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For Better or for Worse

Today's the day for comments to be filed with the FCC on the National Broadband Plan Congress has asked the agency to prepare, and some of them are doozies. You can search them via the FCC's on-line system, entering 09-51 as the docket number. Some of the critical questions:

1. What's the goal and how do we measure it?

Cisco has some interesting comments to the effect that Quality of Service is as important as raw capacity. Sensible, even if you aren't in the video conferencing system. Others suggest a hard number, and others still a level of improvement year-over-year.

2. What about the non-discrimination rule?

This question raises the conflict between Open Access and restrictions on network management. If you believe that the primary rationale for the Plan is to promote innovation in the application space, it follows that you need some network innovation support to handle a diverse mix of QoS-dependent and non-dependent application, so the non-discrimination rule proposed by some activists is counter-productive.

3. Who owns the network?

Nobody really wants any level of government to own and control the Internet, except for activists who believe the phone companies to be so heinous in light of their history in the old monopoly days that they can't be trusted to get any of it right. As long as the Internet is a principal means of criticizing government action, I can't see turning it over to the except as as last resort. This is primarily an issue for Muni Fiber projects.

4. Where does the US rank in the world?

Not as high as we'd like, of course, but this is largely a matter of perspective. Highly urban nations like Iceland and Sweden have more broadband users per capita, but that's probably a matter of climate, culture, and options for entertainment. CTIA - The Wireless Association points out that the US is number 1 in wireless phone minutes (lowest cost per minute and most minutes per month) and 3G penetration. It appears that telecom has been investing more heavily in wireless than in fiber. 

5. What does the future hold in the way of challenges?

The Internet doesn't actually hold the promise of continuous improvement as it's currently structured, due to the problems we're going to see in edge routers due to route proliferation: there are currently some 280,000 Internet routes for edge routers to remember, but expect that to increase to the millions in the next few years. Moore's Law isn't going to bail us out forever, so we need to get to work on a scalable routing protocol.

Here are some links:



Richard Bennett (me)

Free Press



Innovation Policy Institute


Media Access Project



Twitter Gets a Conference All Its Own

Is there any better sign of the times than the fact that Jeff Pulver’s got a Twitter conference next week?

 Pulver is probably best known for his Voice on the Net (VON) conferences. He rode the voice-over-IP wagon long and hard, making a bundle along the way by playing a key role in the early days of Vonage, but he’s had other cool conferences as well, such as one in November 2005 he called “Peripheral Visionaries,” an “IP-Based Communications Summit” that brought together “technologists, innovators, entrepreneurs, analysts, academics and visionaries.”

At the time, Susan Crawford blogged about it under the heading “Very timely Pulver conference.” Crawford herself is a shining star and something of a zeitgeist figure—she’s the University of Michigan law professor who recently became Obama’s Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy. She was an ICANN director for four years, and I notice on Wikipedia that she’s also on the National Economic Council.

Pulver’s “140 Characters Conference,” as he calls it, is right here in Nework City, 16-17 June. I haven’t heard of most of the speakers, but that was true of the early VON conferences as well. One of those resulted in one of my favorite articles, Edholm's Law of Bandwidth, according to which telecommunications data rates are as predictable as Moore's Law.

Anyway, there are plenty of other signs of the Twitter Era. One of the more undercover—or should I say under-the-covers?—indications is the news that Twitter is all the rage in the adult entertainment community. In an article (“Life is Tweet”) that doesn’t seem to be online, Gia Jordan reports in the trade magazine AVN that “the porn industry is twittering—networking and marketing on the popular social networking site,” 

Over 1000 [Twitter users] are porn stars and adult industry professionals. They chat and network up to 50 times a day—not really to fans, but with each other. The popularity of Twitter among the industry has exceeded MySpace and Facebook due to its easy interface and instant gratification. “You have just a few lines. The simplicity lends itself to really seeing who someone is. There’s no time to embellish your identity with page designing, music, and glittery gifs,” explains adult performer/directot Kimberly Kane, who made her first tweet—meaning Twitter post—after her Live In My Secrets premiere party. A few weeks later, she tweeted a second time and discovered that she had gathered 100 followers.

