Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kids are not waiting for schools to go online

My grandson Oscar will enter the 9th grade this fall and he and a friend are working their way through Algebra II at the Khan Academy this summer. No one told them to do it -- no one assigned it – they just decided to do it on their own.

It turns out that Oscar and his friend may not be all that unusual. UCLA conducts an annual survey of incoming first-time, full-time college freshman and they included two questions about student's experience with online classes in the 2013 survey:

  • Have you used an online instructional website (e.g.,Khan Academy, Coursera) as assigned for a class?
  • Have you used an online instructional website (e.g., Khan Academy, Coursera) to learn something on your own?
The following table shows the percents of students who answered frequently or occasionally:

We see that over 40 percent of the incoming freshmen were frequently or occasionally assigned to use an online instructional website during the past year and nearly 70 percent had used online sites on their own.

Digging a bit deeper, we see that students entering public schools were a little more likely to have online experience than those entering private schools. (Public colleges and universities also offer more online instruction). To me, the most interesting finding was that students entering historically black colleges and universities are much more likely to have online education experience -- on their own or assigned -- than the typical incoming freshman. I could speculate on the cause of this discrepancy, but it really requires further research.

College expectations correlate with high school experience -- students who are going to historically black and, to a lesser extent, public schools are more likely to expect to take online classes in college:

The survey also yields some insight into the importance of having used online classes. They correlate online participation with a multi-dimensional positive habits of mind index and conclude that
Students who chose to independently use online instructional websites are also more likely to exhibit behaviors and traits associated with academic success and lifelong learning.
My grandson Oscar and his friend may be ahead of the curve, having been assigned Khan Academy lessons while in junior high, but it looks like today's kids know the Web is good for school work as well as playing games, posting selfies and building Minecraft worlds.

1. Note that I have focused on the online instruction portion of the survey, but it covers many other characteristics of incoming freshmen.

2. Components of the habits of mind index:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Comcast executive apologizes for obnoxious phone call to a customer service rep -- ex customer rep says it was in line with company policy.

Last week this bizarre recording of a call to a Comcast phone representative requesting termination of service went viral. (You can listen to the first couple minutes then stop because it is repetive to say the least).

A senior vice president at Comcast publicly apologized for the call, stating:
We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect
Great -- except that Lauren Bruce, a former Comcast customer account executive says the customer service rep in the recording was not going rogue, but adhering to company policy. Bruce says the Comcast rep in the recording was trying to upsell the caller and also complete a mandatory questionnaire they had for each call. She says it was sometimes easier to make up answers than get them out of irate customers and that the customer rep in this call is being made a scapegoat.

This call recording with a Comcast rep makes my experience with Time-Warner Cable look good. It's no wonder the Internet Service Provision is the lowest rated industry in the United States according to the University of Michigan Customer Satisfaction Survey.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

NBC's Tour de France coverage -- four stars

NBC is learning how to present live sporting events on the Internet.

I've been commenting on the online coverage of the Tour de France and the Olympic Games for several years and the BBC and IT4 in England have done a better job than NBC ... until now. This year, I am watching The Tour using NBC's iPad app, and I like it a lot. (They also have Web and Android versions).

Let's look at the app. The user interface has five modes -- live video, standings, stages, riders and more:

Five viewer modes

You spend most of your time in the four-frame live video mode:

The four-frame live video user interface

Live video is shown in the upper left, and one can toggle the video to full screen. The text column on the right has frames showing the peloton and other rider groups and a curated, Twitter-like news feed. The graphic frame at the bottom has five optional modes, as shown here:

Options for the bottom window

The user can zoom or pan the bottom frame, as shown here:

Bottom window zooms and pans

The text windows on the right scroll and nearly every object on the screen is a hot link. For example, touching the word Peloton below popped up a scrollable list of the names of the riders in the peloton. Touching the rider's name, would bring up data about him.

I spend most of my time watching live video, but frequently switch to one of the other modes to check the standings or to see how a particular rider, team or nation is doing.

The stages mode is most interesting. It has facts about each stage and, more important, archives of the completed stages. Shortly after a stage is completed, you can go back and watch highlight clips or the video of the entire stage and review the standings and other statistics.

suggestions for next year

The viewing experience is good, but I'd still like to see some improvements. One would be adding a single-touch, 15-second video rewind, as in the UK ITV4 viewer. Another would be showing the text frames -- group positions and news posts -- along with the archived video of the completed stages. (Currently you can only replay the video stream). There's also some missing data -- the rider database includes a biography field, but it is not populated.

Finally, the tablet interface is terrific for "leaning forward" -- switching modes and looking things up, but the small screen in your hands or lap is not so great for just "leaning back" and watching the race. I want to be able to mirror the video on my TV screen with a single touch.

