Web/Tech

US Internet service sucks…and that’s a problem

Let’s face it: Internet service, Internet access and Internet speeds in the US are really bad and really expensive. When you step outside your nice warm WiFi cocoon at home or at work, that’s when the point really gets driven home. And if you travel domestically, well, we’ve all been there. Hotel WiFi is usually some combination of bad, expensive, unavailable or unreliable. Why do you get charged $15/day to go online? Do you get charged every time you flush the toilet or turn on a light?

Before you accuse me of prattling on about a distinctly First World problem, keep your powder dry. The Internet is not a luxury. It is a utility like water, gas or electricity. We are rapidly reaching the point in society where you simply cannot live your life without the Internet.

 

How did we get here? I’ll tell you in a minute.

 

What can we do about it? I have to say, I really don’t know. Any suggestions?

 

First, how did we get here.

 

If we can agree that access to the Internet is no different than access to running water or electricity, then this little bit of history is instructive. In the 1880s, electric companies were privately owned and, logically, went to where the money was: big cities and the homes of the wealthy. The rest got spotty service, or none at all. By the 1920s, nearly 90% of the electricity distribution in the US was controlled by a very few companies, who provided crappy service while gouging their customers. (Is this starting to sound familiar?)

 

Communities across the country began to form their own local utilities and now electricity is a regulated public utility, and no one longs for the days when only big cities and rich people could turn the lights on and off.

 

So what happened to the Internet? Since 1996 it has been a deadly combination of lack of foresight, lack of regulation and lack of competition. The FCC, at one time, felt that deregulating communications in all its forms (cable TV, cellphones, satellite, land line phones) would open the way to competition, lower prices and better services. And for a little while, they were right. But a big problem in the US is infrastructure. Sometimes being first can hurt you. (What’s the joke about a pioneer being the guy with the arrows in his back? Something like that.) While we laid miles of copper wiring and phone lines to bring service to our homes at huge expense during the mid-20th century , many nations did not. Many so-called Third World (and even some First World ones) laid out on the whole copper wire thing, and when fiber became available, they leap frogged onto this new technology.

 

The end result is the US is saddled with aging infrastructure that is prohibitively expensive to upgrade.

 

On the competition side of things, well, there basically isn’t any. Just like electricity in the 1880s, so went Internet access in the 90s and up to today. The great myth in our country is that anyone can start a business and compete with the big guys. Really? So where are the community-based ISPs? Yes, I know they exist, but not on a level that makes any kind of difference to the majority of Americans. With the completion of the Comcast-NBC merger, you now have the “communications equivalent of Standard Oil.” It is the country’s largest cable operator, largest high-speed (ahem) ISP, third largest phone company, owner of 11 regional sports networks and now the owner of NBC-Universal and their cable and broadcast networks, 25 TV stations, 7 production studios and various online properties. So now the biggest service provider of content also creates and owns that content and decides how and when you get access to that content. It’s the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.

 

I have no hope that Google’s efforts to lay fiber in Kansas City will move much beyond that test market. As a nation, we do not seem to understand or care that information and connectivity are the economic drivers of the foreseeable future. It is just simply not a priority, and all of us suffer. How many times have you heard someone say that they never make phone calls anymore? Everything is email or text or some other type of post to a shared online network? Well, that requires access and reliability. For readers old enough to remember when we all had land lines only, the one thing you could say about them was that you never lost service. When was the last time you felt that way about your internet or cell phone service?

 

I am wary of suggesting that the government get more involved in regulating this utility the way they regulate the others. But something needs to be done if we don’t want to fall further behind, because make no mistake- we are falling behind. Shitty internet is a non-trivial problem and the sanctioning by Congress and the FCC of monopolies like Comcast only exacerbates the problem. For all those who love to say things like, “America has the best (fill in the blank) in the world,” how can we stand for this? Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Latvia and Romania are the 5 fastest. The US hovers somewhere around 14th. Yes, we have a greater land mass, yes, we have more rural areas, yes, yes, yes, excuse, excuse, excuse.

 

If you had to pay extra for electricity and water every time you checked into a hotel, or if you only got service if you lived in New York, LA or some other big city, you wouldn’t stand for it, would you? We have the horrible combination of lack of real competition, lack of regulation, and lack of reliable service.

 

I started this post by saying I don’t know what the answer is  to this problem. Do you? I would love to hear them.

 

Sources: Captive Audience by Susan P. Crawford: http://amzn.com/B00AMYGFXK

US Internet Users Pay More for Slower Service: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-27/u-s-internet-users-pay-more-for-slower-service.html

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What is a Post-PC World?

For the past couple of years, since the advent of the iPad and other tablets, there has been a lot of digital ink spilled over how we’re living in a “post-PC world”. It got me thinking as to what that means.

At first blush, it sounds like the prediction that the computer as we know it is going away forever. With today’s announcement that Dell is taking itself private (the opposite of what you usually hear, right?) and the lack of focus on the part of Apple over the past 3 or 4 years on OSX upgrades, it might seem that the headlong surge to mobile computing might be the end of our relationship with our computers at home or work.

