Mar 31, 2013

Honest Cable Company

I just stumbled across this and thought it was amazing, enjoy.

Mar 29, 2013

The Personal Telco Project

In Portland, OR Amanda and I were lucky enough to spend time with Russell Senior, President of the Personal Telco project which works to create an open wifi network for the city. At a weekly meeting we met many of the volunteers who shared with us a great deal of information about networks and computing in general. Our thanks goes out to them for helping us better understand one of the many ways people are working to make the internet accessible to as many people as possible.

If you're in Portland, check out this map to locate their wifi hotspots!

Mar 25, 2013

Underwater Cables Are A Thing

As we made our way around the country, Amanda and I would ask people how they believe their internet physically works. If you were to explain how the water in your house gets to the tap, for instance, you could point out a few key elements like the well, the pipes in your wall, the water heater, etc. But could you do that for the internet? Not surprisingly, many people were unsure about what the little cable box with the blinky light does let alone what the basic elements of our communication infrastructure look like. One of the most common guesses is that somewhere in the process the signal goes into space and bounces off a satellite. I think this reasoning is just a matter of quick deduction-- bouncing radio signals off a tower or dish in the sky must be quicker and more efficient than running wires all over the place, right? Well, I was excited to find out that it actually isn't, and we really have laid wires across oceans and over mountains all over the planet. 

Lets take it all the way back to the telegraph-- the first electrical communication system. I find it's somewhat common to imagine the wires even in this early system would at some point run into a radio station in order to be beamed across the ocean. After all, the 1800's seems like a relatively early period in time for something advanced like undersea cables to be possible. Radio, however, was the advanced technology that wasn't yet possible. The first wireless transmission systems weren't developed until the early 1900's, while the telegraph had been around since the 1830's. For about sixty years during the 1800's telegraph was the quickest way to transmit information, so with that in mind it is less surprising an undersea cable was considered important to figure out.

The telephone poles running up and down our streets clearly illustrate how possible it is to run a wire from home to home all the way across a continent. Getting across the ocean, however, requires a little bit more from our imagination. Just picturing an uninterrupted length of cable spanning the Atlantic gets me thinking about sunken treasure ships, undersea canyons, and whales. An ocean is a big dark unknown area, so the idea that groups of people would take a stab at conquering it with a cable back in the 1850's seems ridiculous, but that's exactly what they did. Bit by bit cable technology was improved and cables were successfully laid across multiple oceans. The image above looks like a trade routes for ships, but it's an early map of the new kind of trade route we've developed over wires.

There's a lot of information about underwater, or submarine, cables online-- it's a vastly ambitious ongoing engineering feat that's been underway for well over a hundred years now, so there ought to be. You'll readily find answers to any question you have about the subject on Google, but I've compiled below a couple of quotes found from a variety of sources that will give you a quick overview of the topic.

...In 1870, a new cable was laid between England and France, and Napoleon III used it to send a congratulatory message to Queen Victoria. Hours later, a French fisherman hauled the cable up into his boat, identified it as either the tail of a sea monster or a new species of gold-bearing seaweed, and cut off a chunk to take home. Thus was inaugurated an almost incredibly hostile relationship between the cable industry and fishermen. Almost anyone in the cable business will be glad, even eager, to tell you that since 1870 the intelligence and civic responsibility of fisherman have only degraded. Fishermen, for their part, tend to see everyone in the cable business as hard-hearted bluebloods out to screw the common man...

...Clearly, submarine cable repair is a good business to be in. Cable repair ships are standing by in ports all over the world, on 24-hour call, waiting for a break to happen somewhere in their neighborhood. They are called agreement ships... 

...By the year 1870, Kelvin and others had finally worked the bugs out of the technology. A three-master anchored off this beach in that year and landed a cable that eventually ran to Lisbon, Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, Cairo, Suez, Aden (now part of Yemen), Bombay, over land to the east coast of India, then on to Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Batavia (later Jakarta), and finally to Darwin, Australia. It was Australia's first direct link to Great Britain and, hardly by coincidence, also connected every British outpost of importance in between. It was the spinal cord of the Empire...

