Friday, March 28, 2008

BitTorrent and Comcast agree to collaborate in developing fair capacity management

Comcast and BitTorrent have agreed to work together on the issue of fair capacity planning and management, given the changing nature of Internet traffic with the increased use of video, including user-generated content, and (legal) downloading of feature films from services like Netflix, as well as an increase in legal (copyright approved) file-sharing P2P services. The buzzword is a "protocol agnostic" technique.

The BitTorrent press release is titled: "Comcast and BitTorrent Form Collaboration to Address Network Management, Network Architecture and Content Distribution," and the link is here.

Yahoo! also has a story and Press Release here.

It could supposed that this collaboration is intended to ward off regulatory attempts in Congress, even as these seem well-intention and moderate now to most people.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Verizon says cable companies make switch to FIOS disruptive and cumbersome

Verizon, which has been aggressively promoting fiber optic cable, Internet and phone in many neighborhoods, is claiming that existing cable companies often cause roadblocks, causing cumbersome cancellation procedures that can leave potential subscribers with no service at all for some number of days until they can get reconnected. This obviously would not be acceptable to many people contemplating a change. Verizon wants the right to disconnect existing cable service at the request of the customer at the time it connects its own. It has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to perform these kinds of disconnection.

The story by Cecilia Kang is “Verizon asks FCC to help ease switches from cable,” page D02 in the Business Section, The Washington Post, March 27, 2008, link here.
Obviously, this is a customer service issue that can have a major effect both on consumers and on small home-based businesses that would use a broadband service

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Besides network neutrality, think about customer service

Last night (March 25) ABC Nightline had a short segment on “consumer vigilantes” (link is here; you have to pick the video out of a list), including one elderly Virginia woman who got arrested when she went into a Comcast office and vandalized it in front of employees to complain about customer service. (Yes, the police came.)

One of the big concerns about the mergers and quasi-monopoly (or monopolistic competition) among the big telecommunications companies, driven by fiduciary concerns from Wall Street for the bottom line, is the reduction in customer service. Much more of it is “self-help,” there are delays in getting repairs, and sometimes customer service agents in call centers don’t give advice specific to a problem. This is true in ISP’s, too, where often call center respondents don’t know enough of the specifics about how a set of servers interrelate to understand a problem; they have to “escalate” and the consumer waits. Efficient customer service can be, in practice, as important a consideration as the actual broadband policy as it affects different classes of customers in some “anti-neutrality” algorithm.

With cable TV, one problem is intermittent drop-outs. Often, call center agents do not have reports on these and will ask the homeowner to try various experiments, when the problem really is area wide (like a signal-noise problem). It is true, that sometimes when a high speed internet connection intermittently fails, unplugging the cable modem, waiting one minute (for the smart circuit to time out) and replugging and rebooting it fixes it or make it more stable. Sometimes this works, and sometimes splitters even inside homes deteriorate and have to be replaced.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

ISPs having trouble keeping low-cost wireless available; checking broadband services before household moves

Hopes for providing free or low-cost wireless Internet service in low-income areas seem to be receding as some ISP’s have pulled out, finding it not profitable to stay in. Ian Urbina has a story in the March 22, 2008 New York Times, “Hopes for wireless cities fade as Internet providers pull out,” p A1, link here.

The story relates problems with Earthlink in Philadelphia. Some rural areas may not be able to get coverage. On the other hand, some cities like Minneapolis have innovative solutions to this problem, offering ISPs a threshold amount of business with city offices.

In my own circumstances, my laptop tells me that a wireless connection is available, from Verizon Customer ID. However, this particular service requires an ID and a subscription fee, which varies with the amount of geographical area covered.

In airports, my laptop has varying results. The Columbus, Ohio airport has great coverage, but Baltimore BWI did not the last time I was there. On the road with a car, results vary from one location to the next. Many motels have wireless, which sometimes is not working.

The Real Estate section of the March 22 Washington Post has an article by Gabe Goldberg, “Moving in a Wired World: Tips to get connected quickly in your new home.” The link is here.
The article suggests checking Broadbandreports before moving (a household), or even before agreeing on the purchase of a home / condo or signing a lease to make sure of what will be available. Most apartment buildings and condos have arrangements with existing providers that may preclude other land-wired providers. Wireless may or may not work well in a particular building, or may work in a neighborhood care nearby. The site has a “find service” link by zip code with details as to local ISPs. I've noticed in free apartment digests (common at health spas and in shopping centers) that not all buildings list cable-ready availability. Most larger ISPs have websites from which people can continue receiving email even if they no longer use that ISP as the telecommunications providers, but if one’s email provider does not do this, it is a consideration.

