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

A good use for RFID tags

Delta Airlines has announced plans to use RFIDs (Radio Frequency ID) to track and manage luggage. Finally--a great use for RFIDs that has no privacy problems (unlike proposals to embed them in clothing so that we can be tracked 24 hours a day by the Gap). An RFID on a luggage tag will allow the airline to be able to tell where a piece of luggage is virtually in real time. If Delta does its homework on the staffing and management side, the airline should be able to dramatically cut the cost of dealing with lost luggage and make customers much happier at the same time--a win-win for new technology.

Most spam sites are in China

The Register reports that China continues to be the world's primary source of spam Web sites--hosting the Web sites that show up in all that email spam. The U.S. continues to be the source of most email spam.

Why China if most spammers are in the United States? It's getting harder and harder to find a U.S. based Web hosting firm that wants the headaches associated with the complaints and problems associated with spam Web sites. China, half a world a way and run by a communist government that tends to turn a blind eye towards things like respecting copyrights and other niceties of the free world, is happy to take spammers' money for hosting the sites.

Court says it's okay to snoop email

In a troubling ruling, the 1st U.S. Court of Circuit Appeals has said it is okay to read other people's email while it is "stored" on a server. Yahoo! News reports on the legal case of Interloc, a company that read the email of its subscribers to find out what Amazon.com was sending to them, and why.

The ruling seems to rely on hairsplitting, rather than commonsense. Wiretapping of "live" communications has always been subject to rigorous oversight, but email is not "live" in the same sense that a phone conversation is. An email messages transits through several servers, and is stored, sometimes for long periods of time, on the email server used by a particular user. The courts are taking the view that it is okay to read the email while it is stored on a third party machine.

It is as if the court said it was okay to open and read a piece of mail while it is in the mailbox down the street from your house.

It is hard to understand how the judges could so easily trample what seems obvious--email is and should be considered private, and both commercial companies and law enforcement officers should be constrained from reading email without strict oversight.

Fortunately, there is a perfectly good solution to the conundrum--encryption. We have the tools today to encrypt email using public key encryption, and this ruling will hasten more widespread use of encryption for routine communications. Done properly, encryption of email can be nearly transparent, but will be very effective as a deterrent to casual snooping of the kind done by Interloc. Encryption is the equivalent of putting our email in a tamper-resistant envelope; it keeps most people out. Is it perfect? No--but then neither are envelopes, but we've used them for centuries without much fuss or worry.

Unfortunately, part of the problem here is the lack of interest in improving email clients. Most email clients are given away free, so there is little incentive to improve them or to make features like encryption easy to use. But it's a business issue for the private sector, and as the bigger companies demand it, easy to use encryption will spread.

In the meantime, it would be a good idea to check your email settings to make sure you don't leave mail on your server, where it can now, apparently, be read by anyone with server access. Google's Gmail has been attracting a lot of attention because it offers a gigabyte of server-based mail storage for free. But I've already written about my concerns there--Google admits they insert ads into your email by reading the contents. And now, Google has free reign to read all your mail stored on its servers, any time it likes. Analyzing that information and selling it is, in all probablility, not far behind.

Welcome to the Knowledge Democracy, whether you like it or not.

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New MeshCube the shape of things to come

The recently announced MeshCube is an immature product--the Web site needs more and better information--but it is the shape of things to come in the WiFi world. The MeshCube is three inches square. It can have two radios installed (one for local point to multipoint access--the typical hotspot use, and one for point to point longer distance access to an Internet feed). It can be powered by POE (Power Over Ethernet), meaning you don't have to run 120 VAC to it, just a simple low voltage Ethernet cable, making it easy to install outside.

The power requirements are so low it could also be powered by batteries and a solar panel, making it ideal for remote locations. The "mesh" part of MeshCube means that you can easily create a wiFi Zone (multiple access points) with just one or two Internet feeds; the MeshCubes talk to each other and can share Internet acess. This dramatically lowers the cost of a wide area WiFi zone. The software is based on Open Source, which keeps the price low.