If I had an Apple TV, I could do that now with my iPad. My YATS Podcast buddies tell me that Google is updating their Chromecast app to enable mirroring the screens of selected Android phones and tablets on TV sets equipped with a Chromecast device. Better yet, how about NBC Chromecast-enabling their app?

As I said at the start, I like this experience a lot. Some part of that is attributable to NBC's app and some is due to the inherent nature of a tablet and touch interface. I also like NBC's offer -- I paid $14.99 and did not have to watch any commercials. By next year, I expect to have a five-star setup for watching The Tour -- while leaning forward and while leaning back.

Update 7/17/2014

I said one missing feature was the ability to sit back and watch race video on a TV set. Yesterday, I received an update to the Chromecast app that enables mirroring of an Android screen on a Chromecast-equipped TV set. As you see here, I can now cast my phone video to my TV set.

(This video is not from the NBC app because I have that installed on an iPad, not my phone).

This new version of the Chromecast app is labeled "beta," and it is a bit glitchy. I had to reboot the Chromecast a couple of times to get it to work.

When it is working, the video is quite acceptable, though not perfectly sharp. The imperfection is most noticeable on text which is part of the video stream -- it is a little blurry around the edges. Static text looks fine from across the room.

This brings us a step closer to the complete leaning forward and back experience for watching live sporting events -- closer to a five-star review.

Update 7/20/2014

NBC has populated the biography field in the rider database and it is now displayed. That was an easy suggestion to satisfy, but the others will require some re-architecting of the system to provide access to a buffered version of the video in real time.

Update 7/24/2014

I stated that my biggest criticism of NBC's iPad app was that archived replays of the video coverage of completed stages are not accompanied by the synchronized course map, news feed and dynamic standings of the live coverage -- if you miss a live stage, you cannot replay the full experience from the archive.

I've now discovered a similar synchronization problem during the live presentation. If you pause the live playback for a short time then restart it, the video fast-forwards to the current live point, synchronizing with the ancilarry material, but, if you pause for a long time, the video does not catch up with the ancillary material so they are out of synch.

Check the following screen shot. The riders in the video pane are climbing a steep mountain, but the course-progress pane at the bottom of the screen shows them on the subsequent descent (blue). The text on the right is synchronized with the course-progress map, so it is also out of synch with the video.

That will cost them a "star" in my rating -- let's cut it to three stars.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

My next desktop will be a Chromebase -- a Chrome-based all-in-one -- will yours?

My next desktop will be an LG Chromebase or something similar -- how about you?

A while back, I reviewed an Acer Chromebook, comparing it to my Windows laptop and a tablet. While the laptop remains my main computer, the Chromebook easily beat the tablet for my application mix. (More worrisome for Apple, my 10-year old grandson agreed -- he liked the Chromebook better than his iPad). But, now we have a new entry, the LG Chromebase, an all-in-one desktop running the Chrome OS and browser. How does it stack up against my laptop, tablet and the Chromebook?

Where does the Chromebase fit in?

The bottom like is that my next desktop will be an LG Chromebase or something similar -- like a chromebox with a good keyboard and display. To understand why, check out the following picture of my current desktops -- two old tower PCs running Windows 7 and an iMac.

Kids installing crapware (and playing games)

The towers are used as kid arcade machines and the iMac is used for Web surfing, email, Skype calls, video Hangouts and kid games. That's it. No resource-intensive applications like video editing. (Time Warner's Internet connectivity can get in the way of those video Hangouts, but that is a different rant).

I've not used a Chromebase, but, based on my experience with the Chromebook, I am confident that a Chromebase with 4 Gbytes of memory could handle all of my desktop applications. It would run them as fast as the desktops, boot way faster, be more reliable, and, most important, be locked down. Look back at the picture of that room full of little kids playing games -- how frequently would you guess they click on some bogus link and download some cool-sounding program that turns out to be crapware or worse?

Of course, all this holds for my desktop applications, but it may not for yours. What if there were a good, Chrome-based version of Microsoft Office -- would that do it for you? Still not satisfied? How about the equivalent of an audio editor like Audacity and an image editor like That would not be enough to get me to give up my laptop, but it would be getting close.

Microsoft has released Office for the iPad (too little too late?) and will soon have an Android version. Is a browser-based version be far behind?

In December 2008 Bill Gates wrote a memo warning that "allowing Office documents to be rendered very well by other peoples browsers is one of the most destructive things we could do to the company." In January 2010 Steve Jobs predicted that "The world is moving to HTML5." In September, 2012, Mark Zuckerberg said "I think the biggest mistake that we made, as a company, is betting too much on HTML5 as opposed to native ... because it just wasn't there." (Yet).