...The basic problem of slack is akin to a famous question underlying the mathematical field of fractals: How long is the coastline of Great Britain? If I take a wall map of the isle and measure it with a ruler and multiply by the map's scale, I'll get one figure. If I do the same thing using a set of large-scale ordnance survey maps, I'll get a much higher figure because those maps will show zigs and zags in the coastline that are polished to straight lines on the wall map. But if I went all the way around the coast with a tape measure, I'd pick up even smaller variations and get an even larger number. If I did it with calipers, the number would be larger still. This process can be repeated more or less indefinitely, and so it is impossible to answer the original question straightforwardly. The length of the coastline of Great Britain must be defined in terms of fractal geometry...

Cable placed at the bottom of the ocean is actually laid in a trench with a plow!

...Britain's very first action after declaring war on Germany in World War I was to have the cable ship Teleconia cut the five cables linking Germany with North America. Thereafter the only way Germany could communicate was by wireless, and that meant that Room 40 could listen in...

...In the 1980s, fiber optic cables were developed. The first transatlantic telephone cable to use optical fiber was TAT-8, which went into operation in 1988. A fiber-optic cable comprises multiple pairs of fibers. Each pair has one fiber in each direction. TAT-8 had two operational pairs and one backup pair...

...As of 2006, overseas satellite links accounted for only 1 percent of international traffic, while the remainder was carried by undersea cable. The reliability of submarine cables is high, especially when (as noted above) multiple paths are available in the event of a cable break. Also, the total carrying capacity of submarine cables is in the terabits per second, while satellites typically offer only megabits per second and display higher latency. However, a typical multi-terabit, transoceanic submarine cable system costs several hundred million dollars to construct.
As a result of these cables' cost and usefulness, they are highly valued not only by the corporations building and operating them for profit, but also by national governments. For instance, the Australian government considers its submarine cable systems to be "vital to the national economy". Accordingly, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has created protection zones that restrict activities that could potentially damage cables linking Australia to the rest of the world. The ACMA also regulates all projects to install new submarine cables...

Here's a short video from the Discovery Channel about undersea cable. Be sure to see the storage room at around the 4:30 mark:

And finally, here are some maps of where all these cables are all around the world:

Whether you have time to explore the history of submarine cables or not, it's worth remembering that the internet is built on an infrastructure first developed in the 1800's. Because computer technology has made the next evolutionary steps in communications bigger and faster it's easy to imagine this is all quite brand new and separate from other forms of communication. When put in perspective, though, the evolution of communication from telegraph, to telephone, fax, email, and now to video conferencing all centered around this impressive web of wires laid around the globe is easier to see. 

Mar 21, 2013

Healthcare in a Connected World

We had the good fortune of speaking with Sheldon Renan at his home in Portland, Oregon about a variety of topics concerning the internet. As we dig through our footage I'll be creating short videos like this one exploring the various ways the internet is shaping our lives.

Mar 20, 2013

My Speed Test Results

To be fair to my ISP, we've had a pleasant uptick in speeds this week after calling into tech support. From the other end of the phone I heard tech support offer to check on our abismal speeds, then a few moments of breathing, followed by an acknowledgement that there was actually some trouble at the tower. A few buttons were audibly pushed on their end and ever since we've enjoyed a boost in speed. We've gone from 4 Kbps uploads to close to a full megabit. 

Regardless, because we're on a shared connection with everyone else on this tier of service, I'm curious about which parts of the day are the quickest. I'm also interested in finding if we ever reach the rate we're paying for: 6 Mbps download, and 2 Mbps upload. 

This is fairly unscientific, but I'm doing a test every hour throughout the week and creating a chart to plot the results. Here's the results for Monday, March 19 and Tuesday March 20:

Note: the scale is in Kbps

So far 11:00 a.m. is winning out-- this is more or less what I would expect, and at somewhere around 1Mbps up and down we can live with these speeds for now-- I won't complain too too much, it beats DSL any day. 

I've run into some work this week that required I download and upload large files over a couple days. This interrupted the test, so I ended it with the 3 1/2 days of results posted blow.