Not surprisingly, the article title “Life Is Tweet” shows up several times on Google, the absent AVN article notwithstanding. The Guardian’s ho-hum take Life is tweet: How the Twitter family infiltrated our cultural world is typical—the lead concerns Twitter marriage proposals (yawn). The subhead is “The hottest microblogging service, Twitter, is changing the way TV, literature and media operate,” yet somehow it missed the way Twitter is changing the way the porn industry operates.

Is Twitter really changing the way anything operates? Maybe a little, but it’s not Napster, Flickr, or Facebook, three social networks that really have changed people’s daily lives. It’s not as significant as social recommendations, a phenomenon of lasting value that we’ve written about twice so far, in the abstract (<a People Who Read This Article Also Read...) and specifically about Netflix’s The Million Dollar Programming Prize).

Don’t get me wrong—microblogging is here to stay, and the ability to microblog on the go is a big deal too. But combining the Web and text messaging seems more kludgy than visionary. As the Internet cloud gets more robust, and phones become ever-more capable, we’ll be able to do this far more straightforwardly. I hope, though, we don’t lose the 140-character limitation along the way. Like many programming and artistic constraints, Twitter has turned an obstacle into a virtue. When it comes to “What are you doing right now?” less is definitely more.

Will A Monstrous Antenna Solve My DTV Reception Problem?

This time last year, in anticipation of what was then going to be a 17 February 2009 analog television shutdown, I installed two converter boxes, expecting that would take care of my household’s digital transition. I turned them on, scanned for channels, and got—absolutely nothing.

Fortunately, as a Spectrum editor, I’ve got all sorts of television experts in my address book. I called a few, and they quickly diagnosed my problem--the antenna on my roof was VHF-only, whereas the vast majority of digital TV stations are broadcast on UHF frequencies (yes, I did feel like an idiot). I sent my husband up onto the steep roof of our two-story house (be careful, honey) to replace the ancient VHF antenna with a new UHF antenna. I turned on the TV, scanned for channels, and got lots of foreign language stations, a bunch of kid channels (to my 10- year-old’s delight), but little or no reception of the primary television networks, broadcasting from San Francisco’s Sutro Tower.

I called my experts again and discovered that there are likely  contributing to my horrendous reception—too many splitters in the cables that run from my rooftop antenna through my house; trees, buildings, and hills wreaking havoc with the signal; and the fact that the digital transmitters are broadcasting from a temporary, suboptimal position and at reduced power until sometime after the transition are the most likely subjects.

I’m not going to rewire the house—the cabling was dropped into the walls during a remodel many years ago. I can’t do much about the geography, or speed up the renovation of Sutro Tower. I was discouraged, to say the least. But then the FCC postponed analog shutdown until 12 June; so I unplugged the converter boxes and went back to watching analog.

But once again, analog shutdown is imminent. And I refuse to give up and call the cable guys.


Using the information in Spectrum’s February article, “Antennas for the New Airwaves”, and two websites— and, I concluded that I needed the biggest, most powerful, VHF and UHF combination antenna I could find and afford. VHF and UHF because, it turns out that in the Bay Area, ABC is going to continue to broadcast on a VHF channel. Big, because, although I’m less than 50 km from the transmitters and these giant antennas are really designed for reception about 100 km or more away, it seemed like I needed all the signal I could get.

I ordered a Winegard HD8200U Platinum Series High Definition VHF/UHF TV Antenna from Amazon ($158.69), and my husband and I spent a recent weekend getting it on the roof. It was a two-day process—on Saturday afternoon, we assembled the monster in the back yard. Even though we had read the specs and knew the dimensions—4.3 meters by 2.8 meters—we were shocked by just how big it truly was. The instructions were cryptic at best; assembly took us a long time and involved several debates over what went where; some parts were hard to fit together; at some point assembly involved my bracing one part while my husband banged the other into place with a mallet. (This meant, of course, if this didn’t solve our problem we weren’t going to be able to exchange the antenna for a different one.)