I think they were all right -- the trick is getting the timing right (like the Mac, not the Lisa) -- LG thinks the time is right about now.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The cover theme of The Economist this week is "creative destruction in education."

There are four articles on digital education in the June 28, 2014 issue:

  • Creative destruction: A cost crisis, changing labour markets and new technology will turn an old institution on its head.
  • The digital degree: The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake.
  • A winning recipe: Two big Brazilian education firms, now in the process of merging, show how universities can do both quantity and quality.
  • Wealth by degrees: The returns to investing in a university education vary enormously.
The articles survey trends and developments and speculate on the future of both elite and mass-eucation universities.

For example, at MIT over half the 4,500 students take a MOOC as part of their course and half of their edX (MOOC) students come from developing countries. Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposes an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC, followed by two years attending university and a final year starting part-time work while finishing their studies online.

In Brazil, private universities, are enjoying success with innovative blends of online, televised and in-person classes at widespread locations. At first they had the same sorts of problems as US trade schools face today, but they are now succeeding at offering effective, low-cost education.

Change is inevitable.

MOOC students are international, with
varying levels of education.

Brazil has innovative mass-education.

Public support is falling and tuition rising.

The US educated a relatively high
percent of the population in the past,
but South Korea is the leader today.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Brain damaged UI

In an earlier post, I described the difficulty of discovering options in a touch interface and the silliness of porting that problem to non-touch devices like laptops – and I suggested a solution.

That was a big, general problem, but there are also many small, specific UI glitches. Here are two, one from Apple and one from Microsoft to keep things even. Let's start with Apple.

I just “upgraded" iTunes for Windows. Before the upgrade, I saw a simple Refresh All button in the lower right corner of the screen. About once a week, I would launch iTunes, click that button and it downloaded the new episodes of the podcasts I subscribe to.

After the “upgrade,” the refresh button was gone and I did not see anything like it. I went to an Apple help forum, where, someone had asked about the same problem and learned that the refresh capability was still there, but one had to select the List tab then click on the unlabeled circular arrow in the upper left corner. Well hidden Apple!

Here's a UI glitch from Microsoft -- I put my Windows laptop into Sleep mode several times a day. To do so, I click on the Start button then slide the cursor over to click on the small arrow to the right of the Shut Down button, slide the cursor to the right and click on Sleep. That usually works, but since I am doing all of this with a trackpad and the arrow is small, I screw up and accidentally click Shut Down about once a month – wasting time and perhaps losing data.

Do some minor UI problems bug you? Let me know what they are in a comment.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Could Google provide Internet access in Cuba?

(Cross posted on

The obstacles are political, not technical.

Eric Schmidt and other Google executives traveled to Cuba where they met with members of the Internet community and the government. Google is providing Internet access in a few US Cities and is considering others -- might they provide Internet access in Cuba?
Consider the following:

  • Cuba has very little domestic backbone infrastructure, but they could afford to extend Internet connectivity via satellite.

  • Google has a geosynchronous satellite project that could serve Cuba.
  • Of course, both governments would have to agree for Google or any other satellite ISP to connect Cubans. I believe that, if the Cuban government would agree, the US would as well.

    But, the Cuban government has feared the Internet since the time of their first IP connectivity in 1996. At that time, there was high level debate about the Internet. The hard liners, led by Raúl Castro, argued against the Internet while others argued for a "Chinese" approach of supporting Internet use while censoring content and surveilling users. (It seems Fidel Castro was ambivalent).

    The hard liners won in 1996, but what about today? Schmidt reports that a "number of the people" he spoke with said "the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico." If some of those were young government officials, there may be a glimmer of hope.

    Update, July 3, 2014

    It is noteworthy that Jared Cohen, Google's Director of Ideas, accompanied Schmidt on this trip -- before joining Google, he was a member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and served as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and later Hillary Clinton.

    Thursday, June 26, 2014

    Stockholm: 19 years of municipal broadband success

    The Stokab report should be required reading for all local government executives.

    Stockholm is one of the top Internet cities in the world -- how do they do it? Wholesale communication infrastructure in Stockholm is provided by AB Stokab, which is owned by the Stockholm City Council. Stokab leases dark fiber and space in nodes/hubs where customers can install communication equipment and interconnect networks since 1994. Stokab's goal has been to build a competition-neutral infrastructure capable of meeting future communication needs, spurring economic activity, insuring diversity and freedom of choice and minimizing disruption to the city’s streets.

    How has it worked out?

    Quite well, as you see in the following figure, taken from Stokab's report on the socio-economic cost and benefit of the project:

    Accumulated investments and socio-economic
    return in million Swedish Kronor.

