Just Above Sunset
October 23, 2005 - Being Disconnected













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It never rains in Southern California? Well, it did last Monday - thunderstorms all day over a Hollywood. And in rained until sunset, when it finally cleared and the full moon rose above the odd racks of clouds. Another twenty-four hours of storms lined up, coming up from Baja? Three inches or more of rain two days, for this town, is considerable.

Around one in the afternoon Monday there was trouble for some of the news junkies and policy wonks - those of us who like to follow what's happening in the world - at least for those of us connected to the world through landlines. Around one in the afternoon a big storm lashed Hollywood - lots of lightening, thunder, and then hail. And the cable service went out. No internet. No television. No way to keep up on the news. Couldn't check BBC or Le Monde or any of the sites reporting and commenting on the events of the day.

This was odd. There's a lot going on in the world, changing quickly. Suddenly it was gone. All there was, politically, was the mindless rants on talk radio.

But the hail was cool. And it seems some folks spotted funnel clouds. We don't get tornados out here very often, if at all.

But being out of touch feels bad. Cable service for most of Los Angeles is handled by Comcast, and from just after noon until six in the evening all cable television service and high-speed cable internet service for Los Angeles, or for Hollywood at least, was out. So - switched to very slow dial-up to trade emails with friends, and told them it might be time here to order a satellite dish for television, radio and high-speed internet, as cable goes out too often.

From my friend who teaches marketing at a prestigious business school in New York –

 

In the late seventies when I was busy being a consultant to technology and entertainment companies, I came to the conclusion that the then emerging cable television industry - and the laying of hard wire assets all across America - was at some future point in jeopardy of simply being "turned off" by consumers who might easily switch to direct satellite. (Why bother with the wires after all, and that now reads also "mobile technology" - a possibility that wasn't even a glimmer back then.)

So politics and embedded legacy industry interests create a lot of friction in the system - but still here we are - able to change channels, so to speak.

 

Well, the service came up again after five hours - but who knows if it'll go out again?

What to do?

 

One can look at this historically.

The situation. Los Angeles - the second largest metro area on the continent - granted monopoly status to Comcast cable for about ninety percent of the area, the rest going to Adelphia. No one else can legally lay cable or offer services, and the two must not tread on each other's areas. Like anywhere else, no? The alternative on internet is DSL, multiplexing over existing telephone lines, but if you are more than one thousand meters from the nearest switching station, you cannot hook up. Can't be done at greater than that that distance. And it's a bit slower. Here in this complex just above Sunset there are fifty-two units, and over the last two years about half of them have gone to the third alternative, direct satellite - the roof looks like a mushroom patch.

So yes, hard-wiring America may have been a good idea at the time, but the folks I worked for at Hughes Space and Communications developed the way to bypass the wires. GM-Hughes spun off the Hughes Space and Communications division's hardware and launch operations - I worked for them for ten years - to Boeing. That was in 1999 and I was in Canada at the time on another GM account. Anyway, Boeing now builds the satellites and payloads and gets them up there. Hughes kept the satellite "operations" and renamed the division DirecTV. Since these satellites were transmitting almost all cable worldwide to the cable operators' downlink dishes, to be sent, then, over the coaxial lines on the ground, it was a no-brainer to develop a little dish, cheap and small, so everyone could have their own individual home satellite receiver and forget the wires. So in the mid-nineties they did - the engineers in building S-41 did that. A nice little unit now licensed everywhere. The rest is history.

Funny - in the early nineties in the next building in El Segundo, surrounded by a massive satellite farm, next to Mattel headquarters oddly enough, was the Hughes satellite operations center. Back then everything on cable television anywhere in the world was live on one of the hundreds of monitors in that center - a sort of quality control operation monitoring all the satellite signals before they hit the wires. Letting folks buy direct feeds from all that stuff was an obvious money-maker, once the little dish was ready.

The guys at Hughes knew that's where the money was. And Boeing is now losing its shirt trying to get good hardware into geosynchronous orbit.

And Rupert Murdoch bought DirecTV from GM-Hughes last year for a few billion he had lying around that he wasn't using for anything else. The Hughes folks just smiled.

So I'm stuck at the moment with the old technology - real fast, but dependent on miles of coax cable and switches and all the rest, and prone to being blown out at some point on the grid by a lightening strike. (A few loud cracks today had Harriet-the-Cat hiding under the bed.)

Why is the old technology still here?

Note this:

Free American broadband!
In France, you can get super-fast DSL, unlimited phone service and 100 TV channels for a mere $38 a month. Why does the same thing cost so much more in the U.S.?
S. Derek Turner - SALON.COM - October 18, 2005

The gist?

