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

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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OneWeb bankruptcy questions LEO Internet viability

OneWeb just filed for bankruptcy. The company planned to put hundreds of Internet satellites into low earth orbit (LEO) to provide high speed Internet service. OneWeb promised Internet speeds of several hundred Megabits, but only managed to get seventy satellites into orbit out of a planned six hundred by the end of 2020. All 500 employees are expected to be laid off within weeks.

OneWeb's troubles raise questions about Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to provide LEO Internet service. SpaceX is apparently lobbying to make satellite service eligible for Federal grant funds, much in the same way that Musk's Tesla benefits from Federal subsidies. The need for Federal funding to support the SpaceX business suggests it may also be having financial challenges.

LEO Internet service is likely to be a much better option than current satellite Internet, but like the Iridium satellite phone service, it may turn out to be expensive. One clue that it could be pricey is that in all the glowing articles about how wonderful LEO Internet is going to be, price is never mentioned. Or as Sherlock Holmes might say, price is the dog that has not barked.

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VPNs, Coronavirus, and symmetric bandwidth

I have been writing for years (decades, at this point) about how important symmetric bandwidth is to the business from home, work from home segment of the economy. It would appear that the lockdown we are currently experiencing and the huge surge in work from home needs has been illustrating just how important symmetric bandwidth is. Related to symmetric bandwidth is Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology, which provides end to end encryption of an Internet connection between two points (e.g. a home based worker and their corporate network). Atlas VPN reports that Internet searches for "What is VPN" has nearly doubled in the past several weeks.

VPNs work best with symmetric bandwidth so that files and services on the corporate network operate smoothly. And fiber and well-designed fixed point wireless can deliver that symmetric bandwidth.

Coronavirus and bandwidth shortages

With the huge increase in people working from home, bandwidth has become an issue. There are numerous stories about Netflix and other streaming services degrading picture quality to ease the burden on networks. But it is not really a problem that Netflix is having. Netflix is reducing bandwidth to help local cable, DSL, and wireless networks cope. Netflix long ago pushed most of their content to locations directly connected to local networks--the problem is getting from the Netflix server already attached to a Comcast or Spectrum or Verizon network to the local customers.

As I have been writing about for years, the cable Internet technology was not designed to provide symmetric bandwidth, but that's what you need if you are going to be work from home for long periods of time. The corporate VPN and the company videoconferencing all work better with symmetric bandwidth.

The current crisis is made worse because K12 and college students are also at home, trying to access school materials, online classes, and/or just watching movies.

It is a perfect storm of bandwidth needs. We need more fiber in more communities; fiber is designed specifically to deliver symmetric bandwidth--it's baked into the technology, unlike cable Internet, which was essentially a hack of the coaxial copper network that was designed to deliver broadband TV and nothing else.

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Comcast is doing a good thing

I'll give credit where credit is due: Comcast has announced that it will not disconnect any customers for late payment or non-payment for the next sixty days. They will also not charge late fees for small business customers who fall behind on payment. This latter offer could be very important for small retailers, especially those in the restaurant business. Comcast is doing a good thing.


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