    The returns shown here reflect increased property value, returns of the municipal housing companies (currently breakeven, due to large investments), value for tenants, increased employment, Stokab’s profit, saving for the municipality’s and county’s data and IT costs, and increased economic activity in the supplier industry. To drill down into the details, see the Stokab report summary or the full Stokab report.

    The Swedish Telecommunication regulator published a report calling for openness and competition at five Internet service infrastructure levels -- from physical access to land, ducts and spectrum through retail Internet service -- based on the Stockholm experience.

    A lesson for the US?

    The US needs infrastructure investment -- who will make it? The telephone and cable companies were given a chance, and they've dropped the ball. The Stockholm experience shows the role local government can play. National government's have also been important. The US Federal Government underwrote the research that gave us the Internet and governments like those of Singapore or China have worked as planners and venture capitalists. Home and building owners can also contribute to "last 100 yard" investment.

    Singapore's government acts as a planner and
    venture capitalist.

    Given the current US Congress, it is hard to imagine the Federal Government investing in Internet infrastructure, but FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has praised municipal broadband efforts, wants to fight state laws prohibiting or restricting them and he is currently challenging Tennessee's anti-municipal net law.

    In spite of the fact that Wheeler came from the ISP industry, you have to like a guy who says:
    If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want that competition.
    The situation in the US will not change until the Internet becomes a political issue for the general public and that may be happening -- check out comedian John Oliver's piece on the Internet. Wheeler watched Oliver's piece and responded -- check that out too -- it's funny!

    ISP industry lobbyists claim that government involvement interferes with The Market, leading to waste and inefficiency, but in Stockholm, the municipal government has created a competitive market. This story is biased because we can't expect every local government to be as skillful as Stockholm's, but their example is worth considering.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2014

    Supreme Court rules against Aereo -- but people want local TV online

    The Supreme Court says Aereo is distributing copyrighted material, but there is demand for their service.

    An Aereo antenna
    The Supreme Court has ruled against Aereo, a company that stores local, over-the-air TV broadcasts then streams then on the Internet. The Court ruled that Aereo was retransmitting copyrighted material without permission.

    Aereo deployed arrays of dime-sized antennae and claimed that they were merely leasing a speciic antenna to each customer and delivering content that was received by the customer's personal antenna.

    An array of tiny antennae

    The lower court case against Aereo challenged their technology claim -- questioning whether those dime-sized antennae were electronically independent. (If they were acting as a single, integrated antenna, Aereo would have been a clear copyright violator).

    Expert witnesses on the technology were divided during the first case -- Aereo's expert said the antennae were independent and the TV station's expert disagreed.

    The Supreme Court decision did not depend on a technology argument -- they held that Aereo was not in the antenna leasing business but were sellers of subscriptions to watch copyrighted television programs.

    I am a cord cutter and was cheering for Aereo, even though I questioned their technology claim and regarded their system as a kludge designed to get around copyright law.

    What about the future of local TV? If those tiny antennae really worked independently, Aereo could sell them to end-users and let them receive local broadcasts over the air, but I suspect they either do not work as claimed or only work if they are located very close to the transmitting antenna.

    Regardless, the current Aereo business model is toast, but they have shown that there is a market for local content delivered over the Internet. If customers are willing to pay for streaming of local content (including ads), why don't the copyright holders offer the service themselves or hire Aereo to do it for them?

    Update 7/1/2014

    I said that those dime-sized antennae seemed bogus to me -- that they could not truly be independent. Pete Putnam agrees and presents a detailed technical analysis supporting his conclusion that the antenna array would have to be within a couple hundred feet of the TV transmission tower for such small antennae to work independently.

    That is technical support for the broadcaster's assertion that Aereo was essentially doing the same thing as a cable company -- capturing and retransmitting copyrighted material -- but without paying the retransmission fees charged to cable companies.

    That raises the question -- how much are those retransmission fees? I went to the Dish Network Web site and found that "Local channels for non-qualifying packages are $6.00 per month." Dish evidently finds it profitable to pay the retransmission fees and charge customers $6 per month. They also offer "Superstaions" for $2 per month each.

    So, why doesn't Aereo or someone else go into the legal business of paying the retransmission fees, keeping track of the number of viewers for the sake of advertising sales, and offer local channels over the Internet? Aereo showed there was a market demand for such service.


    I've expressed doubt over the technical feasibility of Aereo's claim that they were renting independent TV antennas to their customers, but the Supreme Court ruled that even if that technology did work, Aereo was essentially acting as a cable company. I suggested that they had demonstrated a demand for local TV over the Internet and suggested that they pay the retransmission fees and become a "cable" company. But, the Copyright Office does not agree that they are a cable company, and, even if they are, the broadcasters might be able to force them to carry arbitrary bundles of channels like they do "real" cable companies. I am not a lawyer, but it seems Aereo is finished. There is demand for local TV streamed online -- will the broadcasters allow that to happen at any price?