March 18th through the 21st: 
Note: the scale is in Kbps, and the colors are days of the week DL (download) and UL (upload)

Mar 18, 2013

Business? Move Away

I had a 9 Mb file to upload to a client the other night and it took 3 hours. This is a Saturday night, and we're using a fixed line of sight internet "broadband" provider that delivers our connection through an attenne on the roof, and I'm able to upload at 1-4 Kbps. In comparison, dialup in the 90's was 56 Kbps and most modern cable providers now deliver 5 Mbps-- this is to say a connection to the internet in 1998 was 14x quicker than mine, and you are likely browsing 90x faster than that.  

So I'm scrambling to deliver on time a file that ought to be small enough to include in an email. At one point it's 10:00 P.M. and I've got to get this file up within two hours. Dropbox says it's half uploaded, then does some calculating and concludes it will take four more hours to finish. Ridiculous. Fast forward to today: I do some digging and find around 95% of the total United States land area is rural, and in 1910 54% of the population lived in these areas. In the past hundred years there's been a shift, however, and now only 20% of the population are living in rural America. That means I'm part of less than a quarter of the total American population that has to deal with this. The solution? I slide down to the smart phone and use it to connect to a weak 1x cell signal. Unbelievably it manages to outpace the house internet and deliver the project 10 minutes before it's due. 

That night I start to check and see if I can get dialup at the house.

I'm faced with a problem: the majority of the country seems unable or doesn't care to support an internet business like mine. Broadband is money, and without a dense population to supply a high rate of return the math doesn't produce inexpensive high speed internet. I post comparisons between this number vs. that number per second, but my weekly panics to deliver on time are the real result of slow speeds. Given enough time I will likely outgrow the limits I have here and be herded into the nearest high speed area. Like me, my demographic is finding itself stuck in urban areas whether we like it or not.

I have an opportunity here in West Virginia, and a better one in Maine to access 25 Mbps and greater download speeds, but it costs $4,000 and over a month. That's nearly fifty grand a year, and many would consider that an wonderful income, but it's just the buy in price for access. The same connection speed can be purchased in Los Angeles for $200, though, and it makes living out here seem crazy. Lets face it, anyone who needs a strong connection lives in urban areas, and those that are left behind-- are left behind.

This climate isn't the fault of cable companies. I get a newsletter around Halloween every year from my ISP that invites their customers out for a hayride through town. Far from the cash hungry thieves they're often depicted as, I think my rural provider is probably staffed by really nice people who are providing services as best they can given the population density and fixed costs. Even without that nice sentiment, giant corporations like Comcast are directed by profits, not human need. They aren't in business to transform rural America into the new home of internet startups, promote population growth, or modernize old business models. 

It also isn't the fault of rural people who are working in the only industries left that a small town can support. Anyone with aspirations to work in a connected environment for a world wide market has long left for an urban area, and any need for the internet seemingly left with them. As long as my town can survive on dial up speeds it will continue to function, but as the population inevitably dips lower its chances of becoming the next ghost town will steadily grow. 

I have a personal interest in living in rural America, but I have a business that's pulling me away. Do the people of small towns want me and my generation around, or are they content to slowly fade away without us? 

Mar 12, 2013

World Lens

The internet in its most recent form hasn't been around long enough to unseat the typical ways we do things. People still pay bills through the mail, print photos to show relatives, and go to the library for books, which helps explain why many are slow or reluctant in adopting to a digital equivalent. This uneven conversion rate makes it tough for those invested in bringing more people online-- especially since many of the best benefits of being online only work if everyone is online. Skype, for instance, isn't as meaningful if you can only connect with a couple people.

That's why I enjoy stumbling across examples of problem solving that quickly sum up why the web can be such a powerful tool:

These types of applications are difficult to imagine without a developed infrastructure. To accomplish this feat the app developer needed things like visual letter recognition,  motion tracking, translation databases, and most importantly a fast connection speed. We developed each of these technologies for other purposes, but on top of them someone found a new way to solve an old problem.

It can be tough to see all the benefits affordable high speed internet offers when only part of a population is online, but when there's a market for it innovation is close behind. It's for these kinds of reasons we have to look at investing in a fiber network like we do the space program: some of the best returns on our investments come in the form of unexpected by products from our initial intent.

