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

"Twisted Pair Preservation Act" in Virginia

Eldo Telecom has a wry sense of humor. He has called a draft piece of legislation circulating in the statehouse in Richmond, Virginia the "Twisted Pair Preservation Act."

It's black humor at its best, because the bill would make it very difficult for local governments in Virginia to make any kind of investment in telecom infrastructure, even if the infrastructure was offered on a wholesale basis to private sector providers and even if the locality stayed out of offering retail telecom services.

To me, the interesting thing about this bill is what is not being said out loud:

The incumbents are very fond of claiming that all muni telecom projects are poorly managed, financial catastrophes waiting to happen, and a waste of money.

But if they are right, why would they waste their lobbying dollars to outlaw something that doesn't work?

This is the dog that did not bark.

The community broadband projects obviously scare the heck out of the incumbents, because *distributed ownership of infrastructure* breaks the 100 year monopoly on telecom that they have had. It's been a nice ride, but it's coming to an end.

Competitive broadband is not really about getting government involved at all. Government participation is a means to an end, it is not the end goal. The end goal is distributed ownership of telecom infrastructure, and that could be a whole variety of public and private players, including customers themselves.

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The day the InnerTubes jumpted the shark

This weekend, while I was busy wasting time watching a Youtube video, there was an ad for a WiFi-enabled slow cooker.

I'm not sure what bothered me more: the ad showed a guy in a car using his smartphone to turn on the slow cooker--he looked like he had just won the lottery; or the fact that a cooking pot has WiFi built in.

I suppose someone is going to buy the things, but the idea that you now have a cooking pot, subject to extremes of heat and moisture, with electronics built in sounds like a recipe for rapid failure of the circuit board. And then you have a pot that does not work. I have had the same slow cooker for more than twenty years. It has no software, has never needed an upgrade, does not have an IP address, has never been part of the Internet of Things, I can throw it in the sink to clean it, and works every time I plug it in. I've never thought, "Gee, I wish this had WiFi."

Next up: A news report that the Russians have hacked two million slow cookers and are using them to crash CIA servers with Denial of Service attacks.

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The decline of the Web

As our portable devices become more common and more powerful, the Web is being wrecked by the blight of ads. I see this both with browsers on computers but also and especially on the portable devices, where the pop-up and pop-over advertising not only obscures the content but is often impossible to get rid of. On a smartphone, and I don't care how big the screen is, the little 'X' or "Close ad" button is so small as to be unusable.

It is now ordinary to visit a site and then leave within a few seconds without reading anything because the ads are so difficult to get rid of.

'Free' content, of course, is not really free. The people and organizations running these sites have to pay the bills somehow, but I think we are on the wrong side of a downhill slide, where ads are about to overwhelm the content (and on some sites this is already true).

What I find most disappointing is the commercialization of the Web. There was a time, in the nineties, when creating and maintaining a Web site was easy enough for almost anyone. But the complexity of managing even a basic site is staggering. Tools like Wordpress and Drupal have become so complex that they have become textbook cases for becoming the problem they were developed to solve.

So we all go to Facebook, which has done a good job of making it easy to have a "page" for a community group or some special interest/hobby. But is it really healthy to have the entire world using a single platform?

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Technology is making us stupid: Part II--We don't know how to use the phone

I've written about this before, but had two recent instances where someone needed something from me on short notice (i.e. within a couple of hours) and emailed me instead of picking up the phone. In both cases, they were confused and disoriented when I explained that I had been in meetings and do not check my email in meetings.

If they had called and left a voice mail (or spoken with our receptionist), I would have been able to get them what they needed.

I get so much spam that I rarely check email on my phone--deleting spam on an iPhone is painful. And yes, we have spam filters running on our mail server, but about 3-5% gets through, and that's several hundred spam emails a day.

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Is the end of the FCC near?

The Washington Post reports that the incoming Trump administration may be considering abolishing the FCC. The FCC was originally created to manage the allocation of a scarce resource (at the time)--frequency spectrum. Advances in radio technology and the rise of the Internet have led to questions about what the FCC should be doing these days.

As the article notes, much of what the FCC does these days could be handled by other Federal agencies and/or pushed down to state regulatory agencies. The FCC has had a difficult job over the past couple of decades as it tries to manage the regulation of the now largely irrelevant legacy cable TV and telephone companies. I don't think the world would end if the FCC were broken up, and it could open the door for both more start up private sector telecom investment and increased opportunities for communities to build and manage their own telecom infrastructure.