    Monday, June 23, 2014

    Recommended podcast: Get your next eye exam on a smartphone by Andrew Bastawrous

    A smartphone with a cheap attachment can diagnose eye disease and let us restore sight to millions of blind people

    In 1973, E. F. Schumacher published a book called "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered." Schumacher wrote of the need for "approriate technology" -- technology that was small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. His emphasis was on, but not confined to, developing nations.

    Andrew Bastawrous' low-cost smartphone ophthalmic tools are a textbook example of appropriate technology. He uses an Android phone to assess vision, view the retina, and simulate a persons vision for another to see the world as they do. Eye exams are conducted by technicians on bicycles with solar panels on their backpacks to keep the phones charged. They also have a map-based app to maintain their database of patients and village elders.

    Two quotes from the talk:
    • There are 39 million people in the world who are blind. Eighty percent of them are living in low-income countries such as Kenya, and the absolute majority do not need to be blind. They are blind from diseases that are either completely curable or preventable.
    • It makes it possible to pick up diseases of the eye and of the body that would not be possible without access to the eye, and that clip-on device can be manufactured for just a few dollars, and people can be cured of blindness, and I think it says a lot about us as a human race if we've developed cures and we don't deliver them. But now we can.

    For more information on Andrew Bastawrous and his project as well as a transcript and downloadable audio and video copies of the podcast (6:33), follow this link.

    Solar power charges the backpack and the
    technician travels on a bicycle or motor bike.

    Imaging the retina

    Tuesday, June 17, 2014

    Who will provide entry-level and continuing vocational education?

    Universities are doing an increasingly poor job of entry-level training -- will industry take over?

    My first job after college was with IBM. As soon as I was hired, I was sent to San Francisco for an eight-week training course in which I was introduced to the organization and its culture and taught to wire the control panels of unit-record machines and design unit-record systems. After that phase one training, I worked for a while, then went to a second and later a third class.

    In those days, IBM hired people regardless of their major in school, based on an aptitude test and interviews. (The most senior technical person in our office and my first mentor was an English major). IBM assumed the responsibility of training entry-level employees.

    A few decades later, universities were expected to finance entry-level training. Companies wanted new hires who were productive on day one. That worked pretty well as long as the cost of education was reasonable. (My tuition at UCLA was $76 per semester).

    But, that system has broken down -- society has cut support for universities and, to be honest, IBM did a better job of entry-level training than many of our universities. As we see below, today's students often borrow large sums to pay for their college education and many end up in dead-end jobs.

    Percent of graduates in jobs not requiring a degree
    College graduates: age 22-65 with a bachelor's degree or higher
    Recent graduates: age 22-27 with a bachelor's degree or higher
    Shaded areas designate recessions.

    Good non-college jobs: at least $45,000 a year
    low-wage jobs: $25,000 a year or less
    Shaded areas designate recessions.

    It is way too soon to call it a trend, but the Internet may be taking us back toward industry-financed entry-level job training. The most IBM-like example is AT&T's sponsorship of the development of an online masters degree in computer science at Georgia Tech. The first semester of that program has been completed and the students are satisfied and the administration is optimistic, but not declaring victory yet.

    Yesterday, AT&T (and others) announced that they would be participating in the development of tech-oriented "nanodegrees" on the Udacity platform. (Udacity also hosts the Georgia Tech MS).

    IBM may not be offering the same 3-phase training that I had as a new hire, but they are offering MOOCs at universities through their Academic Initiative and have recently agreed to partner with 28 business schools and universities on developing data science curriculum and programs.

    The Georgia Tech MS degree will cost students $7,000 and a Udacity nanodegree will cost approximately $2,400 -- about $200 per month for 12 months. AT&T is sponsoring some of their employees in the masters program and will offer internships to 100 nanodegree graduates.

    Online education has also reduced the cost of tuition reimbursement benefits for employers. Starbucks is offering tuition reimbursement for employees who complete an online bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University.

    Online education has boomed with the spread of Massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have had successes and failures, but the infusion of capital and interest has triggered a wave of innovation in technology and pedagogy. New media often mimic and substitute for old media. We first saw MOOCs as a replacement for university education, but it may be that their major impact will be on vocational training.

    Udacity has pivoted from university education to lifelong vocational training and the deal looks good enough to induce companies like AT&T and Starbucks to cover part of the cost.

    What might it mean if employer-subsidized vocational training catches on?

    Traditional universities will lose students. The majority of students see a degree as a path to a job, and universities control certification. If a $2,400 nanodegree gets one a good entry-level job, many students will skip the university.