Mar 8, 2013

There Are No Good Reasons To Avoid A Connection

I'm seeing the internet in everything lately, so a story on NPR stuck out at me yesterday on the way to the airport. It's not all that tangential really-- the topic was on a relatively new phenomenon they're calling "Big Data". There were some interesting thought experiments brought up during the show about self driving cars and even the possibility of pre-crime prediction (think the movie Minority Report), but when the host turned to callers I heard a lot of voices worried about the new problems the internet and all this data allow for. Stolen identity, blackmail, big brother, etc-- all this connectedness seems to have a dark side as well.

It was like crawling out of a hot tub and jumping in a pool as we moved around the country during these past few months. In Kansas City I felt the warm hug of tech enthusiasm for gigabit enthusiasts who were converting houses into multi-start up offices to take advantage of fast speeds. With everyone on board it's easy to feel like our interconnected future holds a lot of promise for jobs, creativity, and anything else you want to put your mind to. We stepped out of the tub, though, in places like rural Maine where people respond to the idea of high speed fiber with a strong sense of distrust. "What is it?" and "What do I need that for?" are questions used like shields against a technology trying to unpleasantly change their lives. The web is a caged lion that they occasionally look at, but by no means would anyone advocate opening the gate. 

I'm quick to highlight the benefits of an affordable high speed network, but If I plan on telling this story well it's going to be important to address the fears we have about the new types of threats a connected world presents. Most of my personal concerns about privacy are no different than most, and it's no small thing to have your identity stolen. I can't say that I have a lot to contribute to solving these problems, but the question of danger to me begs another: is there anything you can do to stop these problems from existing?

I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I often wonder how some people who are part of the generations over fifty see the internet now. Ten years ago I can imagine they saw it as a text based phone system, or a way to connect games together, but at this point it's difficult for me to see anyone packaging it inside the description of anything else. Is it possible to imagine the internet is going away at some point? 

The web isn't a secondary way to accomplish tasks anymore. With it's speed and efficiency over traditional means it has proven to be the primary way to approach anything you want to do. While you can't hold the internet and cut down a tree with it, you can learn about every tree known to man through text, pictures, and video online, earn a living online, buy property with trees online, and hire someone online to come cut it down for you. Or if you like doing it yourself, you can buy a chainsaw online-- all at a cheaper, more efficient, and higher quality than ever previously possible in human history. It's weird to me that this isn't cool enough to trump the darker spots.

For someone who's used an axe all their lives, though, I'm wondering that maybe these benefits aren't equally attractive to all concerned. Who needs a smartphone with a NFC chip, for example, to buy your groceries when the cash register works fine and someone has a job running it? In reaching out to communities where no one is eager to replace the traditional ways of doing things, I think a way the web will suddenly be in demand is when it can solve a problem previously unsolvable by traditional means.

Unfortunately the net is something we all develop together, so when we invest in it we invest in our own potential. If you aren't using it, no one is going to develop a tool to help you solve your problem. Right now app developers and website builders are answering the questions of those that are asking, which is why there are so many cool examples of internet technology in urban areas. Take augmented reality for instance. You can simply point your smart phone at a street and overlays will display relavent information on the screen about the physical areas around you. In a city where there's so much to see and do, you can easily locate what you're looking for instead of relying on word of mouth or trial and error. This is a city problem, but what are the rural problems? There's no question there are problems to solve everywhere, but without a connection you can't leverage the power and knowledge all of humanity has to offer in answering these questions. As long as we invest in things only for immediate benefits, it's going to be difficult to sell smaller communities on the potential of broadband. 

Alright, so the internet isn't being quickly adopted where it doesn't have to be, but that hasn't stopped the negative affect of online identity theft, which presents another difficulty for late adopters. Even if you don't have a facebook page, there are many institutions that gather your information through other means like medical records, government records, credit cards, bank statements etc. It's becoming more common every year to hear about hackers stealing social security numbers from the government on local and national levels-- it seems you cannot simply abstain from the internet to protect yourself.