 

Across the globe, it's the same story. In France, DSL service that is 10 times faster than the typical United States connection; 100 TV channels and unlimited telephone service cost only $38 per month. In South Korea, super-fast connections are common for less than $30 per month. Places as diverse as Finland, Canada and Hong Kong all have much faster Internet connections at a lower cost than what is available here. In fact, since 2001, the U.S. has slipped from fourth to 16th in the world in broadband use per capita. While other countries are taking advantage of the technological, business and education opportunities of the broadband era, America remains lost in transition.

How did this happen? Why has the U.S. fallen so far behind the rest of its economic peers? The answer is simple. These nations all have something the U.S. lacks: a national broadband policy, one that actively encourages competition among providers, leading to lower consumer prices and better service.

Instead, the U.S. has a handful of unelected and unaccountable corporate giants that control our vital telecommunications infrastructure. This has led not only to a digital divide between the U.S. and the rest of the advanced world but to one inside the U.S. itself. Currently, broadband services in America remain unavailable for many living in rural and poorer urban areas, and remain slow and expensive for those who do have access.

 

The rest explains the cable and telecom companies have great lobbying arms that contribute tons of money to politicians, the Republicans at the moment, so the FCC doesn't get all out of hand and allow "hot spots" and alternatives to land lines. The dinosaurs have money.

And this - if you like conspiracy theory - keeping folks away from fast communication is a way to keep them from becoming liberals -

Blue, Red State Broadband Penetration Mirrors Election Results
TechWeb News - August 17, 2005 (11:20 AM EDT)

 

U.S. households continue to install broadband at a furious rate, according to a report released Wednesday. Curiously, the penetration of cable modem and DSL has been tracking state-by-state splits in the 2004 presidential election.

In its latest broadband report of what it calls "one of the fastest adopted services in U.S. history," the Leichtman Research Group noted that eight "Blue" states with broadband penetration over 35 percent had all voted for John Kerry while eleven "Red" states with broadband penetration at or below 20 percent all voted for George Bush in 2004.

"While these disparities are largely related to variations in household income across the states, these differences are strikingly similar to the state-by-state splits in the 2004 presidential election," said Bruce Leichtman, the market research firm's president and principal analyst, in a statement.

 

Now THAT is curious.

But I don't think the storms that disconnected me for half a day from the scandals and the war news and all the rest were caused by the right-wing folks trying to keep us all in the dark. They have other ways to do that.

And a late comment from our friend in upstate New York –

 

Hughes HAS been smart in its timing - not often guilty of firing too far ahead of or behind the duck - a good trick in this day and age.

Hughes was smiling when DirecTV brought a windfall price. But I grimace at Murdoch owning hard infrastructure servicing, on top of his renowned editorial qualities for content management.

Evolution of technology in "moderated markets" - where policy helps manage the public interest - is VERY interesting given the American mythology of 'free markets' - free to influence!

As a market analyst, I'd have to question the blue-red penetration conclusion you cite and ask - is DSL versus political leaning a cause or effect? I would argue the latter - those in red states (especially as defined by the neoCon movement) are less inclined to buy into technology or advancement - advancement of ideas or the culture in general. DSL doesn't create liberals. Liberals tend to embrace options - and they're probably more inclined to pay inflated prices to get them!

 

Agreed. And "conservative" means looking to the past and using it - new stuff is suspicious, of course.

And of this new stuff, and who uses it and why, below is a dialog and technology and marketing, from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, one of those who got CNN going when it started up, and our friend who teaches marketing at that upstate New York business school, with some observations on the telecom situation in Paris, from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis.

First, Atlanta:

 

More techie observations, these from the guy who founded the first TV "satellite news desk" in this country, for anybody who is interested -

Why is the old technology still with us? I can tell you one reason, at least from my experience in broadcasting - no satellite delay.

Ever watch a live interview between a news anchor in New York and a reporter in Asia, and wonder why it takes so long for the reporter to respond to the question? This is (mostly) the result of the anchor's question going up to a geosynchronous satellite 22,300 miles in space, then coming down again to the reporter's ear, the round-trip taking roughly (if I remember correctly) two thirds of a second each way - then the reporter responds, with the same thing happening in reverse. In fact, there sometimes may be as many as two or three such satellites involved ("double hop" or "triple hop") - since the same satellite that can be accessed by New York cannot be seen by one that hovers over, say, Tokyo, since the planet Earth gets in the way.

