Monday, September 22, 2008

DLNA + Power Line?

I seem to answer one question per calendar quarter on LinkedIn; today appears to be the day for this quarter's answer. Find the question and the response here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Is the Bullshit of the Month Award Back?

I haven't given out the Bullshit of the Month award since early this year, as organizations seem to have focused on more important things than bogus press releases and disingenuous comments. You know, items like a global financial meltdown and the pending U.S. election--the former caused by bullshit, the latter a huge producer thereof.

But, I woke up this morning to a story in Crain's Chicago Business that set off the BS meter. In a nutshell, the hullabaloo is that public access channels (PEGs, for Public, Education, and Government) on the AT&T U-Verse IPTV system are grouped under a single program guide channel (99). According to Greg Hinz's article, viewers who want to watch a PEG have to navigate first to channel 99, then to a menu of PEGs. This is a big departure from the way things work on traditional cable systems, where the PEGs show up as standard channels in the program guide, leaving some number of viewers up in arms. A quasi-government group has claimed that for AT&T to make the PEGs look like regular channels, it'd cost $200k per channel. That's not per metropolitan area or headend. That's per channel. And that's mind-boggling.

Now, if you know me, you know that I'd rather watch ESPN Classic Deportes 6 than watch most PEG content. As Hinz notes, satellite providers don't have to carry PEG channels; as a DirecTV subscriber, I remain blissfully unaware of the activities of both my city council and my local high school sports teams. Even if PEGs were available to me, I'd turn them off on my program guide, just as I do other channels that don't interest me. But, back in Chicagoland, The Folks watch my alma mater's football and baseball games on a (Comcast) PEG channel, even if they've been to the game. They'll even TiVo them occasionally, which certainly gives me pause.

Pun intended.

But, I'm having trouble grokking how putting up a PEG channel can cost $200k. Sure, there's the burden of encoders and ingestion and transport and grooming and lots of other shtuff in the IPTV delivery chain. Plus, AT&T's not exactly a small company, so I wouldn't be surprised if lots of those unlocked iPhones floating around China and Russia are being amortized by the TV guys.

The article quotes the executive director of one of affected PEG channels as saying that AT&T could rejigger their system to allow PEG channels to appear inline in the program guide, which is the status quo on traditional (QAM-delivered) Chicago cable systems. On the other hand, the Congressional Research Service issued a report yesterday that makes the $200k per channel claim; extrapolated to the entire Chicago area, that's $40 million alone. Frankly, maybe both sides are right. I don't know how many markets U-Verse has launched in, but at tens of millions of dollars per DMA to add PEGs, that's a dealbreaker. I'm not entirely certain I trust the CRS, due to their almost total lack of transparency, despite being a publicly-funded think tank. These aren't black programs, for Pete's sake. AT&T quotes yesterday's CRS report, but like so many things CRS, the report isn't publicly available; AT&T could do themselves a huge PR favor by making the CRS report available for broad public distribution. Since OpenCRS doesn't have their hands on it yet, I can't actually determine how CRS arrived at this $200k number.

Here's what I can't get my arms around. IPTV is a terribly flexible system...arguably, way more flexible than traditional QAM-delivered cable systems. In theory, IPTV systems can deliver an unlimited number of channels to a user, since the user is simply tuning to a multicast stream, rather than needing access to an entire broadcast program tier over a (let's say) 860 MHz QAM plant, which is restricted by available bandwidth. Cable's migration from analog to digital has allowed a multi-fold increase in terms of the number of channels which can be squashed into this limited number of 6 MHz slots; of course, the evolution from standard definition to high definition has given back some of that benefit, but the world's still a better place now.

The question becomes, is AT&T's architecture not flexible enough to allow additional channels into the program guide? Is the program guide real estate too valuable to allow slots to be cluttered up with PEG channels? I'm sure I'm gonna annoy the PEG crowd with this statement, but I don't see PEG viewers driving the type of CPMs AT&T's ad sales team is looking for, so maybe that's a contributing factor to the $200k per channel number.

