Sunday, April 27, 2014

Neutrality? What Neutrality?

When all is not what it seems ...

There's quite a buzz going around about net neutrality, so much so that it feels like my head is going around in a buzz. In the end I've come around to quite a different position than where I started out. Allow me to explain.

In a nutshell, the problem arose because Internet Service Providers like Comcast and AT&T became concerned about the amount of bandwidth being consumed by their customers to stream data from Content Providers like Netflix and Youtube. In the merry old wild-West days of the Internet this was not a problem, because, well, let's face it, dialup modems were not up to dealing with songs, let alone HD movies (which did not exist yet).

But now we're in the age of high-speed always-on connections, and soon will make the leap into superfast fiber optic connections. Increasingly this puts the ISPs in the position of providing a free transport mechanism for anyone with a digital product to distribute. To be clear, the transport mechanism is being paid for by the consumer (us) on the receiving end, and in many cases the content is also being paid for by the consumer. So what's their beef?

Depending on your point of view, the issue is either clarified or muddied by the fact that the ISPs "like" Comcast and AT&T are also content providers, so what they're really uncomfortable about is having to provide the highway for their competitor's trucks to deliver on while the money for the product goes to someone other than them. So you can understand their concern. Their poor shareholders are being deprived of an even bigger piece of the pie because of some stupid rule left over from the dark ages.

That rule is the "net neutrality" policy that began as a sort of gentleman's agreement between all the carriers that they would treat all traffic equally in the interest of creating the environment that gave rise to email, the World Wide Web, ecommerce, and the whole dot-com splurge that soon followed. Naturally enough, the ISP's would now like to treat some traffic differently. If they can't sell you the content, they would like to be able to charge someone else for delivering it. Plus, they'd like the right to give preferential treatment to their own content if you're buying from them so you'll have a more pleasant consumer experience.

All the hue and cry results from the fear of a domino effect. Once this precedent is established, people fear, we will head down the road that leads to a dual standard, with huge wealthy companies paying one another for the privilege of high speeds, while the rest of us muddle along on footpaths. I understand this argument, too. I've even signed petitions begging the FCC or anyone else in a position of power to KEEP THE INTERNET FREE, for all users to be treated equally, etc.

Now I've changed my mind. The problem is, the issue has come up not because of services "like" Netflix and Youtube -- it really IS Netflix and Youtube. As much as we all love them, these guys are running the public network into the ground. Netflix alone is said to account for over 30% of all internet traffic, and Youtube half again as much. With the advent of 4K video we can expect another huge jump. Add to that all the other providers that are flooding the net with song streams and videos (subliminal: Pandora, Facebook) and you can see that what the rest of us are doing amounts to a hill of beans.

Pushing the old highway analogy, it's as if we built a network of 2-lane highways across the country so we could take a Sunday drive, and now a few mega-trucking companies have flooded it with semi-trailers. The highway builders have to add more lanes, and someone has to pay. Guess who?

You got it. We asked for it, we demanded it, we're watching it and listening to it, and we're gonna pay. But the real insight that changed my mind is that we're asking the Internet to do something beyond what it was designed to do. It's high time to create a separate channel for all those huge commercial loads. Consider it a turnpike to take the load off the county roads. Whatever makes you comfortable. With this bottleneck behind us then the REST of the Internet can remain neutral.

And as far as how equal we are? Here's the technical reality: You may not have noticed the fine print in your contract with your ISP, but you are prohibited from running a website from your home computer. This is related to the speed you're getting. The A in ADSL stands for "asynchronous," which is a thousand dollar word that means you download ten times faster than you upload. The whole system is designed around the reality that you are consuming several DVDs worth of videos each day while sending a few emails and making a couple of Facebook posts.

If you do want to create a website, you rent space on a rack somewhere in the cloud and hang out your digital shingle in cyberspace. But read the fine print of that contract also. You'll note the limits on traffic that came with your 9.99 or 6.99 per month of service, with rather huge fees for excessive overage. If you're really trying to run a start up digital service, you'll quickly find your measly shared server is overwhelmed by demand. As you scale up with success, you'll move to your own managed server, then maybe to a cluster of them, and you'll pay a distribution service such as Cloudflare or Akamai to be able to handle all the thousands and millions of hits you'll be getting. You may even end up building your own massive data centers the way Google, Amazon, and Microsoft do. It will end up costing you a fortune and you'll either be burning through a pile of investment capital or, if you're lucky, already managing to monetize your service and make it profitable.

So my question is, how much will the loss of net neutrality alter this picture? My instinct tells me, not much. Unless of course you are someone "like" Netflix and Youtube.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

In The Sweet Spot

Now how much would you pay ...?

Techies everywhere know a secret that can save you thousands of dollars in just a few years. All you have to do is avoid the compulsion to buy the latest and greatest gadgets until about a year has gone by. As soon as they're superceded by a marginally improved model, then jump on it.

I've been following this policy with hard drives, for example, for decades. There is a measurable price curve
with a point near the upward slope known as "the sweet spot," the most gigabytes per buck. Pay more and you get more capacity, but for a premium price. Pay less, and you save money but lose an increasing amount of capacity as you approach the absolute minimum cost for building a drive of ANY size. At the low end the price hovers always between $20 to $40, but the amount of storage you get keeps going up in parallel with the high end. It's just not worth it to build them with less space than that. And amazingly, in another year or two that minimum size may reach a full terabyte.

Which brings us to phones. After venting about the issues with my HTC Vivid, it was time to go shopping. Every two years around this month AT&T offers to subsidize a new phone for me if I promise to keep using them for another two years. Seems fair to me, as long as I get something good for it.

Last time I got the Vivid for free, in "certified refurbished condition." It wasn't my first choice, but the price was right. And with all my kvetching, it did serve me daily throughout its life, though it really did struggle at the end. This time I was in luck. HTC had just come out with its latest and greatest model of the One. It was instantly available from AT&T for the subsidized price of $199. But (see instructions above) the previous model of the One was still available for the price of ... ZERO.

I confess that I was tempted. Reviewers were oogling the new model and cooing about its aesthetics and improvements. But let's see ... $199 ... zero ... $199 ... zero ... Two hundred bucks is two hundred bucks. And a phone is a phone. You have to stick with this philosophy for it to work.

So I placed my order, which included FREE next day shipping from Ft. Worth, TX to my front porch. It arrived with a new SIM card preinstalled, and online activation was pretty nearly one-click. I mean I didn't even have to enter any numbers because they already HAD my numbers. How easy can it get?

Am I in heaven now? Too early to say, but having installed all my apps in the first couple of days I'm beginning to get the feel of it. One thing is certain -- the GUI is so much smoother it feels like it's been oiled and floating in water. I'm finally realizing how much I was suffering with the old phone.

Another pleasant surprise is the sound quality. I spend more time listing to music on my phone than anything else, and even on the commuter train I noticed a marked improvement in sound resolution and spacial separation.

Like the Vivid, the new (old) One came prepared to download an instant OS upgrade. This was a 619 megabyte download (equivalent to a full CD!) that took me painlessly from 4.3 to 4.4.2. Nice. Now if only those updates keep rolling in for the next two years ...