On Sunday, my husband and my 17-year-old son went up on the roof (this monster was too big for one person to handle), me on the ground, biting my nails and yelling at my son to stay away from the edge of the roof. With the antenna solidly strapped to the chimney and them safely back on the ground, I went inside to scan for channels.

We lost the kid channel, but picked up a sports channel; my 10-year-old figures that’s a fair trade. We are now getting two networks—NBC and, most of the time, ABC. We are not getting CBS, the independent KRON (which I watch frequently for local news), or FOX. The latter could lead to family strife during American Idol season.

But it turns out that this is not the end of the story. We might just get these channels eventually without installing yet another antenna. Because the digital transition is not a one-day thing.

In the San Francisco Bay area, six stations went ahead and ended analog broadcasting on 17 February, the original shutdown date.

One June 12, most of the remaining stations will shutdown analog broadcasting sometime between 6 pm and midnight; a few will do it earlier that day, three will keep it going as what is called a Nightlight service, that is, a channel available to provide emergency information to folks who didn’t make the transition.

Sometime in the next day or so, ten stations will change the frequencies on which they transmit their digital signals, so anyone trying to watch digital TV will have to keep rescanning for new channels, and may find that they are receiving a different set of channels than they were just moments ago (I’m hoping for a bigger set). One station will actually move its transmitter from one town to another.

Then, sometime in the fall, 11 channels broadcasting out of San Francisco, including most of the networks, will get new, more powerful, and higher antennas. No one knows exactly when this will happen. The good news is that it will likely make my reception a lot better. The bad news is that, while the antenna work is being done, some of the stations will be temporarily broadcasting on even lower power antennas than they are today.

Whew. That’s my transition tale update for now. And I have to look back and laugh when I think about how naïve I was this time last year, when I thought all I needed to do was install a converter box.

Designing a Nanotech Material: It Takes a Long Time

I received some rather pointed criticism for my guest  editorial a couple of years back Material by Design: Future Science or Science Fiction? If the following video is any indication my "radical conservatism" may not have been misplaced.

In my editorial I suggested that the prospect of being able to design a material for a specific purpose is a rather long way off and that we are stuck with the 'hit or miss' iterative process that we use today for the foreseeable future.

This video shows that even the iterative process of trying to develop a material that can detect benzene can be a time consuming process and will take sudden and unexpected turns


CFP Meets in Washington

The 19th annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, underway in Washington, is partially viewable thanks to C-Span. This video includes opening keynote and the first two panels (click on the Flash icon upper right.)

Opening remarks are by law professor Susan Crawford, Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, with response and discussion by Declan McCullagh, CNET News Caroline Fredrickson, Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office Peter Swire, Ohio State University, Center for American Progress; former Chief Counselor for Privacy for US Government Moderator: Eric Lichtblau, New York Times

The next panel covers The Future of Security vs. Privacy, featuring Bruce Schneier, CSTO, BT Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies, CATO Institute Stewart Baker, former Assistant Secretary for Policy, DHS and former General Counsel, NSA Valerie Caproni, General Counsel, FBI Moderator: Ryan Singel,

The White House has officially muzzled Crawford, allowing her to deliver prepared remarks but not to answer questions or engage in discussion, no doubt due to her unfortunate tendency to describe the Internet as a "self-organizing network" that's nonetheless stupid about content and services. Consequently, the keynote is rather dull, focusing on the timeline for Open Government proposals and the usual platitudes about the power of the Blackberry and the wonder of Twitter.

McCullagh engages in a small bit of mild criticism of the government's failure to live up to its transparency promises, generally conveying the notion that we're coming to the end of the transition honeymoon period so things need to improve or the criticism will get a lot louder.