Maybe it's not AT&T's fault at all. I left Microsoft's TV group a whole bunch of years ago, so I'm not sure what their platform capabilities are these days, but I guess it's possible that the Microsoft TV platform on which U-Verse is based isn't capable of easily doing add/drop of PEG channels. Heck, who knows. I do know that I've seen DLNA program guide demos which seamlessly integrate broadcast television, video-on-demand, IP video (e.g., YouTube) and in-home content (from a PC or network-attached storage device) into a single user interface, so it's at least possible to prototype, if not actually deliver today.

Maybe this is all the FCC's fault, on multiple levels. I'm sure that the cable guys would love to not be carrying PEG channels today, just as the satellite guys aren't; but, the FCC requires cable to carry PEG, while satellite isn't mandated to--and with no mandate, there's no reason to burn the transponder space. You can argue (fruitlessly) all day about the franchise rights of IPTV carriers vs. cable vs. satellite vs. Verizon FiOS, which is a QAM-IPTV hybrid. And, based on where you stand in terms of PEG carriage, NFL Sunday Ticket or MLB Extra Innings carriage, net neutrality, et.al., you likely have an opinion on must-carry. You may've even expressed that opinion to the FCC. Maybe you even want a la carte pricing--which to me is a crock, but that's a discussion for another time.

Here's another statement that'll come across as heretical to the PEG crowd, but I'm throwing it out there--maybe the time for local must-carry has simply passed, and the FCC needs to throw out the mandate altogether. Would I advocate that? No way--while I might be apathetic about the content available on PEG, I know how passionately lots of folks are when it comes to being able to view their local content. I'm also not naive enough to believe (as do many friends and colleagues here in Silicon Valley) that this type of content should be solely delivered over the Internet. First, the computer is the wrong venue for public access television; having it available on-demand from the Internet is great, but I really think that PEG content is TV content. Second, the audience for this type type of content may not own a computer, have broadband access, or both, but I do think it's a fair trade-off to require public service providers to have to make content available on TV in exchange for local franchise rights. Finally, public interest content is intended to be available to all. The problem is, the FCC mandate requiring cable, but not satellite, to carry PEGs already provides one massive exception, so maybe AT&T is to be congratulated for providing any type of PEG carriage at all, despite the fact that it's not easy to find and impossible to record. I simply don't know.

Heck, maybe I'm not even calling bullshit on AT&T. Maybe I'm just calling bullshit on the Congressional Research Service for that $200k per channel figure. Am I the only one that finds ironic the alternate meaning for their acronym, CRS?

Can't remember shit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sure, Bandwidth Caps Suck. But…

Outside of perhaps Comcast’s shareholders and employees, I can’t imagine that anyone’s happy about the recently-instituted 250 gigabyte per month bandwidth cap. But, I gotta tell ya, I understand where they’re coming from.

Here’s an analogy for you. Ever been on an airplane? Ever sat next to a “person of size”? Did you wish that person had purchased an extra seat so you weren’t having your space invaded? Or, have you ever had to sit with your legs so tightly jammed against the seat in front of you that you thought you’d die of DVT before landing?

Somewhere along the line, maybe you’ve paid extra to reserve a premium seat, giving you more legroom and/or shoulder room, as well as better service. Last week was a pretty good example. On my United flight from ORD to SFO, I purchased the cheapest possible economy ticket. If I’d been stuck in a standard UA economy seat, I’d’ve been bummin’, as United’s standard seat pitch is fiscally responsible (for them) but physically uncomfortable (for most fliers). Fortunately, over the years, I’ve earned the right to move into a better seat in Economy Plus (E+), providing an extra 4-6 inches of legroom, which makes a massive difference in comfort and productivity. Flying enough BIS (butt-in-seat) miles affords me Economy Plus access whenever I’m on United, but E+ is also a purchase option for those who want a little more legroom but haven’t flown enough to have earned the right to move forward. In this case, paying extra gets you a little more.