    University education is much more common today than it was when I started at IBM. Universities, like many other organizations, typically try to grow, leading to aggressive marketing programs and lowered admission standards. While a university might have an incentive to admit and retain poorly qualified students, an employer does not. The company personnel department may replace the university admission committee as the gatekeeper to the middle class.

    That might be efficient, but tying education to employment has a downside. Consider the effect of tying medical insurance to employment -- it is an important part of an employee's benefits, but it discourages mobility, harming both the economy and the individual.

    The courses I have mentioned here are not typical MOOCs, but they are compatible with MOOCs. For example, Udacity has not spelled out the details, but a nanodegree will involve testing for certification and, no doubt, more personal interaction with instructors than today's MOOCs. However, they also intend to make the teaching material available as a MOOC. Self-study students will not get credit or personal attention, but they will have access to the same material as paying students. The material will be a fringe benefit for society and an advertisement for Udacity.

    As Steve Jobs used to say -- one more thing. I've been talking about vocational training, but I think there is also demand for curiosity-driven, non-degree, lifelong edcuation -- edutainment if you will. That may be the way those nanodegree graduates round out their education.

    Saturday, June 14, 2014

    Google buys a satellite company -- Skybox Imaging -- why and what next?

    This acquisition is ostensibly a data play, not a connectivity play, but couldn't a constellation of low-earth orbit Skyboxes cover the globe? Teledesic 2?

    A few days ago, we looked at Google's efforts to bring connectivity to developing nations and rural areas using satellites and high altitude platforms.

    Now, Google has acquired Skybox Imaging for $500 million. Skybox uses very small satellites orbiting at an altitude of 600 kilometers, which means they move at over seven kilometers per second relative to the surface of the Earth. Their technology is sufficiently advanced to compensate for that speed and produce videos that clearly show the movement of vehicles -- check this video:

    Skybox Imaging HD Video of Las Vegas on March 25, 2014 (1080p) from Skybox Imaging on Vimeo.

    Off hand, this seems more like a data gathering move than part of a developing nation and rural connectivity strategy -- they can use these images to look at traffic (for self-driving cars?), count ships in a port or cars in parking lots, etc. For examples, check this video:

    But, they plan to launch many of these low-earth orbit satellites -- couldn't they be used for global connectivity as well? Several companies were formed to do just that in the 1990s. Bill Gates, Paul Allen and a Saudi prince backed the best-known one, Teledesic, but the technology of the time was not up to the task and the company failed.

    Shifting emphasis, you can see an earlier video of the Skybox entreprenurial team presenting their vision at the Stanford Busiiness School here.

    While this effort is not directly tied to providing connectivity, it beefs up Google's space technology and skills. Google is becoming a player in the space game along with Internet entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Brnason's Virgin Galactic. There are rumors that Google is negotiating a stake in Virgin Galactic and one can't help thinking Musk and Bezos are watching all this with interest.

    Update 6/14/2014

    More cool Skybox Imaging videos

    Thursday, June 12, 2014

    Can Google connect the "other three billion" in developing nations and rural areas?

    Doing well by doing good

    Google wants to bring Internet connectivity to rural areas and developing nations and has a comprehensive effort under way to do so. They are experimenting with terrestrial and extra-terrestrial wireless technology. I will look at terrestrial wireless in a subsequent post -- this one focuses on extra-terrestrial technologies.

    During the last couple decades, NGOs, governments and entrepreneurs have worked with four extra-terrestrial connectivity technologies:

    (See pictures at the end of this post)
    Let's look at Google's projects in this context.

    High altitude platforms (HAPs) are blimps, drones or balloons that hover or circulate in the stratosphere. They have cloudless access to solar energy and being above the weather helps with control, but their signals must travel through rain and clouds. They are the lowest flying technology, so packet latency is relatively small, but so is their "footprint" -- the area their signal covers on the ground.

    The most visible HAP Internet effort has been that of Sanswire, which has run well-publicized tests for over a decade. Sanswire has gone through bankruptcy, announced projects in Latin America that never materialized and faced complaints by suppliers and employees, but they are still working on Internet connectivity.

    Google has two HAP projects, Project Loon, using balloons and a drone project using technology from recently purchased Titan Aerospace. There have been reports of Google blimp trials, but I've not seen any details on those. Let me know if you have more information.

    Most satellites -- like the Space Station and sensing satellites -- are in low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO satellites move relative to the ground, which means that either communication windows are intermittent or many satellites -- a "constellation" -- are needed to cover the planet.

    The first LEO Internet project I know of was used for intermittent connectivity in Africa during the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, a number of entrepreneurial LEO projects were announced. The most ambitious was Teledesic, which proposed Internet connectivity for the entire planet using a constellation of 288 satellites orbiting at 700 kilometers. Teledesic had high-profile backers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and a Saudi prince, but the technology of the day was not up to the task and the company failed.