Up to about 2000 or 2001, having broadband was not as critical. In fact, for the first couple of years that it was offered, it was often unreliable, with long outages. Most applications, emails, and even personal publishing facilities worked satisfactorily on 56K modems with dialups on a land phone line (often a second line on the same jack, which was then a popular arrangement). I found I could publish text with WS-FTP or FrontPage satisfactorily by 56K. However, since 2003 or 2004, broadband has become essential because most computers need regular large security updates (from Microsoft, starting with Service Pack 2, and from anti-virus providers like McAfee), in order to remain safe (with firewalls) when connected to the Internet. Furthermore, bandwidth requirements for publishing video and images (as is common on social networking sites and sophisticated blogs) are greater than they were a few years ago when personal publishing was less “social” in nature. ISPs have generally greatly increased bandwidth availability for a given price, but the economics of this now could deteriorate in a declining dollar market and due to other recent market forces, unless there is serious attention to telecommunications policy, which is why “network neutrality” is such a hotly debated and elusive issue.

Still another issue is satellite Internet and DirectTV, which may not work reliably everywhere, and may not be allowed (as on balconies) in some buildings. However, in many locations, DirectTV ("The Dish") offers more channels and shows (like NBC's previous soap "Passions") than do some conventional cable services in many areas. Keeping it working, as during storms, may challenge the handiness of some homeowners.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Verizon to offer device interchangeability by June

Crayton Harrison has an important story on p D3 Business of the March 20, 2008 Washington Post, "Verizon Works to Let Other Devices on Network," link here. Verizon will allow any company's phones to access its network as long as the products meet certain reasonable guidelines. Products will be certified by June 2008.

AT&T also allows "alien" phones on its network, but Sprint, Nextel and Alltel have not yet imitated.

About 80% of the US population now has cell phones.

Device interchangeability will help achieve some of the practical goals of network neutrality.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Cloud computing; fear of Internet traffic jams soon

A couple more wrinkles run along the track with the net neutrality debate.

One of them is a concept called "cloud computing" where data is arranged in huge centers and networked in various relationships, and then accessed from any kind of device, with mobile devices becoming more important. Blogger has been promoting mobile blogging. An acquisition of a small company called Pi started the debate. One is reminded of the little indie black-and-white movie Pi (1998) from Darren Aronofsky. The New York Times story by Steve Lohr from Feb. 25 is here.

But a more urgent story appeared today (March 13) "Video Road Hogs Stir Fear of Internet Traffic Jam," on the front page of The New York Times, by Steve Lohr, link here.
The article notes that YouTube used as much bandwidth last year as the entire Internet in 2000, and that Internet efficiency varies widely from country to country and area to area because There is talk of a bandwidth squeeze by 2011. But it will occur gradually, not with a sudden breakdown.

One of the questions underlying the "net neutrality" debate is the way companies in the Internet "ecosystem" have to fine tune their investment in various kinds of instrumentalities, given the unpredictability of consumer tastes. Mobile videoconferencing and conversation with video from business may take up much of the bandwidth.

Cable and high speed Internet companies have to deal with the growth in consumer demand to watch movies and larger videos over the Internet, which has sometimes led to a few customers being cut off for excessive use. Clear pricing policies will be needed, and the possibility of future regulation complicates them, although the bills before Congress now appear somewhat reasonable.

Friday, March 07, 2008

NY State, FCC look down harder on ISPs' management of broadband usage

The New York State Attorney General has subpoenaed Comcast to provide information on how it manages incidental customer overuse on its high speed broadband Internet services. Comcast has said that some management is necessary to prevent degradation of service and response time to customers with more ordinary data transfer volumes. The story is on AP Feb 27, 2008 "NY AG Subpoenas Comcast on Broadband," here.

Other companies often encourage home users to download lots of material. Netflix now offers subscribers some movies for direct play, and when I tried to use it last summer, it stalled after a half hour. Software companies use downloads; it takes over an hour to download Microsoft Visual Studio Express on a broadband connection.

Also, on Feb. 25, the FCC said that it would regulate ISP's who are overzealous in manipulating various streams of data traffic. The story by Mark Jewell is "FCC Ready to Curb ISP Traffic Management," link here.

Of course, BitTorrent provides the source of a lot of political tension over this whole issue.