The morning of my flight, my upgrade request cleared, enabling me to move up to first class on that particular two-class airplane. If I’d chosen to leave 90 minutes earlier, I’d’ve moved up to business class on a three-class airplane. In either case, some portion of the folks in the forward cabin/s paid more for their tickets to ensure that they’d receive the best seats and service on the airplane. Again, pay more, get more. Other folks paid for upgrades, allowing them to move up for less than the cost of a revenue first/business class ticket. Still others (of whom I was one) burned upgrades earned by flying so many BIS miles. Regardless of how the two dozen of us in that particular first class cabin moved up, we were all up there by choice (no op-ups, with about a dozen opens in the back). And, regardless of what we paid, we all received the benefit of extra leg and shoulder room, as well as a better passenger service ratio.

Frankly, I don’t see the implementation of bandwidth caps being any different.

Airlines have a finite amount of capacity on a given airplane; they need to monetize that capacity in the best way possible. If having two people of size in a three-person row prevents a third person from sitting reasonably in that row’s third seat (leading to the airline’s inability to provide customer #3 the seat and space for which they’ve paid), that’s a problem, which has led most airlines to create policies governing people of size. Anyone, regardless of size, can choose to purchase a ticket providing additional room on most airlines; on airlines without premium cabins (e.g., Southwest), you can purchase two tickets to ensure sufficient space. Because, after all, that’s what airlines are really selling--space to get you from point A to point B. You can pay more, you can pay less, you can redeem miles for different classes of service. Options abound. But, net-net, you’re buying space to take you from one location to another.

Well, guess what? Just like an airplane only has so many seats, service provider pipes only have so much capacity--and spare me any discussion about DWDM and lambdas and such. Service providers are trying to run a business, too. Yes, we’re all yearning for more bandwidth to do whatever it is we do on the Internet. And, we’ve now reached the point that we’re gonna have to start paying for that bandwidth, in fashion little different from classes of service on an airplane.

Am I sticking up for Comcast? Hardly. But, a monthly 250 GB cap is a pretty hefty amount of traffic for today’s Internet use. Using up 8 gigabytes a day is a whole lot of Internet surfing and e-mail.

What’s that, you say? People are doing more than just web surfing and e-mailing on the Internet these days?

Uh, right.

Here's the challenge--Comcast has stated that today, fewer than 1% of their user base approaches the 250 GB per month number. My parents are unlikely to hit that number anytime soon, maybe ever. Me? Heck, I could hit that number next month if I wanted to, but I don't currently have a compelling application to do so. I mean, I'd have to keep my AT&T ADSL line darn-near saturated; at the average speeds I get (1.2 mb/s down, 300 kb/s up), I might end up melting the copper to get to 250 GB in a month, but I could do it.

The question is, how? Well, I certainly know of people who've dedicated one of their home PCs to do nothing but run a torrent client 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So, yes, they're the people who're in that 1%. Some/many of those 1% are downloading movies encoded in high definition video formats; I recently watched an HD movie being served from a network-attached storage device over a wireless home network at a colleague's house, and I gotta tell ya, it was awesome--serious geek envy, particularly since the double-whammy of living in a Faraday Cage in RF-saturated Mountain View makes even basic 802.11 connectivity at our home less than reliable. If my colleague would have downloaded that 8 gigabyte file over an Internet connection, he would've wiped out his day's Comcast Internet allotment with a single movie.

Which sucks.

But, again, I understand that Comcast is trying to balance a given amount of resource for a given price. Not to use the old parental adage of one bad apple spoiling the bunch, but the 99% of folks who aren't using 250 GB of traffic aren't the issue here.

Now, lest you think I've lost my mind and am defending the implementation of bandwidth caps, here are a couple of other thoughts.

First, a 250 GB cap is actually a pretty darned good number to start with. Time Warner is testing a 40 GB cap on their high-end ($55/month) offering. If you think you're gonna hate 250 GB per month, you'd really hate 15% of that. You'd also hate the much-lower-than-250 GB limit from Rogers, Bell Canada, Frontier, and lots of other providers who've implemented caps.