By far the most engaging part of the while video is Prof. Peter Swire's discussion of old and new privacy models. I alluded to this in my Congressional testimony on privacy back in April, but Swire's formulation is a lot more crisp. Traditionally, privacy advocates argued for data minimization, which is to say restrictions on the amount of data that can be collected by government and industry about us. This approach isn't really satisfactory as it's simply meant to protect personal information from spilling into the hands of malicious actors. The new paradigm comes from the Social Networks and the Web 2.0 crowd who use them. These folks see personal data as a form of empowerment, and simply want control over things like retention and mining. Swire's right, of course, that the Web 2.0 generation places very little emphasis on privacy until they go looking for jobs and have to face recruiters who've seen drunken pictures on their Facebook pages. That's when things start to get interesting.

Music Vest

The future of music arrived in 1985, and we all missed it.

I for one am tired of lugging my iPod around everywhere I go. I'm tired of the nuisance of headphones. Which is why I have just sent away for Music Vest. Not available in stores.



The New Look of IEEE Spectrum

As you've likely noticed by now, IEEE Spectrum has a new look. But the differences are more than cosmetic; we've also overhauled the content management system, which will make it easier for us to provide dynamic content throughout the site.

We've also tried to make it easier to discover new stories no matter where you are on the site. Let's say you're reading an article about whether it makes sense to send humans back to the moon. To the right of the article, you have access to the most popular content on the site that week, a few stories handpicked by our editors, and additional related content. We're even working on automatically linking to related content in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library (there are still some kinks, but we'll get it straightened out soon).

Which reminds me: please be patient as we continue to improve and fix glitches (those of you using Internet Explorer 6, I apologize for the layout problems plaguing that browser).

In the meantime, take a look around and explore the site. There are lots of changes.

We'd love to hear what you think. Feel free to leave your impressions and comments in the form below.

National Broadband Plan Comments Due

Comments are due Monday, June 8, at the FCC on the National Broadband Plan (NBP.) The Notice of Inquiry lists some 120 questions that the Commission would like filers to address, running the gamut from goals and benchmarks to open access to privacy to entrepreneerial activity to job creation. Anyone who compiles a list of so many questions clearly hasn't given much thought to the problem under discussion, so it's clear upon reading the NOI that we're many years away from a good NBP, although we may have some vague and probably counter-productive guidelines much sooner: the FCC is supposed to report a plan to Congress by next February. Bear in mind that it tool the US 20 years to convert from analog to digital TV, and we're not even there yet.

It strikes me that we'd be doing well if we had  a national dialog well underway by February on what a NBP would look like in terms of goals and measurements. The discussion up to this point has been dominated by weeping and wailing about the ranking of the US relative to countries where high-speed networks have been built with combinations of government subsidies and service restrictions. In Japan, for example, NTT was allowed to write off 100% of the costs of pulling fiber to the building (mostly apartments) as part of the deal that allowed it to private. Given the many demands on the federal treasury at the moment, that seems an unlikely path for the US. In South Korea, KT restricts the use of VoIP on its network to those who subscribe to its own service, to the dismay of American servicemen and women who want to use Vonage to phone home. Sweden and France have very low cost, government subsidized fiber networks, but only in the big cities.

And there's the question of what these rankings mean in a historical context. Will the massive investments that other countries have made in broadband networks be followed up by continuous service upgrades, or are they going down as one-time blips that will fail to live up to the hype? There's no way of knowing these things right now, although it is reasonably clear that the US is adding new fiber-to-the-home connections faster than any country except Japan (and even that's a bit uncertain, as the actual pattern there is fiber to the building and VDSL to the actual apartment.)   I'd like to see more fiber as much as the next guy, but I'm skeptical that the subsidy model is going to work very well in the US.

So it strikes me that the only questions worth answering in the FCC's laundry list are those that relate to goals and objectives. Rather than wringing our hands about where we stand compared to the rest of the world, we need to get very clear about WHY we want a national plan, more or less what applications we hope to enable with it, and how much taxpayer money we're willing to spend on it. Given those general outlines, we can begin to evaluate business and technology models so we can see what gives us the most bang for the buck.