Death of TV: Part LXXVI: Who needs a TV anymore?

The CW network has released an app for Apple TV that allows you to watch all of the channel's content for free--no cable TV subscription required.

This is another crack in the wall being defended by both the content owners (broadcast channels, cable channels) and the cable TV networks. It's a drip drip drip change, but OTT (Over The Top) offerings like CW are growing. Even if we all end up with several video subscriptions (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) the cost of video content is going to be much less in the long run, and we are going to be able to pick and choose exactly what we want to watch, rather than being forced to buy 100+ channels just to get a half dozen we are interested in.

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Facial recognition: The end of privacy?

Facial recognition software is now in wide use by groups as disparate as Facebook, local police departments, Homeland Security, and the NSA. What it means is that whenever you post a picture of you, family, or friends anywhere online, someone can easily identify every single person in the picture, and very likely determine from the caption or comments where you have been and what you are doing.

That information, if scooped up by a private entity like Facebook or Google, is immediately sold to advertisers. Lately, I've noticed that the ads being served on Web sites I am browsing change within one or two minutes of doing a search on Amazon or some other shopping site. It used to take a day or two for me to see those changes.

We are trading privacy for convenience. It remains to be seen how this will all turn out, but Big Brother is really twins: Government Big Brother (all the local, state, and Federal agencies collecting and maintaining data on us) and Business Big Brother (all the large multi-national companies, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook that collecting and selling our personal information).

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Welcome your robot overlords

On the heels of accidents caused by self-driving cars, there is a report of a "security robot" accidentally running over a small child at a California shopping mall.

The 300 pound, five foot tall robot bumped into the child, who fell down, and the robot ran over the child's foot. The child was not seriously injured.

We are going to see a lot more of this, as "robots" of all kinds are rushed to market with poorly tested software.

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Microsoft: The company that hates its customers

I had some hope that Microsoft, once Steve Ballmer departed, might become more customer friendly. And in the past couple of years, Microsoft has made steady improvements to products like the Surface tablet/laptop--I see a lot of them in my travels.

Here at the office, we've actually seriously discussed moving away from Apple for office productivity software because Apple, since Tim Scott took over, has apparently just decided quality software is not particularly important.

But my most recent Microsoft experience has me once again thoroughly soured me on the Redmond company. I have been using a perfectly adequate copy of Office 2011 for years, and dutifully install the frequent patches and upgrades. I've never had any problems with the software until the most recent upgrade, which installed a new splash screen that tries to get me to buy Office 360 (a never-ending software rental). To actually get Word or Excel running on my Mac, I have to click on a little button on the bottom of the splash screen labeled "Use Word for free." For free. Um, I bought and paid for this software, and now Microsoft, via the new unwanted splash screen, tries to tell me that they are "letting me" use their software "for free!"

How generous of them.

If this is not annoying enough, the upgrade deactivated Word and now it only operates in read only mode. So the software I paid for has been hijacked by Microsoft.

I called tech support, and of course they wanted the serial number off the box that I bought five years ago. I can't find it. And the nearly incomprehensible tech support people (very heavy accents reading from a script) really had no idea what I was talking about. I gave up.

So good job, Microsoft. You've hijacked the software of a long time customer and made it unusable. If you think this is the way to get me to buy Office 360, you're wrong.

WiFimobile is the new bookmobile

Google has helped to fund some middle school buses in Caldwell County, North Carolina with WiFi so that the kids can get some school work done while traveling back and forth to school.

While this is an interesting experiment, the reason behind it is the abysmal state of broadband access in rural America, where whole families have to drive to McDonalds or the local library so mom and pop can get their email and shop, and so the kids can do their homework.

Everywhere I go these days in rural areas, the number one complaint is coming from the mothers of K12 children. Mom is dead tired from trying to manage access to Internet for her children. Stop in a rural McDonalds after 3 PM, and I can almost guarantee you will spot some vans in the parking lot with mom in the drivers seat and two or three kids bent over laptops or tablets trying to get their homework done.

Rural libraries are groaning under the strain of demand for Internet access, and they have to strictly manage time limits on the use of library computers. As the school systems put more and more textbooks and resources online, the problem becomes more acute for families with poor Internet access.

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