So we're all left to decide what the future holds with the web, but I can't see an argument that convinces me the internet can or should play a limited roll for anyone interested in being a part of a community or society. Having the ability to connect when it's useful is the means to improve lives for the better now, and to transform human society for the better in the future. Avoiding the internet at this point doesn't decrease the threats it poses, it just makes you unable to deal with them if you're affected by it. The choice appears to come down to this: to join the world, or be left behind-- a rather sinister sounding warning heard repeatedly throughout history. Ultimately, there are challenges for everyone to face, but you can't contribute to working them out unless you participate. 

Mar 5, 2013

Connect Us

We started this journey back in November a little unprepared for how big the issue of connectivity in America is. I was certain there was a small story to be uncovered about how nice it would be to have internet everywhere, but the farther we drove the more there was to learn.

On our way to Portland, OR I was listening to a Podcast about broadband and Mary Beth Henry was being interviewed about some of the ways the city is working to bring more people online. Thinking she might be able to direct me to someone in Portland interested in talking to us, I quickly emailed her and didn't think much more about it. To my surprise she replied, and after we met I suddenly had five other people willing to be interviewed. Our week in Portland became a bruising lineup of interviews-- three and four a day until we had to leave. If only I'd known, we would've blocked off a month to stay.

In the process we were introduced to a group dedicated to promoting open robust internet infrastructure, and they gave me a crash course in the history of the web. There were days I would return from a string of interviews completely exhausted from information overload-- our efforts in packing all this into a relatable and understandable film felt nearly impossible. Just over a month later we've made the drive all the way up past the other Portland in Maine, and in the process have seen a lot of what they were talking about in action. In Kansas City we were able to put our hands on gigabit connections and in Cooper, Maine we were struggling with .01 Kbps. A lot of what they told us sunk in as we felt the impact first hand.

Now we've completed the research arm of this journey and are working to lay out a plan that will guide us through the next phase. I've put together a short video using some of the footage we shot to frame up the argument and make sense of what we're facing. For now it's still rough, but in the coming weeks we'll be finalizing our plans to move forward.

To start with, we're ready to put this effort under a title: Connect Us. The stories we've encountered are fundamentally about people connecting with one another through this state of the art infrastructure, and we wanted the title to reflect that. Also, because our story will be about America's struggle to figure this out, we found the "us" carries a double meaning.

So here's the first look at what we've done so far, and soon we'll be announcing how we plan to take this into a feature film.

Mar 4, 2013

Why We're Happy Enough With What We've Got

Ask "why?" enough times and you'll find the reason we aren't all skating around on superfast fiber networks is as much due to the fact that people don't know what the internet is good for as it is shareholders directing industry. No one would turn down a lightning fast connection to the modern means of commerce and communication, but few realize that it's already possible if only you'd ask. Time Warner has been sparking some outrage recently by saying they don't offer gigabit connections because no one wants it, but the obvious flaw in that logic is few people are even aware of what gigabit service is, let alone what potential it offers. Saying we don't want something we aren't aware of doesn't cut it-- and we know their take on speed has a lot to do with what's most profitable. But they've got a point in a way: we're sitting on the verge of actualizing the power inherent in a completely connected world, and one of the major hold ups is just knowing it's even possible. It's like an affordable alternative to fossil fuels that creates jobs to boot, but the catch is nobody's heard of it. Maybe the subject is a little larger than that, but those I've talked to who are working on bringing connectivity to a region (or the whole country) are quick to point out that profit vs. public good is at the heart of this story.

Anyone in the position of working for the public's interest on the issue of internet connectivity has the potentially difficult task of attempting to forecast what is in the public's best interest. Fortunately, it isn't all that hard in this case to see the writing on the wall: affordable high speed access needs to be available to anyone who wants it for the good of the individual and society as a whole. Making it possible for anyone to start a small business for a global audience is important to personal, regional, and national financial well being. There is hardly a business left without a web presence. Eldercare is being revolutionized as Skype is being leveraged to keep people in their homes and off publicly funded retirement homes. The list goes on, and just building the network would be a great boon for jobs, so the whole thing seems like a big no brainer. Still, it isn't happening and we can place a lot of the blame on ourselves.