I'd also like to know what people are doing with their super-fast broadband connections abroad. There's a suspiciously high correlation between the crappiness of local TV and broadband speed, so it may turn out that the value of fast broadband is mainly found in fast downloads of American TV shows and movies. If that's the case, a better broadband infrastructure in the US would simply duplicate the cable TV network and there's not much point in that unless you're an Internet advertiser.

But if it turns out that our overseas cousins are developing immersive gaming, telemedicine, and video-conferencing apps that enable new capabilities with massive social utility, I'll climb onboard the subsidy bandwagon.

As an engineer, I need the data before I make up my mind.

File your comments with the FCC's ECFS.

Is IBM Starting A New Nanotech Business Unit?

I have noticed a sudden rash of countries announcing new nanotechnology initiatives backed by IBM's expertise and know-how.


Upon my first recognition of this phenomenon, I wondered whether the fledgling nanotechnology initiative hadn't been a little bit overly hopeful in what IBM could do for them.


But if increased numbers of similar countries, such as Bulgaria and Egypt, doing the same thing are any indication that this is the right path to take in jump starting your national nanotechnology initiative than it appears I was off the mark in the first instance.


While IBM nurtures the nanotechnology dreams of countries around the world, even going so far as to "develop a services science university curriculum", back in the US the State of New York is wondering whether all the money they poured into IBM to lead it into being the Silicon Valley of nanotech may have been a waste of public funds.


It seems that there must be a profit in spreading your knowledge around and not focusing it to the benefit of one region. I feel a "I told you so" coming on.


Obama Makes It Official: Picks Bolden to Lead NASA

Over the weekend, Pres. Barack Obama made official what many space watchers had expected for months by nominating Charles Bolden to lead NASA.

The 62-year-old Bolden is a retired U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general who graduated from the United States Naval Academy (with a degree in electrical engineering) in 1968 and rose through the ranks from fighter pilot to test pilot to astronaut over a 35-year military career.

While assigned to NASA, Bolden served in several administrative roles before getting a chance to fly into orbit aboard the space shuttle in 1986. His first spaceflight came with mission STS-61C, piloting the Columbia in a successful deployment of a major communications satellite. Bolden followed up with stints as the pilot of STS-31 in 1990, in which the Discovery shuttle took the Hubble Space Telescope to its longstanding orbital destination, and the commander of Atlantis for STS-45 in 1992, which visited Spacelab for science studies, and of Discovery for STS-60 in 1994, which served as the historic first joint U.S./Russian shuttle mission.

Returning to the Marine Corps in 1994, Bolden served as the Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy and later the Commander of the Third Marine Air Wing at Miramar Air Station in California before retiring from active duty in 2003.

In a press release from the White House on Saturday, Pres. Obama announced that he intends to name Bolden as the next Administrator of NASA, following Michael Griffin, who retired in January, as well as to nominate NASA management expert Lori Garver as the new Deputy Administrator of NASA. Garver, 48, is a civilian who has previously served in a string of top space agency administrative posts.

Commenting on his choices for the top jobs at NASA, Pres. Obama said, "These talented individuals will help put NASA on course to boldly push the boundaries of science, aeronautics, and exploration in the 21st century and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program."

The news came as little surprise to those who cover the American space program. Writing in January on the management flux facing NASA following the election of a new commander-in-chief (please see Status of NASA Administrator Grows More Tenuous by the Day), this reporter noted that Bolden was the clear frontrunner for the leadership position, with Garver and others providing competition.

Upon hearing the news, former administrator Griffin commented: "Gen. Bolden is not only a longtime friend and colleague, he is someone who has devoted most of his life to the service of his country. NASA will be in good hands."

Ironically, Bolden, a native of Columbia, S.C., almost never got the opportunity to rise to the top of American aeronautics because of his ethnicity. As a young black man in South Carolina, the representatives to Congress from his state refused to nominate him for admission to the Naval Academy during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, he sought an appointment to Annapolis from a different state representative and won it.

Bolden is married to the former Alexis "Jackie" Walker of South Carolina and has two grown children.

The White House has not announced when his nomination as the twelfth NASA administrator will be sent to Congress for approval.


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