    Today, the best-known LEO communication system is Iridium's satellite phone service, consisting of 66 LEO satellites. (Iridium was conceived by motorola as an Internet project, but was scaled back to telephony, went bankrupt and reemerged as a phone service).

    This week, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, a company that has put a LEO satellite in a 600 kilometer orbit. The company was formed for data gathering, for example for providing real time video and images of traffic on roads, the sea and in the air, environmental monitoring, or map and earth imaging.

    As we see in the following heat-map video from Skybox, satellite imaging proliferated rapidly between 1986 and 2012:

    This sort of imagery has both economic and military value, so it will provide Google both revenue and expertise in the short run. Might they be planning to parlay that into a constellation of Skybox communication satellites -- Teledesic II with modern technology -- in the long run?

    Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites are used for communication and navigation. Google recently announced a project with O3b Networks (other three billion). O3b currently has four satellites in 8,000 kilometer equatorial orbits and they plan to launch four more this year. They say those eight satellites will enable them to offer continuous service to all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator.

    The project with Google is headed by two O3b executives and they speak of spending billions dollars and putting at least 180 satellites in orbit. When they speak of 180 satellites, one wonders whether they are considering a LEO constellation.

    Today's commercial satellite Internet connectivity is provided by geostationary satellites, which are positioned above the equator and remain stationary with respect to the surface of the earth since they orbit exactly once per day. Their orbit altitude enables multi-country footprints, but latency and launch costs are high.

    Geostationary satellites have been used in rural areas and developing nations since the early days of the Internet, and the industry has remained viable as a result of technical progress in launch technology (public and private), antennas, solar power, radios and other electronics, as well as tuning of TCP/IP protocols to account for the 1/4 second latency due to the orbital altitude. (I've had surprisingly natural voice over IP conversations with people on geostationary satellite connections).

    Have those technologies progressed to the point where HAPs and lower orbit satellites are now viable as well?

    Google, along with Facebook, is a founding partner of, which seeks "affordable internet access for the two thirds of the world not yet connected." Since the beginning years of the Internet, NGOs, government agencies and entrepreneurs has been working on the Grand Challenge of connectingdeveloping nations. They have not succeeded, but Google, with improved technology, deep pockets, a long-range viewpoint and economic motivation (ads) may be able to pull it off.

    Finally, I cannot end this post without wondering whether Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Brnason, founder of Virgin Galactic are eyeing those other three billion people.

    Update, 6/20/2014

    There is a 99 comment discussion of this post on the Slashdot Web site.

    Teledesic animation showing a satellite
    constellation that would cover the planet.

    There has been significant technical progress in connectivity
    to geostationary satellites since this picture was taken in India.

    Figure from Arthur C. Clarke's article proposing
    geostationary satellites for world wide radio coverage

    Geostationary satellites have large footprints.

    Titan Aerospace solar-poweed drone

    O3b MEOs will cover the middle of the planet/

    Does anyone know anything about this Google blimp? (Photoshopped?)

    Project Loon balloon

    Sandisk's latest HAP attempt

    Airport example from Skybox Imaging (more cool videos here)

    Monday, June 09, 2014

    Netflix blames Verizon, Verizon blames Netflix -- let's see the data.

    Netflix says Verizon is a streaming bottleneck, Verizon says the congestion is upstream -- we need data not accusations.

    Netflix recently showed messages like this one when they had to adjust the bit-rate on their streams to FIOS customers:

    Verizon responded, claiming that the congestion was upstream from FIOS, and threatened legal action. Netflix says they will drop the messages for now.

    The public and regulators need more data and transparency, not less. For example, here are Netflix data rate histories for Google Fiber, Comcast, Verizon FIOS and Verizon DSL:

    This data clearly shows the improvement in Comcast speeds when they and Netflix agreed to terms in February. (One wonders how that rapid improvement was achieved and how much investment it required).

    Verizon DSL is slow because of the technology. Those Verizon customers who can get FIOS are surely better off, but one wonders why Verizon fiber is so much slower than Google fiber and Comcast cable.

    If Netflix congestion is upstream from Verizon, they should present data demonstrating that.

    Update 6/10/2014

    Google also publishes data on YouTube streaming performance for ISPs. I checked the performance of Time Warner Cable, my not-so friendly ISP, in Los Angeles, my city.

    The following graph shows YouTube video consumption for time slots beginning at 6 AM and peaking at 9 PM.

    Google also reports the percent of the time an ISP delivers high definition (720p), standard definition (360p) and lower quality. For me, the worst performance, HD 81% of the time and SD 19%, occurs between 9-10 PM.