And have you ever seen a reporter begin to answer a question then rip his earphone out of his ear and lay it on his shoulder as he continues talking? When you see that happen, you know the reporter's "IFB" isn't working. ("IFB" stands for "interrupted feedback" - sometimes known as "mix minus," which means the control room sound guy takes all the audio, but mixes out the reporter's own voice, then sends that back to him.)

What this malfunction means is that his earphone, which is supposed to feed into his ear ONLY what the anchors and other guests are saying, and NOT his own voice, is not doing what it's supposed to be doing, so he is hearing his own voice, at anywhere from twp-thirds of a second to maybe two seconds or so after he says it - depending on whether it's a single, double, or even triple hop involved. Try listening to what you said two seconds ago while trying to think of what you're trying to say right now, and you'll understand the problem! (I've never actually tried it, but I have sometimes suffered the wrath of those who have.)

The reason I mention this? None of this happens with terrestrial landlines, only with satellites. Landline audio is relatively instantaneous, and therefore doesn't usually need IFB. Shortly after I left CNN, fiber optic lines began to be strung all over the country, which was much better than satellites, at least for live TV purposes.

Satellite delay is okay for most (although not all) internet and computer communications, where it isn't really noticed, but if you ever talk on the phone with someone and find yourself talking over each other, it's probably via satellite.

But yes, satellite phones definitely come in handy now and then - for example, in hurricane disaster zones when all the cell towers have either been knocked out, shorted out by water, or maybe overloaded by relatives calling from New Jersey to make sure everyone is alright - but also in Pakistan after an earthquake, especially back in the mountains where cell systems didn't exist in the first place. In that case, a little delayed signal is better than no signal at all.

(And in Hollywood, if you ever find yourself in that situation again, but with your phone line knocked out as well - meaning you can't even get dial-up internet - do what I do: Go online through the cell phone! Just another port in a storm, which has come in handy now and then.)

And a little more regarding direct satellite TV:

Although CNN's founders in 1980, among other cable network programmers, were prepared from the beginning to abandon cable for direct satellite if it ever became as popular as it was predicted to become, there was a time when it looked like satellites were not going to make it, since nobody wanted to gamble on recouping the big bucks needed to replace the cheap little birds that were up there - some used transmitters that had as much wattage as your average Christmas tree bulb - with the huge, expensive satellites powerful enough to feed to the tiny little dish you could install on your window sill, partly - as was once explained to me by Ted Turner's right-hand man, Terry McGuirk - because less than half of the apartment dwellers in large cities, where the big money was, had windows that faced the southern horizon, where all the satellites were parked over the equator.

But that, of course, was then, and this, of course, is now.

 

From upstate New York –

 

You've certainly been a few places over the years - nice to know you lived to tell about it!

I guess the question is NOW - since that was then - do today's satellite feeds for home "programming" purposes (with power now in orbit) provide equal or superior service reliability and potential hi-definition capability, given the hard-wire issues of the "last mile." (Glass fiber may span the country, but every house is still copper wire from pole to television.) Anybody out there up on the technical issues which may make one system more likely than the other?

(I pose the question KNOWING full well that technically superior Beta videotape, and Mac computers DIDN'T win their respective market battles for de facto dominance! Or that compromised NTSC TV broadcast technology HAS been our system of choice here in the US for just about my entire lifetime! Technological superiority hardly guarantees market adoption. I guess that must serve as some consolation for all those marketing folks who pop up in Dilbert!)

So I repeat my question - anybody keeping up on the futuring game? Able to frame underlying issues with greater clarity? Or willing to venture a forecast?

Rick - there ARE a few of us interested –

 

Atlanta –

 

Good questions.

Last question first - No, I'm not a futurist anymore. I used to be, but found myself getting too far out in front, thinking that would help my career, but discovering later that merely knowing something was coming up was not the same as being able to cash in on it.

(One example: While working at AP Photos in the early 1970s, I told the department head that news photos in the near future would all be digitally recorded and manipulated on what look like TV screens, then stored in computers that clients could access instantaneously by phone. He laughed at me. Years after I had resigned, they went ahead and did it without me. There have been other examples since, but maybe I'll bore you with those some other time.)

I've also not kept up much with how satellites work since I left CNN in 1985, so keep that in mind when you read this.

Remember that the problems with those live two-way satellite feeds between the anchor here in the states and the reporter overseas I described really only show up "in-house" at the network, which are way "upstream" of your home receiver. Although we will see on our television sets the product of the mess that sometimes occurs, we don't usually notice any satellite delay on the whole program as it comes to us. (Want to see that delay in action? The next time the president addresses the nation switch around between the three networks, and CNN, Fox, and MSNBC. The audio will usually not be in synch because some nets or stations usually throw in an extra satellite that others don't.)