So, in my mind, the issue isn't, how do we vilify Comcast (or other providers who've instituted caps)? The issue is, how can we figure out a mechanism to allow those who want a huge (or unlimited) amount of access to actually pay for it, while not unfairly burdening the 90% or more of people who aren't what one might politely call "bandwidth hogs"?

Again, with today’s Internet, my parents aren't going to come near a 250 GB monthly cap, nor will I; those who want to consume that kind of bandwidth simply need to pay accordingly. If you’re in the top 1% of those consuming bandwidth, you’re gonna have to buy a first class ticket for all that leg and shoulder room, Dom Perignon, and caviar.

But, what happens when we start to see more HD video coming in over the Internet? A few hours a day of Internet-delivered HD video will destroy a 40 GB per month cap. A few more hours will wipe out that 250 GB cap.

Heck, I can't wait till the day that I can sit in the living room watching my network-attached TV; browse a program guide showing me offerings on my local set-top box, home network-attached storage devices, and broadcast/Internet video; and fire up those video/audio/photo offerings instantaneously, no matter where the content originates. This is the promise of DLNA, the promise of the connected home, the promise of over-the-top HD video delivered via the Internet, you name it. I've seen demos of this type of integrated guide from folks like Macrovision, and I want it. Now.

At that point, hell yes, I'm going to use 8 GB a day of traffic. On any given Sunday, I could envision chewing up 30-50 GB of traffic simultaneously watching multiple channels of baseball or football all day.

If The Wife would let me, of course. Now, where the hell did she hide the remote?

Last night, as I was goofing around with my Verismo PoD, I was pondering how much video I might consume given the opportunity to seamlessly blend a traditional TV viewing experience with the immediacy of watching anything I wanted over the Internet. Sure, video-on-demand has been around for years, but your provider has to have the content you want on their network for you to (reasonably seamlessly) access it--the flip side being that provider VOD comes with the dual benefit of A) not counting against your bandwidth cap, and B) not infringing on any network neutrality issues.

Looking at a different form of video-on-demand, Apple TV has been out for more than a year; the latest instantiation allows you to not just watch Internet video (and enjoy your own content), but also pay to watch movies over the Internet. The Netflix Roku box takes things one step further, not from a capabilities standpoint per se, but because the box only costs $99, making it an impulse purchase for many households.

The Apple and Netflix boxes are particularly interesting in an age of bandwidth caps. By bringing the promise of premium content into the home at a moment’s notice, they all but guarantee additional consumption of content from, and revenue for, Hollywood studios. I haven’t seen concrete numbers on incremental consumption for those Netflix customers who have a Roku box versus those who don’t, but it’s a safe guess that those who have the box are watching more movies, while generating more money for Netflix and the studios--and eating up more bandwidth per month, leading to an interesting future promotion, "three bucks for a movie and a three gig rebate". Or something like that.

Moving forward, does this presage a world where users are hitting their bandwidth caps every month due to consumption of IP video, either via file download or real-time streaming? Great question, particularly in light of announcements just in the last two weeks—Amazon allowing video downloads with just a web browser, Comcast’s addition of downloading to its previous streaming-only Fancast service, Korea moving away from DVDs as a format in favor of downloaded content, and lots more.

Let’s face it...we’re moving to a world where much of the content we consume is becoming virtualized--either the content itself, the experience, or both. Virtualization is the hot thing in enterprise computing, to enable more efficient use of resources; lots of us also use VM software to enable us to run multiple operating systems on a single personal computer, too. How else would I play Vista Spider Solitaire on my Macbook?

Content consumption is little different. I don’t recall hearing anyone describe the Roku box as a “virtual Netflix DVD”, but in effect, that’s what the experience delivers. In exchange for $99, you get the (admittedly limited selection of) content immediately, without the hassle of little red envelopes and the latency of the postal service—or the need to even own a DVD player. A few years ago, the idea of “virtualized movies” over the Internet was a pipe dream (pun intended). Now, I look at a capability like this and say, sure, this could be in every broadband home in a few years. What’s next? Virtualized high definition broadcast TV, where you don’t need an HD service provider? Virtualized real-time gaming, where you don’t even need to own a console? Heck, if you can dream it, somebody will figure out a way to do it. All you’ll need is a TV and a decent-sized low-latency Internet connection.

