Exploring the impact of broadband and technology on our lives, our businesses, and our communities.

Is Starlink a game changer for rural areas?

Early reports from beta tests of Starlink, the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Internet service are very promising, with excellent bandwidth and lower latency than the traditional Viasat and Hughesnet systems. Lower latency is important because it means that some voice and video services like Skype and Zoom may be more usable. It could be a game changer for rural and remote rural areas of the U.S. There are many rural areas that it is going to take time to deploy fiber. In the meantime, Starlink could be a good bridge solution.

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Have Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube made a mistake?

The "big three" of social media--Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube--have become the targets of increasing criticism around the way they choose to allow some users to post "acceptable" content while censoring other types of content. The companies' defense is to claim the protection of Section 230, a portion of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The statute provides a shield for Web sites and other Internet-based media to not have to be responsible for policing the content submitted by their users.

In essence, Section 230 says that Internet-based media sites may not be held responsible (i.e. subject to law suits) for content posted on their sites. In 1996, no one envisioned the rise and eventual near-monopoly of a few tech giants like Facebook and Twitter. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube simultaneously claim the protection of Section 230 while managing what content is available on their platforms, using the rubric of "enforcing 'community standards.'"

At this time, it is not at all clear if the Federal government and the FCC will make any changes to Section 230, but in the meantime, the free market is bringing competitors. Social media sites like MeWe, Parler, Gab, GabTV, and Bitchute are gaining users rapidly as people migrate to platforms that have a stronger commitment to free speech. If the competitors are successful, no legislation may be needed to reduce the influence of the tech oligopoly.

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Comcast is rolling out data caps

Stop the Cap points out that Comcast is rolling out data caps in many parts of the East Coast. If you want to keep your "unlimited" plan, you can pay an extra $30/month. Bandwidth is so cheap for a company the size of Comcast that the only reason for doing this is to hike profits.

What is driving this is the growth of heavy data users, and certainly Covid work from home users are part of that phenomenon. Ars Technica lays it all out.

I have been saying for years that the ISP business, in the four hundred year history of modern commerce, is the only business that punishes users for liking their product.

WideOpen is pioneering a different approach to broadband and Internet, one where we do not punish our customers for using our network. Give us a call (540-552-2150) or drop us a line (info at wideopennetworks dot us) if you want to learn more about how we are changing the industry.

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Alex, I'll take "Things I never knew I wanted" for $500

I would like to meet the person that convinced Google that there would be big demand for a phone app that lets you hum a song and have the Google InnerTubes tell you what the name and artist of the song is.

This strikes me as yet another example of bored Google software engineers without enough to do rolling out stuff that no one really wants. Does this really make anyone's life better?

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When coffee makers attack: Hacking the Internet of Things (IoT)

Alex, I'll take "Things I never thought I would write about" for $500. A network security researcher has successfully hacked a coffee machine and was able to take control of it, make it beep constantly, have it refuse to make coffee, and spill water all over.

Yes, you read that correctly. You can buy a coffee machine that connects to the Internet so that you can use an app on your phone to make coffee. Why, I have no idea, because you still have to put water and coffee in it to, you know, "make coffee."

I suppose there is some very weak argument for being able to stay in bed and turn the coffee maker on with your phone, but as I say, that's a weak argument, since most coffee makers that cost more than $10 have a timer so you can set it to turn on in the morning.

Aside from the pure insanity of putting a single board computer in a coffee machine, the lack of security controls that the researcher found is unfortunately typical of many Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The coffee machine connects to your home WiFi network and then to the Internet so it can get updates (don't get me started on why a coffee machine needs "updates).

This hack was done on an older coffee maker, and the manufacturer has indicated the security has been improved on the device. But as more and more people add IoT devices into their home and office networks, the potential for mischief, innocuous and serious, just increases.

Tulsa is paying home based workers to move to the city

Smaller communities in rural areas are always trying to attract workers and families. Tulsa, Oklahoma decided to try paying them to move, and it is apparently working. The City offers $10,000 in cash for "entrepreneurs, remote workers, and digital nomads." It's an idea so crazy it works! The funds can be used to offset moving expenses and monthly expenses during the first year of residency.

Communities that want to try it should make sure they have some good symmetric Internet service in at least some parts of the community to support work from home and online learning.

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Incumbents fight Huntington, WV on better broadband

The City of Huntington, West Virginia wants better broadband and had been begging the incumbents for years to improve service, with no success. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) granted the City $2.5M in funds to start building a Gig fiber network, and that woke the incumbents from a deep sleep.

And of course, the incumbents claimed everything was just fine and that there was no need for a new "Gig" network because they could provide "up to" 2 Gig for residential customers and "up to" 10 Gig for business customers. Of course, the always amusing "up to" numbers are always referencing the download capacity of the incumbent networks and never include the critical upload capacity, which has become much more important as more people and businesses are trying to get work done from home.

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Wiretapping Alexa

According to an article in
Wired magazine, it is becoming commonplace for law enforcement to "wiretap" your smart speaker by asking Amazon or Google for transcripts and timestamps of recorded activity. Police have to file a search warrant or subpoena to do so, but users of such devices may not be aware that what the tech companies are recording and storing could be used by law enforcement.

As awareness of the side effects of these devices becomes more widespread, I think that there will be increased demand for "smart" speakers that do not upload activities to a third party.

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Broadband planning is more important than ever

The corona virus and the need for so many to work from home has highlighted what I have been telling communities for nearly two decades: neighborhoods and rural roads are business districts.

It is too soon to tell what will happen once most businesses are open again and people return to work, but "return to work" may have an entirely different meaning as businesses realize employees can work productively from home at least part of the time.

In rural areas of the country, workers trying to work from home for the first time are realizing just how bad their broadband service is. Incumbent providers, especially the larger incumbent telephone companies, have essentially abandoned their landline infrastructure in many areas. Landline voice and DSL service in West Virginia, as one example, is terrible almost everywhere.

Despite the reluctance of many local governments to step in to try to solve the rural broadband crisis, the virus and the lockdown has increased the urgency of developing a broadband plan.

Design Nine has been helping rural communities improve broadband infrastructure longer than anyone else in the country. Give us a call if you want help (540-951-4400) or send us an email (info@designnine.com).

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Why videoconferencing is tiring

A lot of people who used videoconferencing only lightly or never at all have acquired a crash course in it over the past month. Because Design Nine and WideOpen Networks have had staff distributed around the country for years, it was not a challenge for us.

But in the past, we usually visited our clients and had on-site meetings. Now, we are doing most of our meetings using GoToMeeting, which is one of Zoom's competitors. I have had several days over the past few weeks where I've been in a series of videoconferences for a total of four to five hours a day, and end up feeling exhausted by the end of the day.

This article explains why we find videoconferences tiring.

One of the article's comments I had already known somewhat intuitively--you have to pay more attention as compared to a face to face meeting. In the latter, you don't have to try to "read" everyone in the room all the time, but in a vidcon, you are constantly glancing at each of the participant windows all the time to try to keep up with everyone.

Something I did not know is that studies of vidcon have shown that even very small time lags of 1-2 seconds can be stressful compared to a face to face meeting--small video/audio lags get you thinking that something might be wrong and of course, there often is--someone has to drop off and call back, etc.

It's well worth a read.

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