Because of the prohibitive cost of running landline, even fiber-optic ones, I'm sure cable companies still get their programming via satellites. I'm not sure about whether network TV affiliates these days still get theirs via their old-fashioned landlines or new-fangled fiber or via satellite, but my guess is that it's a mix, with most of it coming from space. Probably the better quality would be fiber, but the cost would make it not worth it. With all their faults, satellites are definitely cheaper to use.

I'm sure the satellites that cable and television companies use today have benefited from the advancements pushed by the home satellite business. (Do today's birds, like those of yore, still get overwhelmed twice a year by "sun outages" that occur when the satellites wander between the dish and the sun? In the old days, the video noise brought to mind trying to empty out a playground sandbox with a vacuum cleaner.) But yes, however those folks receive their signals, the ultimate quality of what they send to you is determined by "the last mile" - "cable," in the case of cable, and "air," in the case of you local TV station.

And you say there ARE a few of you interested?

Well, sure, but you're in marketing! You marketing guys are interested in everything - especially anything you might be able to sell!

 

From upstate New York –

 

For a retired futurist you still do pretty well with informed speculation!

With my students I try to continually remind them that shooting ahead of the duck is as harmful to a career as late to market! My classes are filled with too many intelligent people that need reminding they're not average, they're not their own best customers (re: extending their own executive intuition to the consumer choice game), and they need to find the practical application for their future market insight (humans demand continuity in their existing behaviors/comfort zones - disruptive behavior requirements result in failed technologies in the marketplace. I like to point to ATM touchpads as extensions of telephone touchpads as one key element for ATM usage adoption - the phone designs having taken some 20 yrs to fully penetrate over rotary dial 'behavior').

Except for keeping up with classroom-level futuring, I too have retired from that element of corporate maneuvering, at least in terms of expecting remuneration (that brings its own liability!).

You say - "Well, sure, but you're in marketing! You marketing guys are interested in everything - especially anything you might be able to sell!"

I'm only "interested in everything" as an intellectual hangover of my earlier days of attempting renaissance thinking in an age of exponential info explosion (actually all of history has probably suffered from exponential info explosion - from any given base context starting point - it's probably ALWAYS been overwhelming to those living it - just another example of relativity! - it all depends!)

And to tell the truth - I've never (?) (admitted to) selling anything I didn't first believe in - so in reality I guess I don't even qualify as a marketing guy.

As to the hard issue of cable vs. wi-fi vs. satellite feed - Bill Gates launched X-Box gaming systems with the idea that kids could help him put smart boxes atop every TV, which eventually could usurp the current cable descrambler, and be the smarts behind the monitor WHICHEVER delivery system won out... so even he isn't showing his cards yet. (I LOVE recent speculation that Goggle is creating its OWN glass fiber global web network, by which if could offer FREE wi-fi access to the world (in exchange for targeted advertising to any given "receiver.")

The futuring torture never stops!

 

From Atlanta –

 

You say: "I try to continually remind them that shooting ahead of the duck is as harmful to a career as late to market! ... they need to find the practical application for their future market insight."

My main problem was I would find myself pioneering on ground that would necessarily have no room for me.

In the late seventies, I was trying to lease time on a Manhattan Cable channel to run old black-and-white classic movies, selling my own commercial slots. I gave up when I couldn't interest advertisers in cable TV, but more importantly, couldn't get any movie studio to clear any movies for me to run; they were biding their time until they could figure out how much to charge. Shortly after I gave in, Charles Dolan of Cablevision on Long Island started up his AMC, and with great success.

As I was mentioning to our Wall Street attorney friend, in the early eighties, I wrote and demonstrated a web-browser program on my Apple II+ (before there were Windows and even Macs), knowing that some day computers would be doing this sort of thing. But what, I asked, did this have to do with me? My program was in Basic, and I wasn't going to be a computer programmer, nor would I be starting a business to do this.

In the early 1990s, I tried to start a wireless information and email network, mostly using HP 95 palmtops and the Casio Zoomer, a precursor of the Palm Pilot. In fact, in 1992, I got permission from CNN to sit in their newsroom on election night, broadcasting election results wirelessly via Motorola's Embarc service (with whom I had signed a working agreement) to selected handhelds around the country. One big reason my company failed is that Motorola withdrew its wireless text service from the market. But I also realized that just because I was among the first to be offering to broadcast wireless text, there was nothing to stop any big latecomer to the biz from walking all over me - for example, by offering on cell phones something they already produced for another media. Indeed, CNN itself eventually began doing this.