The small size means these can be inobtrusively mounted throughout a downtown area; antenna design will vary according to needs, but even the larger WiFi antennas needed for point to point communications are small and barely noticeable on a rooftop. Communities, with a little help planning and laying out the network, could easily install their own WiFi zone covering a downtown area or a neighborhood. At a cost of about $300 per access point, self-help projects are easily fundable by passing the hat.

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FCC: Any means any for wireless

A ruling by the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology is an echo of the Bristol, Virginia decision that "any" means "any."

Airports, malls, and condo associations, among others, have been trying to limit the use of WiFi, primarily for financial reasons. The mall owner or airport authority wanted the revenue sharing from providing exclusive access to the facility from a single vendor. It's a form of bandwidth aggregation that does not always benefit consumers because not everyone benefits equally--the WiFi vendor and the property owner have a controlling interest in setting fees and keep all the profits. Bandwidth aggregation as a thinly veiled monopoly rarely benefits consumers.

Airports, as frequent travelers know well, are notorius for high access fees, averaging $10/day for a typical fifteen or twenty minute use as you pass through. The FCC ruling says the FCC alone can determine who may or may not deploy unlicensed WiFi services. It's a victory for consumers, and the FCC deserves a tip of the hat for doing so.

Muncipal WiFi a worldwide trend

An article in The Register provides a nice synopsis of the worldwide trend for municipalities to offer public WiFi. It's happening most often in the big cities first, where businesspeople congregate in public spaces more and expect Internet access.

The new mesh network WiFi equipment is making it much easier to create WiFi zones at less cost (there are some very good Open Source mesh network WiFi solutions). Mesh networks provide some redundancy and eliminate the need to have wired connectivity at each access point.

If rural and smaller communities want to attract microenterprise businesses and entrepreneurs who are making relocation decisions based in part on lifestyle choices, WiFi zones throughout the downtown area in these smaller communities is one inexpensive way to help get on the short list of relocation sites. If two communities both have good schools, a slower pace of life, and good recreation options, the community that is planning for technology and offers WiFi zones is much more likely to appear attractive to a relocating business. Public WiFi is an indicator of a progressive community that understands the needs of business. How does your community rate?

Spokane wireless to drive economic development

The City of Spokane has rolled out a new wireless zone that covers most of the major downtown area (more than 100 square blocks). Rather than leaving the growth of WiFi entirely to the private sector, which typically leaves lots of dead zones in an urban downtown, the city mapped its own antenna sites and was able to cover the entire area with just ten antennas--a much more efficient design that provides virtually 100% coverage.

The city estimated the cost as a very affordable "$50,000 to $75,000." Meter maids and police in the zone will use WiFi-enabled devices and laptops to improve their efficiency, which over the long term should pay back the entire investment. The city also made the investment to attract more businesses to the downtown area.

AT&T gets out of local dial tone--sort of

In a widely carried AP report, AT&T has announced it is getting out of local dial tone and long distance in several states, and may abandon most other states shortly. There are two things going on here, and only one of them was discussed in the article.

The article correctly notes that the proximate cause for the AT&T pullback is the FCC ruling that allows the local phone companies to charge higher wholesale rates for their antique copper telephone lines. AT&T has been leasing these in bulk to provide local dialtone. The higher rates make it unprofitable for AT&T to do so.

On the face of it, this looks bad for local communities, as there seems to be less competition, and puts the local phone companies back near their previous monopoly status for dialtone.

What was not covered well in the AP article is the fact that AT&T is making a major push for Voice over IP local and long distance services. The company has wisely decided to abandon the antique phone service market and concentrate on selling what is going to count in the future. It's a smart move.