HOWEVER…

Bandwidth caps are going to severely limit the ability for broad consumption of many of these new applications. Does this “limit innovation”, as a number of folks have said? No, not at all. Innovators innovate. These transient speed bumps are nothing more than that--innovators figure out how to evade or avoid them. Those who are stopped by speed bumps aren’t innovators. Plus, they’ve probably chopped their cars a little too much.

But, is it fair to say that bandwidth caps can limit applicability and adoption? Yeah, definitely.

So, what’s the solution here? I believe that we’re destined for at least a few years of tiered service offerings that closely resemble your choices in airline travel. Lots of households (e.g., my parents) will choose a basic plan, with a relatively low cap at relatively low prices. That’s relatively no frills economy class, a la Southwest (although that’s not intended to be a knock on Southwest, whom I believe is now the best U.S. carrier, all things considered). Some folks will choose a premium economy class, providing either bigger pipes, a higher bandwidth cap, or both. Service providers who offer triple- or quad-play are in the catbird seat in this category. I could certainly envision a provider offering customers a higher cap or bigger pipe if you also take their digital phone service, television offering, or mobile offering. The analogy? United’s Economy Plus.

For those who want/need the next level up, we move up to the realm of business class service. Think Virgin’s Upper Class--a service head and shoulders above economy, and considered to be well above the competition’s, too. We’re talking quite a bit more money, with quite a bit more benefit. That benefit might come as a result of simply paying more, or you might receive it by buying the full triple-play bundle from your provider—the latter resembling the use of an earned upgrade to get you into business class.

The piece de resistance ends up being first class on a true luxury basis, a la Emirates or Singapore Airlines. For an enormous, massive, ludicrous premium over other classes of service, international first class passengers receive the absolute best possible service an airline can provide. Similarly, the first class offering for service providers would be a big pipe (think 50+ mb/s, via a fiber or DOCSIS 3.0 link) and no bandwidth cap. At that point, the top 1% of traffickers would be paying their own freight, while staying the heck out of the way of everyone else. For the price, first class passengers get a limo ride to the airport, separate check-in and lounge areas, a personal concierge to walk them to the airplane, the utmost level of service on the flight, a shower on the other end, and a whole bunch more--for 20-50x (or more) the price of a coach ticket.

Do I think that a service provider's ultra-premium bandwidth offering will cost 20-50x that of basic service? No, not at all. But, I think it's entirely reasonable for a standard (economy) rate to be ~$25 a month, with tier 2 (premium economy) at ~$50 a month, tier 3 (business) at ~$80 a month, and tier 4 (first) at $200 a month, at least in the U.S. Charging much more guarantees that the U.S. will continue to end up towards the bottom of the top 20 in terms of broadband value. But, not doing anything will continue to have the few screwing up the party for the many. I certainly envy the Japanese, who can get a 100 mb/s link into the home for ~$30 a month, and yearn for the day where we might see a similar offering here.

Two final thoughts to keep in mind.

One, Moore's Law will continue to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, network gear is going to continue to wring the most possible bandwidth out of a given medium, whether it's fiber or copper. That's great for consumers and providers. The flip side is that all that computing power in the home and accessible via the network is going to continue to put greater and greater demands on the network itself. It's an endless cycle--nature abhors a vacuum.

Two, a simple pendulum will always search for equilibrium. That's in effect what's happening here. Think of bandwidth caps as gravity, an attempt to bring the highest 1% of traffic (ab)users down to earth and into equilibrium. In air, a physical pendulum is affected by atmospheric and mechanical forces--which is precisely what bandwidth caps are.

A drag.


(Full disclosure: I have a consulting relationship with a company in which Comcast has invested; these opinions are solely my own, and in no way necessarily reflect those of my customer or of Comcast)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Google Backtrack, and an Interesting Coincidence

Old news by now, but within an hour or so of my post yesterday (and entirely coincidentally, lest I think I have any influence whatsoever anywhere in the world), Google put out a statement that they were going to be pulling back on their Chrome EULA. What I still don't understand is who the megalomaniacal lawyer/s were that thought this was ever a good idea in the first place. This doesn't strike me as a case of accidentally re-purposing one EULA to another.

