for someone who would rather focus on their work than computer terminology to get the service they need. The difference between 1.5 Mbps vs 100 Mbps makes a huge difference in productivity for anyone, and it's important that we be able to get the speeds we need to handle the workload.

There is a point, however, and I won't delve too much into it here, that speeds become so fast that it doesn't matter if you understand the difference between bytes and bits. If you have a gigabit service like Google Fiber and can download one gigabyte in nine seconds-- you really don't care all that much about file size. Your focus begins to be about quality, and that's the importance of super fast networks.