Some of the phone companies are not standing still, however. SBC has announced it will spend billions on fiber to the neighborhood and fiber to the premises, although the latter will be done only in new neighborhoods for now. The new system will have the capacity for a single channel of HD TV--much higher capacity than existing DSL lines, but still not what will be needed in the future. But the fiber has the carrying capacity--SBC is reluctant to put in the electronics, probably because of cost and because they are trying to control access.

Communities getting these new systems may breathe a sigh of relief that they don't need to do that telecom planning after all, but their headaches are simply being deferred to the future. A monopoly is a monopoly, and it does not matter much if it is a legal monopoly (the old, pre-1996 approach) or a de facto marketplace monopoly. Either way, the community, and especially businesses, may not have the range of prices and services they need.

Florida pokes a hornet's nest

I've been writing for some time about the looming battle over local and state telecom taxes. As more traditional telecom services move to the Internet, the telecom taxes that localities and the state have become so fond of just disappear. I've yet to talk to an elected official who A) understands this, or B) has a plan for dealing with it.

Florida state officials have knocked a telecom tax hornet's nest off the tree, and are about to start poking it with a stick, unless someone comes to their senses.

You need to read the whole article in Wired to get the full story, but briefly, an old telecom law enacted well before the Internet allows the state to tax business telecom networks. It was intended to collect taxes from businesses with their own PBX, but is so broadly written it applies to home business networks as well, and beginning in July, state tax officials may start taxing home-based businesses for having a desktop computer, a laptop, and a printer on a local network.

Aside from the fact that many small business taxes are inherently unfair (for example, in Blacksburg, a home based business gets taxed by the town on gross revenues, but a next door neighbor with a salary of the same amount pays nothing), home-based businesses are one of the fastest growing parts of the economy, and small business generally is creating between 75% and 90% of all new jobs, depending on who you ask. So a strategy of layering more taxes and paperwork on your economic development engine is probably not a good idea.

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HD radio: Boon or Bane?

Day by day, new technologies add more and more complexity to our lives while simultaneously making things better.

Internet radio has extended the reach of many local stations to literally, a worldwide audience. Expatriates can listen to hometown programming and news from anywhere in the world. The radio stations benefit from a broader audience, which allows them to raise advertising rates. Advertisers are happy because Internet radio provides better information on how many people are actually listening to the radio.

So what's the problem? HD radio (High Definition), or digital radio, both broadcast over the air or over the Internet, offers higher fidelity. But the music industry is flummoxed because as HD radio becomes more common, it will be possible to make excellent, high quality recordings off the air (which you can do now with any good FM signal, but most people don't bother).

If that is not enough to give record company officials nightmares, the thought of having listeners then use filesharing to "share" all those recordings over the Internet is about to send them right over the edge.

This situation has been building since CDs first became popular twenty years ago, but the Internet, giving music lovers the ability to share music, has made it worse. Amid the smoke and heat of the discussion, there is a legitimate issue about what constitutes fair use. Unfortunately, we have two polarized points of view. The recording industry wants to take back fair use rights consumers have had since Edison started making recordings. In their ideal world, we'd have to pay every time we listen or watch anything (not a good thing). On the other side a a group of mostly college age music listeners who think there is nothing wrong with sharing copyrighted music with the whole world (also not a good or thoughtful thing).

In the middle are a lot of people who think that the music industry is going to have to face the fact that the world has changed, and how record and movie companies make money will have to change along with the world. In the meantime, the entertainment industry is trying furiously to buy the best laws they can afford. Some Congressional reps and Senators, desperate to fill campaign coffers, are all to eager to help out.

What can we do? We need to talk to our own elected leaders--local, state, and Federal, and make sure they are knowledgeable about the issues. We all have a lot to learn, and avoiding all these issues makes the problem worse--ignoring the problems won't make them go away. It's just life these days--fast-paced, complex, interconnected, and all part of a global marketplace. Is it the end of the music industry? Not really, if they are willing to adapt. Apple's iTunes sold 800,000 songs in the first week in Europe--16 times more songs than the number two music download service. People are quite willing to pay for music, if the licensing and digital rights is done correctly.

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