I mean, this isn't a rarely used application that prints certificates for Cubs World Series attendees. It's a friggin' browser, for Pete's sake. We've all seen way too many cases where Legal and PR don't get together up front, and end up having to endure a firestorm on the back end. But, this is a rare hiccup for Google Legal, one which the PR team is gonna have a tough time erasing anytime soon. The good news for them is that most of the world A) doesn't read EULAs; B) doesn't care about EULAs; and C) lives outside of the geek realm y'all and I live in and probably hasn't even heard about this, so impact is relatively limited.

And now, the interesting coincidence.

As you likely know, Google Alerts is an awesome clipping service. Alerts are typically in my inbox within 15-30 minutes of something hitting the Internet--not just the wire, but generally anywhere on the Internet. That's awesome. I have an alert set up for "mike coop", with my name in quotes to ensure that when my name shows up, I get a ping. This obviously wouldn't work if my name was John Smith, but having a fairly unique name makes it easy to A) ensure that my blog entries have properly posted; B) keep an eye on anyone referring to me, more of a precautionary measure than anything else; and C) see what my fellow Mike Coops are up to, whether we're talking the race car driver, the alderman, or others.

When I post a new item on my blog (hosted by Blogger, who's owned by Google), I typically receive a Google Alert within a half-hour. Yesterday's post on Chrome? Nada. No alert whatsoever. Kind of interesting.

Somewhere, Oliver Stone is nodding.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Google Chrome Review in One Word: EVIL

I was intrigued by Monday's news that Google would be releasing a browser yesterday. While I used both IE and Firefox regularly in my Windows days, I'm exclusively using Safari now that I'm back on a Mac. Safari isn't perfect, but I really don't need more than one browser. Since Chrome is currently available only on the Windows platform, I couldn't give it a shot on OS X, so I cranked up my Fusion Vista virtual machine and installed Chrome.

That's as far as I got.

I'm the rare person who occasionally reads the End User License Agreement, just to ensure that organizations aren't sneaking in anything nefarious--surrender of first-born, follow-on goat hexes on the Cubs, etc. The Chrome EULA is about as scary as anything I've ever read. Here's the part which should chap your ass:

11. Content license from you

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

11.2 You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

11.3 You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.

11.4 You confirm and warrant to Google that you have all the rights, power and authority necessary to grant the above license.

Seriously? I mean, seriously? I'm sure I've violated some kind of law just by copying and pasting this text here onto my (Google-hosted) blog. But, c'mon. I get to retain my copyright to stuff I already own (mighty magnanimous of you), but Google gets to pervert it any other way possible? This EULA makes Mapplethorpe's stuff look pedestrian.

Let me get this straight. If I have a photo of someone in Picasa, a photo I took, just by viewing it in Chrome, you Mr. Google receive a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. (emphasis mine)

Seriously?

Sure, section 9.4 of the EULA claims that Google has no right/title/interest and/or no IPR to your stuff. And, sure, if it's on the Internet, people can get to it. But having content on the Internet is one thing. Google stepping up and giving themselves the right to pervert that content just because you viewed it in their browser is something else altogether.

I printed the EULA to PDF while I was installing Chrome, but didn't actually read it until after I'd installed and launched the application. Luckily, I hadn't done anything but fire up the app before getting into the EULA idiocy. I immediately deleted Chrome, scrubbed my registry, contemplated throwing away the entire virtual machine (but chose to only roll back to a snapshot), and wondered which of the Sony rootkit genius lawyers Google had hired to advise them on this EULA.

Then I took a hot shower, just for good measure.

I really, really like Google, but I like them less than I did yesterday. I host my blog with Google, I use Google Apps for Your Domain, I use Picasa, yadda, yadda, yadda. I've contemplated paying for Google Apps Premier, just for good measure.

But, whatever happened to "Don't Be Evil"?

Seriously.