Another way of putting it: I think my main problem is that I don't want to be in big business, and yet everything I've tried to do requires that I form a company large enough to compete.

 

And finally, from Paris, where all this talk of satellite and cable seems silly, as over there the copper telephone lines work just fine. From Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, a response to the Turner article above - "In France, you can get super-fast DSL, unlimited phone service and 100 TV channels for a mere $38 a month. Why does the same thing cost so much more in the U.S.?" –

 

19.10 - Wired In France?

Something is up. When I lived in the suburbs and they came along to lay the cable in the ground, they put in copper wires. It was a hell of a job - digging trenches everywhere and putting this new cable in them - and copper was 'good enough.' This was done by Lyonnaise des Eaux for France Telecom, and then I guess, leased to a cable operator, a subsidiary of FT.

When it was finished FT came along and put a little badge outside each apartment door. 'This place is cabled.' There's one of these outside my apartment door here in the 14th too.

Then my dial-up operator quit on me. It was slow and costing a lot on account of France Telecom charging by the minute. So I signed up for Noos cable. The guy comes and looks and says there are two problems. No key to access the cable in the locked garbage room right next to my door, and no Ethernet port on my Mac.

So I got a newer used Mac with an Ethernet port, but I couldn't locate the garbage room key. Time was running out so I went to France Telecom and paid extra for an Ethernet modem (instead of a free USB modem), and they turned on the DSL within hours. This gave me 'Net access for a flat rate and cut my telephone bill to a monthly minimum. A savings of about 50%, with a full-time 'Net connection, plus faster.

The cable, Noos, is plagued in this area by 'too many folks in the business' of shoving big files around. They offer the service and then whine if people use it. Result- Noos is notoriously erratic.


In contrast, FT's Wanadoo DSL is very reliable month in and month out. Imagine if you will, my building, built in 1931, with its original wires, is handling this DSL - not FT's TV cable.

They started me out at 512 Ko and they hustled me into 1024 Ko and phoned up a week ago to ask if I wanted to keep their 'Maxi+' - which is one or two mega. Actually they phoned to try and get me to pay a sub for a 'Box' of theirs - I think for their telephone/internet/TV offer - but I refused it. I'm trying to save money and I have no time to watch 80 'free' TV channels. Actually I haven't noticed any speed increases moving from 512 to 1024 Ko - I'm just happy it's reliable.

(Also France Television started broadcasting 'digital' TV six months ago. With a decoder - about 100 euros - you can have the regular channels in digital, plus 3 or 4 more new France Television channels. This is broadcast through the air. My reception over the apartment's antenna isn't wonderful because the Montparnasse Tower is between me and the broadcast tower, the Tour Eiffel. So I'm not sure the 'free' digital would work here.)

Metropole's hosting company is out in the sticks, not served by DSL or cable. In distance not far from the big technopole at Saint-Quentin or the atomic research center at Orsay, but might as well be in the south Pacific. Some years ago they moved the server out of there, to a proper server park. They used to say France Telecom had one wire and it always broke late on Sundays. For TV they have satellite but whenever I was out there I couldn't see it. Have to be a geek to figure out the telecommand's buttons. In any case, the satellite not reliable (or too expensive) to run a web server over.

In sum, the techno folks are squeezing a lot out of old copper wires. In Europe, especially in cities, most wires are underground and are relatively immune to most normal hazards. FT's Wanadoo for example, is offering TV over its telephone wires, plus telephone, plus DSL Internet. Over one wire this is.

And now, in this time frame, they are rolling out the promo bandwagon for video reception over portable phones. They sold SMS, they sold photos, and now comes video - the phone companies are headed towards the big jackpot right here on earth. At the rate things are going, before this decade is over we will all either be working for the phone company, or be in debt up to our eyeballs to it.

However my personal view of all this, the telephone, is dubious.

Fine is the technical advance of the telephone as an essential tool for communication; not so fine is its conversion to gadget, game machine, Dick Tracey wristwatch video player. The financial and human investment in the non-essential aspects of the phone is insanely pharonic, hardly any step forward for mankind. The money is being sucked out of the world's economy... in return for? No Panama Canal is being built here.

 

Indeed.

What is being built?

Photographic record - tiny satellite dishes on the roof here in Hollywood –

Tiny satellite dishes on the roof in Hollywood

Big satellite dishes down in Culver City, snagging entertainment out of the sky for redistribution over landlines -

Big satellite dishes down in Culver City, CA
















 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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