Not so fast.

As we sit here today, I believe the definition of  a “post-PC world” means how we interact with our data and how that data is stored. Cloud storage has made it insanely easy to never be far from your digital stuff. Before, everything had to be stored locally on your hard drive. Now Dropbox, Amazon cloud services, Google Drive and dozens of others make all your stuff accessible from anywhere. The ability to get your music, documents, email, photos, etc. from multiple devices says more about how we store and interact with things, and less about the machines we use to get to that storage locker in the sky.

There are certain things that phones, tablets and other “post-PC” devices are still not much good at: Skype, video gaming, video editing, Photoshop, document creation and document editing etc etc etc., and until such time as they can handle “computer” tasks like these, they will always just be cloud access devices.

So, I think branding this evolution as post-PC is somewhat misleading. “Post hard drive” might be more accurate.

How about you? How much do you rely on the cloud?

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The Ongoing Online Privacy War

I love keeping my eyes open for changing trends in behavior, especially online behavior.

The battle to maintain one’s privacy in a world of socially mediated publicness is a topic well picked over. Both celebrities and folks of less renown have all had a digital mishap, whether it’s the mistaken click on “Reply all” or the R-rated photo that ends up in the wrong hands.

The message of “the internet is forever” is probably as firmly embedded in the consciousness of folks young and old, just like “look both ways before you cross the street.” Not that people always heed the good advice they hear.

Into the breach have stepped several apps and services designed to anonymize your activity online. Wickr, Snapchat and the Silent Circle products are just a few examples of companies trying to help you keep your private life private.

 Wickr offers “military-grade encryption of text, picture, audio and video messages.” Yikes!

Snapchat is a photo-only service (for now) that allows you to put a time limit on how long the picture will display on the recipient’s device, up to 10 seconds. I gather this one is popular with the younger crowd.

The Silent Circle family of products were created by a “mix of world-renowned cryptographers, Silicon Valley software engineers…and former US Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service security experts.” They even offer a feature called “Burn Notice.” Too much time watching USA Network?

All kidding aside, it appears that the time is right for options like these, for various reasons. While no one is FORCING you to post a status update on Facebook or check in on Foursquare, none of us ever feel totally confident that what we try to keep private actually remains that way. Our website visits are tracked by advertisers or your ISP, our emails and texts logged, phone conversations recorded. There is no digital equivalent to the Mafia movie scenes where the  two guys walk outside amid traffic noise, and far from wiretaps, to have a private conversation.

Nowadays, closing the door to your office has no digital equivalent.

All of us have had that slightly queasy feeling that everything we do might someday be a part of the public record. I’m not positive that even these three services can successfully wipe the digital slate clean. It seems to me that communications sent from your phone, across a network to someone else’s device must be stored SOMEWHERE. Do your research.

Too often the argument for more privacy online (or off)  is attacked with the tired argument of “well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be worried.” That is so stupid on its face I won’t comment further. Smart people do dumb things, to be sure, but there are few justifications for the level of invasiveness granted to corporations, public utilities, your employer, etc. And there are times when you might like to talk to someone about something, and not have the whole world potentially know about it.

This is not some unhinged Libertarian rant against Big Brother, but I wonder if we are not seeing some push back in an area that all of us have probably felt some prior discomfort.

Plus, getting to play “Mission: Impossible” with your phone could be kind of fun. “This text will self-destruct in five seconds…”

What do you think? Do you think these kind of apps are responding to a real need? Would you sign up for one of them? Post a comment.

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Can you protect your kids online?

The concept of regulation, especially when modified by the word “government,” often produces a knee jerk reaction among many who feel that if the government is involved, things can only end badly.

About this time last year, I wrote about the well-meaning but impossibly overmatched Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) passed in 1998, at a time when the internet did not even bear a passing resemblance to today’s internet.  [Click here to read that post.] The focus of that post was largely about parents and other authority figures encouraging kids to lie to get around Terms of Service agreements. Today, the FTC is attempting to strengthen COPPA in  a futile attempt to deal with data mining and behavioral targeting.

Naturally, this effort to redress the shortcomings of a law passed in the internet Stone Age is being met with opposition. I think it’s always useful to examine exactly WHO is against any kind of regulatory change as a good first step towards parsing whether that change is good or bad.

In this case, the charges of “get government off my back” are coming from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and twitter, not to mention television networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups.

I am not making any earth-shattering observation when I say that kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the long-term consequences of online behavior. (Heck, neither do a lot of adults.) An innocent upload of a picture so they can see themselves on their computer screen next to a Disney character or battling robots inside of an app seems, to them, like no big deal.

Businesses survive by cultivating new customers, and with kids flocking to the internet in droves, they go to where the prospects are. I’m not convinced that any regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, can stanch the flow of data mining and behavioral targeting. The internet did not kill privacy, as fashionable as it is sometimes to take that position.