    This is one more source of ISP performance data -- check it out and see how your ISP rates compared to others in your location (if there are others).

    Update 6/13/2014

    The FCC will scrutinize the pay for service deals Netflix and Comcast and Verizon. They will also look at others, including Google.

    FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, said he already had copies of the contracts, but I hope he asks the companies to provide traffic data and also disclose the cost of the infrastructure investments they make to keep service reasonable.

    Update 7/7/2014

    YouTube has joined Netflix in linking to data when video delivery slows down. I was watching a YouTube video that began to stutter. When it paused to rebuffer, I saw this message:

    When I clicked on the find out why link, it took me to Google's Video Playback Checklist, which lists things that might go wrong and suggests fixes -- no blame on your ISP -- so far. If none of those fixes help, they also provide a link to the Google Video Quality Report (described above). As we asked -- they show us the data.

    Update 7/19/2014

    I've asked to see congestion data and to know the cost of alleviating the bandwidth shortage noted by Netflix customers and other Internet users. Mark Taylor, VP of Content and Media at Level 3, a transit provider used by Netflix, has given us some data and some costs. This diagram shows data at one of the of the ten exchange points between Verizon and Level 3:

    We see that the congestion between Level 3's customer (Netflix) and a Verizon retail customer occurs in the forwarding of packets between their routers (in the same building). Both the Level 3 and Verizon networks are uncongested (green) but the links between their routers are congested (red).

    That is the data for this exchange point, but what about the cost of alleviating the problem? Taylor says it is a few thousand dollars and five minutes work to install 10gb port cards in the routers. He says they have been asking Verizon to install the cards for many months and offers to have Level 3 pay for them. He says he will throw in the short cables between the routers.

    If more capacity were needed after those eight port cards were installed, new equipment would have to be purchased, but that would be a small fraction of the cost of the networks the routers connect.

    Note that the above diagram is based on a Verizon post describing the situation at the Los Angeles exchange point. Furthermore, it shows under utilization on the Verizon network -- no need for data caps in that case :-).

    Update 7/24/2014

    David Young, Verizon's Vice President for Regulatory Affairs, has posted a reply to the claim by Mark Taylor of Level 3 that Verizon is causing Internet congestion. Young says the problem is not datacenter exchange point congestion, as Taylor claims, but congestion in the Level 3 network. In fact he says that:
    Level 3 insists on only using its existing settlement-free peering links even though, as Level 3 surprisingly admits in their blog, these links are experiencing significant congestion.
    This is Verizon's view of the situation -- transit providers like Level 3 are the problem:

    But, when I looked back at Mark Taylor's post, I saw no such admission. In fact, Taylor says "our network has plenty of available capacity" and goes on to state that:
    I can confirm once again that all of those thousands of links on the Level 3 network are managed carefully so that the peak utilizations look very similar to those Verizon show for their own network – IN BOTH DIRECTIONS (his caps).
    These are conflicting statements -- who to believe?

    Considering Verizon's track record, I'd give the benefit of the doubt to Level 3. Verizon promised to install FIOS fiber in my neighborhood several years ago, but subsequently changed their mind and decided instead on a "gentleman's agreement" dividing the wireless (Verizon) and land-line (cable companies) ISP markets. Indeed Verizon has a track record of broken promises -- Bruce Kushnick has documented 300 billion dollars worth of them.

    That history makes me suspicious that Level 3 is telling the truth, but it is not proof. Proof would require transparency on both sides. Level 3 and Verizon should show us the data -- let's see the traffic logs for your networks. (Or at least let the FCC staff see them).

    Wednesday, June 04, 2014

    A tale of two industries: package delivery and Internet service

    Why do customers like the package delivery industry and dislike information delivery service? Competition and the US Postal Service.

    Comcast CEO Brian Roberts recently complained that Netflix paid the Post Office for delivery of small packages (DVDs), but did not want to pay Internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver the same content over the Internet.

    In his view, the Post Office is in the consumer package delivery business and Comcast and other ISPs are in the information delivery business and both should be paid for their service.

    The University of Michigan publishes the American Customer Satisfaction Index in which they rate both companies and industries. Let's look at their latest ratings of the consumer package delivery and ISP industries.

    They rate 48 industries and it turns out that the package delivery industry is rated seventh overall and the ISP industry is 48th. Furthermore, merger hopefuls Time Warner Cable and Comcast are the lowest rated.

    How might we explain the differences in customer satisfaction in these two images that Mr. Roberts considers similar? The difference is that there is competition in customer package delivery between Federal Express, UPS and the Post Office. We would normally expect three companies to tacitly establish oligopoly prices, but in this case the Post Office is disruptive -- Federal Express and UPS must compete with a government agency.