I remember when my family first bought cell phones-- it took a while to do so because "we've been getting along just fine without them this long" and "I don't want people to call me wherever I am" etc. Well, now that cell phone bricks have become smart phones and I can conduct business with clients in Los Angeles while shopping for food in West Virginia, it's a good thing we realized cell phones can be turned off when you don't want to answer them. The feeling, though, that technology is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary is still with us. I talk with people all the time that regard the internet as a luxury time waster for Angry Birds and Youtube. We get fixated on the parts of humanity that are unproductive and ascribe the cause to the technology. Procrastinating, for instance, becomes something Facebook invented, and the solution somehow is to limit or avoid the internet. It's not a new concept-- any new advancement is met with it's share of push back from people use to the status quo. Even so, no one would argue that the internet is just a fad, which makes any delay in building out this network something of a psychological difficulty in facing change and unwanted aspects of humanity. Kicking it down the road doesn't fix it, but bringing everyone up to date definitely will. Talk about procrastination...

Whether everyone is on board with it yet or not, we are moving forward. To do so, agencies like the FCC look at how connected the population is and attempt to regulate in a way that promotes adoption rates. Internet speeds are part of the way we measure access, so the FCC has created a definition for the the word "broadband" that is used to gauge the quality of your experience online. It's an evolving definition that changes every few years as web pages slowly increase in size-- your modern bank's website, for instance, will probably not load on a 56k modem, and the quality of your experience online will be super lame. It's important to always get a broadband connection at minimum if you expect to get anything done, and it's this baseline that is suggested for practical use.

But this is a minimum we're talking about. If we discussed roads in the same way, a similar standard might look like this: because cars carry more these days they need wider roads, so we need at minimum a five foot wide one lane road with as much as a 25 mile per hour speed limit. That's the minimum, they say. That's the very bottom of what's acceptable. Why not any more? Well it's too easy for us to remember the old dirt road with pot holes we had ten years ago, so in many senses this sounds like an incredible step up. Maybe it feels like we're living in the future, but truthfully we're all just happily retiring the horse and buggy to the barn so we can drive Modle T cars on one lane highways. The Model T will go 1000 miles per hour (and safety isn't an issue in this metaphor), but the posted limit is 25, so most people are pretty content with the increases we've experienced lately.

Only because we are living over a hundred years since the first Model T was built is it easy to see why limits like these don't make sense. We know that major industry is based around transportation, and without good strong freeways and roads where would we be? The internet is no different, and no one would argue that a hundred years from now the web won't still be one of the most (if not the most) important development in human history. So, why aren't we building the internet highways we know we're going to need? Why do so many struggle to get access, and those that can get online have few choices? That's where the business end of the equation makes it's contribution the puzzle.

There's a precedent for wired communication technology in the telephone, so we're not covering new ground in figuring out how to handle the infrastructure and business behind the net. Most are familiar with the monopolistic growth of Bell and how it was ultimately divided and regulated, but this wasn't a success in the way we casually imagine it. Business overstepped and the people reigned it in, we say, but an industry like telecommunications with large inherent infrastructure costs still naturally moves towards monopolization in spite of limits. The legal precedent set by the breakup is a wall that only artificially stunts the growth of companies like Comcast and Timer Warner. These once small cable companies have already grown so big that whenever they go to make a major business deal the government has to give permission-- they're pushing against that wall. Business doesn't reach a profit level and choose to stop, and companies don't get together and decide how they can work together to serve the public by dividing the market in the customer's best interest. The wall, therefore is tested by legal teams and lobbyists for pours and cracks and loopholes like water against a levy-- this time around they won't be breaking the law, they'll be helping to write it.

Ask "why" enough and it's easy to observe a business model that flourishes in the face of an undereducated public. Most of us haven't yet become aware of how cut off or limited we are in access. Meanwhile, big business seeks to increase profits every year a little more than the last. Together these pieces inform our current state of connectivity where outdated copper wires clog with traffic and development is stifled by enormous consolidated businesses. The future when people are able to buy a reasonably priced "car" and go anywhere they like for business or pleasure is pushed off even farther. It isn't a question of "if" but "when", and without a significant change in awareness we'll get there only after every penny of the current infrastructure has been extracted and business requires the necessary upgrades in order to grow. It seems a little villainous, but we're only witnessing the natural order of development in business, and acclimation to change in people. The hope, however, is that through education we can take control of the development of the web, and end up with an internet that benefits everyone in a positive way.