The only real alternative is to discuss internet safety and internet smarts with your kids. Many parents feel ill-equipped to do so because they themselves feel like they are unaware of how best to act online. The fact is, being online is not that much different than being out in the world, and you should govern yourself accordingly. It is neither reasonable nor feasible to opt out of the internet, just like you cannot opt our of society in general. A little common sense will always carry the day.

And keep an eye on who is for and who is against some of these things. That ought to scare you more than the possibility of your kid being served an advertisement for chocolate covered Doritos.

What do you think? Can anything really be done to protect kids from being marketed to and having their data collected? Leave a comment in the comments section.

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Has Instagram changed the internet for all of us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Instagram lately and I’ve noticed that I am not alone.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center revealed that 46% of adult internet users post original photos or videos online that they themselves created. This was the first time they had asked about Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr, so there is no historical data to compare the numbers to, but the numbers are sure to continue growing. According to the study, “27% of internet users between 18-29 use Instagram.”

And then this, from AllThingsD: “In August [2012] US smartphone owners visited Instagram from their smartphones more frequently and for longer periods of time than they visited Twitter.” Instagram had an average of 7.3 million daily active users to Twitter’s 6.9 million, and they spent nearly twice as long perusing.

When Facebook allegedly coughed up $1 billion to buy Instagram, the black crows in the media  focused on the astronomical price tag for a company that hadn’t made any money yet. I was more interested in WHY Facebook decided to acquire the popular service. More accurately, I’m intrigued by what the rise of photo sharing apps means to the future of communications. I happen to love Instagram and enjoy seeing the way people express their creativity. It also challenges me to try and find the visual narrative in any given situation. While there is certainly an overabundance of food photos, pet photos and pictures showing the view from an airplane with the wing featured prominently, I wonder how we will all tell our stories over the next few years. While Facebook and twitter allow for photo attachments, the updates that people post are largely text-based. Maybe it’s because of my background in creating television and video that I find visual storytelling more compelling, but I’m certainly not alone. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a picture passed through a saturation filter worth?

Do you use Instagram or some other photo sharing app? What do you find compelling about it?

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The Attack of the e-Reader

I may be a digital immigrant, but I fully support the customs, language and diet of this new digital country I find myself living in.

 

I get most of my news from blogs.

 

Most of my professional development comes via online sources.

 

I stay in touch with friends over the web.

 

I subscribe to about 20 different podcasts.

 

And about a year ago I got rid of my laptop in favor of an iPad.

When the first iPad came out, I couldn’t envision any viable use case for the way I lived my life. A fancy e-reader seemed like a nice toy, but I couldn’t see myself owning one. But a funny thing happened just prior to the release of the iPad2. I noticed that I was lugging my big laptop all across the country, but when I reached my destination, I found myself managing email (something done just as easily from my iPhone), scanning through my Google Reader and reading, reading, reading. As a long-time video producer, I would occasionally do presentations where I would need to bring my laptop to a meeting, but it was largely becoming a posture-killing appendage.

 

So I got an iPad, and ditched my laptop for good. So, what’s changed? Well, for starters I am no longer lugging a heavy laptop around, but, more importantly, I find I am reading more. Much more. The ease of sampling and buying books from the Kindle or iBooks store has exposed me to books that I might not have plunked down $25 for based on a review or a lengthy book store browse. I’m not alone.

 

According to a Pew Internet and American Life study, 20% of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the average e-book reader has read 24 books in the past year, compared with an average of 15 by a non-e-book consumer. (Here is a link to the study.)

 

Clearly, this is a trend line that will only continue rising over the next several years into the future. There is quite a bit of talk about the “post-PC” world that many who try and predict this sort of thing feel we’re moving towards. In a nutshell, this means that as mobile and cloud-based computing begins  to dominate, many of us will do away with our laptops and desktops because everything we need to do fits in our pocket. I’m going to call bull shit on that prediction, but it is undeniable that the future of computing is mobile. I just don’t feel like it’s such an all-or-nothing proposition. Mobile will undoubtedly continue to take an ever larger share of the pie, but as I have pointed out many times before, radio didn’t kill TV and the automobile did not kill the horse. I’ll leave the apocalyptic predictions to others. (As I write this post, this just came in regarding first quarter iPad sales. Truly mind-boggling that Apple sold 63% of all tablets sold worldwide in one quarter.)

 

So, if people are reading more and more and Apple (and others) are selling more and more devices that fit easily into your purse or bag, what’s the opportunity for you or your business? The barriers to publishing are low and the versatility of e-publications is only going to continue to improve. You can already seamlessly embed video, audio, photos, links, etc etc etc. into your publication, whether that publication is a standard book, or something more focused on your business, industry or organization.

 

 Maybe you want to take a second look at some of those old brochures, folders and presentations that never got the distribution you felt they deserved. 17 million iPads in three months. That’s a lot of eyeballs…

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